Writers Doing It Right #7: Alex Kava and Maggie O’Dell

Because the only thing I like better than successfully developing a series of blog posts is to start a theme and then abandon it, I’ve decided to start a Writers Doing it Right series. Part #1 is herePart 2 is herePart #3 is here.  Part #4 is herePart #5 is here, and Part #6 is here. And this is part 7! A few days/weeks late, but whatevs! The Twitter brought me this great interview with mystery writer Alex Kava, whose novels star FBI special agent Maggie O’Dell.

“During my second book tour a bookseller took me aside and told me that I needed to get Maggie’s drinking problem under control. At the time, I thought she was joking. . . .But according to this bookseller — and for the record, she was right — readers aren’t comfortable seeing a female protagonist deal with her problems by throwing back hard liquor. It was enough for me to have Maggie now sipping Diet Pepsi whenever she struggles with “the urge for a stiff belt.”

So it made me wonder, what other “unwritten rules” are there? Are female protagonists allowed to swear? How about cry? I know for certain that Maggie would never be allowed as many one-night stands as Jack Reacher. Would she be allowed even one?

On yet another book tour, I was interviewed by a radio talk show host who had such tough questions that I felt like I was sparring with him the entire time. But later in signing off, he gave me what I knew was one of his highest compliments when he told his radio audience, “You must read Alex’s books. She definitely doesn’t write like a girl.”

That’s when I realized the double standard applied to female thriller writers, too.”

I thought this interview was great because it struck me as something I’d never heard before – an author talking about her protagonist and the conscious choices she makes to create and maintain her. And in case you’re new here, you’re all reading RIGHT NOW a female protagonist who sometimes fights ‘the urge for a stiff belt’ and in the past used liquor to deal with her problems, so try not to be too scandalized. 

For the record, I love the Lee Child books. Adore them. I love to slip into those gritty noir-y punch’em’outs without a second thought. Reacher has one night stands with assertive, willing, occasionally traiterous women, which is jake, and he occasionally works side-by-side with them as equals, which is even jakier. But Child never lets us forget that these women are sexualized creatures, while rarely spending as much time on the way Reacher’s slacks curve around his shapely haunches. Just saying. 

Another favorite series of mine is Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next chronicles – Thursday is a woman you hardly notice is a woman, you’re so busy engaging with her story and being in awe of her talent. But then, she’s written by a man.

What does “write like a girl” mean? I have a suspicion it is a totally bullshit stereotype enforcing bunch of malarky. But don’t take my word for it – check out this totally awesome too-funny-to-be-allowed omg-I-am-dying project, Funny Women over at The Rumpus

“Okay, so it’s a challenge. I found that the biggest trick to overcome these double standards — for my character and for myself — is, first, to do so without anyone really noticing. Second, I refused to reduce Maggie O’Dell to yet another stereotype. I needed to make her tough and smart. I gave her certain traits and skills that allowed her to take care of herself. After all, she needs to get out of tight spots without the cavalry — i.e., male colleagues — coming to the rescue. And yet, I have to do all this each and every time without giving up her femininity.”

The only thing I quibble with is the “without giving up her femininity” part…but then you all know already how unimportant the maintenance of femininity on anything like a regular basis is to me. With the exception of a cool and airy feeling round your lower region, skirts have nothing on a pair of cargo shorts. Someday I am going to be a famous graphic novelist and everyone will be in awe of my heroes, who are women wearing jeans and sneakers with their hair in a ponytail who never call eating salad “being good” or get super excited about cheesecake inflected yogurt slime. 

“. . .As a writer that’s sort of what I’ve learned to do, too — go to work writing the best thrillers I possibly can while wishing reviewers and readers and male colleagues not notice that I am a female writer, but instead, simply a thriller writer.”

Thiiiiiiis. It drives me bonkers when articles still say things like “female lawyers” or “woman cop” or “lady cabdriver”. Ok that last one’s a joke from On The Town but there is a subway ad for an institute for higher learning that, my hand to Jackman, touts all the Women Scientists it has studying and teaching there. It actually says “Institute For Learning! We Have: Women Scientists.” WTF?! When I am, in addition to being a famous graphic novelist, a famous movie and theater critic I’m always going to use my M.K. initials so that nobody will know for sure. 


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