Author Talk: August 20, 2010
Psychologist turned author Stephen White brings the protagonist of his bestselling Alan Gregory series back to center stage in his latest novel, THE LAST LIE, which finds his main character probing into the assault of a woman under his own roof. In this interview, White discusses some of the recent media events that inspired the plot of the book, and explains why he chose to risk altering the relationship between his main characters in such a long-running series. He also describes how he recharges his creative batteries, and reflects on what may be in store for Alan and company in future installments.
Question: Last year's book, THE SIEGE, featured Boulder Detective Sam Purdy and the primary location was the Yale campus in Connecticut. THE LAST LIE is set back in Boulder and most of the series regulars are present, with Alan and Lauren front and center. Do you feel rejuvenated to write about Boulder and these series characters after you've taken a break from them?
Stephen White: It may sound odd, but I think any author rejuvenation that is apparent may come from the characters being away from me for a while. During the time period (I'm referring, of course, to the alternative reality time period in which the characters exist) that Sam was busy in Florida and New Haven during THE SIEGE, and in the time after, the Boulder characters' lives had a chance to go on without the burden of my examination. Wounds, both literal and psychological, healed and/or festered in the absence of my omniscience. No member of the ensemble has been obligated to deal with the myriad complications and challenges that I tend to throw their way when I am focusing my narrative attention on the Peoples' Republic.
For me? I find that every opportunity I get to reach for new crayons from the box stimulates my creative energy. The challenge I feel when I make a decision to return to Boulder, and to the familiar ensemble, is to make certain --- even, yes, damn certain --- that I'm selecting new crayons from the box. I live with a quiet terror that after so many years on the Front Range I will begin to paint a scene for the second time, and forget that I've painted it before. So, I try to allow each return to Spanish Hills and Downtown Boulder to serve as a reminder to me that I have an obligation not to fall into the trap of either rewriting a previous story or revisiting characters stuck in too-familiar places in their lives. Although the familiar might be the easiest path, and in fact may be the most comfortable track for both writer and longtime reader, it is not a particularly interesting narrative choice.
Question: Acquaintance rape, a celebrity's reputation, and "lawyer wizards" are part of the plot of THE LAST LIE. (I believe Sam Purdy coined the phrase, lawyer wizards, in this book!) How did the 2003 Kobe Bryant sexual assault case in Eagle, Colorado inspire this story?
SW: What is THE LAST LIE about? I will get asked that question a thousand times (okay, maybe a couple of hundred) in the next few months. My answer will probably be that the book is about acquaintance rape. I might add that it's also about the nature of celebrity. And if I'm feeling particularly expansive, I may throw in a tantalizing reference to Sam Purdy's "lawyer wizards."
Why acquaintance rape?
While I was writing the manuscript of this book, the media --- mainstream and otherwise --- went through periods of prolonged fascination with director Roman Polanski and the crime he committed on a young girl decades ago, and with quarterback Ben Rothlisberger and what assaults he did commit, or did not commit, on two different young women in more recent months. But despite the media's attempt to distract me, the focus for my inspiration remained in the past, specifically on the strange aftermath of an alleged rape that took place in the summer of 2003 at Cordillera resort in Colorado. The alleged assault that occurred then was nothing special --- a basketball star was accused of raping a hotel employee he had just met. As a crime --- if a crime it was --- the interaction was most pedestrian, certainly not the kind of thing that would draw my attention as a novelist.
So why have I written a book about it? My motivation for writing THE LAST LIE goes back not so much to the days in the summer of 2003 when Kobe Bryant was accused of, and arrested for, that alleged sexual assault, but to a different day that occurred over a year later, shortly after the criminal case had been dismissed on the eve of trial. On that day a peculiar event took place: the alleged rape victim's personal attorney read a brief statement of quasi-apology on behalf of Mr. Kobe Bryant.
I think it is important to read the previous sentence carefully, even slowly. The alleged rape victim's personal attorney read Mr. Bryant's almost-apology. Not his attorney. Her attorney.
Her attorney read his quasi-apology. Huh.
Why? I wondered. Why didn't Mr. Bryant read the statement himself? If that wasn't possible for some reason (no, I couldn't think of the reason; believe me I tried) why didn't Mr. Bryant's attorneys --- he had two great ones, lawyer wizards both --- read his almost-apology?
We never really found out the answer to those questions. The media, as is its wont, moved on to something else. But unlike most people, I kept wondering. It turns out that the difficulty I have had digesting the surreal conclusion of that one hypermodern morality play motivated much of the story behind THE LAST LIE. The statement the accuser's attorney read was such a bizarre document, and in my mind said such profound things about the state of criminal justice in the United States, that I've been determined ever since to find a way to write about it. For almost seven years, in fact, I've been stuck on those unusual circumstances, and on the even more unusual words that the opposing attorney spoke in Mr. Bryant's stead, looking for a way to integrate all the peculiarity into a book.
And, as it turns out, Sam Purdy has been as perplexed as I've been about it, too. How goofy is that? You'll find the answer, or some more questions, in THE LAST LIE.
Q: Alan and Lauren have gone through major turmoil in their marriage in the last few books. THE LAST LIE touches on most of their issues and has them making some major decisions about their life together and their family. Does it feel risky to you as a writer of a longtime series to alter major relationships within the series?
