So how did you start writing?
I think almost every writer I know has the same answer to this question: I just always wrote. Long before I ever thought of being a writer. 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. When I wasn't writing, like every other writer, I read. We had one of those houses that had hundreds of books in every room, stacked to the ceiling, overflowing bookshelves. You were never more than an arm's length from a book. I could read walking home from school—another sure sign of a writer-to-be.
I didn't start out thinking I'd be a writer, though. I got the acting bug first, which is great fun, total instant gratification. I did musical theater from sixth grade all through high school, and majored in theater at Berkeley.
But I quickly realized I was more interested in the big picture, the actual telling of the story, and theater was a fantastic training ground for writing. I worked my way through acting, which taught me how to create character and connect with an audience; dance and choreography, which taught me rhythm and pace, fearlessness and sensuality and seduction (and oh, yes—discipline!); then directing, which taught me design, structure, theme. Writing was the next natural step—the ultimate expression of all those things. But the moment I said—"That's it, I'm going to write"? That was when I saw my first one-act play, one that I'd written for a class at Berkeley, performed. The characters I'd created walked out on stage, live, and it was like I imagine heroin has got to be. I was God. That was it—hooked. It was all about writing from then on.
Okay, I get that musical theater is good training for writing. But—you write all this dark stuff.
Oh, right. You mean, where did the dark stuff come from? Well, I was always attracted to ghost stories—my dad used to tell them around the campfire and he loved horror and suspense—books, movies, plays, anything. I developed a taste for being scared senseless. But also from the time I was a very young child I was very sensitive to the fact that there's a lot of weirdness out there, and a lot of danger from unstable people. My family did quite a bit of traveling, so along with all the good stuff—great art, ancient cultures, different mores and political beliefs—I was exposed to disturbing images and situations: poverty, desperation, oppression, madness. Also, I was almost abducted as a child, so I was aware that there are people out there who have something terribly wrong with them, who actively want to hurt and destroy.
Also when I was a teenager I experimented with the paranormal, as teenagers do—ESP, dream interpretation, Tarot, Ouija, spending the night in graveyards. And, you know—there's a lot more in heaven and earth, Horatio! It never ceases to fascinate me. I have to admit, though—to me those otherworldly experiences are never as horrifying as the evil that people can do.
But the great, cathartic thing for me about good mysteries, thrillers, horror, suspense—is that you can work through those issues of good and evil. You can walk vicariously into those perilous situations and face your fears and—sometimes—triumph.
How did you get into screenwriting?
After college I was writing and acting in an improvisational theater group in the Bay Area. But we sort of imploded from youth and an excess of backstage drama, and I'd already been to New York and was not at the time interested in being a traditional playwright (after years of improvisational training I found Broadway staged productions programmed and flat. Now I love them!). And all I'd ever done was dramatic writing, so I wasn't drawn to novels at the time, either. I had to write, but I decided on film writing basically through a process of elimination.
So I pretty naively moved to Los Angeles (I call those "the oatmeal years"). I read books on film, saw a lot of movies, and wrote while doing a bunch of seriously odd jobs—I worked part-time at the great metaphysical bookstore, the Bodhi Tree, I taught in the L.A. County Juvenile Court system (blonde twenty-something teaching incarcerated teenage boys—think about it!) and I worked as a reader for various film companies (one of the best ways to learn the business).
But it's a natural transition from theater to film, and it didn't take me that long to get established. My first screenplay won a UCLA Diane Thomas Award and was optioned. My second screenplay, co-written with David Arata, sold to Twentieth Century Fox in a bidding war and I've been lucky enough never to have a day job since.
The great thing about film writing is that you can make a living writing! And there's no question, Hollywood is a seductive place to work. But it's a sad fact that screenwriters have less and less creative power in an increasingly corporate industry. And of course—vertical integration is the enemy of art. When it's all about box office, and corporate executives are making story decisions, what you get is what we've been seeing on the big screen for years now—a mind-numbing parade of sequels and remakes.
And that was really what drove me to start writing novels.
What was the inspiration for The Harrowing?
The Harrowing is based on real incidents from my high school and college years. Very early on in life I noticed what seemed to be a correlation between mental/emotional illness and paranormal events. Emotionally disturbed people seem to have a high level of psychic awareness, and they attract synchronicities and even weirder occurrences. That's a theme in a lot of my writing (and reading).
I wanted to take a bunch of misfit, troubled college kids and put them into a situation similar to Shirley Jackson's great The Haunting of Hill House, and play with the idea that the emotional dynamic between them attracts an equally troubled spirit—or that the whole thing is just psychological or a prank that gets out of hand and builds its own momentum.
And the Thanksgiving weekend part—well, I spent a stormy Thanksgiving weekend in the dorm my freshman year at Berkeley. It was a natural setting for this kind of thing—I knew exactly what it felt like!
