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Stephen White, Just Telling Himself a Story

By Lynn Kaczmarek
Mystery News, February/March 1999

Every morning, at least five or six times a week, Stephen White follows Dr. Bloom's advice—he puts his butt in his chair and he writes. Dr. Bloom was White's doctoral dissertation chair and he taught by example. So, often by 7:00 a.m., Stephen White is at the computer figuring out how to paint his characters into a corner and then how to get them out again. As White explains it, "I just sit down and I often have no idea what my first sentence is going to be. I just ask myself what are these people doing today? And I get to tell myself a story..."

The published story Stephen White most recently told himself is "Manner of Death", his seventh psychological thriller featuring a cast of characters led by clinical psychologist Alan Gregory. Receiving a starred review from "Publishers Weekly", "Manner of Death" puts the Boulder psychologist on a serial killer's hit list, and a former lover, Dr. Sawyer Sackett, on his doorstep. After the death of Arnie Dresser, an old friend from his psychology residency days, Alan is approached by two ex-FBI agents who inform him that someone is trying to kill him. In fact, they think someone has killed a number of his old friends, Arnie Dresser included. Someone has been checking off the names on a list and Alan and his ex-lover Sawyer are the only names remaining. Chances are that the identity of the killer is hidden in a time fifteen years earlier when Sawyer, Alan, and the other victims were training on an inpatient psychiatric unit at the University of Colorado. Alan and Sawyer decide to go back to that time in search of answers; a time when their careers were just beginning; a time when legendary hijacker D.B. Cooper was carefully avoiding the FBI.

I asked White what made him decide to do all this to poor Alan. "Well, Alan's actually gotten off easy for the last few books, so it was his turn. ...one of the things that I wanted to do was to put some simultaneous great internal and external pressure on him where he was vulnerable psychologically and physically for almost an entire book. And by bringing his old lover back, that provided me the internal vulnerability and the risk to his marriage and to his values and all of that. And obviously, being on a known killer's hit list provides plenty of external vulnerability. "

Being a child of the sixties, the now silent antiestablishment part of me was snickering with glee at the reemergence of the D.B. Cooper legend. For those of you who weren't around or don't remember, it was Thanksgiving weekend 1971, on a Northwest flight from Portland to Seattle; when a young D.B. Cooper hijacked the flight, demanded a ransom of $200,000 and two parachutes. Both were provided and he jumped from the plane over a heavily wooded countryside and disappeared forever. Despite FBI efforts, no body and no money were ever found. Theories have always been mixed as to whether D.B. Cooper died in his fall or lived in isolation with his money. At that time in the 70s, D.B. Cooper was seen by many as a kind of Robin Hood who took from the rich. In "Manner of Death" this legend is revisited since one of the patients Alan saw on that fateful psychiatric unit regularly offered up the real identity of D.B. Cooper in exchange for freedom.

White says that the inclusion of the D.B. Cooper legend was a natural. "As a writer I have this sort of catalog of things that have interested me. And as I'm writing a book I sort of look through the catalog and say does any of this fit in the story! The D.B. Cooper part just seemed to fit very naturally because I needed this secretive guy to be part of the antagonist's past. ... I always wondered what happened to the guy and I thought as a novelist, this is ripe—the guy is not too old. Nobody else has found him, why can't I? I read a lot and looked at a lot of theories and tried to come up with some motivation as to why this guy did what he did and why he would disappear if indeed he didn't die...It was a lot of fun just to create this character from this tiny scrap of evidence he left behind. "

Stephen White always starts his books with a character dilemma and it's not always Alan Gregory's dilemma. In "Critical Conditions", it's Alan's friend Detective Sam Purdy who is painted into the corner. And in "Remote Control" and "Higher Authority" it's Alan's wife, DA Lauren Crowder, who's on the hot seat. The change in perspectives in not just to entertain the reader. "It's something I do for myself and if I'm telling the story right, the point of view should be relatively invisible to the reader.  It really helps me to turn everything over and look at the story from a different perspective. ...I have an ensemble of characters and I can focus on them and really make Alan's role as narrator much more prominent than his role as protagonist. And it really helps keep me fresh. I focus on somebody else and let this guy spend a book in the background telling a story."

