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Author Talk: August 16, 2012

Bestselling author Stephen White has written the penultimate novel of his tremendously captivating Alan Gregory series, LINE OF FIRE. The esteemed psychologist has begun to settle into his new life in Boulder, leaving his personal drama behind him --- until a new and troubling patient shows up at his practice, who may serve as a catalyst to send his life spinning out of control.

In this interview, White talks about the privilege and importance of wrapping up a long-running series on his own terms; his inspiration for a new patient of Alan's, whose story is both fascinating and highly unusual; and his plans once he closes the book on this chapter of his writing life.

Question: LINE OF FIRE is the penultimate book in your long running Alan Gregory series. You plan on ending the series after this book, your 19th, and one more to follow it. Have you had an ending for the series planned in your mind since the beginning?

Stephen White: My history as a writer, such as it is, demonstrates that career planning is not one of my strengths. Initially? I didn't set out to write a novel at all. I set out to write myself a story so that I could learn how to use my first word processing program. Once the pile of pages I was working on got big enough that it was obvious that whatever I was doing was too long to be anything other than a novel, I had little faith that anyone but my closest friends would ever read the thing. After a long frustrating year spent trying, I did find a publisher. My biggest goal then was to try to figure out a way to turn that first book into an opportunity to write a second.

But the beginning of a crime fiction series? What? About a small town psychologist with rigid ethics and a firearm phobia? Please. What writer would choose that kind of premise as the basis for a long series?

One without a lot of vision. One like me. You can probably tell where I am going with this: Since I wasn't aware that I was writing a nascent series in those early years, coming up with a grand conclusion never crossed my mind.

In fact, I lacked any confidence that the Alan Gregory saga might prove to be enduring serial crime fiction until after the fourth or fifth book was published. And it was well after that point --- maybe six or seven additional books after that point --- that I began to have some certainty about the circumstances I would choose to be true for the characters after the series ended, if I were ever lucky enough to get a chance to write that ending.

I am choosing my words carefully so that I don't exaggerate what I was certain about. At no point did I know the narrative details --- the storyline or the character arcs --- that would lead to the conclusion of the series, but a time did arrive when I began to understand what I wanted the terrain to look and feel like for the major characters when they woke up the day after it all ended. What I began to know back then was the psychological atmosphere that I wanted to leave behind for the (surviving) characters after I wrote the last page of the last book of the series.

Now? I view the process of composing the ending with these last two books as a chance to get myself, the characters, the narrative --- and my readers --- to the dawn of that next day.

That's where it will all stop.

Q: How does it feel to get the opportunity to end the series under your own terms? Not many writers get that chance.

SW: Since April of 1990, good publishing fortune has placed me in the hands of exemplary publishing professionals. Whose hands? Al Silverman, Kate Miciak, and Brian Tart are some of the most influential. Take away any of the impact of those influential editors, and many other wonderful people in this business, from copyeditors and proofreaders to agents and booksellers, and I am not in this privileged position today.

Few writers ever get to publish a single book, let alone twenty. But I am currently writing my twentieth novel. It's absurd to me. Just crazy. Yet it happened. I dreamed the big dream. And I got to write a long series.

Okay, back to your question. You're right --- the reality is that few series writers are ever in a position to write an ending for their work. Most long series stop, they don't conclude. A thousand different things can impede any writer's well-intentioned plans to end a series. A paucity of readers will soon translate into lack of market interest. Once fewer people are reading, fewer are buying. Bad sales lead inexorably to publisher discontent. Once a publisher sees a lagging market for a series --- even a fine series --- the next book won't be published, and "the end" will not get written.

All along the way, every lengthy series is vulnerable to a surprising toxin that is rarely mentioned: writer disinterest. As crime fiction readers, we have all had the experience of reading a series that begins to weaken at some point. In some of those instances, it's fair to point fingers at the writer. 

And, of course, the biggest bugaboo that thwarts well-intentioned plans to end series is fate.

Much has to go right to bring a series to a planned conclusion. The writer must be willing and even determined to end the series when there is still gas in the tank, at a point when the series remains viable, even vibrant. The writer must be willing to write "The End" when many readers think the finale might be premature. The publishing house, too, must be willing to leave some chips on the table, all the time having faith that there is a cadre of readers out there who care enough about the series to make publishing that last book economically worthwhile for the house.

The evolution that is digital publishing will undoubtedly change the dynamics of how writers approach the end of a series, but for me, the stars aligned last year. With a supportive publisher, I grabbed the opportunity. I feel incredibly lucky to have the chance to wrap this up.

Q: How do you think most of your readers will feel about the choices you are making in the finale to the series? Do you think it's possible to please everyone and yourself?

SW: I try not to think about what readers would like for the end.

