California native Alexandra Sokoloff is a professional screenwriter, director, choreographer, and author of the supernatural thrillers, The Harrowing, The Price, The Unseen, and now the latest, Book of Shadows. The first was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel and for an Anthony Award for Best First Mystery. She has adapted numerous novels for film for companies such as Sony, Fox, Disney, and Miramax. Sokoloff is a regular blogger at Murderati, a collective of dark suspense authors.
Thanks for this interview, Alexandra. All your novels are supernatural thrillers. What got you into the realm of the paranormal?
I grew up in Berkeley, California, which was a paranormal experience all on its own! I’m not really joking, either — people in that city are very dedicated to pursuing altered states of consciousness, whether that be chemical, spiritual, psychological, or occult. Very early on I developed a fascination with the question of whether a paranormal event was a psychological experience, a supernatural one, or some blend of the two. That’s what I’m always writing about. And of course, my favorite books and movies of all time are the ones that explore those psychological/supernatural mysteries and hauntings, like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, and Stephen King’s The Shining and Carrie.
Let’s talk about your latest one, Book of Shadows. What was your inspiration for it?
I’ve always wanted to write a story with the backdrop of the modern practice of witchcraft. Being a California native, I have friends who practice the Craft, and it’s so rich in visual and archetypal imagery and power. And you may have noticed I am fairly obsessed with gender issues and differences. I wanted to write a book that would pit a very outwardly rational, logic-driven man, in a very male profession (homicide detective), from a very rational city (Boston) against a very otherworldly, psychic, subconsciously driven woman (a practicing witch), from a much more mysterious town (Salem) — and play with the contrasts and the line between what is real and what is supernatural as the two of them investigate what he thinks is a serial murder which she insists involves a real demon. I thought I could create some great chemistry and distrust between the characters there, a paranormal noir, if you will. Then I was also working with my constant theme of people, especially young people (in this case a troubled college student) opening doors that they really don't understand and having to deal with what might be supernatural consequences.
A new aspect of this novel, not really present in your earlier ones, is having a detective as your protagonist. This adds a touch of crime/mystery to the book. Why did you decide to make your protagonist a police officer?
I’ve written quite a few police procedurals as a screenwriter, and I read a lot in the genre, I love it. For Book of Shadows I wanted the protagonist to be a cop because as I said, it’s outwardly such a male, rational profession, and would provide the biggest contrast and conflict with the witch that he is forced to team up with to solve this murder. He is also constantly fighting his own unwillingness to believe there is a supernatural element involved in the case. The interesting thing about cops, though, is that they’re really very intuitive, so he has more in common with the witch than he would initially be inclined to admit.
Did you have to research police procedure for the story?
I’ve interviewed all kinds of law enforcement professionals and done a lot of forensics research for scripts that I’ve written, so I know how a homicide investigation works. But for Book of Shadows, when I was visiting Boston and Salem for research, I was very lucky to find a criminalist in the Boston Police Department who gave me an extensive tour of police headquarters and the crime lab and was very generous about answering my specific procedural questions.
There’s a lot of fascinating—and scary—information in the story about witchcraft. Having written about this subject before, you must have been familiar with most of it. Is there anything new you learned about the ‘dark forces’ while working on this novel?
I don’t know about the dark forces, but I am learning both in writing and in life that we human beings are much, much more powerful than we give ourselves credit for. Our intentions can create our reality, so it’s important to be clear and conscious about what we’re thinking and what we want, so we focus always on the positive and don’t unconsciously manifest something with negative consequences. That, in a nutshell, is practical magic.
All throughout the story I could feel how careful and almost methodical you were in creating doubt in the reader—we never stop wondering, is it or isn’t it supernatural. Was this easy to create from a technical point of view?
Hah – what about writing is ever easy? In this story I was very committed to leaving everything ambiguous; I wanted the reader to decide — or not! — whether there was anything truly supernatural going on. That’s my experience of what real witchcraft is; it’s subtle, not one thing or another. I never deviated from that mission statement, which I guess made the writing easier because I was so clear about what I wanted to do.
I read online that of all your books, this one is your favorite so far. Why is that?
I think it’s because I love all the characters and the mysterious story world so much. The main characters are all flawed people truly trying to do the right thing, and risking themselves to save other lives.
I hear you have a nonfiction e-book out to help writers plot their novels. Tell us all about it!
When my first novel, The Harrowing, came out, I was really surprised at how in demand I was to teach writing at conferences because I had worked for a number of years as a screenwriter and now had written an acclaimed book as well. I very quickly realized authors had never heard of the film techniques that are the bread-and-butter of Hollywood writing and filmmaking. So I started teaching workshops and writing blog posts explaining the process of film writing, and demonstrating how to watch movies to pick up story structure and film techniques that are a huge help with novel writing. The workshops and blogs evolved into a workbook, Screenwriting Tricks For Authors, which is available now on Amazon.
You also give workshops online. Will you be giving one in the near future?
What’s next for Alexandra Sokoloff?
I have my first paranormal coming out in November, The Shifters, part of a trilogy set in New Orleans, with co-authors Heather Graham and Deborah LeBlanc. And I’m working on a very dark young adult paranormal thriller and another, yes, dark, supernatural adult supernatural thriller for next year.
Thank you, Alexandra!