I first discovered Alex Kava back in 2000 when I read an article in George Easter’s excellent review journal Deadly Pleasures about her debut novel A Perfect Evil – little did I know that this terrifying book would have me up all night. And now we have finally a sequel of sorts – A Necessary Evil – which has been harvesting great reviews from its recent release in the US. Kava writes about madness and those who are surrounded by insanity, especially her series character, the FBI profiler Maggie O’ Dell.
As I often ponder on the importance fate plays in our lives, I discovered a surreal twist in that Alex Kava took over as head judge for the International Thriller Writers Inc [ITW] Best Thriller Novel committee, which is by coincidence the same ITW committee that I sit on!
Back from her book tour, Alex agreed to tell Shots readers in the UK about her life and work, and if you’ve not read her before, be prepared to become an insomniac: her Maggie O’ Dell thrillers are designed to keep you up all night.
Ali Alex, thanks for taking time out to speak to Shots ezine!
Alex It’s my pleasure.
Ali Tell me about the book tour for A Necessary Evil.
Alex The book tour was eighteen cities in twenty-five days which included twenty-seven bookstores and twenty-six interviews (a combination of TV, radio and print). And yes, it’s as exhausting as it sounds, but for me the tours are always as exhilarating as they are exhausting. A Necessary Evil is the fifth Maggie O’Dell even though it’s actually the sequel to my first novel, A Perfect Evil. It took me three additional Maggies and one stand- alone before I finally gave in to readers and gave them what they’ve been asking for – a reunion between Maggie O’Dell and Father Michael Keller.
Ali And what were the high- and low-points of the tour?
Alex One of the high points of this particular tour was having a sandwich named after me (the Alex Kava Mystery Sandwich) at Vinny’s Deli in Wallingford, CT. I included Vinny’s Deli in At The Stroke Of Madness and recently learned that Vinny put me on his menu as a tribute. So of course I had to include Wallingford on this tour to finally meet Vinny and his whole family.
Low point would definitely be my two-hour drive from Boulder, Colorado to Colorado Springs in the mountains, the middle of the night and during the beginning of a snowstorm – just one of the irrational things authors do to get to the next city for a 6:00 a.m. TV interview.
Ali Can you tell us a little more about this thriller that links the Catholic Church with the internet?
Alex A Perfect Evil dealt with the issue of young boys being murdered in a brutal but ritualistic manner. That novel was inspired by two real-life crimes that occurred in Nebraska in the 1980s. When I sat down to write A Necessary Evil I knew I wanted to include the real scandals that were plaguing the Catholic Church, but I also wanted to do it from the standpoint of the young victims. I asked myself, what if these young boys who were being abused by priests somehow decided as a group to fight back? How would they fight back? Boys that age are so influenced by the internet and video games. What better avenue for them to meet and “chat” and plot than an internet game; a medieval sort of Dungeons and Dragons in which the motive of the game is to slay the holy man.
Ali Winding back, can you tell us a little about your childhood?
Alex My childhood certainly did not include computers or video games, but I did have an insatiable curiosity and a very active imagination.
Ali Were you a bookish kid?
Alex I loved books – still do – but both my parents were children of Polish immigrants whose priority was a strong work ethic. Books were okay as long as they were schoolwork. You can imagine the excuses I had to come up with during summer vacation if I was caught with a book. It’s probably one of the reasons I hoard books now. I hate even loaning out books. In fact, if I read a book and love it, I’ll sooner buy copies for my friends to read than loan out my copy.
Ali And I share exactly the same ethos, being the son of immigrants and also hoard my books. What were the early books that prompted an interest to pick up a pen?
Alex My favourite novel is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Growing up in the countryside of Nebraska, of course I loved Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I tended to read books that swept me away, like Mutiny on the Bounty, H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds and Jack London’s Call of the Wild. You might notice none of those are crime novels, and I have to admit I didn’t read crime or suspense novels until I started writing them. When I wrote A Perfect Evil I was more interested in the panic that transforms a small town and its residents when something unspeakable happens like the murder of two little boys. I honestly had no idea I had written a serial killer novel.
Ali And schooling?
Alex When I look back now I think my poor father, who wanted only that I find I good job and a good husband, must have thought I was crazy. Because not only did I get a Bachelor’s degree in something as frivolous as art and English but I chose an all women’s college.
Ali And your professional life was in marketing - can you tell us what that brought to your writing?
Alex I started my own graphic design firm, Square One, when I was twenty-six years old. I loved the variety which included anything from designing food packages, to writing radio and TV commercials, to doing photo shoots for annual reports. The business grew very quickly and I burned out very quickly. After six years I decided to take a position as director of public relations for one of my clients.
Ali I read that you turned to full-time writing in 1996. What made you give up the security of a regular paycheck?
Alex After fifteen years in advertising, marketing and public relations I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. Ever since I was a child I loved writing and making up stories, but I didn’t think it was something a person could make a living doing, so I had never pursued it. When I quit my job the summer of 1996 I told myself that it was the perfect opportunity to finally sit down and write a novel while I was trying to figure out what it was I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Ali So tell me about how you got A Perfect Evil into print?
