What do you do when your publisher asks for a series of books based on a character you don't really like? If you're Alex Kava, you poke and push at the character until you actually do like her.
Kava had written a stand-alone thriller, A Perfect Evil (2000), which included an FBI profiler named Maggie O'Dell among the characters. She was already halfway through her second book, another stand-alone, when her publishers came to her and said they wanted a series based on the Maggie O'Dell character. That would have been good news for the novice novelist except for one thing: Kava didn't really like Maggie.
"I had given her this alcoholic, suicidal mother. That made for great conflict for that one book, but to have to deal with that over and over again," Kava told Art Attack during a recent phone interview. "And she was in the middle of a messy divorce. I didn't want to go through a divorce with this character. There were just lots of things about her that, had I know this was going to be a series, I would not have saddled her with. Plus, Maggie really annoyed me."
The Nebraska-based Kava decided to take the idea of a series on as a challenge. "I learned, literally, by the seat of my pants, how to write a series. And how to write Maggie O'Dell," says Kava. "I finally gave Maggie some bits and pieces of me. I gave her my weird sense of humor. I gave her a dog and my love of college football. That helped me to like her more. Plus, I think she's a little bit more mature and I'm a little bit more mature, so we understand each other better."
The latest Maggie O'Dell book, Hotwire, about a series of student deaths that are related to a biological warfare accident, is the ninth appearance for the character. Kava says that, like O'Dell, she's changed over the years.
"As a writer, I'm less tied to the constraints that shape most books. In my first three books, I liberally used the F-word because I thought that's what readers expected. All of the law enforcement people that I knew used it. My defense was that if I was going to go through all the research and be authentic in the crimes, then I need to be authentic in the language as well. But that was a big turn-off for some of my readers. And that also meant that younger readers couldn't get their hands on my books."
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After going to a book fair at a middle school only to find out that her books were banned on campus because of profanity, Kava decided to sacrifice authenticity, at least when it came to language, in exchange for widening her readership.
That doesn't mean that she made the crimes O'Dell faces any less violent or gruesome, although Kava admits she spares her readers - and herself - the graphic details. "If I'm uncomfortable writing it, I know my readers will be uncomfortable reading it. I learned that I had to put limitations on what I was willing to write. I don't take my readers through the crime, I don't make them experience the crime. I take them all the way up to it, and then we come back and investigate.
"I love the Alfred Hitchcock approach. He would take people to the edge and then leave them there with their imagination. I love that. I know whatever they imagine is going to be much more twisted and scary than anything I can put down in words. All I have to do as a writer is figure out how to trigger that."
Alex Kava reads from and signs copies of Hotwire at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 19. Murder by the Book, 2342 Bissonnet. For information, call 713-524-8597 or visit www.murderbooks.com. Free.