For twenty plus years, I have tried not to think about what readers would like me to write. Why? I believe, in my creative soul, that it's folly for me to try. It is not a target I am capable of hitting. Readers have stuck with me not because I write the stories they want me to write, but because they trust me to write about people who interest them, and stories that will engage them. At some level, I believe that we all read to be surprised, even if the surprise we get is merely a fresh way to see the familiar. I still get up each morning excited to sit down at the keyboard because I am as eager to be surprised by these characters as my readers are.

As readers see how I set up the end of the series in LINE OF FIRE, I expect that most will be intrigued, but that some not inconsequential number will be disappointed, even infuriated, at the choices I have made. I comfort myself somewhat with the knowledge that even if happily-ever-after was in my creative vocabulary --- it's not --- an uncomplicated sunny ending would also enrage as many readers as it would please.

Like it or not, at this point I'm the one driving this bus to its destination. Playing it safe as a writer has never felt interesting to me, so please hang on. Buses don't have seat belts.

Q: Michael McClelland is mentioned quite often in LINE OF FIRE. He was Alan's earliest nemesis, appearing in the very first book in the series, Privileged Information, and he has haunted Alan's life ever since.  Is his presence in this book a part of bringing the series around full circle?

SW: Michael is as much a symbol as a reality in Alan's life. He embodies the price Alan has paid for adhering to what he considers to be his core values. If this series has a compass, then true north has always pointed toward the issue of Alan's values, and the moral choices that underpin those values. The books that are most satisfying to me are the ones that pivot around a crucial moral dilemma that has no obvious good solution. I find I am most drawn to the stories that create high-risk, high-reward situations that beg the reader to ask What would I do? while leaving the reader unable to come up with an answer that feels completely satisfying. I've tried to make my characters' lives confront as many of those moments as possible.

LINE OF FIRE brings a new conundrum into sharp focus for Alan. He is faced with a choice --- a particularly intimate one with his spouse --- that he fears, reasonably, will leave unacceptable consequences regardless of what he decides. The moment after he reaches resolution he is confronted by the impact of similar crucial choices that have been made almost simultaneously by other characters. The result is a collision of forces, and of competing consequences, that come together like multiple waves collapsing at once from various points on the compass. Alan feels like his life is at the vortex. His ability to see what is going on around him, and has gone on around him, proves inadequate in critical ways.

The precipitant for many of Alan's moral dilemmas go back to the original decision he made in PRIVELEGED INFORMATION regarding Michael McClelland. Alan's decision back then seemed uncomplicated to him; he thought he was making a simple choice that was guided by, and in consort with, his professional ethics. As the series has progressed, and the metaphor that is Michael McClelland has refused to go away, Alan has been dealing --- in both direct and indirect ways --- with the echoes of that first seemingly uncomplicated decision to adhere to his values.

  LINE OF FIRE makes clear that the echoes are still loud and ferocious as the end draws near.

Q: The events that took place in your 15th novel, DRY ICE, are also the basis for a lot of trouble for Alan and Sam Purdy in this novel. Their friendship and loyalty to each other is featured prominently in LINE OF FIRE.  Why did you first decide to bring such opposite characters together as best friends?

SW: At the end of the first novel Alan and Sam were, at best, wary of each other. At the time I didn't anticipate that I would have an opportunity to develop their relationship beyond that wariness. The serendipity that allowed a sibling to that first book, PRIVATE PRACTICES, and then permitted the second book to evolve to become a series provided me with a chance to rethink many things about the raw material I had chosen for the first book, including the relationships of the protagonists.

Frankly, there was a period during those early years that I wondered if I had created the type of fictional environment that would allow a series to develop. I recognized almost immediately that keeping Sam, and his law enforcement world, in the mix was an imperative for me; I knew I needed a narrative device that would allow me to keep the "crime" in crime fiction. Detective Sam Purdy had to stick around, which meant that he and Alan had to find a way to coexist.

In many ways, the antagonistic beginning of their relationship has permitted me latitude in dealing with the occasional conflict that exists between them as the series, and their friendship, has aged. They see eye-to-eye on little in life, so the tension that develops between them has felt natural, but their extended history of sorting things out provides a sense of continuity for the relationship that carries it through tough times. I think at this stage they each expect their friendship to endure, but neither of them could predict what form it will take.

DRY ICE set the stage for the struggle to come. Alan confronts and reveals the formative secret of his youth, as he traded it in for the new, bleaker secret that he and Sam shared going forward. From that time on they are bound together despite any differences between them. The decisions they made in DRY ICE are the foundation for the challenges they face in LINE OF FIRE.

Q: You introduce a new patient for Alan in this book --- Amanda. Her story is fascinating and highly unusual, too. Who or what inspired her?

