Stephen White On Dead Time
Exclusive Web Site Interview, January 2008
Warning: This interview includes some spoilers for Stephen's last book, Dry Ice.
Question: In Dead Time, the story is presented from two different perspectives: Alan Gregory's, and his ex-wife Merideth's. Is Merideth a character that you've wanted to
revisit for some time?
Stephen White: The simple answer to the question is "yes"—I have been interested in taking a fresh, and more detailed look back at Merideth's and Alan's marriage, but I wasn't interested in doing it in flashback. [For readers unfamiliar with the genesis of the series, the first book, Privileged Information, begins shortly after the couple's separation.] I had been playing around with a story that would have revolved around Merideth hiring Alan as a psychological consultant for a story on her TV news magazine, but I never got excited enough about it to actually write it. Could I have told the story in Dead Time without Merideth? Sure. I certainly could have created a new character to carry that part of the narrative line, but I don't think the book wouldn't have been as rich, or as relevant to Alan.
I also wasn't inclined to revisit Merideth's character until I had revealed the extent of Alan's underlying issues with relationships, especially with women. Since I tried to throw that door open wide in Dry Ice, I felt some freedom to tell a story that focused attention on Merideth, not only in terms of who she was in her marriage with Alan, but also who
she has become so many years later. Along the way, I also discovered that from a craft point-of-view I liked the opportunity to use complimentary (and perhaps competitive) first-person narratives from each side of
the former marriage to give some traction, and immediacy, to the diverging realities that often exist in intimate relationships.
The larger motivation for including Merideth was to create a vehicle for using
her presence to further illuminate Alan's perennial difficulty with romantic relationships. Readers have often expressed frustration over the years with Alan's choice of lovers, not only the ones he embraced, but
also the ones he let go. From the day I began creating him in my head almost twenty years ago, I saw Alan as a man who would be in intimate relationships that outsiders felt weren't quite right for him. He would be
the guy who was always involved with someone that puzzled all of his friends—the one about whom everyone says, "Why is he with her?" I'm hopeful that Dry Ice and Dead Time will, together, begin to explain some of the internal struggles that drive Alan's romantic choices, and begin to answer the question, "Why her?"
In addition to the alternating first-person narratives of Alan and Merideth, I also tell a significant chunk of the story in an omniscient third-person voice. Writing the story from three different points-of-view is something I probably would have shied away from doing early in my career—I would have been too sensitive to the opinions of people who would have warned me about the potential for confusing readers. As I've played with atypical structure and engineered non-linear story architecture over the years, I've come to a different conclusion about readers: readers follow along complicated paths with the same great skill and good humor they tread along traditionally straight narrative routes.
Question: How would you characterize Merideth versus Alan's current wife, Lauren?
Stephen: I'm going to be cautious answering this one because I'm not eager to suggest to readers how they should perceive a character.
The two women have some similarities, but they have some differences, too. Both are smart, accomplished, and capable. Merideth is characterologically self-centered; Lauren is intermittently locked up in herself as a result of circumstances, primarily her illness. Neither is naturally nurturing, though Lauren has more of that particular gene than does Merideth. In my mind, those traits say much more about Alan—and the impact of his experiences on his romantic choices—than they do about the women themselves.
Question: This story begins in Boulder with Adrienne's funeral. As a reader, I was glad that you allowed us to see this scene so we
could grieve for Adrienne along with the series characters. Her death was one of the many shocking surprises in your last book, Dry Ice. Why did you decide to end her character? And what has the response been
from your readers? Do you think you'll miss writing her?
Stephen: I don't think I've revealed this publicly before, but as the writing of Dry Ice was progressing—remember, I don't outline any of my stories in advance—I began to suspect that a continuing character death was looming in the conclusion of the book. I grew more and more uneasy as I wrote—my clear suspicion was that the nature of the story would require that the looming death be Sam Purdy's.
Although I would have been incredibly reluctant to see Sam go, I decided to allow my creative process to continue as organically as possible. It wasn't until the events I ended up writing about in Chapter 61 of Dry Ice began to form in my head that it was finally clear to me that Sam wasn't going to die in the encounter I was imagining. At about the same time in the writing process, I realized that Adrienne would never come back from her trip.
As odd as it may sound, I didn't decide to "end her character." Adrienne died. That was the story in my head. That was the story that I wrote.
Readers, I think, miss her. I do too. She was a treat to write. She made me funnier than I really am and she was a great counterpoint to Alan's occasional out-of-control primness. Like Alan, I'm still not sure how to replace her.
By starting the story line of Dead Time immediately after the conclusion of Dry Ice,
I knew I would have to deal with the ensemble's reaction to Adrienne's death. I recognized, too, that grief could be the bridge that united Alan to his new son.
