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Interview: March 23, 2007

March 23, 2007

Stephen White is the author of the bestselling Alan Gregory series, which includes BLINDED, MISSING PERSONS, KILL ME and the newly released DRY ICE.

In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, White discusses some of the recurring themes of his book that relate to his past career in psychology, and explains how his "naivete and ignorance" in fiction writing has worked to his advantage. He also credits another popular author for inspiring him to create his unlikely protagonist and explores the possibility of bringing back ensemble characters for future installments of the series. DRY ICE is your 15th novel. It takes the Alan Gregory series full circle by bringing back Michael McClelland --- arguably Gregory's most dangerous adversary from your first novel, PRIVILEGED INFORMATION. Had you always planned on bringing McClelland back at some point, or is his return the product of more recent inspiration?

Stephen White: My intent was to examine Alan Gregory's arc --- in terms of maturity, demeanor, values and character --- between the time that I originally introduced him in PRIVILEGED INFORMATION and the fictional present. I decided to revisit Michael McClelland after an image (which became the scene that begins on page 252) got stuck in my head. Reintroducing him provided an excellent vehicle for reexamining Alan, but I think I could have accomplished much the same thing even if I had decided to create a fresh antagonist for DRY ICE.

BRC: Your last book, KILL ME, relegated Gregory to a minor presence even as he ultimately played an important role in the events that occurred. In contrast, Gregory is present throughout the entirety of DRY ICE. We also learn much more about him, not the least of which is that he has developed what appears to be a serious drinking problem. The prevalence of substance abuse is the dirty little secret of the professional classes, not only with doctors but also with attorneys and accountants, among others. Was this a reason that you decided to write this into the plot?

SW: I've been aware of many details of Alan Gregory's backstory for years, his personal biography acting as a kind of writer's compass for me in terms of understanding his motivations. Until I was contemplating the DRY ICE story, I'd never seriously considered revealing any of Alan's history.

Alan's drinking --- like his difficulty sleeping and his emotional withdrawal --- is part of a vocabulary I employed to emphasize the stress he is feeling during the events in this narrative, and to highlight the apparent breakdown of his usual coping skills. I wanted to paint him into a corner emotionally as well as practically, and the drinking helped me describe a pattern of (failed) adaptation that I thought would feel familiar to most readers. I wasn't trying to make any larger statement.

BRC: DRY ICE could just as easily have been titled "Secrets." We learn, after these many years, that Gregory has a secret that has shaped and influenced his life, and that he is not the only long-running character in the series who is carrying some major baggage. Lauren, for instance, also has a significant secret that is revealed near the end of DRY ICE. Without giving too much away, do you have any plans for Lauren's secret to affect a future Gregory novel?

SW: Some of the interpersonal issues that explode in the last few chapters of DRY ICE are very much part of what the ensemble characters are struggling with in the subsequent story that I'm writing now. I intentionally wrote the conflicts that develop in DRY ICE so that they would be large to ignore from the point of view of character development. I wanted, as a writer, to be left with little sense of the status quo with any of the continuing characters as the novel came to a conclusion. I suspect readers will feel much the same way. At the end of this book, the stage is set in a way that maximizes my degrees of freedom going forward.

BRC: A recurring theme in your work is the complications that occur as the result of professional confidentiality related to disclosures between patients and psychologists, and how the rules that govern such disclosures --- which are well-intended and, indeed, necessary --- often aggravate the very problems that they are designed to resolve. You've obviously given this, and related ethical issues, a great deal of study and thought. If you had the power to change any aspect of the ethical standards for clinical psychologists, what would you change? And why?

SW: The issue once fascinated me professionally, but no longer. The issues associated with confidentiality and privilege that make their way into the recent books are merely part of the professional landscape for me --- I write about them because they are there. Ignoring them would impose an unreality on the process.

I'm actually an advocate for strict ethical standards for therapists. Over my years in practice, and having served on disciplinary and ethical review boards, I can think of almost no instance where a high ethical bar caused a patient to be mistreated, but could recite a litany of instances when lax ethical behavior injured patients.

BRC: You have kept the Gregory series fresh over the course of the past 15 years by making each book different from its predecessors, changing focus occasionally and making dramatic, not to mention traumatic, changes in Gregory's life. In some ways, the Gregory books could be considered a series of stand-alone novels with recurring characters. Notwithstanding that, do you have any plans for one or more stand-alone works, with entirely different characters who have nothing to do with the people and events presented in the Gregory books?

SW: Your appraisal is interesting. I've not heard the series described that way before. It may be apt.