SW: The general inspiration for Amanda's story came from my years in clinical practice (though I am obviously not free to say anything more detailed about that inspiration.) The specific role she plays in LINE OF FIRE developed as I was writing, as did the importance of her personal backstory in understanding some of her more controversial adult choices. I was trying to write her character in a way that might cause readers to share some of Alan's discomfort. Amanda may be difficult for some readers to embrace, but because of her backstory she may also prove difficult to abhor. All of that is intentional.

The general theme in this book --- one of moral uncertainty and moral dilemma --- is not one that is limited to Alan Gregory and Sam Purdy. It also infects relatively minor characters like Amanda (and another new character, Ophelia) as well as long time series regulars like Diane and Raoul. Lauren's role, especially in regard to her personal moral positioning, could be the most nebulous of all.

I expect readers to have opinions about all of that, and about the creative decisions I made.

Q: Quite a lot happens in Line of Fireto the main series characters --- Alan, Lauren, Sam, Diane, and Raoul. Do you fear that spoilers will get out regarding this book?  Want to give any cautionary warnings here and now to your readers?

SW: You are right. A lot happens to the continuing characters --- mostly not good --- especially during the last hundred pages of LINE OF FIRE.

I do worry about spoilers. I went back and forth for quite a while about the pros and cons of trying to finish the series in a single book --- which would avoid some of the spoiler problems --- or whether to follow my inclination and to set up the conclusion in one story, LINE OF FIRE, and then finish it in the subsequent and final book. An obvious side-effect of choosing to use two books rather than one to end the series is that for the first time in my career I am creating intentional cliffhangers --- plot and character development points that will not be resolved in the current book.

Another significant downside is that I realize that what I'm doing will aggravate the risk of spoilers.

I hope reviewers --- formal and informal --- will find a way to say what they will about the story and the book without revealing details about some of the more eye-opening parts of the conclusion. And I hope that readers who discuss the book, in person or online, will allow other readers the same opportunity for surprise --- or disappointment --- that they enjoyed when they first read the book.

Q: Wild fires are often burning in the mountains and hills around Boulder in LINE OF FIRE, threatening everyone and bringing a sense of fear and panic. Realistically, this does happen in Colorado, more often than anyone would like, but is there any symbolism at play here, too?

  SW: With me? Of course. Alan and Sam have been playing with fire since the events of DRY ICE. (Interesting, at least to me, side note --- one of the working titles for DRY ICE was Kindling. At the end of the day not a great thriller title, but nonetheless a most descriptive moniker for the nature of the jeopardy that Alan and Sam were feeling during the story.) The wildfires in LINE OF FIRE roughly parallel a pair of actual fires that threatened Boulder and its nearby mountain communities during a devastating fire season in the late summer and early fall of 2010. My memories of what happened during that fire season, especially of the sense of community and individual jeopardy, and of the pervasive sense of lack of control, were all things I wanted to recreate as the backdrop to Line of Fire. (Interesting side note number two --- the original working title of LINE OF FIRE was Red Flag Warning.)

The end of the series will place a sharp focus on the events caused by the moral choices, past and present, of the various main characters. Just as wildfires often mock the best efforts of men, current events will threaten to overwhelm the consequences of the choices made by many of the characters I've been writing about for over two decades.

Symbolism? Yes, if I'm on my game, the symbolism will be everywhere you look.

Q: Will the final series book, your 20th, be out in 2013? Do you have a working title yet? Will it begin immediately after the events that take place in LINE OF FIRE?

SW: Barring unforeseen complications --- that constant bugaboo that is fate --- I expect the final book to be published in 2013. At this point I do not have a working title. In my computer, the file name is still twenty.doc.  At some point a working title will occur to me and I will rename the file. But so far that hasn't happened.

The final book will certainly overlap with LINE OF FIRE in terms of timeline, but I haven't decided whether it will be a chronological overlap, or not. Time is a storytelling variable with significant power, and I like to use it to maximum effect.

My suggestion to readers is to read the last hundred or so pages of LINE OF FIRE with care. If that doesn't prove possible --- the action is kind of inexorable --- go back and read the concluding pages a second time. Why? A lot is apparent in those pages, and a lot is in those pages that may not be readily apparent. (For those of you who might be reading those last hundred pages initially in a bound galley, the second reading should be of the finished pages. I made some changes during the final proofing that do matter.)

Q: Looking back on your career, do you have a favorite book in the series?

SW: I actually have four or five, depending on the day, and the quality of my memory. I choose to keep the list to myself mostly because I fear that books I look back on fondly will be interpreted as being the books I consider to be the best. I don't wish to go there; I don't pretend to be able to compose the list of which books are best. I will admit that a few of the consistent books on my personal list are the ones that place moral controversy in the clearest light.