What was the inspiration for The Price?
It's a sad story. A friend of mine and his wife had just had their first child, and she was born with a hole in her heart. She lived the whole of her two months of life in the children's ward of a Boston hospital, and her parents moved into the hospital, to be with her. When she died, her parents were too distraught to come home to all the unused baby furniture and clothes, so a bunch of their friends packed everything up for them, and because I have a huge attic, we put it all upstairs in my house. That night I started having dreams of a beautiful little five-year old girl who was not alive but not dead, either—somewhere in between. And that was the beginning of the book.
But I've always had a fascination with the concept of a deal with the devil—the things we have in the back of our minds that we would do for what we most desire—fame, fortune, love. What would we really do? What is the one thing that we would do that we would never confess to a soul? So that's what the story is about.
What was the inspiration for The Unseen?
I'd been reading about Dr. Rhine and the Duke parapsychology lab's experiments for years—I think I must have gotten obsessed with the Zener ESP cards when I was just 8 or 9 years old. As a daughter of scientists I love the idea that something so mysterious as ESP ability could be proven in a laboratory by scientific means.
I always knew I wanted to do a story about the ESP testing and the poltergeist investigations, but the story clicked into place when I learned that there are actually are 700 boxes of original research material and files from the parapsychology lab stored in the basement of the graduate school library at Duke. And they've only recently been opened for public reading. That's when I knew what the story was going to be—as a thriller writer you just live to be handed a story line like that. I just love it when that happens!
To prepare to write the book I revisited all the books I could find on the subject, and everything I could get on poltergeists and paranormal research, and attended numerous lectures by parapsychology experts and went on a few ghost-hunting expeditions, as well.
Then I actually moved into a haunted house for a week to get the ambiance of "the Folger House". I had a very specific mansion in mind for the poltergeist house, which is now a writers' retreat in central North Carolina, very isolated and elegant, and I was able to live there for a whole week with a group of mystery author friends. So I got to know the house like the back of my hand—and it's supposed to be haunted, and I did experience some interesting chills at night—mostly my own imagination, of course, but another of our group had a very specific haunting experience that apparently often occurs in that particular room. The mansion does have an ambiance—there were rooms I simply would not go into at night by myself; I would break into a cold sweat just moving up to the door. But there was also a very sexual imprint on the house, I thought. As I describe in The Unseen, the mansion was a vacation retreat for some of the most famous literary figures of the 1920's and 1930's, and I can only imagine the decadent parties that went on there, very Great Gatsby! That feeling is still very much present in the house today—bluntly, it's a turn-on.
I spent a lot of time on the Duke University campus, too, surely one of the most Gothic campuses in the United States, totally spooky! and at the present Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina, where Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine and Dr. Louisa Rhine continued their parapsychology research after Dr. Rhine retired from Duke.
What was the inspiration for Book of Shadows?
I have to disclaim up front that I am not a witch. At least, not any more than any woman is a witch.
But I can't deny that writing Book of Shadows was a really excellent opportunity for me to indulge some of my witchier nature. I wanted to dive right in and explore some of those things that make some men—and a lot of women—uncomfortable with feminine power, and feminine energy, and feminine sexuality, and feminine deity.
And I've been working up to this book for quite a while. I've been around practicing witches most of my life. That's what happens when you grow up in California, especially Berkeley. Actually the Berkeley part pretty much explains why I write supernatural to begin with, but that's another story. Those of you who have visited Berkeley know that Telegraph Avenue, the famous drag that ends at the Berkeley campus, is a gauntlet of clothing and craft vendors, artists, and fortunetellers, forever fixed in the sixties. Well, look a little closer, and you'll see just how many pagans, Wiccans, and witches there actually are.
I've walked that gauntlet thousands of times in my life. It does something to your psyche, I'm telling you.
There was also the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where I spent many summer days in my interestingly misspent youth. Renaissance Faires are teeming with witches (check out the Fortune Tellers' Grove next time if you don't believe me).
So even though I don't actually practice, not in an organized covenish kind of way, I've been to a ceremony or two, and you could say I've been researching this book for quite some time. In fact, I think I've known I was going to write this book ever since I first saw a "Calling of The Corners," a Craft ceremony which is one of the ritual scenes I depict in Book of Shadows. It's one of the most extraordinary spiritual experiences I've ever had—such elemental, feminine power.
And since I love exploring the polarities of male and female energy, I wanted to take a man in a very rational, very male profession and force him to team up with a wildly irrational, primally feminine woman and create a kind of alchemy between them that would enable them to solve a crime that may or may not be supernatural.
What was the inspiration for Huntress Moon?
The idea came to me at the San Francisco Bouchercon, always the most inspiring of the mystery conferences for me. One afternoon there were two back-to-back discussions with several of my favorite authors: Val McDermid interviewing Denise Mina, then Robert Crais interviewing Lee Child. (Can you even imagine...?)
