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 (which were excellent research for the Huntress series!). 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, which is where I honed the outrage and activism that runs through the Huntress books. At the same time I was working as a reader for various film companies (one of the best ways to learn the business).
It’s a natural transition from theater to film, and it didn’t take me that long to get established. My first 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.
Now, of course, we’re in the Golden (or is that Platinum?) Age of Television, and unlike film, television is run by writers. I’m tremendously excited to be working in that medium again.
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 was the inspiration for the Huntress series?
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, particularly violence against women and children. And at least on paper, do something about it.
I liked your earlier, scary books. Why did you stop writing horror?
Ah, I love a good scary book or movie! As I said, I grew up watching and reading those classics. But what I like about horror is the psychological aspect of it: what scares us as human beings, and the mysticism of it—that reality might not be as fixed as we like to think. My first books, the four Haunted thrillers, are all based on real-life psychology.
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), and that’s what The Harrowing delves into.
I’ve also 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? The Price explores that inner, psychological battle in the context of a horror novel set in a hospital that may or may not be haunted.
And The Unseen grew out of my fascination with Dr. J.B. Rhine’s real-life experiments at the Duke parapsychology lab—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!
But I’m really most interested in combatting real-life evil. A ghost never hurt anyone. People hurt people. Human violence is a completely solvable evil. And crime thrillers are a better medium for exploring that. So I use my horror-writing chops, the suspense and scariness and sensuality of that genre, to write the most engaging and activist crime novels I can write.
Why do you write so much about witches?
I love exploring the polarities of male and female energy. And I love witchcraft as a pure expression of feminine power. My first witch book, 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 that feminine power, and feminine energy, and feminine sexuality, and feminine deity.
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 subject for quite some time.
But that’s just backdrop. Let’s be blunt. We are in the throes of a violent political backlash against feminine power. The dying patriarchy is trying to assert its control over women, other races, and any non-binary expressions of gender and sexuality. We need witchcraft now more than ever.
Authors shouldn’t write about politics. Leave our President alone!!
That’s not a question. That man occupying the White House isn’t a President, either. Also, “no politics” would eliminate the works of Dickens, Austen, Steinbeck, Orwell, Morrison, and Shakespeare, just to name the first few political authors who come to mind. My books are based on real-life sexual predators and the horrific damage that they do to individuals and society, so obviously, I’ve written about that self-confessed sexual predator and will continue to do so until he’s gone. If you don’t want to read about politics, there are plenty of fluffy books out there for you to read. Alternately you could vote that criminal and his mob family out and I could go back to writing about witches. I vote for that.
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.
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. For ten years.
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.
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 mean, full. Very full, and very happy. I live in Los Angeles and Scotland with my husband, bestselling Scottish crime author Craig Robertson. I teach my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop all over the US and 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 in my books and in real life—the fate of American democracy depends on it. 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, tap, salsa, Lindy, swing—I do it all, every chance I get.
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