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Stephen White On Kill Me

Exclusive Web Site Interview, February 2006

Question: Stephen, your new book Kill Me has Boulder psychologist Alan Gregory playing an important role in the story but he is not the main character in this book. You introduce a new  character — a 42-year-old Denver businessman who remains nameless throughout the book. This man is the first person narrator through most of the story. Can you describe him to us? Do you think he is a sympathetic character?

Stephen: A friend has a short hand description that captures the protagonist's style, if not his personality. She calls him an "alpha male." I think that works for me. The protagonist is not the biggest, or the baddest, or the toughest guy. He has no claim to any kind of moral superiority, and knows it. He's not the most handsome guy, or the most physically imposing. He's a risk taker, but he's not macho in any conventional way. He'd much rather charm his way out of a confrontation than get in a fight. He doesn't boast, but he's a guy who is not displeased that people know what mountain he skied or what wreck he dived last weekend. From my point of view as the writer, he is the perfect canvas for the conundrum of this story – the confused boundary that exists between loving life and fearing death. His instincts, his risk taking, and his smarts have left him with plenty of money, but he doesn't let his wealth define him. He's self-centered, but philanthropic. One thing that stands out about the guy is that as soon as he walks into a room, he's the guy everyone is aware of. Whether or not it's true, he believes he has the confidence that gets women's attention, and the cockiness that causes men to defer to him.

Will he be sympathetic to the reader? Certainly not at first. Right from the beginning though, he is interesting. As the complex structure of the book allows his relationships to be revealed, it becomes clear that he has an ingrained capacity for self-examination and love and compassion that I hope the reader can relate to. I certainly intended to write the protagonist as a complex character and in many ways I consider him enigmatic. Mostly, I hope that he's a captivating character and that the reader is able, and eager, to ride with him as the crazy arc he's on takes shape over the course of the story.

Question: Why did you decide not to name this man?

Stephen: Initially, it was a non-decision on my part. The first chapter I wrote in the manuscript that became Kill Me turned out to be the prologue in the finished book. It was, for me, an unusual opening chapter in that it is almost all prose – the narrator's description of a few miles he spends heading west in his car on Interstate 70 into the Rocky Mountains. No natural space existed in the exposition for the narrator to identify himself by name, so I didn't bother. At the time I was writing that scene I don't recall giving the issue of the man's name much thought.

But when I got to the next chapter – when the narrator is meeting his therapist for the first time – he acknowledges a conscious intent to disguise his identity from his doctor as much as possible. I realized then that I had a dilemma. I think I recognized the dilemma so clearly because of my experience five years ago writing The Program. In that book I had to deal with the writing conundrum that I created by developing characters who appear in the book using various pseudonyms. The opportunities for reader confusion were constant and required frequent remedies and reminders on my part. I remember wondering whether I could avoid the problem in Kill Me by leaving the protagonist/narrator nameless. At first, I wasn't sure it would be possible. But I quickly realized that from a writing perspective the man's anonymity was serving the story well.

Question: You've said that this story was inspired by conversations that you had with a friend who was dying. Did you know at that time that you would someday write about it?

Stephen: When I first met Peter Barton, the man who inspired the moral conflict that is the soul of Kill Me, I had absolutely no thought that the experience of becoming his friend would inspire a book. In fact, I had agreed to talk with Peter at the request of mutual friends about some writing he had done, and about his dream that he could condense the dozens of essays into a published book in the few months he had left before he died of stomach cancer. I thought the actual role I'd been recruited for was to tell Peter what his old friends hoped not to have to tell him – that his writing wasn't publishable, but was rather best preserved as a memoir for his children.

I was wrong on so many levels. Much of what Peter had written was magical. The short life he had lived was in many ways a chronicle of the dreams of an entire generation. If he got the right help I thought his work was not only publishable, but needed to be published. I connected Peter with a writer friend of mine, Larry Shames, and together they created Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well-Lived (Harper Perennial, 2004), a lovely, lyrical, inspiring book as different from Kill Me as night is from day. I highly recommend it.

The specific inspiration for Kill Me came on an early spring morning sitting outside with Peter at his house. He was telling me about the sudden, tragic death of a man his mother was involved with long after Peter's own father had died. I wasn't too surprised by the theme of the story; death was very much on Peter's mind those days. The man had died in suspicious circumstances in the Crestones in Colorado's southern mountains in a freak accident that involved a risky wilderness activity. Ice climbing, rock climbing, hang gliding – something. I don't remember the details. While Peter described the man's demise the psychologist in me thought I heard some wistfulness, maybe even some envy, in Peter's voice. By then he was enduring severe pain from his cancer; his world was getting smaller as his tumor grew larger. I decided to ask him something that I suspected his old friends wouldn't ask him. I said, "Do you ever think about it? On a good day, going up into the mountains, having an accident, going over a cliff? Ending it. Dying like your mother's friend did?"

Without hesitation, Peter acknowledged the fantasy. I don't recall what words he used. I do recall what he said next though. He said, "I could never do it. The kids would wonder." He was talking about his three children, and his absolute insistence that his death, like his life, be a model for them. Enough said.

I dropped the issue. Peter and I never spoke of it again. But driving home that day, I couldn't get our conversation out of my head. As novelists do, I began to ponder something: What if someone in Peter's peculiar circumstances could do it – end his life – in a way that his kids wouldn't wonder, that his family would never know? Peter was a wealthy man. What if it turned out that a person like Peter had the foresight to hire somebody to end his life under circumstances that would make his death appear completely accidental? What, I began to imagine in the days and weeks and months that followed, if there were a company that would agree, for a steep fee, to kill you should you ever became so sick or so disabled that you would choose not to continue living?

