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These days, Victoria McKernan is having second thoughts. Lots of them. Using the pen name V.A. MacAlister, McKernan recently published a thriller called The Mosquito War, about a plot to unleash malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the United States. Copies were already arriving in stores by the time terrorist hijackers attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11.

“For a long time, for dozens of authors—from Tom Clancy on down—terrorists have been our bread and butter,” McKernan says. “Now, this feels very creepy. A book like mine needs a hook, and for us—author, agent, and publicist—the best hook was ‘terrorist.’ Now I cringe at how blithely I threw that word around. I was thrilled when Walter Wager, author of the book that became the ultimate terrorist movie, Die Hard, wrote a blurb for the jacket. Now I feel a little sick.”

McKernan, who lives in Columbia Heights, is especially torn because she took pains to make her thriller realistic, not fanciful. In addition to studying up on the global scourge and the scientists who seek ways to cure it, McKernan actually volunteered as a human guinea pig for a new malaria vaccine.

She took part in a “Phase I” trial, “which means they’re testing for human safety,” she explains. “You’re the first stage after monkeys.” Researchers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center injected McKernan three times. After the first two, she was fine. But after the third, she says, “I had quite a dramatic response. I woke up at 4 a.m. with the worst flu of my life.”

It’s not the first time that McKernan, 43, has gone to great lengths for her work. She says she’s chalked up more than five years traveling the world, always on a shoestring. To learn how to scuba-dive—following a childhood crush on Jacques Cousteau—McKernan went to the Great Barrier Reef in the early ’80s. Arriving broke, she took a job in a restaurant and pawned her camera in exchange for dive training, she says.

Back in Washington, McKernan published several scuba-related mystery novels under her own name, including Crooked Island, Point Deception, and Osprey Reef. But The Mosquito War was supposed to be her breakout book—one that would allow her to give up waiting tables for extra income. Now she’s unsure what to do, though she does find some comfort in her book’s timeliness. “Would I have written Mosquito War today? Unequivocally, yes,” she says. “Nothing has changed about my message, which is that we in the United States tend not to care about anything until it affects us directly. This horrible event proves it even more clearly.” —Louis Jacobson