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Carol O'Connell

Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Thriller

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Mallory's Magic

Q & A with Carol O'Connell

by Laurie Davie

When Mallory's Oracle was published in 1994, crime fiction afficionados around the world met tall, blond and terrifying Kathleen Mallory—a former street kid adopted by an NYPD detective, now a cop herself. Love her or hate her (and most loved her), the mystery genre had never seen a heroine like Mallory, or a writer like O'Connell—fiendishly clever, tough yet poetic, poignant yet very funny. She followed up with The Man Who Cast Two Shadows ('95), Killing Critics ('96), Stone Angel ('97), and Shell Game ('99), plus one non-series tale, the sensational stand-alone Judas Child ('98). Each Mallory novel gives more tantalizing glimpses of her mysterious origins and life on the street before Det. Louis Markowitz brought the feral 10-year-old home to his loving wife, Helen. CRIME SCHOOL is her best yet—Mallory, now a detective with the NYPD's Special Crimes Unit, must unravel the identity of a madman who's killing women to teach a grisly "lesson"…and one of his victims is a prostitute who helped the very young Kathy Mallory learn the law of the streets.

Q: Kathleen Mallory is one of the most unique and compelling characters in crime fiction—where did she come from? How are you similar to or different from her?

I usually answer this question at public readings, so it's always disconcerting to have a person in the audience ask how much of Mallory is autobiographical. She's a tall, attractive, green-eyed blonde; I'm not. She carries a gun; I don't. She's a sociopath; and I would hope that, in public, I convey a better image of mental health.

So where did she come from? She's a wholly imagined creature, who began as a peripheral character in a book that didn't work and was never submitted for
publication. In that book, her foster father, Louis Markowitz,
was still alive, and the novel was not big enough for both of them. Consequently, he was dead when the first published novel began.
It was predictable that Mallory would be the surviving character.

Q: Mallory is definitely scary, but she does seem to feel love for, or at least loyalty to, some people: her foster parents, Helen and Louis Markowitz; her friend Charles Butler; and her partner, Riker—is she really that bad?

Mallory is a rather damaged personality. She bypassed that period
in childhood when the young are socialized. So she is quite limited
in the area of emotional response. And I once suffered a minor criticism from The Wall Street Journal because, unlike real women, Mallory did not obsess about bad hair days and the lint at the bottom of her purse. (She doesn't carry a purse—yet another failure to support the cliché.) Well, she's not a nice person, perhaps a bit preoccupied with homicide, and neither politically correct nor sentimental about old ladies, children and dogs.

So, of course, I get letters from people who want to see growth in her character, maybe moving her from the extreme edge to the center, where all their most boring acquaintances live. I tell these good people, if I write a kinder, gentler Mallory, I have no career.

Q: If you could hang out with Mallory for an evening, what would you two do?

I don't think I'd actually want that to happen, for, Cowardice, thy name is Carol. However, gun to my head, I suppose my fantasy would be Mallory having a protracted conversation with Bill Gates, causing him to wet his pants and personally apologize to me for all the glitches in all the generations of Windows.

Q: Was there any particular reason for the three-year
gap between the last Mallory book, Shell Game, and

I was writing during that hiatus, but I didn't like what
I had done. Some authors turn in their mistakes for publication; others don't.

There are dark patches in the series writer's existence: One is the urge to kill off the protagonist and run like hell before your editor can finish the manuscript. Publishers discourage this; they view it as a passing brain fever, nothing serious, something fixable. They laugh at this idea. (Really sensitive response there.)

And then there is the mandate to write each novel for its own sake, as if
the ensemble cast were newly minted in each book, possessing facets previously unknown, and creating a plot that will twist away from any predictable formula. (Briefly put, I don't believe in coasting.)

Q: In CRIME SCHOOL, we learn more about Mallory's childhood on NYC's mean streets. You've been a New Yorker for 20 years now, and dedicated this book "For the Teachers"—why?

There could be no other title than CRIME SCHOOL—all lessons learned in New York City are hard ones, but anyone can chime in; you only need something to teach or something to learn. However, slow learners die or get hospitalized with multiple fractures.

Q: What did you do before you began writing full time?

I was raised and educated to be a painter who wrote in the closet. One day I realized that I was painting less, writing more, then painting not at all. I used to move the canvases around in my studio so that gallery owners, curators and friends would think I was still working with brushes. The closeted computer was a double floppy, no hard drive—the dinosaur days. There's not as much money in being a starving artist as you might think. I paid the rent by working graveyard shifts till daybreak. Then I'd come home and write until I fell asleep in my clothes. When the alarm went off, I'd change my jeans—or not—and go back to work. Come Friday, I was so sleep deprived that I would spend my whole weekend unconscious. No one knew I had written a novel until a publisher accepted Mallory's Oracle. I was between jobs at the time and wondering how to pay the utility bill.

Q: Do you do a detailed outline of your plots beforehand or just plunge in and see where the characters take you?

While I'm writing a novel, I collect things that have nothing to do with what I'm working on, but I know they'll come in handy, these scribbles on matchbook covers, notes on envelopes, small vignettes on the computer and pictures cut from magazines. After the current book is pushed out the door, I take out my collection of odds and ends. It looks like a sprawl of unrelated trash when I spread it out on the table. The scary part is that I know how it all fits together. Then I create the baby draft, eight or nine pages long. Each succeeding draft grows in complexity, and last come the layers of light and shadow. I write like a painter doing murals on the walls of the rat maze.

I've read essays by writers of mainstream fiction who claim that their characters have lives of their own, that it is the character and not the author who dictates how a book will end. Some ramble on about the sacred souls of people who don't actually exist, and how one must never force a character to conform to a story if it violates some delicate sensibility of this person who, though non-existent, manages to bully the author. Well, I tend to fire characters like that. Much as I may like a character, if he gets between me and a good story, I kill him.

Q: You sent your first, unagented novel to a British publisher—why did you feel you'd have a better chance in the UK?

I sent my first novel to England, figuring—smaller country, smaller slush piles (unsolicited manuscripts), but it turns out that I was wrong about that. It seems that every man, woman and child in Great Britain "scribbles," or so say the Brits. My manuscript just happened to land on the desk of the right editor. The man was looking for a bit of diversion from a dry technical book, and he got Mallory. It was luck, pure luck.

Luck and rare talent, surely. Besides, like any sane person, he was probably afraid to say "no" to Mallory…

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