That is how Kill Me was born. The seed was an unanswered question left over from a short conversation with a dying man.

Question: Kill Me fully embraces a major issue that effects all people — quality of life and death. Some very serious questions and concepts are wrapped up in a suspense novel. It is a combination of ideas and ethical questions and thrilling suspense fiction. How easy or difficult was it to tackle such big ideas in  the structure of a crime novel?

Stephen: I write popular fiction. The first rule of popular fiction is: Entertain. I've never considered it an unreasonable mandate, or a limitation in any way. One of the reasons that crime fiction is such a resilient genre with such enduring appeal is that it is a remarkably flexible vehicle for characters, stories, and topics. I've learned over the years that the genre can carry a lot of cargo, from the most benign and trivial to the grandest and even the most toxic. The fact that I knew I was choosing to write about a controversial topic in the framework of a quasi-conventional thriller didn't trouble me at all. I figured that if the story was entertaining, and the characters compelling – and if I handled the topic well – the book would benefit from the underlying controversy. I've always believed that the higher the stakes the more interesting the story. It's clear from the beginning of Kill Me that the stakes couldn't be higher.

Question: The businessman/narrator in Kill Me has a brother, Conrad,  who suffers with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease.) This firsthand knowledge of  chronic illness informs the major decision that he makes in the book. Longtime readers of your series know that Alan Gregory's wife, Lauren, has MS. Would you say that Alan has a different take on living with  chronic illness than the narrator of Kill Me?

Stephen: One of the curious side effects of writing about the usual series protagonist from the point of view of a character who is new to the series is that my view of Alan Gregory – the frame of reference in which he was visible as I wrote – became quite narrow. For this book I tried to see Alan only through the lens of his single patient's eye. The result is that in this particular story, the reader is left to discern Alan's reaction to his patient's dilemma (and the solutions his patient ultimately chooses) from little actual data. Would Alan be appalled, or would he applaud? I'd like to hear that argument. I could debate it from either perspective.

Question: The narrator makes a deal with an organization that he calls the "Death Angels." He later comes to regret that contract but he can't get out of it. This sets up the suspenseful elements of the book. He ends up on the run, hiding from his "insurance policy." Did you enjoy coming up with all the various dangerous scenarios that you put your narrator in? How do you research this kind of  stuff?

Stephen: I look at the thriller-writing process in diverse ways. In its grandest, most expansive definition (and the one I prefer) the thriller form is any storytelling with can't-wait power. A good thriller is a book that will always be able to keep a reader going right through his or her bedtime. A good thriller will turn a five hour flight into a we're-there-already flight. A good thriller will always be able to compel the reader to have threaded a finger beneath the right-hand page on the book long before he or she has finished reading the current page. Why? So the page can be turned as quickly as possible. In the expansive view thrillers are not genre specific – any powerful story populated by compelling characters can, in my mind at least, have the desired impact, the can't-wait power. The more traditional conception of thrillers – stories with physical jeopardy and action/adventure components (like the opening scene in Kill Me) are probably more in tune with the conventional heart and soul of the genre.

 I've always found that action scenes are easy to imagine, though sometimes not so easy to write. As the protagonist's jeopardy built in Kill Me, the nature of his vulnerabilities – some of them are flat-out exciting, some of them are much more personal and poignant – developed naturally during the writing, with two exceptions. The first exception was the scene in the Eisenhower tunnel, which is something I first imagined (but never wrote) when a movie producer asked me to consider an alternate ending for a film version of Privileged Information that she was considering making. The second exception was the twist in the subplot having to do with snipers – an idea that evolved in my head during the tragic series of sniper murders in the Washington D.C. area a few years ago.

Question: Do you think there are any real life "Death Angel" organizations?

Stephen: More than a few early readers have asked me how they could get in touch with an organization like the Death Angels. Although I doubt that a sophisticated organization like the one I describe could operate with sufficient secrecy for long, I do imagine that there are many informal compacts between friends and loved ones that are designed to allow for the same kind of outcome. Someone draws a line in the sand marking the illness and/or disability they might choose to tolerate. Someone else agrees to assist that person's death should his or her health decline beyond the specified point.

Question: Alan Gregory is  the only series regular that appears in Kill Me. His part is important but relatively small. Did you ever consider making this book a complete stand-alone novel — and not include Alan?

Stephen: Yes, I knew right from the start that I could write this book as a pure stand-alone. As I conceptualized the story, however, I recognized that I couldn't tell the story in any fashion that approached linear. The story would lose its punch and its suspense if it were told chronologically. So that the narrator wouldn't seem to be manipulating the reader, I knew that I was going to need to develop a secondary character to act as a sounding board for the storyteller, someone who could hear his captivating story as he chose to tell it, but someone who would not interfere with the progression of the narrative. Some kind of confidant, maybe? A priest? A shrink?

I chose shrink, and decided to use the opportunity to explore a new way for long time readers of the series to perceive Alan Gregory. The bonus? For readers who have never read any of the earlier series book, I think that Kill Me reads as a stand-alone thriller. Alan's history in the series is completely immaterial to this story. It's the best of both worlds.

Question: What are you currently working on?

Stephen: The next book will feel more familiar to series readers than this one does. The underlying structure of the 2007 book is similar to many, but not all, of the earlier series books. Alan Gregory narrates and many of the series regulars appear. But the book is a major departure in another way – for the first time in fifteen books I explore Alan's demons and the forces that have shaped him as a man and as a therapist. It's not all pretty. The title? Stay tuned.

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Kill Me by Stephen White

Signet (USA) Paperback 2007, ISBN 0451220714

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