There was a lot of priceless stuff in those two hours, but two things that really struck me from the McDermid/Mina chat were Val saying that crime fiction is the best way to explore societal issues, and Denise saying that she finds powerful inspiration in writing about what makes her angry.
Write about what makes you angry? It doesn't take me a millisecond's thought to make my list. Child sexual abuse is the top, no contest. Violence against women and children. Discrimination of any kind. Religious intolerance. War crimes. Genocide. Torture.
That anger has fueled a lot of my books and scripts over the years.
And then right after that, there was Lee Child talking about Reacher, one of my favorite fictional characters, and it got me thinking about what it would look like if a woman were doing what Reacher was doing. And that was it—instantly I had the whole story of Huntress Moon.
Because of course I've been brooding about all this for decades, now. I've always thought that as writers we're only working with a handful of themes, which we explore over and over, in different variations. And I think it's really useful to be very conscious of those themes. Not only do they fuel our writing, they also brand us as writers.
With the Huntress series I finally have an umbrella to explore, dramatically, over multiple books, the roots and context of the worst crimes I know. And at least on paper, do something about it.
Was it hard to make the transition from screenwriter to novelist?
All writing is impossible, so in a way writing a novel was just a different kind of impossible. I knew how to tell a story, and about character and dialogue and theme and suspense—it was the device of narration that was the brand new thing I had to learn: authorial voice, I guess I mean. And you have to use a lot more words! Honestly, I have so much more to learn, it's completely overwhelming. But I keep thinking of a quote—I wish I knew who said it: "You would not have had the idea if you did not have the capability of executing it." Something like that. I try to hold on to that. There's a funny thing about being a writer—you have this enormous sense of responsibility about your characters and worlds—this urgent drive to bring them to life. So you keep knocking yourself out to somehow get good enough to do them justice.
How did you get your agent and publishing deal?
My extremely patient and supportive film agent, Frank Wuliger, gave the book to my agency's book acquisitions agent and she loved it, and she gave the book to several New York book agents, and Scott Miller at Trident Media Group read it within a week or two, and loved it. A month later we had a two-book offer from St. Martin's.
It all happened so incredibly much faster than you always hear about, but remember, I'd paid my dues for years as a screenwriter—they don't call it development hell for nothing. Believe me, I've suffered enough!
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Oh, there are so many ways to answer that question. The first that springs to mind is—Don't do it! Which is what I heard from so many writers when I was an aspiring writer, and of course you see how well I followed that advice. The thing is, if you're a writer, you're going to write, and nothing anyone can say will talk you out of it. You will take the advice that makes sense and ignore the rest and fight it out, whether it's good for you or not, whether it makes you happy or not—you'll do it.
But there's so much truth to that old saw—If there is anything, ANYTHING else you can do and be happy—do that instead.
The second bit of advice is the best and truest I've ever heard about becoming a writer, from Saroyan: "Find a small room in a big city and put your desk in front of the window and sit down in front of the blank page. And when you stand up ten years later, you will be a writer."
The trick, of course, is that you have to STAY in the chair.
The third, and probably the one that people want to hear, is—Find a system. Read a lot of books on writing, take a lot of classes, and when you find a writing system that makes sense to you, follow it. And then expand on that. There are some very, very good teachers out there, and some not so good, but you have to decide for yourself who is the best teacher for you at a certain time. I cannot recommend John Truby's Story Structure classes and CDs highly enough. I am also indebted to the late, great Frank Daniels for letting me audit his USC classes on screenwriting and story structure—I wish his taped lectures were available to the public.
And of course everyone is welcome and encouraged to check out my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors blog, which I have been told is a gold mine of information for free. And if you'd like the lessons from the blog in a more structured format, I've put all the information from my writing workshops in two Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.
I guess I have a fourth bit of advice, too. Learn everything you can about how to manage your money wisely. Professional writing is a feast or famine rollercoaster. Being smart about money will make you free to do the kind of writing you want to do. Try The Motley Fool, The Complete Idiot's Guides, any basic guide to money management. Make sure you understand the miracle of compound interest. I could not be more serious about this.
What is your life like now?
Just a little frenetic! I'm finishing up the next book in my Huntress Moon series and a paranormal trilogy, Twist of Fate. I teach my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop all over the country, and now internationally. And of course I go to a lot of writing conventions—I love the traveling and I love meeting people.
I practice my Berkeley political activism on union and creative rights issues in the Writers Guild of America, west, where I've served on the Board of Directors. I've also served on the board of the Mystery Writers of America. I get to perform regularly with Heather Graham's all-author theater company Slush Pile Players and the Slushpile band. And I'm still a dance addict! Jazz, ballet, salsa, Lindy, swing—I do it all, every chance I get.