Stephen White On The Best Revenge
Web Site Interview, January 2003
The Best Revenge finds Dr. Alan Gregory in the middle of a career slump. As he is analyzing his own life we are introduced to two of his new patients: FBI agent Kelda James, and Tom Clone, a man released from prison after 13 years on death row. This is a story about the intersecting lives of these characters, revenge, justice, ethics, and redemption. Here is what Stephen White had to say about his story…
Question: Is it fair to say that Dr. Alan Gregory is having a career crisis in The Best Revenge?
Even though I try not to lose touch with the fact that these stories I write are about imagined beings, within the realm of the fantasy I've created I attempt to mimic as much about the real world as possible. And in Alan Gregory's real world the poor guy has had a tough few years. Shoot-outs at his house, problems with the government, his family in jeopardy, a patient blown up outside his office, a missed diagnosis or two – it hasn't been an easy time for him either personally or professionally.
So, yes, it's fair to say that Dr. Gregory is having a career crisis. Acknowledging that crisis allows me to posture Alan slightly differently in The Best Revenge,
to change his sense of gravity, his level of confidence, and his perspective of the future. All of those alterations provide a freshness to his character in the story. I saw him differently as I was writing the
book, and I think that readers will see a previously unexplored side of him, too.
Q: In one sentence can you describe his patient Kelda James?
One sentence? If I was capable of writing one all-descriptive sentence, I think I might have to give up the ID that identifies me as a card-carrying novelist. How about a few sentences instead? Kelda is a tropical island. What the public sees is the part above the water – the hero, the stunningly beautiful woman, the selfless friend. It all looks tantalizing and serene. But her story is really about the volcano beneath the surface, and about the powerful forces that created what she is.
Kelda suffers from chronic pain in her legs that may or may not be psychological in origin. She is seeing Alan Gregory to help her understand her pain. Why did you choose to give her that weakness?
When I saddle characters with afflictions of any kind – physical, emotional, whatever – I don't see them as "weaknesses." To me, people are most interesting, most revealing, and most surprising
when they are under stress.
I've long been fascinated by the mysterious juncture where those things psychological meet those things physiological. I could have chosen any number of
alternative stressors for Kelda, but I was seduced by the idea of giving her something to struggle with – pain – that was invisible to others and mysterious even for her and her therapist.
When Kelda was a rookie FBI agent she rescued a kidnapped 6-year-old girl and shot and killed the kidnapper. Kelda's life as a "hero" works for and against her within the FBI. How did you do your research on the inner workings of the FBI?
I did it the old-fashioned way: I read books. I'm not a writer who typically builds stories on a framework of minute detail, so I do research not so much to acquire facts but rather to understand mood, mores, and milieu. In The Best Revenge I wanted to describe a contemporary FBI environment, and I wanted to be able to see it from the point of view of a young, female agent. Three books were particularly helpful in my efforts: Special Agent by Candice DeLong, Cold Zero by Christopher Whitcomb, and Hard Evidence by David Fisher. Anyone interested in the modern FBI will find them illuminating and entertaining reads.
Tom Clone is an interesting character. He gets released from death row after 13 years due to DNA testing—but most people still believe he is guilty. He begins to see Alan with the hope of coming to terms with his new life out of prison. But Alan isn't quite certain of Tom's innocence either. How would you describe Tom?
Tom is a house of mirrors. From every angle he appears differently. Sympathetic? Yes, sometimes. Unsympathetic? Absolutely, occasionally. Forensic science says he's innocent. What does character say? That's what Alan Gregory struggles with as the two men get to know each other. I hope that's what the reader will struggle with, too.
Q: In the acknowledgments in the back of The Best Revenge you reference an experience you had visiting death row as planting the seeds for this story. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
Regarding capital punishment, Colorado isn't easily confused with either Texas or Virginia. The last man to receive the death penalty in the State of Colorado was Gary Davis, who was killed by lethal injection in the summer of 1997. Davis had been convicted years before of a brutal rape and murder. In the early summer of 1997, weeks prior to Davis's execution, I was invited by a veteran Denver television news reporter named Paula Woodward to witness an interview that she was taping with Davis at the Colorado State Penitentiary. The entire experience was remarkable for me in myriad ways. I recall that during the long drive back to Denver after the interview I was convinced that there was the basis for a book somewhere in what I'd just witnessed.
