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"What the hell were you thinking?"

I have waited a couple of months to address that question so that I didn't get in the way of my most fervent readers as they digested the end of the series. I didn't wish for my perspective on my own work to contaminate anyone's experience of reading it. From where I sit, you are all free—no, encouraged—to criticize or applaud, or love or hate, my books on their perceived merits, and based on your own experience of them. Over the years I've learned to count on nothing less from readers. Many of you have said lovely things about Compound Fractures; some of you have not. I thank you all.

I've known for more than two decades now that although I write one book, each individual reader somehow manages to read a different one. From the moment I first began to distribute dot-matrix-printed manuscript copies of Privileged Information to my family and friends over twenty years ago, the fact that no two people read the same way has been the single most illuminating epiphany I have had as a writer.

Initially, I thought everyone read books the way I read books. I thought everyone would read the book exactly as I thought I wrote it. That you all seem to read different books is magic to me, but I decided long ago that it's great magic. Although I was initially blindsided by the revelation, I now count on it. Me and you. Writer and reader. I happily accept the reality that we ultimately collaborate in this endeavor. The ink, or pixels, may be fixed on the page, but the resulting reading experience is dynamic and unpredictable. I don't pretend to control your part in this collaboration.

So, for those of you who have asked—exactly what the hell was I thinking with my part of this book? The writing part?

Wait, wait. Before I get there, a preface is in order. The preface is this: I don't expect that my answer to that question will be any more satisfying to some readers than was the way that I chose either to conclude the final book, or to end the series. I apologize in advance for that, but I don't have any reliable ability to be both forthcoming and to be universally satisfying. Wish I did. Or maybe not. I will think about that.

I chose the words in the middle of the "wait wait" paragraph above carefully. Compound Fractures is, at once, both a solitary novel and a book that serves as a series conclusion. It is a novel that I decided to write as though there would be readers (yes, there have been some, and history says there will be more) who read nothing I wrote that came before book twenty. One of my tasks in writing this book was to do what I had done nineteen times before: To write a singular novel, one that not only stands alone for those who choose to read it in isolation, but one that also invites readers to, perchance, find some other books in the series to enjoy.

Few of the complaints I've heard have been about Compound Fractures as a singular novel. It is the second task I took on—and took on voluntarily—that generated the most "what were you thinking?" questions from readers. And the preponderance of those criticisms focus on the way that I chose to conclude the long series.

I'm not usually inclined to distill reader reactions to my works—you guys tend to defy facile categorization—but I am going to take a stab at it. The most common critiques I have read from non-professional readers about Compound Fractures have to do with two particular topics having to do with the series conclusion.

The first of the complaints is that the conclusion isn't particularly, well, conclusive.

And the second complaint—generally speaking—has to do with who the hell was that in Alan's bed, anyway?

For what it's worth, the two (related, in my mind) critiques/questions didn't usually come in that order, and the instances of the latter probably outnumber the instances of the former.

First, the not-conclusive issue. I can't counter the merits of the arguments I've read, nor do I wish to, so I won't go there. But in the what-were-you-thinking mindset I'm in, I will do my best to try to explain the genesis of the decision to end this long, long story the way I did. Please accept that I don't expect to change any minds with this explanation.

I began writing an extended narrative a few books back—I would date it from Dry Ice, but I wouldn't disagree with someone who sees seeds as far back as Missing Persons—that I was determined to bring to an ending as the series concluded. That narrative—partly involving the decisions that Sam and Alan face in order to come to terms with what they did to address the threat they perceived against their children—is resolved in the final chapters of Compound Fractures. The nature of the threats to Sam and Alan, legal and personal, are made clear, and the various threads get clarified. The conflicted relationships between and among the continuing characters all become more or less clear in the end. Michael McClelland's fate is known. We know where Alan and Sam stand in relation to each other and we get a fresh understanding of the forces that impacted their lives and loves and marriages as the story was progressing. The dark history of Alan's always-conflicted marriage to Lauren was revealed, as was the underlying dynamic in the deterioration of his relationship with Diane.

