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Denver Psychologist-Novelist Uses Boulder as Fiction Scene

By Carol Kreck
Denver Post, April 16, 1997

No one is responsible for more Boulder murders than Stephen White. Thank goodness they are fictional. 

The Denver psychologist-turned-author and his protagonist, Boulder psychologist Alan Gregory, made their debut in the killer genre with "Privileged Information" in 1991.

Each succeeding effort and a trail of corpses has added to White's success and the size of his following.

Last month, he made the New York Times paperback best-seller list with "Harm's Way," and he's been signing his latest hardback, "Remote Control" (Dutton, $22.95), this week. At 7:30 tonight, he'll be at Borders Books & Music in Englewood, 9515 E. County Line Rd.

As a setting for fictional murder, Boulder is ideal, White said—"pristine. It's this gorgeous, intellectual, liberal fantasy world at the base of the Rockies."

But having the nation riveted by the real steeped-in-mystery Boulder death of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey "has been uncomfortable for me."

His latest book often reads as though it anticipated the Ramsey murder ("…there are going to be more sleazy reporters camping out in Boulder tomorrow than have congregated anywhere since O.J."), and many events in "Remote Control" take place in the Citizens National Bank Building, the real-life location of John Ramsey's firm, Access Graphics.

It's all coincidence, White said.  The book was written and sent to New York before the events of last Christmas, events that dog his book promotion, nonetheless.

"When I go on the road the first question I'm asked is, 'What do you know about JonBenet?' I live (in Colorado) so I should know something.

"Nobody wants it to be real. In a way, it makes it more difficult," said White. who has benefited from the generous advice of Boulder police, attorneys and the coroner's office.

White never has written about children and isn't inclined to do so, but he does have professional expertise on the subject.

A clinical psychologist, White maintained a practice (in Boulder while living in Denver and in Denver while living in Boulder), has taught at University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and worked at The Children's Hospital in pediatric oncology.

While at Children's, White served on the Child Protection Team with then-social worker Christine Jorgenson, who also resigned to become one of more than 40 Colorado-based novelists. All that time, neither mentioned to the other any latent aspirations to become mystery writers.

In 1980, White was one of a handful of psychologists nationwide working in pediatric oncology. Another was Jonathan Kellerman, then at Los Angeles Children's Hospital. "I invited myself out to visit him and spend a couple days. I learned a lot.

"When be told me he was cutting hack his hours to write a mystery novel, I remember thinking he was crazy. I didn't think about doing it myself for 10 years."

White got the idea for his first novel, "Privileged Information," when he was working on the Colorado Psychological Association's ethics committee. He was fascinated by the tension between confidentiality and public safety when a patient threatens to kill somebody.

"I began to puzzle with ideas (and) this story took root in my imagination.  I had a new word processor and in the basement of our house, there was a closet with a window." Every morning around 6 or 7, White descended to his "office" and, without having a clue how the book would end, wrote three pages before he saw his first patient. No one knew but his wife.

At the end of six months, he had a manuscript.

But selling his work turned out to be much more difficult than writing one. "It took me easily a year to get any attention in New York for the manuscript," he said.

He tried getting an agent, then basically relied on giving the manuscript to friends of friends. His brother, a historian, showed it to historian Patricia Limerick end her husband, Jeffrey, who liked it and who knew a junior editor at Viking. The junior editor liked it and gave it to a senior editor, and so on.

The book made a small splash in a big pond, White said, "It made the publisher money, enough that I got to do it again." The second tome did better than the first in hardback and "much, much better in paperback."

His third book was based on something that happened to his brother and sister-in-law in Utah; the fourth was inspired by his desire to write about a protagonist to whom something profound had happened. The fifth concerns his interest in the consequences of celebrity. The sixth, due out next year, relates to managed care: "It's terrible what's going on in health care," White said.

Though White and his family have moved from Boulder and he now has a real office on the first floor, his writing habits haven't changed. His goal still is three to five pages a day and he works every day until he's done, an hour or four hours if he's not productive. "Sometimes those three pages are really rotten and I throw them away the next day. In the afternoon, I rework stuff and make phone calls to New York."

He works without an outline or a concrete idea about how his plots will evolve. "My publisher likes a synopsis, but usually it bears little resemblance to the final product."

Being a writer is a great life, he says, and he never met a novelist who wanted to do anything else. All those years of listening to patients served him well. "You get a feeling for dialogue, cadence and tone."

As to White's own character, he's known around town as an inordinately nice guy and a mentor to aspiring writers. Though he's nationally known, he moves locally without a lot of fuss and autograph seekers. Not even his son, now a fifth-grader, is impressed. When a local bookstore owner asked the boy, then four, if he was proud of his father for writing a book, he looked around her store and said, "There are a lot of books."

 

Line of Fire by Stephen White

Coming August 2012

The Last Lie (paperback) by Stephen White

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