"Remote Control" was a troubling book for me. The focus is on Lauren Crowder who, in the midst of an active episode of her multiple sclerosis, finds herself in jail, removed from the steroids that she knows are needed to minimize the blindness overcoming her, and afraid to ask for help for fear her disease will be seen as a weakness. I have a friend with MS and these scenes are alarmingly real. But then Stephen White knows from experience. "I actually have MS...it's not a disease that's solely about disabled people in wheelchairs. Mostly it's about people struggling to find a way to live a meaningful life despite having an illness and that's what I try and allow Lauren the character to carry in the story.. And people can attend to it if they want to in the story, but I don't try to slap them in the face with it either." I wondered, since White was living with MS on an everyday basis, if making one of his characters deal with it was difficult. "No, not any more than it is to deal with it in daily living. The nice part of it in the book is I can make her healthy whenever I want.  I can make her sick whenever I want.  I don't have that control in regular life."

White says there are bits and pieces of himself in all of his characters, but the one people suspect is most like White is Alan Gregory. "People who know me and have read the books can see some similarities, but are also quick to point out the differences. Neither of us is a model of mental health, but his neuroses are different than mine. As a psychologist he gets the benefit of all my years of experience. He also gets the benefit of the fact that I can think about his lines for days if I want, where in real life I never got that opportunity with my patients. And the choices he makes are things that I would never do. That's the beauty of fiction."

Although a clinical psychologist with a private practice for about 15 years (he and Jonathan Kellerman met while doing pediatric psychology during the late 70s and 80s), White cut back his practice when he was diagnosed with MS. And because he had some time on his hands, he decided to write a book about "...a psychologist's responsibility if they learn about a pending murder. So it was an obvious crime book that I was writing, but I was beyond naive about the genre—-the murder in the story doesn't take place until halfway through the book." He wrote the entire manuscript in secrecy and without an agent got the book in the back door at Viking and to the man who edited six of his books. "...he was the first editor who read it and he bought it."  The last unagented book that Viking bought before White's was "Ordinary People" and White suspects there have been none since. Five or six years ago White closed his practice and began writing full time. And he has an interesting theory about why so many people like crime fiction. "...we provide context. There are terrible things every day in the news, terrible things every day in people's lives, and so much of it is never resolved in any satisfactory way and one of the things we can do as crime writers is provide context for the unimaginable."

In the midst of his psychological thrillers, Stephen White plants seeds. As he says, you can attend to them or not depending on whether or not they interest you. He exposes Utah Mormonism in "Higher Authority". "I knew nothing about anything that's in that book when I started. I was totally ignorant...I spent about a year reading and really felt almost academic the way I tried to approach the book. The story just became more and more compelling the farther I got into it." I asked about people's reaction to what I referred to as the "skewering" of the Mormons. "It's funny, when you talk to people East of the Mississippi where Utah Mormonism is not very well known, the most common comment is something along the lines of 'Why are you so mean to them?' When I talk to people who have grown up in Utah, especially gentiles, the most common comment is 'Why do you let them off the hook?' The point of view is very interesting and I actually felt while I was writing the book that I was taking the middle ground. I left out a bunch of the most controversial stuff I discovered primarily because it's inflammatory and wasn't going to move the story forward and was going to be distracting."

The other planted seeds include the issue of personal privacy in the computer age in "Remote Control", managed care in "Critical Conditions", the mental health industry in "Manner of Death" and oh, so many others. The one thing they all have in common is the fact that they are current themes, seemingly picked from the front pages of newspapers. In light of White's home in Denver, Colorado, I asked if he had plans for a book based on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. "It's the sort of book you couldn't have written in the absence of her murder because it's not a believable story, and I'm not sure that I could get enough distance as a writer or psychologically from an actual murder. This is much safer fictionally than it is nonfictionally... There is a context I can't create. "

White has just finished his eighth book and although slightly reluctant, he did hint that Alan would be "doing some work investigating an old murder of a couple of teenaged girls. It happened ten years previous." Any plans for a non-series book?  "I'm actually well into plotting a non-series book, but I've already made a decision that I'm going to write that on my own time without interrupting the schedule of the series...In the beginning I had no intention of writing a series. And I had no understanding at all about the attachment and affection that readers and publishers have for series fiction. And understanding that now, I think I've made an implied promise in a way to readers to carry on with the series so I'll do that. But in the meantime, I'm going to take a few months here and there to work on the other book in such a way that I don't interfere with the publication pace of the series."