As is true for almost every book I've written it turned out that the gestation period for the idea was quite protracted. Why was it true for this one? For many reasons I didn't want to tell just another death penalty story. The required prison setting felt too claustrophobic for me. The binary nature of the potential conclusion – either the convicted man is executed, or the phone rings with a call from the governor and he's spared – felt too predictable and too limiting.
Over the intervening years the numerous accounts of men being released from death rows across the county after DNA testing proved their innocence provided a different way of imagining the story and the pieces that became The Best Revenge started
coming together in my head. Little of my one and only visit to the Colorado State Penitentiary remains in the book, but I'm confident I never would have written it if Paula Woodward hadn't extended the invitation to
me six years ago.
Q: This book speaks to the concept of revenge versus legal justice. Why did you decide to focus on that in this book?
SW: Although my previous book, Warning Signs,
had it's genesis in the events that took place at Columbine High School, writing the book ultimately left me thinking about the nature of justice in America. I had lots of questions, and very few answers. It was
natural for me to continue to explore those questions in the next book, and The Best Revenge provided a perfect platform for that exploration.
I continue to have lots of questions, though, and very few answers.
Boulder Police Detective Sam Purdy and Alan Gregory are best friends but usually polar opposites when it comes to their political and philosophical views. In this book they get into some pretty interesting debates. Who are you personally more like?
My primary responsibility as a crime novelist is to write entertaining stories. I try to never lose sight of the reality that people buy books, borrow books, and read books like mine in order to be transported someplace new and interesting. Simply put, my job is to write interesting books with captivating characters.
That said, I'm pleased by the very fact that you ask the question. Why? The truth is that I'm not eager for the reader to know my personal points of view on this issue, nor am I eager to portray any particular point of view in the story as the correct one. Your question indicates I may have succeeded. Sam and Alan have an ongoing dialogue about a number of salient issues in the book. At times they both make valid points. If the reader comes away thinking further about the underlying issues in the story, terrific. If they don't, that's fine too.
My ultimate goal? I hope they enjoyed the ride.
Q: This is the eleventh book in the Alan Gregory series. What are your expectations for this series?
Each year there is a brief window of time – a period that usually coincides with one of these interviews – when I have two unpublished books completed. That is the case right now. The Best Revenge is in final form awaiting a February 4, 2003 publication. In addition, I've completed a draft of the next book, still untitled, that is tentatively scheduled for publication in 2004.
The 2004 book, which will be number twelve in the series, is a true series book that not only features Alan Gregory but also features Sam Purdy in a new, prominent way.
What comes after that? I wish I knew. I feel an ongoing sense of wonder (and an endless amount of gratitude) that I've been privileged to write a series that's already a dozen books long. I'm cognizant that very few writers get that opportunity in their careers. (Go ahead, name ten.) I'm also aware that if readers respond to The Best Revenge and the upcoming 2004 book with the same enthusiasm that they greeted The Program and Warning
Signs the odds are that I'm going to get a chance to do this again.
If that happens, rest assured, I have some ideas.
Meet The New Characters In The Best Revenge:
Who Is She: FBI Special Agent in the Denver, Colorado field office. Assigned to investigate white-collar crime. She
rescued a 6-year-old girl from a kidnapper as a rookie FBI agent. She shot and killed the kidnapper and gained hero status in Denver and in the FBI because of it. Suffers chronic pain in her legs. Source of her pain
is unknown. Patient of Alan Gregory
Who Is He: Released from the Colorado State Penitentiary after 13 years on death row because of DNA testing. Had been convicted of the murder of his
girlfriend. Was a fourth-year medical student at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center at the time of his conviction. Patient of Alan Gregory
Who Is He: Lead Park County
detective. Arrested Tom Clone for murder.
Who Is He: Park County detective. Arrested Tom Clone for murder.
Dr. Ira Winslett
Who Is He: Veterinarian. Kelda's
Who Is He: FBI Special Agent. Friend of Kelda's.