Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Alex Kava at the Poisoned Pen Conference

At the Poisoned Pen's annual conference, Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen, introduced Alex Kava as the author of the Maggie O'Dell thrillers. Fireproof is her twelfth book, and her tenth Maggie O'Dell. Kava came on her own dime to the bookstore when her second book came out. The publisher of her first book didn't believe in book tours. They believe is sending authors to Sam's Club, Walmart, and places like that. Kava likes going to real bookstores. Peters said Kava's from Nebraska. The publishers probably didn't want to send her on book tours because few people from New York can see over the Hudson, and if they do, they see the west coast. Barbara said she had a true story. A publisher contacted her about sending an author on Book Tour, and said the author would be in Houston the day before, and they could fly to Denver, Albuquerque, and do the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale that evening. Peters said, no that wouldn't work, so she'd have to drop out. And, the publisher didn't understand that they couldn't get to all three places. "They look so close together on the map."

Kava has had two standalones, One False Move and Whitewash. Whitewash, a political thriller, remains one of Kava's favorites. It taught her about building character. It's set in Tallahassee, Pensacola, and D.C.

Maggie O'Dell, an FBI agent, is home in D.C. in Fireproof. As an agent, she's on the road a lot. Kava said it was time she kept her at home, and gave her time with her dog. Alex didn't start out wanting to write a series. When she wrote A Perfect Evil, the first book, she didn't really like Maggie. Maggie didn't even appear until chapter seven. Then, Kava's publishers wanted a sequel. Kava didn't even read series. She had to learn to write a series. Kava found Maggie annoying. Her friends told her what she found annoying about Maggie were her own qualities. And, it took a friend in law enforcement to tell her to lighten up about Maggie, and not be so intense, that people in law enforcement had lives and senses of humor. So, this has been a journey for Alex as well. She's been getting to know the character along with the readers.

Peters asked Kava what makes a book a thriller rather than a mystery. Kava said a thriller has more urgency. The crime is of consequence, something bigger than one person's life. It involves a serial killer or a mass murderer. After book four, Kava realized she needed to do something different in the books. Fireproof involves a serial arsonist. Alex tries to stay away from the typical FBI profiler cases.

Arson is at the heart of Fireproof. The fires are in the warehouse district of D.C. where the homeless are. D.C. has a mini metro bus service. The buses take the homeless out to the warehouse district to sleep shelters at night, and then the buses take them back downtown during the day since the food pantries and other services are downtown. They ship them out at night, and back again, so they're neatly tucked away.

Maggie is investigating the cases involving the serial arsonist, and there is another killer. A body is found outside a burning building. Or, is that killer actually the arsonist? Maggie has her half-brother, Patrick, living with her. He has finished his training, and he's a firefighter for a private company. Insurance companies hire private companies. As a public servant, Maggie has a problem with private companies hired to do the same job. Maggie sees them as driving by houses on fire to get to the one that's insured. Maggie's family is screwed up. The father she saw as a hero was a firefighter. He had an affair and died. Patrick is the result of that affair.

Fireproof is the tenth in the series. Readers don't have to have read earlier books, but Kava does include tidbits in this book for those who have read the series. She brought back a character from the second book, a psychiatrist who is bonkers. She based him on a law professor she had who scared her to death. He was the coroner for Omaha. He would be lecturing, and all of a sudden he would jump on the table.

Peters quoted her friend, author Laurie King, as saying a first novel is like packing a trunk. The author puts all kinds of stuff in there, and doesn't know if they'll ever use it in future books. When an author goes to write the next in the series, there's a whole universe or planet they've already created.

When it came time for questions, Kava was asked if she ever worries she might be influencing people to do evil. She answered that she does, but it's out there anyways. Law enforcement officers tell her stories, and she couldn't make up that stuff. The strangest things you read are usually true. For instance, there's an undercover cadaver business that sells body parts that are illegal to sell. People are already doing things that the average person couldn't imagine.

What are the reasons for arson? Arsonists do it for money, because they are hiding another homicide, or they like setting fires. It's said that the Son of Sam started by setting fires. An arsonist might get a sexual thrill out of it.

Kava had mentioned a law professor, so someone asked if she went to law school. She said she only took a law class. She graduated with English and art majors, and a psychology minor. She spent fifteen years working in PR and graphic design.

A Perfect Evil, Kava's first book, was based on a crime that occurred when she was working at a newspaper as a copy writer. Fifteen years later, she used that crime to write her first book. She had seen it turn a small community upside down. When A Perfect Evil came out, she was called "The next serial killer lady".  Alex didn't even know she was writing a thriller. Her publisher was Harlequin. They saw it as a way to break them out of the romance field, but then they didn't know what to do with her.

Kava comes from a PR background. People who buy one of her books, and send her the receipt, can get mugs or sports bottles. They say, "I stayed up all night with Alex Kava."

She wrote A Perfect Evil, her first novel, after she was burnt out and quit her job. She gave herself a time limit, a deadline to write a book and sell it. She taught herself. Kava had no resources in law enforcement. She knuckled down and wrote it.

She ended the program by discussing the serial killer triad. John Douglas and others who established FBI profiling learned through their interviews of serial killers that they all had three things in common.

!. They set fires.
2. They tortured animals.
3. They were all bedwetters at a young age.

Barbara Peters' conversation with Alex Kava was the perfect start to the day-long Poisoned Pen conference.

Alex Kava's website is

Fireproof by Alex Kava. Knopf. 2012. ISBN 9780385535519 (hardcover), 320p.


Jane R said...

Hi Lesa - I've been on vacation for 2 weeks and since I got home I've been catching up on your blog. What a great list of books and reviews you've compiled. I've added quite a few titles to my book list. This series by Alex Kava sounds very appealing and I can't believe I've missed it. Since I'm a Nebraska girl as well, I will definitely be checking this out! Thanks for all your great posts! I feel like I'm still on a bit of vacation (except for the pile of laundry I still have to contend with!).

Lesa said...

Welcome back, Jane. Enjoy that vacation feeling! I read Alex Kava's first book, A Perfect Evil, when it first came out. I'm not up-to-date on the series, but I turned Jim on to the books, and he used to love them. Glad I could add to your TBR pile!

Karen C said...

I don't know why, but I haven't read any of Alex Kava's books - something I will remedy when I get home.

Lesa said...

Thrillers, Karen. As I said, I'm not up-to-date because I read many more mysteries than thrillers. I always said if Jim read it, it was a thriller, and if I read it, it was a mystery.