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Now, THAT's Some Birthday Present

By Margaret Carlin, Rocky Mountain News, Sunday Magazine, July 7, 1991

The "big 4-0" has become the birthday—the birthday to survive, that is. But nobody need worry about a special gift for Stephen White.

White—born Aug. 20, 1951—is receiving a present he'll never forget. His first novel, "Privileged Information", a psychological thriller, has just been published by Viking (363 pages, $19.95).

White is a clinical psychologist who lives in Denver and works in Boulder. In his novel, he obviously enjoys poking a little gentle fun at the eclectic little city and its restaurants, upscale toys, health food, exercise fanatics (especially cyclists), boutiques, etc. Part of the action moves to Aspen, and White applies the same affectionate humor to that posh place.

"I am an observer," he says in his soft voice, "I like to watch and listen to people."

When it came to writing his first novel, White really listened to people, especially literary experts who advised: "Write about what you know."

White did just that. His protagonist is a clinical psychologist, but one facing a dangerous challenge. His life turns upside down when three women patients die and he is suspected of sexual misconduct. The psychologist receives information in confidence from a patient, and this "privileged information" becomes the crux of the story.

The plot is convoluted, the characters finely drawn, the inner recesses of an unbalanced mind explored and the action zooms along. But with all this murderous intrigue, White's book has a message. "It's about an ethical problem in the profession—one that's rarely discussed— therapists and other caregivers taking sexual advantage of their patients."

In addition, one of White's characters reflects what it's like to cope with multiple sclerosis. "Having the disease is like living with a time bomb; the symptoms come and go." White says. "These people have an additional emotional struggle trying to deal with the disease and the demands of work and friends and lovers."

Although he maintains a thriving part-time practice, White makes no secret of the fact that he is overjoyed at the prospect of life as a writer. "No matter what happens, writing this book has been a wonderful experience."

The desire to write has lurked in White's subconscious for more than 20 years. "I majored in creative writing at University of California at Irvine, but my marks were really low, so I switched to psychology."

Born in Long Island, N.Y., but brought up in the San Fernando Valley, White did undergraduate work in psychology at the University of California-Berkeley and received his graduate degrees from the University of Colorado-Boulder.

His wife, Rose, is an administrator at Spalding Rehabilitation Hospital, the couple has a son, 4-year-old Alexander, and the family dog is a sturdy bouvier des Flandres named Casey. "We wanted a good strong watch dog—we wanted to feel safe, but we didn't want him to knock things off the coffee table," White laughs, explaining that Bouvier tails are docked.

Casey is important, because she is the inspiration for one of "Privileged Information's" most lovable characters—the hero's pet dog, Cicero. "Some people say Cicero is my star," White says, "and I do use her to move the plot along."

White spent about seven months reworking "Privileged Information", but was "extremely naive" when it came to selling the book. "You know how it goes," he says, "I got an agent's name from a friend's mother's new husband's old childhood friend's son's wife. Anyway, I sent the manuscript off and got almost an instant rejection. Then it went through the mill for a year or so, lots of rejection." But eventually White met Boulder writer-historian Patricia Limerick, and her architect husband, Jeffrey Limerick. "They read the manuscript and made lots of great suggestions—Patty in red and Jeffrey in blue—which improved the book. Also, through them, I met my agent—Jean Naggar—and things began to move."

White says he'll never forget how he felt when the voice over the phone said, "Hello, I'm Al Silverman from Viking, and we want to buy your book."

"Just elation, at first, I just couldn't believe it."

"Privileged Information" is a Mysterious Book Club and Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and an auction for paperback rights will be held later this month. Floor price will be $35,000, very good for a first book.

Viking also has optioned White's novel-in-progress: "It will be a thriller set in Colorado, but it's too early to talk about it," White says.

In the meantime, White is signing books and meeting fans: July 23 at Tattered Cover in Denver; and in Boulder, July 27 at The Printed Page and Aug. 2 at Cover to Cover Book Store.

Being a psychologist, White is handling the challenge of fame, and isn't worrying about changing his hat size.

"It's been funny. As a psychologist, I work with one other person. As a writer, I work by myself. Now, as an author, I am meeting all kinds of people. Don't get me wrong — this book has been great fun: I wouldn't have missed this ride for anything, but I will be glad to get back to my nice, normal, private life."

 

Line of Fire by Stephen White

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