States' Rights

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I’d like you all to welcome Alexandra Sokoloff to my blog. Alex is one of my Scribbler buddies here in North Carolina, and she is . . . well, she’s one of a kind! And she’s the master of intelligent, spooky books. I can relate a bit to what she writes below, since I lived in California for twelve years myself, including a year in Berkeley (when Alex was in diapers). I was only there long enough to get tear gassed once. But back to Alex. Please give her a warm welcome!

Thanks for having me, Diane!

So my new supernatural thriller, The Unseencame out the same day as Diane’s Secrets She Left Behind, which I can’t wait to read!
Diane and I are both transplants to North Carolina, both now writing  about the state, and Diane was actually rather intimately involved in my book.  If you’ve been reading her posts regularly, you know that we’re in an authors – um –  support group – together, and besides lunches and coffee get-togethers, we do these wonderful writing retreats in which we go to a beautiful place for a week or so and work all day and then get together to problem-solve on our projects at night.   And several of those retreats have been at the Weymouth Center,
a wonderfully spooky mansion that became the model for the haunted house in The Unseen.   I wrote a lot of the book on that retreat, and the house definitely influenced the story.


 When you write ghost stories, PLACE is hugely important – it’s got to be really a character in the book, just as much as the human characters are.   But this week I’ve been thinking about PLACE and how it influences us as authors.

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews about the book, as we do, and it’s been my experience with interviews that you always, always learn something about yourself and your work, and specifically your relationship to your work, from the questions you get asked.  

Now, it makes sense that interviewers are focusing a lot on the California vs. North Carolina dynamic in my book, because it’s about a California psychology professor who impulsively flees to North Carolina after she catches her fiancé cheating on her.  (Actually, dreams her fiancé is cheating on her, in exactly the scenario that she catches him in later.)   I wrote the book very much from the point of view of a fish out of water, experiencing this (very strange!) new place for the first time, and I and she had a lot to say about it.

But a question has been coming up in these interviews that surprises me – even though I’ve been asked it before.  I just forgot, until I got it twice in a row this week:  

“How did growing up in California influence you as a writer and your decision to become a writer?”

That got me thinking.  Of course growing up in California had worlds to do with my becoming a writer, and I’ve been aware – maybe not for always, but for a very long time – that I was incredibly lucky to have been born there. Actually, I was incredibly lucky to have been born in the US to begin with, and to my particular parents in particular, but today I’m going to talk about California, and I hope the rest of you will see where I’m going and be moved to talk about your home states/cities as well.

Until just recently, except for short (a year or less) forays living in different states and cities, which I find an extremely inspiring and important thing to do, regularly), I have lived all of my life in California. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, San Francisco – alternating large stretches of time between Northern and Southern California (which are different universes, at least to Californians. I won’t even get into the “What is Northern California, Middle Calif., Southern California?” debate).

I’ve also been lucky enough to visit every state of the Union.  And it struck me from the time I was a very small child, on our yearly family cross-country road trips, that states in the US are really almost like different countries are on other continents. Every US state has a mythos, carefully crafted by tourist boards and state and local governments and its special geography and sheer weight of history. Each has its own dialect, its own political philosophies, its own way of dress, its state birds and mollusks and legends.

When you think of California, what do you think? The Gold Rush, the Hollywood dream machine, “fruits and nuts”, hippies, free love, beaches, granola, feminists, surfers, yoga, cults, movie star politicians (sorry about that last one, people, not MY fault).

Those are the legends, but it’s also all true.

If you want to be a movie star, come to California. If you want to be a movie writer, come to California. If you want to strike it rich, come to California. If you’re gay you most definitely want to come to California.

Now, my parents are scientists and they didn’t want me to go into the arts any more than any loving and caring parents ever want their child to go into the arts. But we were living in California and alongside my parents’ parental messages (“Go to college, get a degree, find a steady profession, save for retirement”) were all of these ever-present California messages: “Follow your dreams!”, “Be yourself!”, “Do what you love and the money will follow!”, “Question authority!”, “A woman’s place is in the House – and in the Senate!”, “Free your ass and your mind will follow…”

Well, you know. When those things are constantly projected all around you, you believe they’re possible. It’s like hypnosis.

So yes, while I had the challenge that every aspiring writer or artist has in breaking free of loving parental messages, I also had a lot of cultural programming – make that counter-cultural programming – in my favor. There’s no question that made the whole career path easier.

After I graduated from Berkeley (and THAT is a place unlike any other, the People’s Republic of Berkeley – it’s like living in Wonderland, or Oz. It’s no wonder at all that I can’t write straight reality to save my life, because Berkeley is simply supernatural), my idea of a practical career plan was to move down to LA to become a screenwriter.

But in California, moving down to LA to become a screenwriter WAS a practical career plan. I had a degree in theater. I had a resume of production experience three yards long. I’d written, directed and produced full-length, large cast musicals.