I didn't set out to write a series, so I didn't enter into writing fiction with a plan about the development of something as unwieldy as a series. I certainly didn't conceptualize the cadre of continuing characters with the idea that they would be in this for the long haul. I think, in retrospect, that my naivete and ignorance about crime series fiction have served me well. Since I had no preconceived notions about solitary/multiple protagonists, enduring heroes, plot structure, book architecture, story sequencing, or long-term character arcs, I felt few inhibitions about changing things around from one book to the next. That was true right from the beginning of the series: HIGHER AUTHORITY was a major departure from the first two books.

I've also been blessed along the way with a series of editors who have supported and encouraged the course variations whenever I charted them. Brian Tart, my current editor at Dutton, could have reacted to my proposal for KILL ME with skepticism (or outright rejection). Some editors and publishers undoubtedly would have. Instead, he embraced the change of pace enthusiastically, and helped me polish the concept and enhance the execution. Similarly, he immediately saw what I was trying to accomplish as I decided to shake up the ensemble in DRY ICE. Take away the editorial trust and guidance I've received from some great editors over the years, and the series may have taken a much more predictable path.

Do I have plans for a pure stand-alone novel? I have ideas --- at least three concepts are far enough along in my head that I could begin researching them tomorrow. But as of now, I have no plans. The series has been good to me, the flexibility I've been granted to write it has never felt constraining to me, and I don't feel at all handcuffed by continuing to write it.

BRC: There is a sudden, and unexpected, tragedy that occurs near the end of DRY ICE that portends significant changes for the series. How far ahead have you plotted the Alan Gregory series? Do you foresee a definitive end for the series, or do you plan to write the books as long as people want to read them?

SW: I plot as I write. I have no idea what will happen to any character arc, or to the progression of the backstory of the ensemble, as I go forward.

Series do end. Few ever get as long as this one. That acknowledged, I have no interest in hastening the end of this series or bringing it to an arbitrary conclusion. Will I have a chance when the time comes to end the series on my terms? It would be nice, but I'm not sure I will get the opportunity.

BRC: How much of Stephen White is in Alan Gregory?

SW: Beyond the obvious, not too much. And probably less now than there was early on. I do think there is a piece of me in almost every character I write, good and bad.

BRC: While you no longer engage in practice as a full-time psychologist, your books, including DRY ICE, indicate that you appear to continue to keep current concerning research on topics related to clinical psychology. Can you talk about this reading and research? Do you ever toy with practicing again?

SW: Psychology fascinates me. It's why I started in the field and it's why I continue to write about it. I'm not a dedicated student of developments in psychology these days, but when I choose topics to include in the books, I will reexamine the current literature so I don't sound like too much of an idiot.

BRC: Compare and contrast, if you would, the benefits and drawbacks for you between practicing psychology and writing.

SW: Apples and oranges. I can't imagine having my current career had I not had my former one. Now? My commute is shorter, the dress code is more flexible, and I tend to shower after I'm done with my day's work.

Both careers have provided significant rewards for me. I'm grateful I don't have to go back and choose between them.

BRC: Your older brother Richard is also a writer of some renown. What was there in your childhood, and your nurturing, that you feel may have brought out the creative side of you and your brother? And do either of you ever engage in pre-publication critiquing of the other's work?

SW: Richard and I both write. The similarities end there. Without any false modesty, I accept my position as the second best writer in my family.

Two things might be responsible for one family developing two writers: books and education. Our house was full of books. Although neither of us was encouraged to become writers while growing up, the written word was revered in our house. Education, too, was a given. I think it's fair to say that without our respective educations (Richard is a historian at Stanford), our career paths would look much different than they do.

Richard doesn't read much fiction --- by trade and demeanor, he's biased toward facts --- so my work has never been at the top of his reading list. I do occasionally get a chance to give his work an early look, but I don't critique unless he asks me for it.

BRC: Other than your brother, have there been any writers who have influenced your written work?

SW: Anyone I've ever read has influenced me, but otherwise it's a hard line to draw. Jonathan Kellerman is the horse I rode in on --- had Jon not written WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS I'm not sure I ever would have had the idea for a psychologist protagonist. I try to learn something from every book I read, every story I see on film, every conversation I have.

BRC: I have to ask. Sam Purdy is one of my favorite supporting characters in any series. Will we be seeing any future novels in the Alan Gregory series that will feature Purdy as a predominant character?

SW: Sam obviously has a major role in DRY ICE, and he seems to be adopting a similar profile in the manuscript I'm currently writing. I enjoyed writing in his voice in BLINDED, and I don't rule out doing so again. He is a facile bridge for linking Alan Gregory to active law enforcement, so I don't foresee him fading into the background anytime soon.