By Nate Kenyon
Alex Kava is the NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Maggie O’Dell series of thrillers, beloved by millions of fans worldwide. Kava’s novels have been translated into over twenty-five languages and have been bestsellers in Australia, Germany, Poland, Italy and the UK. She is a founding member of the International Thriller Writers.
Tell us about your upcoming novel STRANDED. What inspired this idea of a prolific serial killer hunting the nation’s rest stops?
In the past ten years I’ve traveled a lot. A good deal of it has been driving the interstates and of course, using rest stops or truck stops. When I was researching FIREPROOF I discovered that the FBI has something called the Highway Serial Killings Initiative. They started it in 2009 in an effort to track and share data of unsolved murders along the interstate systems. That was all I needed for my imagination to take off – that, and another road trip.
After eleven novels your beloved character Maggie O’Dell is still going strong. How do you keep her fresh and interesting in your own mind—and in the minds and hearts of your fans?
She wasn’t always “beloved” by me. I didn’t start off writing a series. My first publisher and readers loved the character and insisted on a sequel and then another and another. I didn’t even read very many series novels, so the whole time I was writing those first novels, I was learning about Maggie along with the readers. Now I realize that was a good thing. It kept me poking and prodding Maggie to see what made her tick.
What’s your favorite part of creating Maggie? A particular character trait you love, a turning point for her in one of the novels? The way fans respond to her? Something else?
She’s fearless and relentless about doing what she believes is right even at the expense of her career and at the risk of physical injury.
You’re a big fan of true crime. What draws you to the dark side of human nature, and can you give another example of how you used actual events or people to inspire your own work?
It’s not the dark side of human nature that intrigues me as much as the fact that truth is so much stranger than fiction. The people who inspire me are the ones who do for living what I only write about – the medical examiners, the prosecutors, homicide detectives, CSU techs. I’ve been fortunate to get to know some of them and I’m always in awe when I sit and listen to their stories. I’ve used bits and pieces of their real cases in each of my novels.
To give you an example: in THE SOUL CATCHER a victim’s body is found with cockroaches inside her mouth. A reviewer said that was a stretch of the imagination, and I’d have to agree – there’s no way I would have come up with that on my own. But it was, in fact, one of those “real” details I had gotten from a police officer who had been first on the scene of a homicide.
You weave a lot of very believable details into your novels. Can you tell us a little bit about how you research? How important is it to get things right?
I constantly read and watch the news. However, the best resources are still people. In STRANDED I introduce a K9 handler and his cadaver dog. Years ago I’d met a forensic professor who was starting to train cadaver dogs and I was totally fascinated by the process. I think it’s important to include enough authentic details so that the reader can’t tell what’s real and what’s made up. But I do admit, I sometimes become a slave to the details so much so that I have to remind myself that I do get to make stuff up.
Your parents were very focused on the importance of education—but not exactly fans of escapist fiction. How did your love of the genre develop? Did you ever imagine in those childhood days scratching out stories on scraps of paper that one day you would be making a living writing thrillers?
I never imagined making a living writing . . . period. I actually didn’t read the genre. I know this sounds a bit strange, but it wasn’t until after I’d written my first novel, A PERFECT EVIL, and a reviewer dubbed me the newest “serial killer lady” that I realized I’d written a thriller.
You took a big leap of faith when you quit your job in public relations to write full-time before you landed a contract. I think a lot of aspiring writers would love to know how you knew it was time, and what gave you the courage to take that step.
There wasn’t much of a plan. I think if you wait for the “right” time you’ll never do it. I was simply burned out. I had owned my own graphic design firm for years then worked as a PR director. I was putting in something like sixty-hours a week, and I was mentally and physically exhausted. I decided to quit and while I was figuring out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I’d write the novel I always wanted to write.
With the caveat that this is in no way a complete list, can you give us a few of your favorite writers working today—and why you love them?
I’m a huge reader so my list is long. I always think it’s sad when I hear authors say that they don’t have time to read. To me, it’s a bit like a gourmet chef saying that now since she’s a gourmet chef she doesn’t have time to eat gourmet food. The list of authors on my pre-order list every year include: Lee Child, Karin Slaughter, Erica Spindler, J.T. Ellison, Tess Gerritsen, C.J. Box, Lisa Gardner, James Rollins, Linda Castillo and Daniel Silva. Some of them have become my friends, but I devour their books and admire them because they just keep getting better.
You took the first name “Alex” for your novels. Was this over a concern of a bias against female thriller writers? If so, looking back—do you think that concern was justified? Has the world changed at all since then, or would you do it again today?
I received 116 rejections from literary agents when I sent out my first novel (one that’s never been published) under my real name, Sharon Kava. A couple years later when I finished A PERFECT EVIL and sent it out under Alex Kava, three agents called asking to sign Mr. Kava. I’d have to say I think it was justified.
Has the world changed? I think there are certainly many more women writing thrillers now than there were in 1996 but it’s still a male dominated genre. Don’t believe me, just look at how many male thriller authors get reviewed or written about by THE NEW YORK TIMES compared to female thriller writers. Or even take a look at how many women are spotlight authors at our very own Thrillerfest.
You were one of writers involved from the very beginning in the formation of ITW—back when some questioned whether there was a need for such an association. Looking back now, are you surprised at how it’s grown?
No, actually I’m not surprised. The need was definitely there.
After STRANDED, what’s next for you?
I have a couple of projects I’m working on, but first and foremost, is the next Maggie O’Dell.
Alex Kava is the NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of thirteen novels, eleven in the critically acclaimed Maggie O’Dell series. Her stand-alone, ONE FALSE MOVE, was chosen as 2006 One Book One Nebraska and her political thriller, WHITEWASH, was one of January Magazine’s 2007 best thrillers. Published in over twenty-five countries, Kava’s novels have made the bestseller lists in the UK, Australia, Germany, Italy and Poland. She is the recipient of the Mari Sandoz Award. Kava divides her time between Omaha, Nebraska and Pensacola, Florida. She is a member of ITW and invites readers to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Alex, please visit her website.