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The White Stuff

When it comes to mind games, this psychologist plays with the best
By Michael Mehle
Denver Rocky Mountain News, January 16, 2000

Just how much trouble can a psychologist get into?

Stephen White didn't intend to answer that question when he invented Dr. Alan Gregory. The fictitious and mellow-mannered psychologist was supposed to hang around just long enough to help White tell a single thriller—-his first one at that.

But in the world of mysteries, successful books beget more books, and soon you have a series.  A protagonist originally penciled in for a cup of coffee settles in for the long haul—even if he's a psychologist who prefers long bike rides to fisticuffs, and a bottle of mineral water to a belt of scotch.

And that's Dr. Gregory, the Boulder-based shrink who anchors White's eighth book, "Cold Case" (Dutton, 368 pages, $24.95). Even White—himself a psychologist—-never thought he'd heap so much trouble on one doctor for so long.

"Go back with me 1O years, I was practicing psychology and trying to carve an hour and l5 minutes out of every day to write," White said. "I prayed that somebody might actually read it and dreamed that it might even be published. I didn't have a clue that I'd still be writing about (the characters) 10 years later. If somebody told me that I'd have to come up with so many more books with the same people, I would have said there was no way."

The Denver author found a way.  And he found a spot on "The New York Times" bestseller list in the process.

Using Boulder as the backdrop and spots all over Colorado as frequent stopping points, he has turned the Alan Gregory series into a national force in the whodunit field. His success has been big enough to allow him to leave his practice and concentrate completely on Gregory and his friends and foes.

But 10 years ago, his success story sounded like a far-fetched work of fiction.

White was breaking in a new computer set up in a closet of his basement, when he started pecking out his first book.  His hopes weren't that high. After all, his last stab at writing ended in college after two D's and an F persuaded him to drop the only creative writing course he took.

But this time he had a lot to work with, namely 15 years of clinical psychology.

White earned his doctorate from the University of Colorado in 1979 and quickly established himself as an authority working with divorced and separated men. Later, he shifted his attention to Children's Hospital and young patients with cancer.

That's when he met Jonathan Kellerman, another pediatric psychologist who specialized in cancer patients. Years later they became contemporaries of a different sort, this time sharing space on the Times' bestseller list.

"I remember sharing lunch with him and a bunch of other shrinks, and I mentioned to him that I was working to be a novelist," said Kellerman, who has written 14 psychological thrillers.

"When he first heard about it, he thought, 'What a crazy idea.' Then he later said he was inspired by it. I was tickled. I'm very happy about Stephen. There aren't many psychologists who have since made a living writing novels.  It's a small club."

White had additional motivation to join the select fraternity. Thirteen years ago he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It's a milder form of the disease but still enough to sap the energy he needed to practice psychology full time. Now his novels help to debunk the myths and mysteries of the disease: Lauren Crowder, an assistant district attorney married to Gregory also lives with MS.

"For health reasons, I needed something new. I was unable to maintain my practice. From that point, (writing) was certainly advantageous," White said.  "As for finding fresh energy, it was a different way to use the knowledge I'd accumulated over the years."

But after finishing his first book, "Privileged Information," he couldn't find an agent.  No agent usually means no publishing deal, but White kept pushing. A year later, a Viking editor read the script and bought the novel, the first time Viking had purchased an agentless book in more than a decade.

"The first publisher who read it bought it," White said. "But it took a year to get it in the door."

Now White has moved from the basement to a front room of the Belcaro home be shares with his wife, son and two dogs.  He writes a book a year, spending roughly six months writing and just as long editing. He has already put his characters through marriages, murders, sinister plots and dangerous tangles with Mormons, celebrities and ex-lovers.

"The one thing my publisher has warned me about is that I do always have to resolve what happens to dogs," he said. "I made the mistake in one of my earlier books of killing a dog.  I've learned over the years that you can create any manner of mayhem for human beings, but dogs are off limits."

He says he has no idea where his characters will be two books from now.

"I'm always grateful to get another idea; I'd be even more grateful to come up with enough ideas to call it a master plan," he said. "I know what the next book in the series is about, and to me that's a tremendous luxury."

In "Cold Case," the author finds fresh territory by tackling a crime committed years ago. The fun begins when Gregory and his wife are enlisted by Locard, an East Coast group of supersleuths called to crack unsolved homicides.

The case quickly gets messy, with a U.S. congressman, a county sheriff, a "Washington Post" reporter and a Tiger Woods-like golfer all tangled up in the murder of two Steamboat Springs teens in 1988. Gregory finds himself at the epicenter of the chaotic case as he tries to piece together a psychological profile of the two dead girls.

Like a lot of White's concepts, the idea of delving into old cases came from real-life events. The fictitious Locard is modeled after the Vidocq Society, an actual contingent of crime-fighters that meets in Philadelphia and reviews unsolved crimes. White read about one of the Vidocq cases, clipped out the article and let his imagination do the rest.

"The biggest challenge is coming up with fresh material.  That's why I was so grateful to learn about Vidocq," he said. "It was the perfect fiction spring board."

And White's primary job is to find new mayhem for Gregory, whose "expertise, it seems is getting into trouble," the author said.

He describes his protagonist as a man who's friendly but not exactly your friend, or "someone you know but that you don't know." He's a bit of a blank slate who's there to listen, not interrupt.

Those are great gifts for a psychologist but challenging characteristics for the hero of a mystery series. The author says it's been "both a burden and a blessing": He's happy not to have a super sleuth with impossible powers but worries that he's constantly testing readers with such a mellow, easygoing character.

Could White be describing himself, a quiet and mild-mannered psychologist who never seems to say more than he has to?

"I sure hope not," said his brother, Stanford University history professor Richard White. "In the family, Dr Gregory is not a big favorite. There's this sort of hippie, Boulder kind of attitude about him.  I don't mean to insult Stephen, and I know Alan has a lot of fans, but within the family he's not particularly well-liked.  Unlike Stephen, he's the kind of guy you'd expect to live in Boulder.  Stephen is a lot more edgy and complicated than Dr. Gregory. We like Lauren Crowder better."

Don't mistake Richard White's honesty for a sibling rivalry, although Richard has written many books himself, including the critically lauded "Ahanagram: A History of Stories," which chronicles the life of their mother.

Indeed, Richard likes to tell the story of how proud his mother was when Stephen had his first novel published.  Richard's son tried reminding her that Richard had already written some highly regarded academic books, but she was quick to point out Stephen's novels differed.

"My mother tried to tell him that this was a real book, the kind that people read," Richard said.

"But there's no rivalry.  We write such different types of books. I'm always thrilled by his success. And it wouldn't be much of a rivalry, would it?  The paperback run of one of his books sells more than all of my books put together."

And yet Stephen White says he didn't feel a sense of career security until after the success of his fourth book.  Now he's confident enough to contemplate a move away from the lucrative Dr. Gregory series, if even just for a book or two. 

He remembers how hard it was to find his first book deal, but he hardly looks back in horror.

"It was a lot of work finding a publisher," he said.  "But I've had a lot of jobs over the years—tending bar, waiting tables, a tour guide at Universal Studios—and this never felt like work.

"There are a lot of people I miss from my practice, but this has been a rewarding transition for me at a good time."


Line of Fire by Stephen White

Coming August 2012

The Last Lie (paperback) by Stephen White

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