SW: Actually, it would feel risky not to alter the dynamics. One of the enduring conclusions of my many years as a psychotherapist was the assurance that the daily details of the lives of the people whose existence falls under the fattest part of the bell curve --- that is where most of us hang most of the time --- are opaque to observers. With exceptions for some individuals, and exceptions for unusual circumstances --- those exceptions exist in the territory where the bell curve flattens out --- we know little about the day-to-day interior lives of people in our orbits, certainly less than we think we know. The same is true, I think, for the marriages of our friends and acquaintances. Those relationships, too, are mostly opaque. We collect a smidgeon of data. We make guesses. We make assumptions. And largely, we assume the mundane, because the mundane is what exists in the fat part of the bell curve.
With a long series like this one I have the luxury of being free to shake away the assumption of the mundane, to highlight the fault lines that naturally exist in character, to put relationships and marriages under extreme magnification, and to allow the strengths, and more importantly, the weaknesses, of the familiar players to collide to create conflict and dynamism and change. And, hopefully, something other than the mundane.
I see the chance to mess with Lauren and Alan as opportunity, never as risk.
[SPOILER FOR DRY ICE]
Q: Adrienne's absence is truly felt throughout this book, especially in connection with her son, Jonas. Her sudden and unexpected death in DRY ICE shocked most readers. It seems like the main characters are really grieving for her in this book. Do you think reading THE LAST LIE will also give readers the chance to grieve for this beloved character?
SW: At times, lives get cheap in crime fiction. Bodies pile up. Death counts soar. In certain books there is little narrative reflection about the meaning of it all, little time for anything more than a quick nod to loss, and often not even a momentary genuflection to true grief. Through Jonas, and to a lesser extent, Alan, I can permit Adrienne's death to be the kind of real life tragedy that changes lives. Her son's life. Her friends' lives. For years, and forever.
I suspect that the experience of loss, of extended grief, and of unremitting longing will resonate for any readers who have suffered similar experiences. Those readers, I expect, will be the ones who will be the ones most likely to perceive some emotional advantage through their identification with Jonas's struggles in THE LAST LIE.
Q: Jonas is a child who has experienced way too much loss in his young life. He is very troubled and THE LAST LIE focuses on Alan's efforts to help guide Jonas through the many changes in his life. It is a very interesting and emotional father/son storyline. Is this relationship another avenue for you to showcase Alan's skills and stretch him as a character?
SW: In my mind --- even if in no one else's --- these books I write are novels. Yes, they are genre fiction. Yes, they are crime fiction. Yes, they are commercial fiction. But they are novels. The novels I love to read are those that clearly acknowledge serving two masters: story and character. The novels that are most likely to disappoint me are the ones that tithe only to one or the other.
The emphases I place on relationships in the stories --- in this book one prime featured relationship is the one between father and son --- are an attempt to pay heed to the character master. In this book, as in previous ones, it's not so much a desire to stretch Alan as a character, but a desire to make him that much more real on the page. The more alive I can make him on the page, the more integral I can make him to the narrative. And the closer I have come to writing a better novel.
Q: Part of the plot of THE LAST LIE is the supervisory role that Alan has with a young therapist named Hella Zoet. Can you briefly explain the role of supervision in psychotherapy?
SW: Supervision --- such a benign name for such a powerful professional relationship --- is one of the enduring secrets (dirty little secrets?) of the mental health professions (psychology, psychiatry, and clinical social work.) Regardless of medium, there are few mentions, let alone explorations, of the supervisory relationship in contemporary fiction. Not many patients outside of training settings ever become aware that their one-on-one work with a therapist has an unseen, highly influential participant, lurking in the background.
That person is known as the supervisor.
I'm not sure I can describe the relationship between supervisor and psychotherapist better than I do in THE LAST LIE:
My guide on the perilous journey to becoming a functioning psychotherapist was my "supervisor," a well-practiced clinician who would educate, guide, inform, instruct, confront, critique, cajole, explore, and do whatever else he or she determined was necessary in order to help me develop the knowledge, the skills, the maturity, the self-awareness, and the sensitivity necessary to be an effective therapist.
In this story, Alan's role as a supervisor provided me a literary device that widened the scope of his personal experience so that he could be in a position of knowledge to narrate the story. After completing THE LAST LIE readers will be able to imagine how little of the story Alan could have told from his personal perspective had he not had a supervisory relationship with Hella Zoet. Inherent restrictions in first person narration often require writers to use creative avenues to render otherwise untellable stories tellable. In this book, supervision provided Alan --- and me --- that narrative perspective. Without it? I think I would have had to write this story in the third person, absent Alan's familiar narration.
Q: When THE LAST LIE ends many changes are afoot for Alan's family and his practice, changes that will impact future books. Do these changes just reflect the normal ebb and flow of life or are you shaking things up for another reason?
SW: Shaking things up for a reason would imply that I have a plan, which --- fortunately or unfortunately --- isn't the case. I don't project a future story arc for the series, or for any of the characters [i.e. Alan may indeed enter the priesthood in book 22, but I'm not aware of it yet.] At times, I admit I feel concern that some of the narrative choices I make in one book will necessarily tie my hands in inopportune ways in future stories. But narrowed circumstances are part of the ebb and flow of life, real and fictional, and as far as THE LAST LIE is concerned, I have no choice but to accept the corners that I have just painted myself into.
What comes next? We'll all find out together.
© Copyright 2010, Stephen White. All rights reserved.
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