Alex It took me about a year and half to write A Perfect Evil. Now remember I quit my job, so financially I had to give myself a time limit. I decided that if I wasn’t published by the time I was forty years old I’d set it aside and move on. In the meantime my savings account depleted quickly. I maxed out my credit cards and taught part-time. I even delivered the Omaha World Herald. My roof started to leak and even my little red Toyota died in the middle of one of my early Sunday morning newspaper routes. For some reason I persisted. I finished the manuscript, landed an agent and then three days before my fortieth birthday I found myself in Chicago at bookexpo America sitting next to Barbara Kingsolver and signing advance reader copies of A Perfect Evil.
Ali And where did Maggie O’ Dell spring from?
Alex Close friends tell me they see bits and pieces of me in Maggie O’Dell. Unfortunately, it’s the annoying traits such as her hesitation to trust and how stubborn she can be. Maggie is a work in progress. Even after five books in the series I often feel like I’m only now getting to know her.
Ali Did you think at the time that Maggie would have legs in terms of a series character?
Alex Oh gosh, no. In fact, I never intended to write a series. Maggie doesn’t even enter A Perfect Evil until Chapter Seven. The series truly came about because readers wanted to see more.
Ali Then we had Split Second, what is termed that difficult second novel. Did you feel that the pressure was on?
Alex Looking back, I suppose it really was quite difficult when you consider I had to put aside the novel I was working on (which by the way, is still unfinished) and come up with a follow-up book. The publisher’s expectations were tremendous, especially when A Perfect Evil ended up becoming an international bestseller. But I’d like to believe it only made me work harder. I’ve never admitted this before, and I love A Necessary Evil, but if I had to choose I’d have to say Split Second is my personal favourite in the series. Maggie is pushed to the edge and the reader gets a true glimpse of her vulnerabilities as much as her strengths. Plus I love the character, Dr James Kernan.
Ali You have a way with villains such as Albert Stucky. Can you tell me what fascinates us about these monsters?
Alex More than anything else I think what is intriguing is that they look so much like us. It would be so much easier if they looked like monsters. Instead, too often they’re the guys sitting next to us answering phones for a volunteer hotline, like Ted Bundy, or the boyish airman – John Joubert –
who was also a scoutmaster, or even a church-going family man like Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. It’s as fascinating as it is frightening – that we could meet one of these monsters sitting next to us in a café and we might never know.
Ali What is it about the dark subject matter that appeals to you?
Alex I’m fascinated by good and evil and this idea that if all of us are capable of doing evil what drives some of us to cross that line when the rest of us wouldn’t dare? Now, of course, John Philpin, a forensic psychologist who’s become a consultant and a friend, insists that I’m simply “obsessed with evil.” Perhaps he’s right because it does seem to be the basis of every one of my novels.
Ali You published a stand-alone with One False Move – what made you leave Maggie O’ Dell behind?
Alex Quite honestly I needed a break, but I also have so many other ideas for novels that don’t necessarily fall within Maggie’s world. One False Move was a novel I wanted to write for several years. I got the idea while writing at a secluded cabin in the woods and suddenly being caught in the middle of a manhunt. All of my books include bits and pieces of real life crimes but One False Move came from something that hit very close to home.
Ali What is your take on the way violence is portrayed in thriller fiction?
Alex I have what I’d like to believe is a sort of blood-and-guts-meter. If I can’t stand to read it I won’t write it. Instead, I try to stay close to the Alfred Hitchcock approach to violence and suspense in my novels. Rather than show each and every gruesome step I’d rather create the psychological suspense and take my readers right up to the edge then leave them there, because I know my readers’ imaginations are much scarier than anything I can put into words. Most of the blood and guts in my books are the aftermath of a murder and part of the criminal investigation.
Ali In terms of blood-letting have you written anything that you later regretted?
Alex I regret killing a dog in A Perfect Evil so much so that I made up for it in Split Second by having Maggie rescue one. She ends up keeping Harvey, a white lab, who if nothing else, is a symbol of good and unconditional love in Maggie’s otherwise dark world. It made me feel a little better about the poor mutt in A Perfect Evil.
Ali When Maggie returned in The Soul Catcher did it take much effort to get back into her head?
Alex No, not at all. If anything it was easier. I was refreshed and ready to get back into Maggie’s world.
Ali What are your publishers like about you writing stand-alones vs Maggie O’ Dell thrillers?
Alex They’ve been very supportive. In fact, the novel I’m working on right now is not a Maggie. It’s still a suspense thriller, however, the protagonist isn’t even in law enforcement. She’s a scientist.
Ali Relationships both good and bad are a theme in your work; can you tell me what it is about relationships that interest you so much?
Alex I’m interested in how relationships can be shaped, transformed, made stronger or possibly destroyed by circumstances and actions. The whole time I’m developing plot lines for my novels I’m also trying to determine conflicts in the relationships of my characters. So much of who we are is shaped by those we choose to include in our lives.
Ali The fourth Maggie O’ Dell Thriller At The Stroke Of Madness was a real tour-de-force and showed how a writer can misdirect a reader, especially the ending. Without giving too much away, can you tell us how you plot? Do you have a detailed outline or do you let the muse take you in its arms?