Did I make the right choices? Some of you will say yes. Some of you will say no. I won't defend the way I chose to end things. I got my chance. It's on the page. No more editing for me.

"Okay, okay, maybe," I can hear some of you say, "but what about Lila?" What can of worms was I opening right at the end about Lila and Alan? That's far from resolved, right?

Right.

From the moment years ago that I began to contemplate the possibility that I might someday have the freedom to write the conclusion to this series on my terms I had a sense of where I wanted the series to end.

That's what brought me to Lila and Alan, and to the epilogue.

The place where I wished to leave Alan at the series conclusion was in the vicinity of where he was when it all began—struggling with romance, and ethics, and privileged communication. Alan's rigidity about ethical responsibility is what got him into the mess with Michael McClelland in Privileged Information. Twenty books later? When we leave him, he is transformed, and has become a psychologist who is anything but rigid about his professional ethics. But other things have not changed so much. Alan's future is, again, unclear because of his ethical choices. That was where we met him. It's where I decided to leave him.

I have invited you, the readers, to read Alan's character the way you have always read him. Uniquely. I wrote the ending for Alan as I have always written him. Alan has always been someone who spots dangers late, and who adores but misreads the women in his life. The ending honors both of those enduring character traits, but it also invites readers to make choices, if you wish, about where Alan might end up going forward. Is he learning? Is he changing? Is he stuck? Right woman? Wrong woman?

At the end, Sam doesn't know what to make of the threat that Lila might pose. Does Alan? I hope those of you who are interested continue to explore that aspect of the narrative your way. I got a chance to finish my story, my way.

As for who it is in Alan's bed? In my mind, that is not a lack of clarity, and not a failure of conclusiveness. Instead, that is an invitation to all of you to continue our collaboration. You each have a unique understanding of Alan Gregory. Who is it in his bed? It's your call. There are no wrong answers. Over the course of twenty books I have come to accept the wide variety of different perspectives readers have about Alan Gregory. Believe me, he is not a fixed spot on any reading map.

What do I believe is true about him? Among other things, he is, at best, a reluctant hero. His values, and his desire to be a good man, always inform and complicate his actions. And let's face it—he has never been a great judge of romantic partners.

The romantic choices issue is where I chose to start the long story (as Alan's first marriage was ending, and the romance that would lead to his second was beginning) and it's where I decided to conclude the story. We, writer and readers, get to decide together—did Alan make a more prudent choice at the end of Compound Fractures than he did in either of his two marriages?

Has his judgment improved? Has he grown? Is he stuck? We know what Sam, who knows Alan well, thinks at the very end. But you get to decide what you think, too.

Yes, I could have picked for you. (If I had chosen, I would have chosen . . . Nope, not going there, either.) But I guarantee that the number of reader complaints about any choice I might have made would have been no fewer than the number of reader complaints about my failure to choose among the romantic options I sketched out for Alan.

I never intended, and don't pretend, to end Alan's fictional character arc with Compound Fractures. (That would probably have required that he die.) Some of you certainly let me know you would have preferred that I had written the story with a more definitive period at the end of the last sentence. But I look at this twenty-volume adventure in a more organic way. In my mind, the collaboration between reader and writer continues. The narrative I created is one that I was able to end on my terms. That part is now over.

But Alan's fictional life? If you choose to keep it alive in your imagination, that's up to you. The biggest change is that I will no longer be chronicling it.

But please feel free to pick the woman he is with on the imaginary first page that follows the epilogue of Compound Fractures. And feel free to imagine his struggles with his new adversary, Lila.

Or not.

Either way, for your generous words of praise and gratitude, or for your expressions of disappointment and criticism, I do thank you more sincerely than you could possibly imagine.

- Stephen White

 

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