Of the nineteen I've written so far, there is only one that given another chance I think there is a possibility I wouldn't write again. But even that supposition might change were I to go back and actually read it. It may surprise to learn that is something I have never done. From the moment, I returned my proof of the first (or second, or third) pass pages of any book to the publisher I have never gone back and read any one of my books from cover to cover. That means that each and every reader who has finished one of my books has read it more recently than I have.

Q: Do you recall where you were when you first found out that you would be published? How did you celebrate?

SW: God, yes. Monday, April 2, 1990. Just before nine in the morning. Eleven-ish Eastern. It was a gorgeous spring day. Clear skies. A little brisk.

Some context for that time? PRIVELEGED INFORMATION was written on an ms-dos computer with a black and white (okay, green and white) seven-inch screen. It took an entire working day to print one copy of the book on my state-of-the-art dot matrix printer. The Internet was only a gleam in Al Gore's eyes. Email? I didn't even know what it was.

Barnes and Noble didn't exist as a chain. Borders? It was a fine bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. One I had never heard of.

Books were sold by booksellers back then. If you had a good bookseller near where you lived, you considered yourself lucky. (Okay, that part hasn't changed.)

The moment that I found out I was going to be published? I was sitting at home in my basement writing "office" ---  it was a closet that had been transformed by turning a hollow core door horizontally into a desk --- busy packing up my things to go to my clinical office to see my first patient of the week. That first patient was scheduled at ten.

The phone rang. A kind, generous voice said, "My name is Al Silverman. I'm from Viking Penguin. And I would like to buy your book."

Did I say that it was April 2? It was. By then many friends knew that I had been trying for well over a year, unsuccessfully, to get an editor in New York City --- any editor in New York City --- to read my manuscript. My initial reaction to that morning's call was persistent suspicion that it was one of my friends playing a late April Fools prank. I asked Al Silverman to repeat what he said. He did. I slowly started to believe.

We spoke for a few minutes. Mr. Silverman asked me who my agent was. He wanted to talk contract. I apologized as I explained to him that I had been unable to get an agent. Mr. Silverman laughed. In a warm friendly manner that I would come to know so well over the years, he said, "Well, you'll be able to get one now." When we hung up, I realized that I had never asked him for his phone number.

I hung up not even knowing how to get back in touch with my new editor.

Celebration? It was a Monday. I probably saw 8-10 patients after getting the news, and would likely have had another ten scheduled for the next day. I recall that I had a crazy week trying to find an agent willing to negotiate the deal with Al Silverman. One very well known agent accused me of lying about Al Silverman's offer to buy the book. He thought I was just another unpublished writer who had come up with an inventive new ruse for getting an important agent --- him --- to read my manuscript.

We eventually had a big party the following summer after I returned the long galleys and it all felt real.
Q: Do you recall your very first book signing?

SW: The Printed Page on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder on a gorgeous summer Saturday afternoon in 1991. All my friends came. Much more remarkably, many strangers came. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. I think we sold over three hundred books. Later on that week, I had my first signing, of many, at Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek in Denver, where we sold a few hundred more. I made many of my friends come back a second time. Other than the fact that I had to give a speech, it felt like a party.

Looking back, it's probably the only time in the past twenty-one years in this business when I have allowed myself to believe that this publishing stuff was pretty easy. God, I was wrong about that. But it was a great week.

Q: Do you plan on continuing to write books after you end the Alan Gregory series?

SW: I plan to continue to write. Hell, that is not a strong enough statement of my intent. Barring fate's obstacles, I will continue to write.

What will I write? I honestly don't know. Over the years I have shelved some fine ideas for books that could never be shoehorned into the Boulder series. Three of them are historical. Two of the three historical novels are also crime fiction. One is, well, not.

I have two compelling ideas for contemporary crime fiction thrillers, one of which probably would have been the next book in the series (had I continued writing the series.) The reality is that neither story requires the Boulder characters or the Colorado setting. I may choose to write one as a stand alone. The other one? I am sincerely concerned that writing it would be reckless. It involves a crime that would be dreadfully easy to commit, but a crime that I am not aware anyone has yet committed. By writing that book, I would be telling a fine story, but I would also be creating a roadmap for criminals that could well create easy victims out of the vulnerable.

I've done some initial work on screenplays for KILL ME and THE SIEGE and for one of the three historicals. I may put some time into finishing those projects.

I also may end up doing something that I haven't yet imagined. That is the nature of my creativity --- the best stuff tends to come from ideas that just whack me upside the head.

Who knows, ten years from now I may even decide to write a story about an aging Boulder psychologist named Alan Gregory.

Oh wait? Can I do that? Did he actually survive that thing that happened in 2012?

Stay tuned.