When you’re a writer no one ever asks to see a resume, of course, but it all meant that I had trained for the job – I wasn’t some naïve, flying in on a wing and a prayer.

And in California, the movie industry IS an industry, just like any other industry. You are paid to do the work you do because if you’re good at it, it makes the corporation money. It doesn’t get any more practical than that.
But – writing – all writing – is also a dream job. And I believed I could do it because my state taught me to follow my dreams.

So I’m wondering. What are your state legends? How did your state and/or city influence your career path? Did it help or hinder your personal dreams?

PS – for those who were wondering, the state mollusk of California is the sea slug.

But that’s another post entirely.

Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m doing a very laid back, un-type-A blog tour for The Unseen   in between running around doing the physical tour thing, so check here for updates if you’d like to drop in and explore other blogs.  – Alex


  1. Alexandra Sokoloff on June 3, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    I should mention for those in the Raleigh area that I’ll be reading from and signing THE UNSEEN tomorrow, June 4 at 7:30 pm, and talking about the Rhine parapsychology experiments that took place on the Duke University campus and inspired the story of THE UNSEEN.
    Quail Ridge Books & Music
    3522 Wade Avenue
    Raleigh, NC 27607 (map)
    919-828-1588 / 800-672-6789

  2. Glen on June 4, 2009 at 6:32 am

    Hi Alexandra! For me, I cannot make the connection between career path choices and regional influences. I was born in Washington DC and was raised 30 miles south in Woodbridge, VA but, grew up, worked and lived in and around the DC area. At the same time our family had all of its roots and extended family in southeastern NC. I guess this shaped more attitude than anything else.
    However, it also showed me there were limitless possibilities. I was never interested in politics because that’s all you heard living around DC. My career path was more influenced by my service in the Navy. That gave me the base skills.
    Hmmm… “Virginia is for lovers”. Don’t worry Diane, I won’t go there!! :0
    Congratulations on your new book and I’m definitely going to pick up a copy.
    P.S. Loved the Berkeley quips.

  3. Margo on June 4, 2009 at 8:25 am

    Alexandra, Diane has talked many times about her writing retreats at Weymouth Mansion and shared her experiences with us…they included your name many times and now that I know your new book was inspired by Weymouth, I plan on ordering THE UNSEEN thru Amazon today!
    I live in Iowa and am an artist not a writer, but I will tell you about my inspirations…it is mainly thru my travels to coastal towns and foreign lands that inspired me to paint. Don’t get me wrong, I loved growing up on an acreage with lots of dogs and fresh air to breathe…but it’s when my parents took us to Clear Lake for the summers, or when I traveled to visit the ocean that I became more inspired to create. Talking of PLACE, I still am drawn to the sea but I gather my small ‘thumbnail watercolors’ done on location and my many sketches and photos and return to my studio in Iowa where I paint or weave…so living in Iowa really did not hinder my artistic side at all…my subject matter is rarely from this state, but definitely the richness of our countryside and the nature all around me inspires me to create everyday, (even if I am still painting the sea, which I’ve been drawn to all my life)…(-O:

  4. laughingwolf on June 4, 2009 at 8:41 am

    grats alex! may you enjoy even greater success with ‘the unseen’ 😀

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff on June 4, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Hi Glen! If you ask me you got the best of both worlds. I love those Virginia outskirts of D.C. – SO beautiful and peaceful – and then you have the excitement and cultural cornucopia of D.C. without having to live right in it.
    I just got back from visiting Vienna, VA, and wow, could I live there.
    VA is for lovers, right. I’m sure that influenced SOMETHING…

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff on June 4, 2009 at 9:10 am

    Margo, thanks, I think you’ll have a great time with the book. My haunted house is PRECISELY Weymouth.
    I think your background is perfect for an artist – living in Iowa and longing for the sea. Because isn’t longing the heart of what we do? You had to reach out for the locations you love, and that makes them more precious.
    I love it!

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff on June 4, 2009 at 9:10 am

    Thank you, Laughing Wolf! You should check out Diane’s great books as well; she’s a terrific writer.

  8. Margo on June 4, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    Alexandra, I never thought of it that way before but you are so right…my heart always longs for the sea
    and it’s a precious memory. People who come into my home see the influences of ocean thru all my paintings that hang in our rooms and ask me ‘you live in Iowa but you paint the sea?’…thanks to your keen insight my new response to them will be ‘my heart reaches for what I love’…thank you.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff on June 4, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    Margo, I’m glad you found that helpful, but really, to me it was so obvious and lovely in what you wrote! I will take that image with me.

  10. R.J. Mangahas on June 4, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Hope the reading and signing goes well for you Alex.
    I agree with you that in ghost stories that place IS very important. I’ve written a couple of ghost stories (though not really my strong suit) set in New England. I think it’s a perfect place for these types of stories because the region is so steeped with History, from Cape Cod Ghost stories to the Witch trials in Salem. There’s just so many possibilities here.

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