Sunday, December 21, 2008

On ALEX SOKOLOFF



HANK: It's all Alexandra Sokoloff's fault.

I was on assignment, walking down a perfectly ordinary corridor in a perfctly ordinary Boston hospital a week or so ago, and I was perfectly--freaked out. I had just read Alex's just-now-in-paperback THE PRICE, which takes place in a Boston hospital very very like the one I was in.

Suddenly--every door, every elevator, every window, every doctor and patient and visitor in the hallway turned creepy and sinister. That had never happened before. I was literally--unnerved. And there was no one to tell. Can you imagine? I turn to my cameraperson, and say, You know, strangest thing, I was just reading this book, and...




So I didn't do anything. Except invite the very talented Alexandra to chat here on out very un-creepy blog. And fair warning: do NOT begin THE PRICE unless you have time to read the whole thing. And unless you're in a well-lighted place. Still, no matter what, it'll haunt you.




HANK: You seem like such a lovely person on the outside. And yet, your books...are so sinister. Hauntingly creepy. Do you have to change, when you sit down in front of the computer? What goes on in your head?


ALEXANDRA SOKOLOFF: I am a lovely person, thanks very much for noticing! But honestly that's a lot because nothing really bad has ever happened to me, even though I've had some near-misses. A lot of my writing comes from a real rage at what happens to other people in this world. It just doesn't seem to take much to fall out of the light, or to be snatched out of the light against your will. I've had that ALMOST happen to me, and I have worked with abused kids, and I have friends like we all have friends who have had horrific things happen to them.



So I make that real life evil metaphorical, and give the good guys a chance of winning, and there you have it.


Do I have to change when I sit down at the computer? No, it doesn't take much to channel all that. It's not like it ever goes away, if you go through life with your eyes open at all.
I'm not sure what goes on in my head, actually. Yoga helps.

HANK: The tension, though. There's so much in your writing. I wondered where that comes from. (The opposite of yoga.)


You have good people make wrong choices, or almost make them. There's--love. And regret. And incremental steps--where you wind up some place you never planned. Are you confident, when set your characters out into the world, that the ones you care about will make the right decisions? (I promise fun questions are coming.)

ALEX: Oh, the tension. Well, part of that is just delivering on the genre. My favorite books are the ones with excruciating suspense - not action, not gore, but psychological suspense. And that's what I'm writing, myself. You wouldn't be too pleased if you went on a rafting trip and never got that adrenaline rush, would you? Same with a suspense book - that's just part of my job. It's not like I'm that tightly wound myself - certainly not all the time! But I have to get it onto the page. It's a bit like acting - I feel it while I'm writing it, but I'm also manufacturing it.Yes, I have good people making bad choices. They also often redeem themselves. I think that's life.



We all make terrible choices sometimes - and some of those choices have far more severe consequences than others, even when we really didn't mean anyone any harm. You're asking about THE PRICE, obviously - where consequences truly are horrific. But I think when you're writing about the devil, or someone who might be the devil, you're pretty much obligated to show the extremes of good and evil, and also the really tragic gray areas. I didn't want to go there, believe me! But the story mandated it.



No one would believe Salk as a character if he weren't capable of forcing the worst choices imaginable, and forcing them from good people. Otherwise he just wouldn't be the - you know.But that's probably my darkest story ever. I don't want to put my characters or myself through that every single time!

HANK: And what a fantastic name he has. The main character, too. "Will." Like: free will. Will to live. Will he or won't he. Perfect.

Do you do a lot of revision? Is the whole story in your head from moment one, or do you surprise yourself?

ALEX: Oh my God, it's ALL revision. I do tons of drafts. I think that comes from theater, which is where I started - I did a lot of acting and directing and choreography, for years, and the first thing you do with a play is block it - just get the actors up on their feet and moving through the set, so that you see the shape of the whole play. And then you can start to dig in and experiment.

So I always think of the first draft of a book or script as the "blocking draft" - it's just getting the bare bones of everything out there, seeing how the story looks and moves in a very sketchy sense. And that's after I've done a huge outline, 40 pages at the very least.

