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Stephen White on The Program

Exclusive Web Site Interview, January 2001

Stephen White's novel, The Program, revolves around Kirsten Lord, a New Orleans District Attorney, who, while fleeing the vengeance of a convicted criminal, enters the Witness Protection Program in Boulder, Colorado. 

Jane Davis:  Stephen, much of The Program is told from the first person perspective of a very interesting new character, Kirsten Lord.  She has suffered an immense loss and is now in hiding virtually every day of her life.  Can you tell us a about her and what inspired her character?
Stephen White:The Program had an unusual genesis. The basic idea for the story grew out of a solitary fact that I learned about three years ago. That fact? The Witness Protection Program of the United States Marshals Service hires local mental health professionals to act as consultants. As soon as I learned that fact, I knew that I was going to write a story about Alan Gregory becoming a psychological consultant to the Witness Protection program.

As the idea developed, I made a decision to blend the Witness Protection story with another idea that I'd been considering for a while. The second idea originally had to do with Lauren: What would life be like for her (and her family) if a criminal she was prosecuting threatened her life in open court? Using Lauren as the primary protagonist wouldn't work for this story, so I began to develop the character of Kirsten Lord.

Kirsten's character, her background, her circumstances, and her narrative voice all developed as I wrote. She is as pure a creation as any character I've ever introduced.

JD:  Kirsten is trying to deal with the murder of her husband and the guilt associated with that, the death of her mother, the loss of her name, identity and freedom, and the constant worry and guilt about her daughter. She definitely needs some time with Dr. Alan Gregory!  And in this book we see Alan from her viewpoint.  Have you been wanting to do that for a while?
SW:  Yes, absolutely. For quite a while I've been intrigued by the possibility of presenting Alan through the eyes of one of his patients. This story not only permitted me to employ that perspective, it actually seemed to dictate it. Readers will get to see Alan doing his familiar work, but for the first time the internal dialogue the reader hears belongs to the patient, and not to the doctor.

JD: We really are brought deep into Kirsten's thoughts by the narrative in the book.  She has quite a few interesting habits like constantly sucking on lollipops and using a metaphor of a pod of whales to describe her memories—belugas are good, killer whales not so good. How did you come up with some of these 'quirks' for her?
SW: I decided early on that the story required the intimacy of a first person narrative so that the reader could empathize in the most immediate fashion with the terror that Kirsten and her daughter were facing. The use of the whale metaphor was my way of highlighting the turbulence she felt as memories surfaced and receded. The whole lollipop thing?—I spent a long afternoon in the departure lounge at LAX watching a woman about Kirsten's age chain-suck DumDums. I thought it was an interesting affectation, so I stuck Kirsten with it.

JD:  In The Program you switch back and forth from Kirsten's life of panic and fears to Alan and Lauren's excitement and joy as they prepare for the birth of their first child. Two very different stories.  Was that difficult?
SW:  Difficult? Not really. The contrast between the darkness and turmoil of Kirsten's existence and the hopefulness and serenity of Alan and Lauren's is offered as intentional counterpoint. Two families, two different circumstances. It was actually refreshing for me to get to write about Alan's family as they enjoyed a period of relative calm. The nature of the series usually requires some degree of instability under Alan's roof.

JD:  Alan also takes on another patient who's in the Witness Security Program—Carl Luppo—who is unlike any patient Alan has ever had before. Tell us about Carl?
SW:  Carl Luppo is probably the most unusual patient to ever enter Alan's office. He, like Kirsten, is in the Witness Protection Program. Unlike Kirsten, however, he is a convicted felon, a "retired" enforcer for organized crime. After he goes out of his way to meet her, he decides to befriend Kirsten, and appoints himself to a role in her life that ultimately proves to both comfort and trouble her.

JD:  When Kirsten meets Carl she is initially horrified to meet a hit man just like the one who killed her husband.  But then she actually attempts to learn from him so she can be better prepared.  He explains a lot about life as a hit man, or a gorilla, as he calls it.  How did you learn about that kind of experience?  You also describe in detail the experience of people hidden in the Witness Security Program.  How did you get so much information about the program?
SW:  I've been considering how to answer this question for over a year. The story I wanted to tell in The Program confronted me with two topics about which I was initially ignorant. In order to tell the story I had in my head, I first needed to learn hard-to-discover details about the internal working of the Witness Protection Program, especially from the point of view of one of the protected witnesses. And second, I needed to learn what life might be like for a lifelong criminal trying to find his own version of redemption while living in the program. For reasons that are probably obvious these questions proved difficult to research. There is little easily accessible information about the Witness Protection Program and there is precious little information in the public record about what life in the program might be like for someone in circumstances like Carl Luppo's or Kirsten Lord's.

Readers of The Program will get an accurate portrait of the basic functioning of WITSEC—the Witness Security Program (the official name of the Witness Protection Program) and will get intimate insights into the experience of someone struggling the way Carl and Kirsten are struggling.

How did I learn what I learned? The most honest answer I can give is that I was fortunate enough to meet some people who were in a position to teach me what I needed to know. By necessity, they will remain nameless.

JD:  Do you think you will bring back any of these characters in future books?
SW:  I don't develop stories from the characters out. I develop the basic situation or dilemma that will drive the plot and then I populate it with appropriate people. I have no reluctance to either Carl or Kirsten returning in a future book, but all I can promise at the moment is that they will not return in book ten.

JD:  I understand that there is some interest in Hollywood in making this book into a movie.  What is happening with that?
SW:  There continues to be a lot of interest in The Program from various film producers. I received one offer, which I declined. I remain hopeful that something will develop.

JD:  What is your next book going to be about?
SW: I've completed a draft of the book that will be published after The Program.  It has a working title, which I will announce on the web site as soon as my publisher concurs with my wisdom. The 2002 book is a series book told primarily from Alan Gregory's point of view.

 

The Program (USA)

Dell Paperback, ISBN: 0440237262

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