by Alex Kava
Last month, I received this Facebook message from a reader with a great question: “Maggie O’Dell was my introduction to thrillers back when I was maybe 14 or 15 years old, so I’m really happy there’s this new series with Ryder and Grace, where Maggie is still part of a storyline. But I have a question: how old was Maggie when we first met her versus now, in the Creed’s series?”
When I introduced Maggie O’Dell in my first novel, A Perfect Evil, she was around thirty years old. That was August 2000. Fallen Creed was just released last March, twenty-two years later. If I had aged her in real time, Maggie would be fifty-two years old. The FBI has a mandatory retirement age of fifty-seven for their special agents. I would have aged her right out of a job.
Embarrassingly, I was on track to do just that. It made sense. I was writing a book a year, so I thought my characters should be a year older with each one. It wasn’t until a wise woman named Phyllis Grann told me otherwise.
Phyllis was already a legend in the publishing industry by the time we started working together. She became the first female CEO of a major publishing company in 1987, what we then knew as G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Some authors she published and/or edited include Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Dean Koontz, Ken Follett, and Nora Roberts.
When she left Putnam, many thought she had retired, but perhaps boredom led her back to where she began her career at Doubleday. She wanted to choose and edit only a handful of authors each year, and somehow, I was lucky enough to be one of them.
Phyllis liked Maggie O’Dell, so much she courted me away from my previous publisher. She gave me the best piece of advice when she told me I needed to stop aging Maggie. Just because it was a year later for me didn’t mean it had to be for Maggie. The next story could happen at any time after the last. It could even be as little as a month or two. The first time Phyllis suggested this, I remember she added that if Tom Clancy had listened to her, he wouldn’t have needed to bring in Jack Ryan’s son.
However, Clancy obviously had much respect for Phyllis. He once said (in an interview with New York Magazine), “Most of the money I make is because of her. Like Spielberg makes movies, she makes books.”
She was a force to be reckoned with, and I was determined to absorb every morsel of advice. We worked together on four books—I wish it could have been more—before she retired for real.
It reminded me again of her advice last month when Daniel Silva’s latest book was released. Years ago, Silva admitted, “A very smart publisher named Phyllis Grann asked me to write a second Gabriel Allon novel. I have to admit I had to be talked into it. I thought Gabriel might be a bit too melancholy…and at nearly fifty years of age, perhaps a bit too old as well.”
Silva’s The Kill Artist, introducing Gabriel Allon, was published in 2000, the same year as Maggie O’Dell’s debut. His latest, Portrait of an Unknown Woman, is #22 in the series. For several books now Silva has talked about Gabriel being an old man, and now he’s retired from Israeli intelligence.
But Maggie O’Dell? She’s still in her thirties. In fact, the last three Ryder Creed novels—where Maggie is a co-protagonist—less than a year’s gone by. Desperate Creed takes place in March during a tornado outbreak. In Hidden Creed, the characters slog through June thunderstorms in the Florida Panhandle. And Fallen Creed picks up during an unexpected Nebraska blizzard at the beginning of October. All in the same year.
I’ve come to love the shortened timeline. I think it gives readers a feeling of simply picking up where they left off. But there’s another benefit. It’s not only Maggie’s age I’ve slowed down, but the dogs’ as well. At the rate I’m going, hopefully Grace will never be too old to be a scent dog.
Have you thought about how old your favorites really are? The ones you’ve been reading for years. And just how close are they to retiring?