HANK: Oh, that's good to hear, actually. My synopsis for Drive Time was 70 pages. It was wonderfully educational to write it. Even though, as it turned out, an important chunk of the book was not in it. But it did give me some reassurance that I would come out the other end. Anyway.
So then?

ALEX: After an extensive rewrite of the first draft I will do subsequent drafts with specific purposes in mind - like a suspense draft, a draft just thinking about what kind of emotional effect I want to be creating in the reader, a sensory draft - like that.

I'd probably never stop if it weren't for deadlines!

But even though I outline like a fiend I do surprise myself. In THE UNSEEN, which I just finished, I almost had a heart attack when I got to the second act climax of the book and the heroine discovered what was really going on. I mean, of course I knew, I'd set it all up myself from the very beginning, but I had been writing the first draft from her POV and I'd forgotten all about that big reveal.

Writing is a little weird that way.

HANK:
If we're lucky! (I didn't realize, in PRIME TIME, that I had chosen the wrong bad guy. The book had chosen another person as the villain. Surprised and thrilled, I went with what the book decided.)

ALEX: I love it when the book takes over. You realize you're not doing this alone, after all.






HANK: So, what's the scoop on THE UNSEEN?



Well, I've always been obsessed with the story of the Rhine Parapsychology Lab - that for nearly 40 years there was a dedicated parapsychology lab on the Duke University campus where Dr. J.B. Rhine tested thousands of students for ESP and telekinesis abilities, using Zener cards (you know, those cards with the five bold black symbols - circle, square, cross, star, wavy lines?) and dice-throwing machines. I love the idea that psychic abilities might be proved real with strict scientific and statistical methodology. Now, most people have heard at least vaguely of Rhine's ESP experiments. What most people don't know is that in the sixties the lab also did field studies of poltergeist infestations.


And then when I was doing some research on the Duke campus recently (which is a wonderfully Gothic school, TOTALLY spooky and atmospheric), I discovered that the parapsychology lab closed down completely in the sixties and seven hundred boxes of lab files were sealed in the basement of Duke's Perkins Library, and were only made available for public viewing a few years ago.


I mean, is that a book or what? It hits all my story pleasure centers - Gothic school, paranormal investigation, poltergeists, fact or fiction, a dual time track with one time track being the sixties... secrets, intrigue, puzzles, libraries... basements. You just live to be handed a story seed like that.

So THE UNSEEN, a couple of psychology researchers become obsessed with the files and discover a long-buried poltergeist experiment that they become convinced shut down the lab in the sixties. And they take two psychically gifted students into the same house to try to replicated the experiment - unaware that the entire original research team ended up insane... or dead.


It comes out from St. Martin's in May, and believe it or not it's a lot lighter in tone than THE PRICE, though still very creepy and suspenseful. I thought my readers might need a break. I know I did!

HANK: Yeah, sounds like a laugh a minute. But it sounds fantastic. Can't wait to read it. In the daylight.

Come back when it comes out!

And now--you cannot escape the Jungle Red Quiz:

Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?
Miss Marple, love her.

Sex or violence?
Sex, absolutely, but in the hands of an expert the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Pizza or chocolate?
Pizza.

Daniel Craig or Pierce Brosnan?
Sean Connery.

Facebook or MySpace?
You know, I just prefer message boards. But I think Facebook might be the road to hell.

Katharine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn?
Kate, but that's a hell of a question.


Your favorite non-mystery book?
I was going to say HAMLET, but that's a play and a mystery. I'll go with THE FOUNTAINHEAD.



Favorite book as a kid?
A WRINKLE IN TIME

Making dinner or making reservations?
Oh God, everyone knows to keep me out of the kitchen.


And finally, the Jungle Red Big Lie. Tell us four things about you that no one knows. Only three can be true. We'll guess.

I'm a licensed minister.
I spent a year in the hospital in a body cast.
I had an older brother who died when I was very young.
I'm really, really good at tying people up.

HANK: Three are true? Hmmm...what do you think, gang?
Perhaps there are clues on Alex's website..



AND STAY TUNED: TOMORROW, a special holiday gift from us to you!

