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Ask Not Whodunit

Denver author Stephen White is more interested in the 'why' behind the crimes his characters commit than in the 'who' By Valerie Wigglesworth
Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, May 11, 1997

Three pages. Just three pages a day, day after day, plunking away on his laptop in the basement of his Boulder home. After about six months he had a book.  After another year, he had a publisher.

And now nearly eight years later, Stephen White has a sixth book in production, he's writing his seventh and already thinking ahead to the eighth.

"No one was more surprised than me that I'm able to make a living doing this," said the 45-year-old who now lives in Denver with his wife and l0-year-old son.

His books, all set predominantly in Colorado, follow clinical psychologist Alan Gregory as he helps to solve crises around him. White's newest release, "Remote Control", revolves around Alan's wife, Boulder County deputy district attorney Lauren Crowder. In a complicated twist of events, she gets arrested for attempted murder, and it's Alan's job to help prove his wife's innocence.

White classifies his books as whydunits rather than whodunits.

"(Author) Ridley Pearson said that in a mystery, you are always looking for the who, while in a thriller, you are waiting for the then," White said. "My books do some of both." White didn't set out to become an author. It just happened. He started out as a creative writing major at the University of California at Irvine. But after two D's and an F on his first three papers in creative writing, he dropped the course and changed majors.

He didn't look back. He earned degrees in psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Then he opened his own private practice. For 15 years, he worked as a clinical psychologist, including stints at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and The Children's Hospital in Denver.

Then an idea for a story hit him. It wouldn't go away.

"It festered," White said.

So he started writing, just a little bit at a time. White didn't know if it was going to be 10 pages or 20 pages when he started. It ended up being 460 pages.

Though he never really thought about writing a book before, the psychologist in him said the desire had to have been there all along.

But writing the book was easy compared with finding a publisher, White said. He was turned down by plenty of agents. After about a year, his manuscript found its way to a senior editor at Viking through the friend of a friend of a friend. And the company bought it.

It's a rarity, though. The last time Viking bought a manuscript from someone without an agent was when Judith Guest sold "Ordinary People" in 1979.

"I got real lucky," White said. 

And, as one of his editors said, he was born with the perfect pseudonym.

The first book led to an idea for another, and that led to another. White finally closed his Boulder practice in 1993 to become a full-time writer.

The only thing he misses about being a clinical psychologist is the daily contact with people.

"I expected to miss the work, and I don't," he said. "Writing books feels much more frivolous, but it has its own rewards."

And he hasn't entirely abandoned his first career. It simply enhances the second one.

"When you read, a character often does things because an author needs him to rather than because the author developed the motivation for the action," he said. "My training helps put some depth in that."

White said his years of spending 8 to 10 hours a day listening to clients talk helped hone his skills with dialogue. And the fact that his main character, Alan Gregory, shares his profession makes writing that much easier.

"I don't see much of myself in Alan," White said. "I see some of him in me, though, if that makes any sense."

Doing research for his books also is part of the fun. Whether it's studying the technical aspects of theater life backstage on Broadway, riding in a helicopter to enhance the details in a scene or visiting Salt Lake City to learn more about the Mormon community, White finds it all fascinating.

But White doesn't reread his books once they're published. That is, unless he's doing a reading as part of a book signing.

"I'd rewrite them all tomorrow if I could," he said.

It's not that he's dissatisfied with the finished version. He just likes to tinker with them, change the course of events, make them better.

"I'd like to think I get better at this," he said.

Reading others' work also helps.

"One beautiful thing about this profession is that the best work done is available to everyone in its original form," White said. Although he'd love to talk shop with John Steinbeck or Mark Twain, he finds plenty to learn by reading their work.

White still gets nervous when he thinks about writing a book. It's just a pile of papers, he has to tell himself. He takes it one page at a time.

"This is the only business where I've never heard a colleague say 'I wish I were doing something else,' " he said. "It's not a job you want to escape from."


Line of Fire by Stephen White

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