Alex I almost always know what my ending will be before I start. Now how I get there is a different journey each time. It’s funny you should mention At The Stroke Of Madness because I had about three-quarters of the manuscript finished when my editor called to see how it was coming. I was behind on deadline for the first time and even though I knew what my ending would be I had to admit that I didn’t know who the killer was at that point. Which may sound odd but what happened was that several characters were beginning to convince even me that they could be the killer. I heard James Lee Burke once say that he purposely doesn’t write an outline because if he knows where he’s going, chances are his readers will too. I like the idea that my characters can surprise me. Hopefully they’ll surprise my readers, too.
Ali Your work is full of police procedural detail – what research you have to do for each book?
Alex I do extensive research for two to three months before I even sit down to write. I’m very fortunate to have professionals – a deputy prosecutor, an Omaha police detective, an FBI profiler, a crime lab tech, a forensic psychologist and an ER trauma nurse – I can call on to help me through some of the details. And sometimes just having lunch with one of them will inspire an entire story line.
Ali Are you familiar with the work of FBI profiler Robert Ressler?
Alex Yes, absolutely. A Perfect Evil is loosely inspired by the rampage of serial killer, John Joubert in Nebraska in the early 1980s. Robert Ressler was the profiler of that case. I haven’t met him, but I have read his books.
Ali Some of your work gives me nightmares: do you find that writing about such madness cathartic?
Alex I never thought of it as such, but I suppose in a way that might be true. I will tell you that some of my worst nightmares have become some of my best chapters.
Ali Tell me about your readers. I heard the majority of people who read serial killer fiction are female.
Alex If I use my website guestbook as a microcosm of my readers I can tell you that about 60% are women. I do have quite a few male readers who come up to me at book signings and tell me that they probably would have never started reading my books if they knew I was a woman, but now they’re hooked.
Ali Could you tell me why the Midwest region of America appeals to you in setting your work? And is setting important to you?
Alex They say “write what you know.” I write about serial killers and criminals but I’m pleased to say I don’t know any intimately. Growing up in the Midwest is something I know. Nebraska, in particular, is a part of the United States I think few people do know and it’s a place so many people have misconceptions about. And yes, I do believe setting is important. The small towns and wide open spaces of Nebraska were an integral part to One False Move just as the quiet rock quarries and winding roads of Connecticut were for At The Stroke Of Madness.
Ali I know you are a big reader, who do you follow?
Alex The list continues to grow especially after being able to meet and get to know so many authors. Some of those I follow on a regular basis are Jeffery Deaver, Keith Ablow, Laura Lippman, Lisa Scottoline, Thomas Perry, Jonathon Nasaw, Julia Spencer Fleming.
Ali We are awaiting Thomas Harris’s Behind The Mask. Can you tell me what you made of Hannibal?
Alex The Silence Of The Lambs is still one of my all-time favourite novels. Hannibal wasn’t necessarily a disappointment for me so much as it just didn’t live up to Silence.
Ali So what is on your reading table currently?
Alex There’s always a pile. I just finished Peter Blauner’s The Last Good Day, Joseph Finder’s Paranoia and Gregg Hurwitz’s The Program. I’m currently reading Julia Spencer Fleming’s To Darkness And To Death.
Ali Tell me how you got involved with the ITW?
Alex I was actually one of the first group that met at the 2004 Bouchercon in Toronto. That meeting was sort of a clandestine rendezvous to see if there was even enough interest to start a new organisation. Here we are not even two years old and our first anthology is being published in June (which I’m proud to be included in) with our first ever Thrillerfest to follow June 29-July 2. Writers are usually loners by the very nature of our work, but it’s been amazing to be a part of an organisation that’s so generous in pulling together and helping each other.
Ali And the Best Novel judging with James Siegel, Annie Frasier and me?
Alex I must admit it was one of the more challenging experiences I’ve had in some time, especially when a bit of a controversy made us four instead of five and I somehow ended up as head judge. But I couldn’t ask for a better team and I’m very proud to have been part of this inaugural award.
Ali Now that A Necessary Evil is out, can you tell me what you are planning next?
Alex I don’t like to talk about a book while I’m still in writing mode but I will tell you it is not a Maggie O’Dell. Perhaps it may be the beginning of another series - who knows. It’s set in the panhandle of Florida, which has become a new second home for me, and the main character is a scientist.
Ali I hear you’re coming to Thrillerfest this June in Phoenix – can you tell us what your plans are while you’re in the south west?
Alex Thrillerfest will most likely take up most of my time. I was actually just in Phoenix and Scottsdale in February while on book tour. The Poisoned Pen Bookstore is always on my list of stops.
Ali Alex, it’s been a pleasure! Thank you for your time!
Alex Thank you, Ali. I’m looking forward to finally meeting you at Thrillerfest.
- A Necessary Evil 
- One False Move 
- At the Stroke of Madness 
- The Soul Catcher 
- Split Second 
- A Perfect Evil 
Alex Kava is published in the UK by MIRA Books.
More information is available from www.alexkava.com