Author Talk: August 23, 2013
New York Times bestselling author Stephen White draws upon over 15 years of clinical practice as a psychologist to create intriguing plots and complex, believable characters. In COMPOUND FRACTURES, the riveting conclusion to his Dr. Alan Gregory series, the Boulder psychologist is forced to acknowledge that the perils that may bring him to his knees are not the dangers he recognizes, nor are they orchestrated by the nemesis he has long feared. In this interview, White discusses what he will miss most about the series now that it’s drawing to a close with its 20th installment, as well as why leaving home --- metaphorically, of course --- can be a good thing, even for an old man. He also opens up about the similarities between himself and his protagonist, how closely based on his own life some of the early stories were, and what he plans to work on next.
Question: COMPOUND FRACTURES is your final book in the Alan Gregory series. Can you briefly describe it for us?
Stephen White: COMPOUND FRACTURES completes --- or almost completes; longtime readers know that I'm not inclined toward final curtains --- a closing narrative that began with the previous book, LINE OF FIRE. But readers of LINE OF FIRE also know that the seeds of the conflicts that define the thrust of the closing story go back much further in the series, at least all the way back to MISSING PERSONS. The underlying themes? They go all the way back to the first book, PRIVILEGED INFORMATION. The themes and the conflicts that are at the core of COMPOUND FRACTURES involve deeply personal issues for the (remaining) continuing characters: Trust, loyalty, love, change.
Did I mention trust and love? Trust and love. This novel is about trust and love.
And murder and funambulism.
Q: You've now written 20 books about a group of characters that must feel like family to you. What will you miss most about writing this series?
SW: I fear that I am about to sound like an old guy. Joni Mitchell (a singer/songwriter from my youth) often complained that her fans always wanted her to sing her old hits, not her new music. There is part of me that sympathizes with Joni's lament. But I see the other side of the legacy that comes from having old work out there, too. With familiarity comes a sense of identity, of belonging and of comfort. I'm sure some of my readers feel that embrace. And so do I. Like those readers, I will miss the comfort of the series in all its forms, whether it is the comfort of the world that I created (or in the case of Boulder, borrowed) or the comfort that comes with slipping easily into lives of familiar characters and their voices.
Will I miss it? Sure. Is that a bad thing? For me, no. Leaving home can be good, even for an old guy. Longing is not something to be avoided. Longing is part of life, too.
Q: You were a psychologist before becoming a writer. Has Alan been your alter ego all these years? Or at least, did he start out that way?
SW: As with many things in my life, a most consequential decision started as a matter of convenience. I didn't reach far from my experience with the first book, PRIVILEGED INFORMATION. How not far? About as far as I could spit. I created Alan Gregory with obvious similarities to myself --- male, clinical psychologist practicing in Boulder --- so that I wouldn't have to do any research to write his role. Please remember that when I started writing, Alan's "role" was a one-time appearance in an ill-defined "story" that I expected no one to read. In my head that story was possibly quite short, and most certainly not long. A series? Please. A 20-book series? Ha. Ten thousand pages? Come on.
As for me being a psychologist before being a writer? Once a psychologist, always a psychologist. A friend of mine insists that there are no "ex-Catholics or ex-lawyers." I will add psychotherapists to that list. I suspect that when a kind doctor or nurse whispers to me on my deathbed that the end is near, I will say, "Really? Tell me more about that."
Q: Readers are asking if you will keep writing. What are you plans after COMPOUND FRACTURES?
SW: I can't see myself not writing. I naturally move to the keyboard at the beginning of each and every day. Although I am not currently working on a novel, I have difficulty imagining that I won't write another one. At some point, perhaps soon, I assume I will feel compelled to write out one of the narratives that insist on bouncing around in my skull. I have five viable ideas --- I just recounted them; it is indeed five --- that feel as though they have sufficient juice that I could turn them into books. Two of the ideas might be better exploited as movies, but who knows? I believe that any of those five ideas could become the foundation for my next novel. Or, the foundation of my next novel could be something I haven't thought of yet. That happens a lot with me. I have lots of ideas. Too many. Most of them are crap. But the ones that stick, well, they tend to stick.
My current writing focus is on the development of two dramatic television concepts. I have been working on the pair of unrelated ideas for over a year. One of them is the single best narrative framework I have had in my career as a writer. The hook in the story still gives me chills, and I know what it is. I could easily write the idea as a novel, but my sense is that I can amplify its power if I am able to present it in a serial format. I hope to have the two ideas ready to pitch soon. Hey --- if anyone in the industry wishes to hear those pitches, or if any readers know someone in the business that might be interested, please let Jane know.
Q: Boulder is practically a character in your series. You've written beautifully about its charms and eccentricities. Would you like to write about it again or do you have new territory to cover?
SW: Just last week, I started a new list in Evernote. The list is an open-ended compilation of Boulder topics that I would include in the next Boulder book if I were writing the next Boulder book. There are three items on the list. One is "Coot Lake." I think the presence of that list in Evernote means that the answer to your question is a resounding "maybe." Will the hypothetical next Boulder book be another Alan Gregory book? Nope.
And nope, my fingers weren't crossed.
Q: Publishing has changed dramatically in the last 20 years that you've been writing. What is your take on the state of publishing today?
SW: I worry about it. I am grateful for my opportunities, especially knowing that I was fortunate and privileged to get to write most of my novels in what was probably a golden age for commercial fiction. The golden age? Time will tell. In the contemporary publishing landscape, copyrights are under assault. Digital piracy is ridiculously easy. Publishers and libraries have suddenly developed competing rather than complementary interests. Midlist writers are a particularly vulnerable part of an endangered species.
I take solace that time tends to be curative in markets, but I fear that the distortions in this one are causing casualties in the short term. The sad part is that none of us will ever know what we've missed or what we're missing --- the books that won't be written because a pre-published writer wasn't willing, or able, to dedicate the time to write a masterpiece (or a train wreck) without the promise of a reasonable path to recompense.
Q: Your 20 books will continue to reach new readers for years to come. That must feel pretty amazing to leave a legacy like that behind.
SW: I hope you're right, but I've never had that long view about my work. I don't exaggerate the importance of what I do. I'm a writer, and I'm a storyteller. I love the words. I love the stories. I love the characters who inhabit the stories. If a reader admires the words in one of my books, I think that's great. If one of my books entertains someone who seeks entertainment, I think that's great. If one of my books provides distraction to someone who needs distraction, I think that's great. If one of my books teaches a reader something she didn't know, or gets her to think about something she'd never considered, I think that's great.
But I also realize that contemporary fiction has the shelf-life of yogurt. I am very aware that no one goes back and checks last year's bestsellers lists. I suppose that because I've written a long series I have left behind a score of opportunities for new readers to chance upon an open doorway into my work. If any of my books finds its way onto a shelf in someone's home, or into a box in someone's attic, or becomes part of the pile at someone's garage sale, that could be the one book that causes a new reader to search out the rest of the series. I hope it turns out to be true. If it doesn't? It won't change my feelings of gratitude to the readers who have given me a chance to write these 20.
What a gift. Thank you.