Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Alexandra Sokoloff - Lessons from the Back Seat

As a screenwriter, Alex has sold original mystery and thriller scripts and written novel adaptations for numerous Hollywood studios. Her debut ghost story, THE HARROWING, was nominated for both a Bram Stoker award and Anthony award for Best First Novel. Her second supernatural thriller, THE PRICE, was called “some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre” by the New York Times Book Review, and her short story, “The Edge of Seventeen” is currently nominated for a Thriller award for best short story. Her third spooky thriller, THE UNSEEN, is out now, and is based on real-life experiments conducted at the parapsychology lab on the Duke University campus. She is currently working on a fourth supernatural thriller for St. Martin’s Press and a paranormal thriller for Harlequin Nocturne, and is writing a book on SCREENWRITING TRICKS FOR AUTHORS, based on her popular workshop and blog.

Lessons from the Back Seat
By Alexandra Sokoloff
Since I am on the road touring for my new book, THE UNSEEN, and I will be doing God only knows how much driving in the next month, including today (from Virginia to New York, for Book Expo America, with several dozen bookstore drop-ins along the way)… I thought for my guest post I would be extremely faithful to the title of Kaye’s great blog, here.
“Meanderings and Muses.” That just says it all. That’s maybe the story of my life – inspiration from traveling. Only, as you’ll notice, I changed it around to suit my own, um, tendencies and got: “Lessons from the Back Seat”.
I know that there are other life lessons generally associated with the back seats of cars. And okay, I’ve had a few of those, too. But for me, I really believe that the back seat was where I learned how to write.
My father is a peripatetic kind of guy. Because of various revolutions and natural disasters and immigration restrictions, his family moved from Leningrad to Tokyo to Mexico City before he was three years old. (We think we live exciting lives - but if you ask me nothing we do holds a candle to what our parents have lived through.) That sense of movement never really left Dad; he got into the U.S. when he was 15 and rode the rails all over the country before he was 18, and I’ve never seen him happier than when he’s behind the wheel of a car (“King of the Road” is one of our family songs).
Though when he married and started a family he put down roots in California, Dad and my mother are both educators, and at the time my siblings and I were growing up, schools still had those three-month long summer vacations. And we spent those long summers on the road, driving all over the country, different routes every year, because Dad and Mom thought that we should see the country. All of it. Intimately. You might even say, would definitely have said if you had seen how grimy we all got after two months on the highway, that we became one with it.
So some of my earliest and most enduring memories and sensations are – movement. Perpetual movement. Constantly changing scenery and huge contrasts: endless brutal deserts turning into palm oases. Towering craggy mountain ranges with pockets of ethereal fields of wildflowers. Geysers and glaciers… and grizzly bears trying to claw their way into the car.
I don’t think it’s any surprise, then, that I’m a sucker for big visuals in my reading and my writing, or that I crave stories that have a constantly moving pace and surprises around every bend. I definitely picked up those rhythms and preferences on the road.
But as everyone knows, road trips aren’t necessarily a thrill a minute. Especially in portions of, say, Oklahoma and Texas, where the same kind of flat landscape seems to go on for days. Oh, right, that’s because it DOES go on for days. So I did a hell of a lot of reading along some of those stretches, and sometimes would read the same book several times in a trip, which was great training for writing, because with multiple readings you start to see the mechanics of it all. I could recite whole sections of my favorite thrillers and mysteries to my family. I also learned to make up stories to entertain myself. What if that car following us was full of CIA agents? (Oh, right – the car behind us sometimes WAS full of CIA agents. My father is a scientist, and Russian, and that was a suspicious combination when I was a child).
But what if they kidnapped us? What if I was the only one who could get free?
What if those dinosaurs in Dinosaur World suddenly came to life? (Okay, Michael Crichton beat me to that one)
What if there were real ghosts in that ghost town?
You have a lot of time for those “What ifs” on the road.
And God knows all that traveling – the national parks, the different cities, the museums and art galleries and reservations and ghost towns along the way, gave me a whole lifetime of fodder for different stories.
I’m eternally grateful for the traveling because it’s made me not just unafraid about doing research traveling, but eager for it. I write supernatural thrillers and the PLACE of a ghost story is sometimes the most important part of the whole deal. I always want to visit and explore the city or region I’m writing about, because it’s the best way to give a reader a true and complete experience. I need you to believe in the reality of the story - to feel and smell and hear things - so I can sneak in there and scare the pants off you.

And the traveling was especially good preparation for THE UNSEEN, interestingly enough, because it gave me an angle on how to write realistically about the South (the book is set in North Carolina) even though I’ve lived in California my entire life and wouldn’t begin to pretend that I could speak from a Southerner’s point of view.
But I sure can write from the point of view of a transplant, a fish out of water, because I have been that, in so many places, for so much of my life.
In THE UNSEEN my main character, Los Angeles psychology professor Laurel MacDonald, has a precognitive dream that makes her aware that her fiancĂ© is cheating on her. It shatters her life, of course, but also her whole sense of reality. She decides to take the “geographic cure” and moves to North Carolina to take a professorship at Duke, where she becomes obsessed with the long-buried files from the Rhine parapsychology department there.
Laurel is so out of place in the South that she’s a good observer, which makes her a perfect person to solve a mystery – but also, being in a strange new place with people who look at her as an outsider contributes to her sense of alienation and disorientation – a great undercurrent for a supernatural thriller.
All that traveling also prepared me for the author’s life – although I never would have known that going in. I don’t think anyone can possibly realize how much traveling is required of an author: the conventions, the book signings, the workshop gigs. It’s a wonderful gypsy life – you go to different cities every year for Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Book Expo America, the Public Library Association conference, Thrillerfest, Malice Domestic, Romantic Times – and all your friends are there, including your agent and editor, so you end up doing business in all these different cities. It’s a huge traveling circus, really.
And it helps me with dreaded book promotion that I have no problem jumping in the car and driving all over the state – any state – to stop in at bookstores and sign stock. I’d prefer to be driven, but driving itself is relaxing to me, and a welcome break from writing, so I find it a great balance – exhausting, I won’t lie about that, but also rejuvenating.
I don’t panic if I get lost, I don’t worry when little things go wrong, and I really do end up enjoying the ride. And I never, ever forget how lucky I am: I always wanted the kind of life that would take me to new places all the time, and now, well, I’ve got it – in spades.
Thanks for having me, Kaye, and I hope I see you all on the road!


