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Book Talk: Carol O'Connell on life with Mallory

Green-eyed, blonde and tall, Kathy Mallory is respected and feared by the cops who work with her, described sometimes as a cat playing with a mouse and nicknamed "Mallory the Machine."
/ Source: Reuters

Green-eyed, blonde and tall, Kathy Mallory is respected and feared by the cops who work with her, described sometimes as a cat playing with a mouse and nicknamed "Mallory the Machine."

Even her creator, author Carol O'Connell, says she's not entirely sure how much she might actually like her own heroine in real life. Mallory, the star of a series of bestselling novels, now returns in "The Chalk Girl," her ninth adventure, after a multi-year wait.

Mallory is being punished with desk duty after an extended leave when rats start falling from the sky in New York's Central Park and a mysterious red-haired child appears in a t-shirt with blood on her shoulders, leading Mallory into a labyrinth of crimes and murders stretching back years.

The soft-spoken O'Connell talked about her book, which she said was inspired partly by a newspaper story on William's Syndrome, a genetic condition, and Central Park's notorious Ramble, a wooded area once the lair of muggers and addicts.

Q: Do you get inspiration from bits and pieces like that a lot, putting them together and letting them grow?

A: "I think things kind of simmer in the back of your mind, and then at some point they're going to kind of come together. I'm going to be the last person to explain the creative process to anyone, but I think the only people who really examine it are people with writer's block, and I never seem to have that."

Q: So you have these, and then you have your characters. Do you just put them together, set your characters loose and see what happens?

A: "I've seen all those author interviews where the author will say to the interviewer, 'oh, my characters have lives of their own, I just let them...' If I had characters like that, I'd fire them immediately. I need people to do the work that I need done to get this book from cover to cover ... They have to work really hard, and if there's a problem with something being out of character, that's massive re-writes or get rid of the character."

Q: How do you work?

A: "Basically, every book is different. You're learning to write a book every time you sit down to do it. I know that sounds a little strange, but in every book you're presented with new possibilities, new environment, different people, new story lines. You're learning how to do it all over again. I do have a basic draft, or one emerges pretty quickly. Then that's subject to change -- beginning, middle and end can all be changed. But that's something to begin with, and then I've got so many drafts on top of that one, and the novel grows on a lot of levels. The nuances come in with one draft, more story lines get added with another. It's layering."

Q: You've been with Mallory for this long. How has she changed and grown?

A: "That's the secret of Mallory, she doesn't change at all. She never gets any older, and she doesn't grow. But in each book you see a different facet of Mallory, and it gives people the illusion that she's growing. I've kept this trick going for quite a while, because people always want the character to develop and I fully understand that. She is what she is, she's not ageing. You're not going to see huge strides in character improvement... but people think she's changing.

"That's the secret of being an obsessive neurotic, I know so much about every character I put in the book. Even the minor ones. And you only see about five percent of it in the book. I've always had an idea of what she was, and that it was not going to change. Because I'm not sure that people change basic elements. She has this tendency to be sociopathic, that probably won't change."

Q: Do you like her?

A: "That's a hard one. I would not like to have her move in with me. I'm not sure I'd make the cut if I ever met her in person.

"When I wrote the first Mallory book, the manuscript went out to reporters in London, which is where my primary publisher was at the time. The reporters had never seen a photograph of me. I would walk into the interviews, and they were always disappointed in me. I think they were expecting tall Mallory to walk in, listing to one side, maybe, from the weight of a gun. They all liked her and they were truly disappointed to get me.

"Why people like her, I don't know, unless it's sort of a high school thing. When you approach her, you have to wonder if you'll make the cut. When she notices you, is this a really bad thing, is she going to hurt you? She's not someone I would warm up to, but people seem to like her."

Q: And how did you first come up with her?

A: "In 'Mallory's Oracle' she's full-blown, but in the first (unpublished) book -- that was wisely eaten by mice, and I'm not kidding about that, it was in my parents' attic for a long time -- she was just a peripheral character, a hacker, in the police department and not too many scruples. But the character of her foster father, Markowitz, was alive in that novel, and when I got to Mallory's Oracle I found myself writing him again. I realized that they were both major personalities and I had to kill one. So I killed the one I liked the best, which was Lou Markowitz. The death had to mean something. I don't want to put a body on the floor and make it a piece of dead meat. You have to be more involved than that or you won't care how it's resolved, or even if it gets resolved."