Alexandra Sokoloff Talks About “The Unseen”

Alexandra Sokoloff’s new novel, The Unseen, takes as its starting point a set of real-life experiments done by Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine at Duke University from the late 1920s until the mid-1960s. As explained in the novel, Rhine and his colleagues — including William McDougall, Karl Zener, and Rhine’s wife Louisa — investigated widely into ESP and psychokinesis, and Rhine’s own seminal publications, including Extra-Sensory Perception (1934) and New Frontiers of the Mind (1937), not only helped to popularize the term parapsychology but also brought many of these possibilities to the wider American public for the first time. Seven hundred boxes of original files from the lab were stored at Duke when it closed in 1965 and have only recently been made available to the public.

In Sokoloff’s novel, Laurel MacDonald flees a disastrous engagement in California for a tenure-track position in Duke’s psychology department. When she happens upon those newly released research papers, she thinks she may also have stumbled into a project that will help turn tenure-track into full tenure — and soon discovers a companion in that quest, a handsome professor who’s also been sifting through the files. But surprises await, of course: The charming young professor may well be a devil in disguise; Laurel’s own uncle may have been involved in one of the more disturbing of the Rhine’s experiments; and family skeletons aren’t the only dark secrets that might be discovered in those research papers, potentially a Pandora’s box of trouble for everyone involved.

The News and Observer called The Unseen “a classic haunted house story with a decidedly local flavor” and wrote that “Sokoloff has found a groove” with this third novel, after successes with The Harrowing and The Price. In addition, Sokoloff recently enjoyed a top honor for her short fiction, earning the Best Short Story award at this year’s Thrillerfest for “The Edge of Seventeen.”

Sokoloff’s tour continues this week with a reading at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop on Wednesday, July 22, at 7 p.m., and she’ll also be joining the Mystery Book Club at the Cary Barnes & Noble on Monday, July 27, at 7 p.m. Further out, look for her at the Barnes & Noble at New Hope Commons in Durham on Saturday afternoon, August 29, and on North Carolina Bookwatch later this year. (For complete information, check out Sokoloff’s own website here.) In the meantime, Sokoloff fit in a quick interview below.

Art Taylor: One of your inspirations for The Unseen was the real-life parapsychology lab at Duke University. What are the advantages — and on the other hand, the challenges — of writing a novel that has some basis in documented historical events, rather than working solely from imagination or being inspired by more personal events?

Alexandra Sokoloff: I love working from real life because with everything I write I want the reader to believe that the story could really happen. All of my novels walk a very fine line between reality and the supernatural; part of the whole mystery and spookiness is that question: “Is this really happening, or is it a hoax or a criminal conspiracy, or is it even just all in the main character’s mind?” I like to keep readers guessing! So working from real-life paranormal case studies — how ESP and poltergeist experiences are reported by real people — helps me keep the story believable.

The particular challenge of The Unseen was to use the real-life history of the Rhine experiments and the Duke parapsychology lab in a thriller, without doing anything to dishonor the work that Dr. J.B. Rhine and Dr. Louisa Rhine did, which was not only groundbreaking but I think noble, dedicated to the advancement of human knowledge and potential. But in a thriller, there has to be a dark side, and jeopardy, so I was creating a mystery that never happened, and not-so-pure characters who never existed, but basing it all completely in a factual history. I wrote the Afterword in the book to make sure readers understand what is fact and what is fiction.

While much of the plot concentrates on the supernatural, The Unseen also focuses on family and on the secrets of the past — persistent themes in Southern literature — and throughout the book, Laurel is often offering perspectives on her new home in North Carolina: regional attitudes, customs, manners, fashion, food, etc. She even comments about feeling like she’s trapped in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. What brought you to the South? How has your own time in the region influenced your writing? And beyond the setting itself, would you consider this book a “Southern novel”?

One of you charming Southern men brought me to the South.

Don’t kid yourself, we have family secrets in California, too! I would never dare to call The Unseen a “Southern novel.” I’m not sure I could write a truly Southern novel even if I’d lived here 25 years. My time here has been so short, and the region and the people are so complex. I knew the only chance I had of pulling The Unseen off in any kind of truthful way was to tell it from the point of view of a total transplant like myself, a California fish-out-of-water. So through Laurel MacDonald I was able to tap into my own sense of wonder and alienation about North Carolina and North Carolinians, and draw the Southern characters from the perspective of that outsider character. And that’s a good point of view for a thriller, especially a supernatural thriller, because the character is already disoriented and isolated and off-balance. And of course, it provides some humor.

And as to how living in the region has influenced my writing… I’m not sure I can answer that one yet, although fireflies have something to do with it, but I do know that it’s a very rich environment, while L.A. tends to be a vacuum, albeit a glamorous one. It saps creative energy and you have to go elsewhere to renew, whereas here the lifestyle is more rejuvenating.

Speaking of disoriented: In one scene, Laurel struggles with trying to answer questions for the Paranormal Belief Scale that she and her colleague are going to administer to the students — a scale for determining a subject’s “preestablished paranormal beliefs.” You’ve written about enjoying ghost stories as a child; you’ve written about experimenting with the paranormal as a teenager. How has writing your three books so far impacted any of your own beliefs about psychic phenomena or paranormal goings-on?

The interesting thing about writing ghost stories is that people you meet tell you their own paranormal stories (and oh, do Southerners have ghost stories!). So it’s very much reinforced my belief that psi experiences — like precognitive dreams, and crisis apparitions (having a loved one appear to you at a moment of extreme trauma or death), and telepathy, and the sense of a past experience or personality imprinted on a place — really do happen to people. As the Rhines discovered, there’s too much consistency about the stories not to believe that it really occurs. Not all the time, not to everyone, but it does happen.

You mentioned that L.A. tends to sap creative energy. But I’m curious how your novels were helped by your time as a screenwriter in Hollywood — and before that how your background in theater and dance may have influenced you. Is the act of, say, choreographing a dance ultimately more similar to or different from “choreographing” a scene in your novels? Are there “rules” for screenplay writing that particularly helped you in terms of character and plot when you first sat down to write a book?

All of the arts influence the other arts. Choreography and directing taught me how to bring emotion and shape and dramatic tension to characters and an overall story – and also about the importance of production design and visual imagery. They’re all ways of creating a particular emotional experience for a viewer or reader. My background in dance is especially good for rhythm and pacing. I know when a scene is going on too long; I know how to build emotion and intensity; I know where to cut. I know the biggest artistic sin is boring people!

Theater was fabulous training for film writing, and film writing is fantastic training for novel writing. I grew up with the three-act structure in theater and then applied it to film, and I’ve applied the three-act, eight-sequence filmic structure to novels – I’m sure that was why I was able to sell my first novel right away. I would be very uncomfortable saying there are rules to screenwriting – but there are classic structural elements in drama that have worked for thousands of years, since the very beginning of storytelling, and those can be learned and taught. Those elements are what my Screenwriting Tricks For Authors blog and workshops are about.

Finally: Since your story “The Edge of Seventeen” just won the award for Best Short Story at Thrillerfest — and congratulations there! — are there any more short stories in the works? Or are you just concentrating on the next novel?

Thank you! I love that story. I am in fact working on an anthology of four interconnected novellas with three other amazing new female dark suspense authors: Sarah Langan, Sarah Pinborough, and Rhodi Hawk. I’m very excited about that book. I just finished my fourth novel and am outlining two others, and this is my living – short stories don’t pay the bills! So I would really have to have my arm twisted to write another short piece right now.

Famous last words!

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