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International Bestseller Alex Kava on ‘The Series that Almost Wasn’t’

FIREPROOF is the tenth novel in the Maggie O’Dell series, but I have to admit, my first response to this milestone is that I’m so glad I didn’t kill her off.

Let me explain. I never intended to write a series when I penned my first thriller, A PERFECT EVIL. That book was meant to be a standalone. In fact, the FBI profiler assigned to the case – Maggie O’Dell – doesn’t come onto the scene until chapter seven.

To my surprise, the book became an international bestseller, landing on the bestseller lists in the US, Britain, Australia, Italy, Japan, Poland and Germany. And although I initially found the character of Maggie O’Dell a bit ‘stubborn and annoying’, readers disagreed with me. They fell in love with the relentless profiler who was brilliant, and a bit of a rebel, in her professional life, all the while finding her personal life crumbling around her. Readers – and my publisher – demanded a sequel; and then a third to perhaps complete a trilogy. But even after that they still insisted the series continue.

So, how does an author go about writing a series she didn’t plan? Very simply: by the seat of my pants! 

At the time that I wrote A PERFECT EVIL I didn’t even read series novels. To make matters worse, I had given Maggie an alcoholic, suicidal mother and also put her in the middle of a bad marriage. It made great conflict for one novel, but suddenly I had to deal with those issues again and again.

I do extensive research for my novels and rely on a fantastic network of experts in law enforcement. But I give credit to one of my favorite sources for helping me deal with Maggie. Leigh Ann Retelsdorf (now a district judge) was a county prosecutor ten years ago when she introduced herself to me after a luncheon where I had given the keynote address. We became friends and Leigh Ann has inspired and plotted with me over many lunches and dinners. Early in our friendship, during one of these outings, I confessed to my prosecutor friend that it was a challenge to write the character of Maggie O’Dell.

That’s when Leigh Ann gave me some of the best advice of my career.

She told me, ‘Maggie needs to lighten up. She shouldn’t be so serious all the time. We [law enforcement officers] have real lives. We have families. We have friends. Let her have a sense of humor.’

That’s when I decided to do just that. I finally gave Maggie bits and pieces of me. I gave her my dry sense of humor. I gave her a dog and my love of college football. I even gave her a half-brother she didn’t know existed. All of this helped me not only like Maggie more, but also understand her.

Throughout this series I’ve thrown Maggie O’Dell into all kinds of predicaments: exposing her to the Ebola virus, putting her in the path of a hurricane and in the middle of a terrorist plot to bomb Mall of America. With each outing I like to push the envelope. I don’t want to get into the habit of writing the stereotypical profiler hunting a stereotypical serial killer. Though Maggie O’Dell has certainly had her share of confrontations with serial killers, I think they have been far from stereotypical. But at the same time, I also try to include and explore controversial issues like teenage drug use, political cover-ups, the Catholic Church’s priest/child abuse scandal, and the underground cadaver business.

In FIREPROOF I throw Maggie O’Dell into a serial arson investigation while examining the effects of sensationalism by the news media. 

Both Maggie and I have matured over ten novels. Now I actually respect and admire her, though she still can be stubborn. We no longer have an antagonistic relationship, but I do still like to toss and stir up her personal life. In FIREPROOF Maggie finds herself battling a journalistic exposé of her career, while getting to know her half-brother and, once again, propping up a self-destructive mother.

The series that was never intended to be a series appears to be going full force. And, truthfully, I feel like Maggie and I have just hit our stride.

 Alex Kava is the New York Times bestselling author of twelve novels, ten of which are in the critically acclaimed Maggie O’Dell series.

 Click here to see titles in the Maggie O’Dell series.

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