Stephen White On Missing Persons
Exclusive Web Site Interview, January 2005
Question: MISSING PERSONS begins with Alan Gregory discovering the dead body of a fellow therapist. That death is soon followed by the disappearance of a teenage girl in Boulder on Christmas night. Alan is not directly connected to either of these mysteries and yet, before he knows it, his life is turned upside down by both. How does Alan get dragged into these cases this time?
Alan has always, in my mind, been a hesitant participant in the adventures that I foist upon him. The situation that develops in the beginning of MISSING PERSONS is no different. When he and Diane discover the dead body of a mutual friend, another therapist, in the first chapter, Diane is much more eager than Alan to see the nefarious implications of what had happened. When the teenage girl disappears a short time later, Alan remains reluctant to admit the presence of a conspiracy. In fact, he is absolutely determined to avoid the media firestorm that is developing around the missing girl. It's not until one of his patients reveals a fascination with both crimes that Alan begins to become convinced something might be going on.
Alan's role in this story – the role of skeptic, at least initially – doesn't completely transform until he begins to recognize that the fact of "missing persons" in the story is a psychological concern as well as a police matter. When people he loves become vulnerable he jumps in with both feet, entering some ethical territory that he's never previously explored.
Question: Boulder, Colorado...Missing girl...Christmas night. All eerily reminiscent of the JonBenet Ramsey case. In MISSING PERSONS, you refer to that famous crime, and write about its effect on the
residents of Boulder, yet you never specifically mention JonBenet's name. Why did you decide to do that? And why write about it now? How important is it for you to blend
real life stories into your fictional world?
The references I made to the case in earlier books were textural. For better or for worse, JonBenet's murder has become a coarse thread in the fabric of Boulder's contemporary community memory. I think that not mentioning it in a series of novels that focus on crime in present-day Boulder would constitute omission, or even denial, on my part.
The mirror I hold up to the past in this book is intended to provide a distorted reflection of the events of Christmas, 1996 in Boulder, specifically JonBenet Ramsey's disappearance and murder. What sucked me into the vortex of that terrible crime, and what motivated me to write about it – something I once swore I'd never do, even indirectly – had almost nothing to do with the details of the legendary holiday murder of the little girl on 15th Street in Boulder. What I ultimately found irresistible about those distant events was the impact they had on the community. Two things specifically fascinated me. One was the pervasive hubris that seemed to develop in the months after the child's death that encouraged us – the public – to believe that because the crime was covered 24/7 by the media for so long, that we actually knew everything there was to know about the family and the crime (except, of course, who did it.) The second thing that fascinated me about the fallout was the troubling lack of reflection in the community, and in the media, about the lasting impact that the relentless, largely unnecessary, saturation coverage of the gruesome crime and its aftermath might have had on vulnerable individuals in town, especially children.
JonBenet's name is never used in the book because MISSING PERSONS isn't about her. First of all, the story is a crime thriller, a fictional ride that is, by definition, intended as a diversion, an entertainment. But for readers inclined to look for subtext, it's also an allegory about what we, as a community – locally, regionally, nationally – did in those weeks and months after JonBenet died eight years ago. Her murder has, sadly, become one of a number of icons for the curious practice that has developed in this country of selecting certain criminal cases (this isn't a new phenomenon; does Lizzie Borden ring a bell?) and elevating them to a cult status that somehow renders them deserving of extraordinary media coverage.
Although I don't look for real-life stories to write about, I find that my imagination is often stimulated by the circumstances around them. That's been true in previous books for recent death penalty cases (THE BEST REVENGE), and for the school shooting at Columbine (WARNING SIGNS.)
In all those instances, the crimes themselves failed to fascinate me, so in the books I subsequently wrote I didn't end up focusing on the forensic details. I find, however, that I'm often captivated by some part of the aftermath of the crimes that never gets fully explored. That's the part I get to play with and make up in any way that suits my purpose.
I always enjoy reading about Alan's therapy practice and his patients' sessions. In MISSING PERSONS, you introduce us to two of Alan's patients: Rachel Miller and Bob Brandt. Rachel is schizophrenic and Bob is schizoid. These two are extremely memorable characters. Can you briefly describe each of them?
Psychotherapy is a mystery to most people. Even people who have been in therapy usually only have the experience of seeing how one or two therapists operate. Few people outside the field ever get an understandable explanation of what therapists call the "process" of psychotherapy. Similarly, lay people tend to have only rudimentary understanding of specific mental disorders unless someone close to them has been afflicted. One of the dramatic opportunities I get to exploit in the series is to present Alan with the challenge of treating different kinds of patients, each of whom requires a different therapeutic strategy, with each therapy revealing a different view of the "process." One of the side benefits is that readers, if they choose, get to learn a little bit more about the nature of psychotherapy and the natural history of people with certain diagnoses.