Like many other authors I've interviewed, Stephen White is disciplined. His goal each day is three pages. "It is very, very rare that I don't meet the goal. You write three pages a day and you get a book in six months. If you exceed it, you can write a book pretty quickly. I really find that the discipline of  putting my ass in the chair and working every day is essential to keeping voice, keeping the flow of the story active... I'm not talking about writing three useable pages a day.  I write three pages whether or not I'm writing well. Hopefully I'm smart enough when I review it to throw away what I need to throw away."

The mark of a good writer, I respond and then he says 'I'll tell you a funny story that you'll never be able to put in your newsletter." Oh yea?

"Early in my career at a Bouchercon I was with a writer, who is no longer a mystery writer, named Steve Shemerhorn—he used to write under the name Jake Tanner.  And Steve was drunker than I was and he was talking about this wonderful stuff that he had to leave out of his latest book. I was telling him about the stuff that I had cut out and he asked where I kept it. I said 'I have this file area in my computer where once I've deleted the stuff I move it all there. It's all the stuff that some day I'm sure is gonna end up in some book.' He had an idea that he wanted to go around to all the mystery writers at Bouchercon and have them submit the best stuff that they'd ever cut out of one of their books and put it in an anthology and call it Shit We Writ."

Hmmmmm and what was Steve Shemerhorn's phone number?And now is an appropriate time for me to share with you the part of this interview that doesn't fit anywhere. If I were a really good writer, I'd have the sense to cut it out because it really doesn't move the article along. It's just that it's so damned funny...

Prior to an interview with an author I almost always check a number of references for background information. Surprisingly Stephen White doesn't appear in many. But one of them mentioned that he was also the author of the Barney children's books. Child psychologist, children's book author, made sense to me.

"The entry in there about me is totally false. I can tell you a great story about the Barney books, though. I went to a book signing for my third book at one of the big chain bookstores. It was a terrible February night and the roads were all icy and I walked into this store and there was nobody in the store but the manager and me. And he was this scrawny kid 21 or 22 years old and he was really nervous. I had been around the block a few times and I thought he was nervous because the weather was awful and, it was a chain bookstore and there probably wasn't going to be much of a crowd. So I tried to put him at ease and it didn't work. Finally he showed me to the middle of the bookstore where there was a table set up and there were two piles of books. One was my recent book and the other was this pile of Barney books. I thought OK, a joint signing with a children's author on a Tuesday night at 7:00 wouldn't make a whole lot of sense. So I finally reached down and opened one of the Barney books and recognized that they were authored by me. You know, same spelling of the name, Stephen White—all these Barney books. And then I realized that this guy had probably been sent a fax from New York that Stephen White was coming in for a signing and he looked it up in Books in Print and set up the table—he had not a clue which chair I was going to sit in! He was so nervous because he did not know who was going to show up. And so, at the end of the signing, I signed all the Barney books."

The place where Stephen White doesn't  write all those Barney books is a 12' x 12' room. "It's got a couple of big windows that overlook my driveway. It's lined on two walls with bookcases that are full of books. And right in the middle of the room, in one corner, is a big U-shaped desk. So I'm surrounded on two sides by desk and at the end of the U is my keyboard and monitor."  Substantially better than the office where he wrote his first book—a converted closet in the basement. When he's writing, White's reading is focused on research, but in between books, like now, he indulges in some fiction.  I asked what he was reading. "I just read a wonderful galley, if you've got it sitting around, a first novel called "Easy Money" [by Jenny Siler). I was on the Best First committee last year for the Edgars and read an awful lot of first novels and regretted reading most of them. But this is a very unusual voice and a dark story that's quite well told.  I was sort of captivated by it."

And me, I was totally captivated by Stephen White, an author of great insight with a penchant for telling a thrilling story whether it's about Barney or not.

 

Line of Fire by Stephen White

Coming August 2012

The Last Lie (paperback) by Stephen White

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