Writers’ Passport: S.J.I. Holliday Talks With Alexandra Sokoloff

By S.J.I. Holliday

Alexandra Sokoloff is the bestselling, Thriller Award-winning, and Bram Stoker and Anthony Award-nominated author of eleven supernatural, paranormal, and crime thrillers. Her Huntress series is currently in development for TV with Alex as writer/producer. The New York Times has called her “a daughter of Mary Shelley” and I am privileged to call her a fellow Slice Girl, inspiration, and friend. I’m not sure I know a harder working writer in the whole world, but thankfully, Alex was able to spare some time to answer my questions, so:

 First things first… how, when, and why did you start writing?

I just always wrote. I kept journals, I wrote pages and pages of random thoughts during math classes, I wrote in the car during family road trips. It was how I thought. I was a voracious reader, too – what writer isn’t? But I didn’t start out thinking I’d do it for a living. I was a theater kid. I did musical theater from fourth grade all through high school, and majored in theater at Berkeley, which just happens to be the best training for a writing career! There’s nothing like experiencing what works and doesn’t work in a story in front of a live audience, in real time.

It’s interesting that your background was theater. I have your book “Screenwriting Tricks for Authors.” Was this always the way you planned your writing? Using screenwriting techniques? 

For sure I got my understanding of the three-act structure from working in theater, and the experience of how act climaxes work to drive the suspense and urgency of a story. But most of the emphasis on film techniques came after college, when I realized I needed to, you know, make a living. I moved down to LA, broke in as a screenwriter (all that theater definitely helped me there!), and that’s when I really started using the three-act, eight-sequence structure of film writing that I teach in my workbooks and workshop. It’s a rhythm of storytelling that’s really easy to explain and miraculously useful in crafting a movie or a book or a TV show – any narrative, really. As readers or an audience we instinctively expect this pattern of storytelling because we’ve experienced it all our lives, in all the tens of thousands of films and TV shows we’ve seen (scary, isn’t it?). And yet not that many people outside the glass dome of Hollywood have ever had it explained to them. 

When I first started teaching the structure at various writing conferences, I found it doesn’t take any time at all for an aspiring writer (or a pro) to get that lightbulb moment, and so many people over the years have said it’s helped their writing and careers take off. But I’d never read a screenwriting book that fully covered it. I wrote the Screenwriting Tricks for Authors books so I wouldn’t have to teach!

Well, with that keeping you so busy, it’s a wonder you have time to write your thrillers. I know that you are fascinated by psychopaths, serial killers, and all that stuff, but I also know you hate the use of the unrealistic, tired, old tropes. Tell us about your Huntress series. Why is it different?

My motivation for writing the Huntress Moon series is pretty basic. I am sick to death of reading crime novels and seeing movies and TV shows about women being raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered. I’m not too happy about it happening in real life, either. So the Huntress series turns the tables. The books follow a haunted FBI agent on the hunt for a female serial killer who kills men. A lot of them.

I worked as a screenwriter for ten years before I snapped and wrote my first novel. I worked on several film projects featuring serial killers, and I’ve been doing research on the subject for years. One thing has really jumped out at me about serial killers: They’re men. Women don’t do it. Women kill, and sometimes they kill in numbers especially killing lovers or husbands for money – the “Black Widow” killer; or killing patients in hospitals or nursing homes: the “Angel of Death.” But the psychology of those killers is totally different from the men who commit serial sexual homicide. Sexual homicide is about abduction, rape, torture, and murder for the killer’s own sexual gratification. And please don’t get me started on books and films that portray mastermind serial killers with an artistic or poetic bent. Ridiculous.

The fact is, one reason novels and film and TV so often depict women as victims is that it’s the stark reality. Since the beginning of time, women haven’t been the predators — we’re the prey. But after all those millennia of women being victims of the most heinous crimes out there wouldn’t you think that someone would finally say: “Enough”? And maybe even strike back?

Well, that’s a story, isn’t it? And it’s a story that needs to be told now, more than ever, given this political nightmare we’re living. The premise is a way to explore the third rail of crime: the inherent, entrenched, misogyny of the system.

Is it important to have a message? 

It is to me. I’m not interested in books or movies or TV that don’t have a message. I write for readers who like to read the same kinds of things l like to read. You know, Lee Child, the godfather of ITW, asks authors an interesting question: “How are you growing the genre?” So, how are you growing the genre? I think that’s a great way to focus on a message that’s also a riveting read.

That is definitely food for thought. What do you like to read? Do you find that reading other people’s thrillers puts you off?

These days I read mostly nonfiction (currently Brent Turvey’s Criminal Profiling, an Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis. I like a book that’s heavy enough to kill someone with.) It’s a time question more than anything else; I don’t have a problem reading other people’s thrillers.  I don’t tend to mimic style. When I do read thrillers I especially love authors who dig deep down into questions of good and evil: Val McDermid, Tana French, Nicci French, Denise Mina, Karin Slaughter, Belinda Bauer, Mo Hayder.

Several of my favourites in there. I’m following your lead these days with the nonfiction too. I seem to have a developed an unhealthy interest in psychopaths recently. Finally, what’s your best piece of advice for those just starting out or very early in their writing career?

I just had to rip into one of my recent workshop students for this: Productivity counts for more than talent. Plenty of terrible writers have long and lucrative writing careers because they sit in the chair and do the work. And also, be aware that you’re going to have to reinvent yourself constantly. If you find your career is suddenly stalled, well, congratulations – you’re a professional writer! You’re stalled for a reason. It will happen dozens of times over the course of your career. Reassess, consult the inner compass, get off of that dead-end road and onto your true path.

To learn more about Alexandra Sokoloff’s newest novel, click on the cover below:

S.J.I. (Susi) Holliday grew up in Scotland and now lives in London. A life-long fan of crime and horror, her short stories have been published in various places, and she was shortlisted for the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham prize with her short story Home from Home, which will be published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine this spring. She has three crime novels published so far, a mix of police procedural and psychological thriller, set in the fictional Scottish town of Banktoun. They are: Black Wood (2015), Willow Walk (2016) and The Damselfly(2017) – all featuring the much loved character, Sergeant Davie Gray. Her next novel, a Christmas serial killer thriller, The Deaths of December, will be published by Hodder in November 2017. Susi also works as a pharmaceutical statistician, and you will find her at crime fiction events in the UK and abroad. You can find out more at her website: www.sjiholliday.com and on Facebook and Twitter @SJIHolliday.

To learn more about Holliday’s newest novel, click on the cover below:

Previously in Writers’ Passport:

Mark Pryor talks with Tana French

J.J. Hensley talks with Ian Rankin