16 comments:

Sheila Connolly said...

The Unseen sounds intriguing--I'll have to add it to my "must remember to get this" list. I taught briefly at Duke, many, many years ago, and it was lovely then. I hadn't known that the Rhine Lab was gone--taken over by the diet centers?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sheila, that's funny! I haven't figured out a way to make the diet center setting scary (without being comic about it.)

No, the Rhine Lab closed in 1965 when Dr. Rhine reached the age of mandatory retirement. There is still a private Rhine Research Center in Durham which is dedicated to furthering parapsychological research.

I envy your teaching at Duke - that must have been lovely.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

One more question--almost too scary to contemplate-- - was THE PRICE inspired by real-life events as well?

Laura Benedict said...

I can't believe I have to wait until May for The Unseen! I'll just have to go back and re-read The Harrowing and The Price to console myself--they're perfect fireside reading, especially when it's cold and dark outside....

And why do I think that you're probably very good at tying up people, Alex? I, for one, am not fooled by your perky demeanor! xo

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hank, the inspiration for THE PRICE was partly a long-time obsession of mine with the idea of a deal with the devil - undoubtedly from working in Hollywood for so long - and partly the very sad death of the baby daughter of a friend, which haunted me in my dreams and got me thinking about the lengths to which we would go to save a loved one.

Of course we all say we would do anything, anything at all, but what does that really mean, when it comes time to sign on the bottom line?. And is that necessarily a good thing?

So I was looking for a situation - really a set of situations, that would bring those questions to emotional life.

I hope that the story inspires readers to ask themselves what they would be willing to do, for whom.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Laura, backatcha - I can't wait to reread CALLING MR. LONELYHEARTS in real book form!

I wouldn't have thought I could fool YOU on the rope question. But I can be very perky when I'm tying someone up.

Jan Brogan said...

Hi Alexandra,
Welcome to Jungle Red. The Fountainhead was also a very influential book for me. I think I went from there to Atlas Shrugged.
Your photo here looks so familiar. Were you at Bouchercon?(I have a way of retreating while at Boucheron....) Your book sounds awesome. I love psychological suspense.

Rhys Bowen said...

Hi, Alex:
Welcome to Jungle Red! I still find it hard to equate your scary books with your sweet personality. I'd be a psychological mess if I ever tried to write horror or tense suspense.
As for your lie: I don't believe you're a licensed minister!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jan, yes, I was at B'Con - I was the one in the sparkly Obama tank tops. I wore them for forty days straight. It worked. ;)

I've read and re-read ATLAS SHRUGGED, too. THE FOUNTAINHEAD is just a perfect book, structurally - I never get tired of either of them!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rhys, hi, always great to see you!

And HAH!! You lose. I'm not so sweet and I AM a licensed minister - six couples married so far and all still together.

Hallie Ephron said...

It's so good to hear about another person who feels like the real writing is in the REwriting! Congrats on the new book.

Love what you said: "Of course we all say we would do anything, anything at all, but what does that really mean" Isn't that what's really at the core of most mystery novels?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Hallie! Yeah, the real writing is rewriting... but then why is that first draft always the hardest?

And yes, I think that mystery writers are ALWAYS thinking about the extremes of desire and will. In vivid detail.

Roberta Isleib said...

Hi Alex, so glad you stopped by during this very busy week! I too loved your description of rewriting and how you'd go on and on if you could. I've never mastered the process of revising for one aspect of a book--I'm going to put that on my list.

I would suspect that you're good at tying people up, but I'll pick that one because I hate to wish the others on you!

G.M. Malliet said...

I have a completely fatuous comment, but your curly hair looks just like mine only way, way. way better on you. I wish I could get away with the curly look but I tend to look like the last woman left standing after a Neiman Marcus sale if I don't pay someone to do something to fix me.

On you, it's attractive. On me, the question would be: How long has her house been without power?

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Gin, you're too adorable. So great to see you here.

Thanks to the amazing Alex, my revision is now going to have one more run-through. For--deception. I'm very enthusiastic.

Tomorrow--the Jungle Red holiday card!

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