Question: In Dead Time, Merideth asks Alan and Sam Purdy for help finding a missing woman, the surrogate mother carrying her
child. You present the story of the surrogacy very sensitively and I appreciated that you didn't moralize one way or the other about it. When you write about an ethical topic, like surrogacy, how does your own
personal viewpoint impact the writing of the story?
Stephen: I've been doing this a long time. I'd like to think I've learned some lessons.
What do I think I've learned? Although readers don't seem to mind controversy, they are understandably wary of polemics. Controversy fertilizes conflict. Conflict is the core of fiction. As a writer, I've been granted the latitude to ratchet up the controversy as long as I don't make the mistake of frosting it with a sermon or a lecture. My personal viewpoint about surrogacy is irrelevant to the equation, and absolutely irrelevant to the story. When I write about a topic like surrogacy, I'm not doing it to change peoples' minds, but rather to stimulate them. If I manage to entertain and to get someone thinking, I've done my job.
A good example? It's not uncommon for readers to ask me where I come down personally about the moral dilemmas at the heart of Kill Me. My reaction? I'm thrilled that they need to ask.
Question: Parenthood is one of the focuses in this book, yet presented in very different situations. Merideth is trying desperately to have a baby. Lauren is trying to reconnect with a child she gave up for adoption many years ago. And Alan is focused on helping his newly adopted son, Jonas, recover from the death of his mother. We really feel their emotional heartbreak as parents. Do you think you could accurately write these scenes if you were not a parent yourself?
Stephen: The working title of Dead Time was Cleavage. The other kind of cleavage. I didn't conceptualize the story as being about parenting, as much as it is
about something more primitive and basic: the power that the process that begins with human cell division has on contemporary lives and culture. As a psychologist, when I consider human motivation, few things rank
higher on a list of motivators than cleavage (yes, I'm still discussing the other kind)—either encouraging it, discouraging it, or living with its consequences. The heart of the story in Dead Time revolves around all the energy that is spent by so many characters to start cell division, end it, or embrace its outcome.
As a title, Cleavage didn't survive the decision making process at my publishing house, although I give my editor, Brian Tart, kudos for considering it seriously and for trying to make it work. The reality of the business is that in the marketplace the title would have been considered prurient, regardless of my intent.
Many years ago, when I was a psychologist working in pediatric oncology, the parents of ill children would ask me if I was a parent. They wanted assurance that I could relate to what they were enduring while their children were so sick. I would admit that I was not a parent, but assure them that I could indeed understand their experience. Once I became a parent, I recognized the hubris of my posture. Today, I can readily admit that my parental experience makes it possible for me to comprehend and communicate the complicated emotional experiences of parenthood, both the joy and the despair. I can't imagine bringing the same degree of realism to the parenting scenes were it not for all that I've learned with my own son.
Question: The case of the missing woman takes the story west to Los Angeles and introduces Alan to a group of people in their 20s. We really see the generation gap between this group of friends and Alan. Was it fun to make Alan such a fish out of water?
Stephen: When I started the story, I knew Alan would be making a road trip to New York. The L.A. part surprised me. In an early draft, I had Alan making contact with Carmel in New York City and wrote a scene where they meet at a restaurant in Chelsea. The disconnect that occurred in their experiences in that scene (it was later cut), generationally-speaking, got my attention. As the writing evolved, I decided to take the book west and to put a spotlight on that generational divide.
Like most of us, Alan is a man most comfortable in the world of his creation. Going to LA meant confronting demons for him. I thought it would be fun to surround him with people who kept him off balance while he was there, too.
Question: Dead Time takes us to the Grand Canyon, New York City, and Los Angeles. In fact, Alan Gregory spends more time away from his home than in any other story you've written. Is it creatively inspiring to get the series out of Boulder or is it more challenging to write?
Stephen: Kill Me was in and out of Boulder. Dry Ice was almost completely a Boulder book, or at least a Colorado one. Although I see the series as being anchored in Boulder, the thought of restricting myself to that landscape feels too restricting. My own impression is that the occasional changes in scenery (Sam in the South in Blinded, Raoul in Las Vegas in
Missing Persons, Lauren in Utah in Higher Authority)
bring a freshness to the series.
This book was a chance to take Alan on the road, and out of the therapy office. I think it was good for him, and good for me.
Question: Alan's key relationships, with his wife and with Sam, his best friend, have been shaky lately but I felt a definite sense of hope coming from Alan in this book. Am I correct?
Stephen: Tides go out. Tides come in. It felt like it was time to allow this tide to come back to shore. I wasn't eager to pretend that the issues that have been dragging Alan down for a while went magically away, so I allowed myself the luxury of watching everyone wallow in the muck a little before the tide floated him again.
Given the way this story ends, I suspect that more surprises are in the offing in both the relationships you mentioned.