I chose Alan's professional challenges carefully in MISSING PERSONS. One of the patients he is treating suffers from a disorder that is often misunderstood, schizophrenia, and one is burdened with a disorder that is rarely seen by psychotherapists and even more rarely considered by lay people, schizoid personality disorder. Although the names of the two disorders are similar sounding – schizophrenia and schizoid – the underlying nature of the illnesses couldn't be more different.
Rachel's illness, schizophrenia, is a primarily a disorder of thinking and perception. Bob's illness, schizoid personality, is primarily a disorder of relating. When Alan finally decides that both patients may hold a key to understanding what has happened in the story, each of them provides Alan with a unique professional challenge because of his or her mental and emotional peculiarities.
Question: Alan's fellow therapist, Diane Estevez, gets into some trouble in Las Vegas and her husband Raoul goes there to try and help her. Why did you decide to
incorporate Las Vegas into MISSING PERSONS?
Las Vegas came second. Weddings came first.
One of the delusions that Rachel Miller – the schizophrenia patient – is afflicted with in the book is a preoccupation with all things matrimonial. Although it is not a predilection that I suffer in any way, I do know (just) enough about weddings to realize that if someone were inclined to gravitate toward creating a domicile in the wedding capital of the world, a good place to look for her would be in Las Vegas, Nevada.
I also recognized that Las Vegas would be an ideal setting in another way. MISSING PERSONS is the first story I've written that provides a persistent spotlight on Raoul Estevez, Diane's husband. Forcing him to maneuver in an alien (in all senses of the word) environment, such as Las Vegas, provided me a great opportunity to showcase his personality. As a narrative strategy, it's not dissimilar to what I did in BLINDED by sending Sam on a road trip to the South, or in HIGHER AUTHORITY by packing Lauren off to Utah.
Question: You have a great cast of supporting characters in your books. In MISSING PERSONS, some of them appear (Lauren, Diane, Raoul, Sam, Cozy) and others do not (Adrienne, Lucy). Do you ever
miss a character when you haven't incorporated them into the current story? And if so, do you make a point of using them in the next book?
Initially, for me, the story determines the choice of characters. Then, as I write, the characters end up determining the direction of the story.
If a story, like MISSING PERSONS, calls for an attorney to show up, I have a couple of choices. I can choose one from the ensemble of lawyer characters I've previously created (Cozy Maitlin, Casey Sparrow, Jon Younger, Kirsten Lord) or I can create a new one from whole cloth. Once I insert (or create) a character into the developing narrative, the narrative inevitably changes because of that choice. In the current story, Cozy's distinctive style influences everything that occurs once he shows up. Those scenes in the beginning of the book on Broadway in Boulder would have looked quite different had I chosen to use Casey or Kirsten in the same role. One of the things I love about writing fiction is the organicity of the process. No matter how much I think I know what is going to happen next, the characters, if I'm true to them, will inevitably surprise me and the story will end up changing in ways I didn't anticipate.
Do I miss certain characters when I don't use them? Not really. I know there will be another story, another opportunity to get them in the game. I'd love to find another excuse, for example, to visit with Carl Luppo, but the invitation for his return will have to be a story that begs for his participation. So far, I haven't come up with story.
Question: Detective Sam Purdy went through an awful lot in your previous book, BLINDED. We find him doing well in MISSING PERSONS—he is now divorced and in a new relationship. He
is trying to stay healthy and is in a pretty good place in his life. Do you see good things happening for Sam in the future?
It's one of those things that I probably shouldn't admit, but I don't think about the continuing characters outside the context of the current story. I have no long-term arc in mind for Sam, or Alan, or any of the other characters. As I'm writing, I try to let each character's personal life evolve, for better or for worse, in a way that will maximally complicate and challenge whatever he or she is confronting in the story. I'm always looking for conflict and struggle, whether it's intrapersonal or interpersonal, and try to use events in the individual life stories of the characters to insure that any narrative line never gets too straight. Success in life, I've long believed, has to do with one's ability to hit curveballs. I try to make sure that my characters' stories develop in such a way that they are always struggling to hit a tough breaking pitch.
The epigraph to MISSING PERSONS is from Thomas Hardy. It reads: ". . . Peace is poor reading." Where crime novels or psychological thrillers are concerned, peace isn't just poor reading, it's plain boring. Complicating the personal lives of characters is one of the ways I mix things up.
In this book, Alan seems to have lost his patience with a lot of things, particularly the media and our culture's fascination with high profile criminal cases. Does Alan reflect your feelings about our culture?
