California Literary Review

An Interview With Thriller Writer Stephen White

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April 3rd, 2007 at 10:26 pm

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Stephen White [Photo by: Reid Wilkening]

Dry Ice is Stephen White’s 15th novel and continues the story of Dr. Alan Gregory, a Boulder, Colorado psychologist. Ex-patient Michael McClelland has escaped from a state mental institution and is out for revenge against Dr. Gregory and his family.

The protagonist in your books is a Colorado psychologist named Alan Gregory. What do you think it is about this character that keeps your readers’ interest?
When I started writing the pages in 1989 that later evolved to became my first book, I had no intent, conception, premonition, or clue that I was creating characters that would endure for over a dozen books. I didn’t create Alan Gregory for the long haul—I created him only for a particular role in that initial story. He was a college-town psychologist, a principled man, a most reluctant hero who possessed no particular physical gifts, and a generally nice guy. Now, fifteen books later, I think it’s safe to assume that those traits have resonated for readers in ways that I didn’t anticipate. I have come to surmise that the key to readers’ attachment to him is that he is in no way larger than life. As the series has progressed his personal flaws have become more and more apparent.
Alan’s wife Lauren is a very interesting character. Has her life ever been the focal point of one of your novels? Is that something you’ve considered?
Almost every character in the continuing ensemble has been the focal point of at least one of the novels. Lauren has been the driving force of two – Higher Authority and Remote Control. Lauren, perhaps more than any of the other characters, has had to carry the burden of the parameters of the character I created in the first book. She wasn’t the most sympathetic of people in her initial appearance, and I’ve tried to allow her to grow and soften as the series has moved forward. Her marriage to Alan has gone through phases of placidity as well as conflict—we find them in a conflicted place in the current book—and her struggles about being an independent woman while coping with a chronic illness have often been inelegant, but I think realistic.I’ve been fortunate over the years to be mentored by talented editors and publishers who have given me wide latitude with the structural and architectural conventions of series crime fiction. That freedom has permitted me to elevate various characters—some continuing, and some not—to protagonist status for any given book. In quite a few of the books Alan Gregory, the usual narrator, is a secondary or even tertiary character. Although quite a few of the books in the series are (like Dry Ice) narrated by Alan, others are written from the third person, and I’ve written a couple that have multiple narrators and points-of-view. My most recent book, Kill Me, has only the most tangential of ties to the series, and is almost entirely narrated by one of Alan Gregory’s patients. The flexibility of focus and structure has provided me with creative degrees of freedom that have been rejuvenating for me.

DRY ICE deals with the damaging effects that secrets can have on an individual. Is that a recurring theme in your books? Are there particular aspects of human behavior that fascinate you and that you continually explore in your novels?
I try to avoid recurring themes as much as I can. I have no doubt that certain ideas do show up with some regularity because so many characters recur, but I try—for selfish reasons—to focus each book on a fresh idea or dilemma. I am constantly grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to write about things that fascinate me. I’ve written books, for example, about the nature of a good death, the cult of celebrity, the concept of retribution, the Witness Protection Program, the political aspirations of the LDS church, fascination with high-profile crimes, and the echoes of school violence. I live with the process of writing each book for almost a year and each time I consider a new project I try to select a topic that feels interesting enough to keep my attention for the duration.
When you were a practicing psychologist, what types of patients did you treat and why did you choose that area of practice?
In graduate school my focus was on stressful life events research, especially the effects of marital disruption on men. Early in my clinical career I worked in a variety of inpatient pediatric settings specializing on the psychological effects of cancer on children. As I left institutional work I gradually changed the focus of my practice to treating adults, and when I closed my practice in the mid 1990’s I was seeing only adults and adolescents, almost entirely on an outpatient basis.
Do you have a spiritual view of life? Do you lean in any particular direction when trying to explain the mystery of it all?
I’m not a particularly spiritual person. However, something I’ve taken away from doing psychotherapy for twenty years is that I have developed an enduring respect for solace in all its permutations. Whether it be a belief in a higher being, or simple comfort that comes from wishing on a star, I’m a true believer in encouraging people to find what works for them spiritually.
How do your books get written? Is it inspired creativity, or a more disciplined hard work approach, with detailed outlines, scheduled writing times, etc.?
When I start a book I usually have no more than the kernel of an idea, often just a dilemma or a point of conflict in my mind. I’ve never outlined a story in advance and have never successfully imagined an entire plot before I’ve started writing it. I’ve often envied writers who are capable of doing all the creative work before they begin writing, but for me it seems impossible. I long ago gave up trying.Once I start a book, I’m quite disciplined. I tend to write every day—almost always in the morning—and have a goal of completing at least three manuscript pages before I stop for the day.

What are your media tastes – books, movies, and music?
These days I read much more non-fiction than fiction. The choice of topics is eclectic and idiosyncratic. Like the guy who can’t walk and chew gum simultaneously, I’m incapable of writing and listening to music, so a big part of each day is music free. I was a music history major for a while as an undergraduate and have enjoyed flirtations with everything from the baroque to the classical to jazz and blues and rock n’ roll. I occasionally even find some hip hop I get along with just fine. Movies? I must admit that I’m a tough critic of recent trends in moviemaking, but I can usually find some passion for anything that is both well-written and entertaining. You left TV off your list, and I’ve discovered that some of the best writing and storytelling in recent years has been on the small screen. David Milch’s Deadwood is a great example.
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