Sure, Alex Kava is a best-selling mystery author, but as an aspiring writer she faced insecurities. Even now, with a six-figure contract from Putnam, there are uncertainties in this brave new world of publishing.
Growing up in rural Silver Creek, Nebraska, her working-class parents considered writing frivolous. Word-struck Alex secretly spun stories from her imagination and committed them to the back pages of used grain co-op calendars, squirreling away the scrawled tales in a shoe box under her bed.
Convinced writing fiction couldn’t support her, she followed an advertising-marketing-public relations career path that, while successful, left her unfulfilled and burned-out. It didn’t help when her first novel-length manuscript received 116 rejection letters.
Kava may never have become the author of the long-running Maggie O’Dell and new Ryder Creed series had she not left her PR job to commit herself to writing at 38.
“There was too many hours, too many meetings. I really was at a crossroads in my life and I decided that while I’m figuring out what it is I want to do with the rest of my life, I’ll try writing. I told myself if I wasn’t published by 40 I would give it up.”
While completing the book, expenses for home and car repairs mounted. She went through her savings. She took a paper route to make ends meet.
She just squeaked under the self-imposed deadline when, three days before her 40th birthday, she signed advance reader copies of her debut novel, A Perfect Evil. Her 2000 portrait of a community traumatized by a serial killer was extrapolated from the actual terror that befell Bellevue and Papillion in the early 1980s when John Joubert murdered two boys there. Kava worked for the Papillion Times at the time.
“What surprised me,” she says in revisiting those events years later, “was that I could remember those feelings of panic that had taken over that community.”
Her stand-alone One False Move was another instance of real-life crime influencing her work. When the 2002 Norfolk, Nebraska, bank robbery gone fatally bad eerily followed a plot she was developing, she used evidence from the actual crimes to inform her novel.
Forensics expert and profiler Maggie O’Dell was among multiple characters on the case in A Perfect Evil, but Kava’s publisher pushed to make O’Dell the subject of a series. Kava resisted. A dozen O’Dell books later, she and Maggie are fixtures in the mystery-thriller genre.
Kava admits she didn’t like O’Dell at first. “We’re both very stubborn and slow to trust.” On the advice of a go-to expert, former Douglas County prosecutor and now district judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf, Kava gave O’Dell shared interests in dogs and college football.
“Those two little things actually made it easier for me to relate to her,” Kava says. “The series grew, and I grew, and Maggie O’Dell grew. I love that character. She and I have been through so much together.”
Her new protagonist, Ryder Creed, is a K-9 search and rescue dog handler. He teams with investigators like O’Dell to help crack cases.
“I love Ryder Creed because he has this passion for dogs and I can really connect to that.”
Kava says it’s a relief after “so many years writing about something I don’t know—murder,” to write about her four-legged friends. She’s dedicated books to her pets, Molly and Scout, the latter named after Kava’s favorite literary character, Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.
Kava’s steeped herself in the CSI-law enforcement milieu, even presiding over her own “crime scene dinner club” of attorneys, detectives, and techs who voluntarily plied her with case file details.
“I really do love the research. I’ve never had any problem with people opening up. I’m not sure why they do.”
She admires her expert sources.
“I’ve always looked at law enforcement officers in awe. I could never do what they do and stay sane.”
She’s toured the FBI’s Quantico facility in Virginia, interviewing behavioral science wonks there. She’s turned down opportunities to visit crime scenes and view autopsies. “Some of those things it’s best for me to leave to my imagination.”
Kava, who did a spring book tour for her latest work, Breaking Creed, is grateful for her success. But in this new age of ebooks, publishing mergers, and tenuous contracts, nothing’s guaranteed.
“There’s so much more for readers to choose from, and I think that added choice is great. At the same time it makes it more of a challenge for us as authors to figure out how to get those readers and stay in front of them. I’m now writing two books a year so I can stay in front and say, ‘Here’s the next one, and I’ve got another one coming out, and another one after that.’ You don’t want them to