I should preface my answer by admitting that I have no credentials for commenting intelligently on this issue. In fact, as someone who makes a damn good living writing about crimes, albeit fictional ones, who am I to argue what is an appropriate focus for media attention? That I lack legitimate standing won't, of course, prevent me from offering an opinion.
The answer to the question is yes, and no. I think that public fascination with some criminal cases is predictable, and based on our country's history, some level of absorption is to be expected. Celebrity crimes – whether the celebrity is victim or perpetrator – have always captivated and will probably always captivate. Some crimes by their very magnitude and the continuing threat they represent – the D.C. snipers, for instance, or a serial rapist – will inevitably generate high profile attention. What troubles me in the context of the contemporary media is the arbitrary elevation of certain cases to "high profile" status. What is intrinsically more interesting about JonBenet's murder than about any of the unknown number of other unsolved child murder cases from 1996? Or 1997? Or 1998? Or 2004? What on earth is more intrinsically interesting about Laci Peterson's horrific death than about the equally tragic murders of dozens of other wives (yes, some pregnant; yes, mostly killed by husbands) who were homicide victims around the same time, or since?
The cynical part of me thinks that the modern media infrastructure is now burdened with a massive addiction to creating, and then covering – ad
nauseam – high profile crimes. That addiction causes the media to end up treating the selected cases not so much as news but as entertainment, or even worse, as sport. We, the public, are complicit; for
better, or for worse, we seem to have an insatiable appetite to hear and see more. We shift our attention from Scott and Laci in Redwood City to Robert Blake in LA as though we're changing the channels on our remote
control from "Law and Order" to "CSI."
The networks, newspapers, magazines, blogs, etc., have so many personnel to assign, so many pages to ink, and so much airtime to fill, that the
production machinery is primed to identify and develop cases to fill the void. If a natural candidate fails to emerge, the media attempts to artificially anoint one lurid crime after another until one finally
succeeds in capturing the public's imagination. Once they've found the one, perfect, yes, usually prurient crime – a crime that is almost always stultifyingly irrelevant beyond the confines of the community
where it occurred – all the mothballed legal analysts come out of hibernation, move to wherever the latest felony has occurred, and they begin to opine endlessly about something that is, at its core,
immaterial from a national news perspective. Untold amounts of airtime get filled on cable and on the network evening shows, and news producers across America have an apparently welcome, ready alternative to
producing and reporting real news. It's as though news executives everywhere have gotten together and decided that it's actually in someone's best interest to keep the public's collective attention on the Scotts and
Conners and Lacis and JonBenets of the world, and off the genocide in Sudan, or the healthcare crisis in America, or the national debt, or off the rapid escalation in global warming . . . or . . . or
Perhaps it's fitting that I conclude this little rant by disclosing that the original working title of MISSING PERSONS was LOCAL NEWS. In my mind, that's what most of these artificial
"high-profile" cases are, and should be – they should be of great concern to their local communities. Period.
Question: This is your thirteenth novel in this series. Did you ever imagine it would be this successful? Why do you think readers like these characters so much?
When I wrote the first words of the story that became PRIVILEGED INFORMATION back in 1989, I never conceived that I was embarking on a career that would carry me through thirteen (soon fourteen) books, spread over three different decades. I've said before that I entered into crime fiction blessedly na´ve about the affection that readers and publishers have for series characters. It never crossed my mind back then that I would be burdened, and blessed, for so long with this cadre of characters that I was creating. What do readers find so appealing about them? I'd love to know. If any readers would like to give me some insight, please let Jane know your thoughts. I'd like to hear them.
My intent, right from the first book, was to entertain. As a reader, I tire of stories about people who are unnaturally exceptional, or powerful, or prescient, so I decided to create characters that were as far from super heroes as I could imagine. With the exception of Alan Gregory, I wanted each character to be interesting and memorable, not because he or she was a distant cousin of Superman or Superwoman, but because they have believable traits that make them captivating to the reader. Alan, though, was developed to be a psychotherapist, and I wanted the reader to have an opportunity to experience him in much the same way that his patients experience him – from a bit of a distance. His personality isn't particularly powerful or forceful, and his thoughts and opinions are sometimes hard to discern. I've never described him physically in any great detail. We know very little about his background or his family of origin. All of that is intentional. Readers, nonetheless, have reacted powerfully over the years to my sketchy portrayal of him. Most reactions are positive, but some aren't. What's that about? The psychologist in me has some theories. I wish I knew, though. I wish I knew.
Missing Persons is available in the USA, Canada, the UK, and Ireland. It is also available as an AudioBook and an eBook.