Vicki Lane said...

Nice post, Alex! I remember long trips in the back seat but I was usually busy being a cowgirl -different generation! And congratulations on the new release! See you at Bcon!

Sarah Shaber said...

Brought back memories of my own family's driving vacations. My Mom used to pack all our food so we wouldn't spend too much money in restaurants. Friend chicken and deviled eggs got sort of soggy in the cooler after three days....

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Vicki! Thanks, I'm excited.

Sounds like a great way to grow up, A cowgirl I am definitely not. I remember my mother's entire farm-raised family howling the first time they heard me say "Excuse me" to a horse!

BCon for sure.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sarah, yes, the good old picnic cooler. I remember that, too. And eating peanut butter and celery for breakfast. And lunch...

Might explain my present day eating habits, come to think of it!

Anonymous said...

Hi, Alex:

Great post! Too bad you only remember Oklahoma's long flat stretches. It's cowboy and outlaw country, and was the last refuge for some pretty interesting people. Great ghost country, too.

Of course, after 50 years in California I still miss it like the dickens, but that's another story.

I am a big fan of your Dark Salon -- some really good writing columns there. I'm trying to find time to print them out.

Be glad you can hit the cons. I'm getting so old and decrepit my traveling days are severely curtailed.

Good luck with your new book!

Pat Browning
At the intersection of Route 66 and the Old Chisholm Trail in Yukon, OK

Earl Staggs said...

Funny thing, but last night my wife talked about driving to New Jersey this year to visit our daughter instead of flying. The idea appeals to me more after reading your take on it. 'Course, I couldn't very well drive from the back seat. My wife's good at it, tho. ;-)

Earl Staggs - at the other end of the Chisholm Trail in Fort Worth, TX

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hey Pat! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to diss your home state. I do remember long, long, LONG days in OK and TX, but I know there's much more to it. The history and culture of every state is fascinating. I've actually done a post about just that for Diane Chamberlain next week - I hope you'll stop by and tell us some Oklahoma stories!

So glad you're getting something out of the writing posts! Thanks for saying so.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Earl, you cracked me up!

You should drive! It's so mind-expanding.

Now you two have inspired me to take a trip and do the Chisholm Trail.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I am now officially on the road for THE UNSEEN - driving up to BEA today - so I am having flashbacks to my whole roadtrip past. I started a tour diary - we'll see how long that lasts!

Bobby Mangahas said...

Great post Alex. I have to admit I love seeing new places.

When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes have to travel for his work and my mom and I would usually go by train to meet him. I would definitely rather travel this way (or if someone is driving me) because it really gives me the chance to really take in my surroundings.

The road trips were fun too because that's where "engine" soup was born. My dad would take off the label from a can of soup and stick it in the engine. The next time we stopped, I had a nice hot cup of soup. Talk about food on the go. :-]

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

My family took car trips, too. In the--50's.

My self-imposed responsibility, at age 7 or so, (although I didn't tell the rest of my family because I didn't want them to be as scared as I was), was to be The Watcher.

I would lie in the wayback of the station wagon and watch out for tornadoes.

So far, so good.

Have fun on your tour Alex! See you in NY. Hi to all here at M & M.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

I love that! Engine soup!

I'm a huge fan of trains, too. Great way to travel.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Tornado watcher is a great job. There's something eerie about it, though... or maybe that's just my mind.

Just got in to NY!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

I was a terrible car trip child! and now I'm a terrible car trip grown person.

I can't seem to just settle in to enjoy the journey for some reason. I feel the need to be at the end of it, practically as soon as we leave the driveway. awful.
And I don't understand why I'm that way. My dad was a funny FUNNY man and could make me laugh hysterically. And Donald is the same; the man cracks me up! - we've been known to pull off the expressway during a mutual giggle fit so as not to crash into other cars. So you would think I could just settle back and enjoy the trip. Maybe I suffered some now forgotten "car trip trauma??" I'm gonna have to ask my mom about this.

I do remember all the games we would play to pass the time, and I remember doing rounds of "Row Row Row your Boat." that was hysterical.

Alex - I hooted when I read this about you saying "excuse me" to a horse. Only you. Priceless.

Hank. "The Watcher." Why do I know I'll think of that every time I see you now? What a very responsible little girl you were!

And Vicki - I can picture you as the perfect little cowgirl!!!

Earl. you kill me. over and over and over - you just kill me! I'm thinking you and Carol probably have to pull off the expressway for giggle fits too, don't you?!

Yep. That traveling cooler full of fried chicken. Were we all in the same car and not notice??!
Except for RJ - the only person I know who had "Engine Soup" which is BRILLIANT! i love that!

And you guys in NY for BEA? I am SO jealous!!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

.........Hank. "The Watcher." Why do I know I'll think of that every time I see you now? What a very responsible little girl you were!.........

I really can see Hank in that anecdote, too. Funny.

I'm so surprised that you're an impatient traveler, Kaye! But now that you've said it, I can picture it.

Yes, in NY for BEA. It's freezing, though, cold and misty and very atmospheric.

As usual I have packed entirely wrongly.