I'm A Happy Woman Who Writes Terrifying Books

by Sophie Jaff

My book, Love Is Red , is the first novel of a trilogy that is set in our world, but a version of it in which locked doors open; the dead communicate with the living; a serial killer preys with a purpose beyond rational comprehension. It’s reality on a knife-edge. The fate of my characters could go either way, depending on how the blade turns. On one side lies normality, on the other, the marvelous, terrifying, and unknown.

When I first showed Love Is Red to agents, I had interest from two men. Both were knowledgeable, reputable, and excellent agents. One, however, was that one wanted me to “cut all the paranormal stuff” and make the book a slim, taut psychological thriller, and the other wanted me to add a male detective.

Love Is Red is very dark, and it defies conventions of genre: both of these things can be challenging for readers—and, therefore, problematic for agents. Logically, I could see the reasoning behind each of these suggestions. But I said no to both. Rather than limiting them, I wanted Love Is Red to stretch the boundaries of the world that we inhabit, to dig at the roots of reality and expose the eyeless things that crawl in the dirt, but also the treasures that gleam in the darkness.

So, I stuck to my guns. And I found someone who saw things the way I did.

Now that the book is published, I encounter an entirely different obstacle: that tricky label of being a woman who writes about these things. People are surprised that I — a blonde, not hideous, married woman, with friends and a fulfilling life — am drawn to such dark, fantastical material. “Oh no,” many say, as they literally back away from me. “I don’t like horror.”

I’m not sure how I feel about the label “horror,” either.

I could answer that a large part of it is about trying to make sense of the senseless, that writing and reading a book that scares you is largely about submission and domination, on both parts. Allowing yourself to suspend disbelief is about relinquishing control. That it is about allowing us to feel anger.

People are surprised that I — a blonde, not hideous, married woman, with friends and a fulfilling life — am drawn to such dark, fantastical material.

There are some deliberate choices I have made as a woman writer — and I think I, and Love Is Red, are better for them:

  1. I wrote my darkest character in the second person. Women are expected to be empathetic and sensitive and I am, almost to the point of insanity. However, when writing I can become someone totally different. My killer feels no guilt, no remorse; he has no conscience, or regret. Writing him felt like flying, experiencing the world without gravity. While I am constantly anxious, he glides through life reveling in each and every moment.
  2. I gave my female victims power even after they have been killed. The Former Secretary of the State of Washington, Ralph Munroe, once said in an interview on the A&E Biography on Ted Bundy: “ …The real question isn’t how to remember Ted Bundy, the question is how to remember all those girls. You know, right at the prime of their lives (all these kids were nineteen, twenty years old) they had the world by the tail, they had the future and how many families were left in just total tragedy and disarray? Unfortunately we remember Ted Bundy and I’d much rather remember those girls…”That comment has always stayed with me. We are fascinated by killers, while their victims, predominantly female, fade away and are forgotten. That’s why I chose to give my ghosts a voice.
  3. I never describe in detail what my female protagonist looks like. We are not burdened with the descriptions of her appearance or how she dresses or the impression she makes on others. We only know her through her voice, her wit, her thoughts and her choices. I wanted to liberate her from the judgment on looks and appearance that most women face on a daily basis.

Although the feedback from those first agents was food for thought, I had — and still have — conviction in the choices I made. I wrote this book for women. I wanted to create something new. A book for smart women, women who don’t necessarily love gore and violence, but who enjoy being scared, tantalized and seduced.

I think it’s worth mentioning that the agent who finally did take a chance on me was a woman. And my editor? An equally brilliant and strong female who also believed that readers could rise to the challenge. All of the women who have helped me and supported me every step of the way, from my agent and my editor to my publicist, my marketing strategist, and my foreign rights agent, believe that smart, powerful, beautiful, regular women aren’t afraid of darkness, or of books that break the rules.