Skip to main content

Interview: January 31, 2003

January 31, 2003 

Bestselling novelist Tami Hoag, author of DARK HORSE chats with Stephen White about his writing habits, characters and use of contemporary events in this special interview for's yearlong Suspense/Thriller feature. White, whose books include THE BEST REVENGE and WARNING SIGNS, is's February featured suspense author.

Tami Hoag: The dreaded question: how do you do that voodoo you do? Meaning, what techniques keep you at the keyboard making the pages fly? Where do you work? How did you establish your routine, or lack of routine, and what is the most welcome interruption --- the one that actually makes you feel like you can conquer that pesky plot problem?

Stephen White: It's funny, but I don't dread the question as much as some writers do. Years ago, when I was a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Colorado in Boulder struggling with my doctoral thesis, my dissertation advisor sagely told me that the most important thing a writer does each day is put his butt in the chair. My current writing technique largely involves following his advice. I'm in my office --- I've co-opted our rarely used living room for the space --- by seven-thirty every morning. When I'm actively writing a new book I write six, sometimes seven days a week, not taking my butt out of said chair each day until I've written at least three manuscript pages.

"Pesky plot problems," I've discovered over the years, tend to be soluble in very hot water. Fortunately for me a long shower usually provides a solution to almost any narrative dilemma. In those rare instances that a shower fails to inspire, however, I've found that a good massage will certainly take care of things --- or at least permit me to forget what I was worried about in the first place.

Tami Hoag: You've written many novels in which your main characters --- Alan Gregory, his DA wife Lauren Crowder, and of course Sam Purdy --- return to work together, or in parallel, to solve crimes. What challenges do returning characters pose? How do you keep the complicated, and life --- like, relationships clear in your mind -- and have you found yourself to be surprised with the strains, turns, changes among these characters? Do you ever tire of them? What happens then?

Stephen White: This is certainly the type of question that writers ask writers.

Unlike some --- maybe even most --- writers of successful series fiction, I didn't set out to write a series. If I was lucky, I thought, my first novel, PRIVILEGED INFORMATION, would have a sibling. It turned out that I was lucky and that imagined sibling became my second book, PRIVATE PRACTICES. That was as far in advance as my crystal ball could see in those days. Now, twelve books later (I'm including next year's release, which is already in manuscript form) I'm living with a cadre of characters and an inventory of situations that I initially created for short-term use only. Does that create dilemmas? Sure it does. Certainly, poor Alan Gregory has been in enough harrowing situations over the last decade to cause a lesser soul to crack and one of the issues I try to deal with over time is the cumulative effect of his travails on his psyche. But the biggest challenge of having long-term continuing characters is the challenge of keeping them fresh. I confront the issue by allowing --- insisting might be a more apt word --- that each of the main characters show development and growth over time. The nature of that development often does surprise me, and although I'm not quite psychotic enough to believe that these characters are beyond my control, it does often feel as though I'm half a step behind them rather than half a step ahead.

Tami Hoag: Each of your novels seems to take a moral question and dramatize it without ever trivializing it. Are you consciously exploring issues of justice versus our judicial system, or bureaucratic corruption versus personal evil, etc.? How does this work for you?

>Stephen White: Depending on the individual, the act of reading a book like one of yours or one of mine takes a typical reader a limited number of hours spread, usually, over a matter of days or weeks. Writers know, of course, that the act of creation of each book was actually more akin to a marathon that included --- perhaps --- years of pondering and many, many months of writing and rewriting. Painfully aware that writing a book is a major commitment of time and energy, I try to choose topics that are interesting enough and multi-faceted enough to carry me along for the duration of the journey. I find that writing about fractious issues works well. Why? From controversy comes point of view, from point of view comes conflict, and for me conflict is the lifeblood of narrative fiction.

My underlying assumption is that if a topic has enough moral texture to captivate me for the many months it takes to write it, it's also likely that it has enough intrinsic interest to keep my readers captivated until the last page is turned. The reason that the books are topical, sometimes even controversial, is that I find the most meat on those bones, and that meat sustains my interest and my passion as I write.

Still, the most important single criterion I use in choosing a topic is a simple one: Will it make an entertaining story? No matter what else I consider, I consider that first, and I consider it last.

Tami Hoag: Your novels address contemporary events such as Columbine as well as the rule of patient/therapist confidentiality as I extends to criminal justice; does your professional experience as a psychologist continue to inspire your writing?

Stephen White: THE BEST REVENGE had its true genesis in the summer of 1997 when I was invited by a Denver television news reporter to accompany her while she did a Death Row interview with a convicted murderer just prior to his execution at the Colorado State Penitentiary. The episode moved me in many, many ways and on the long drive back to Denver I felt a surety that a core idea for a book was hidden somewhere in what I'd just experienced. It took a few years for the concept to coalesce into a story idea and along the way a number of contemporary social and political issues inserted themselves into the mix, including the profound impact that DNA identification has had on the confidence we feel in the convictions of those serving on our country's death rows, the ongoing political and personal arguments about justice and reprisal for capital crimes, and even the social and international aspects of the US response to the events of September 11.

Although in many ways clinical psychology is a world that I feel I left behind in the mid 1990s, I remained convinced that I wouldn't have the career I have as a writer were it not for the perspectives and experiences I gained during my almost twenty years studying, researching, and practicing. At this stage of my writing life I'm not sure that psychology provides inspiration for me as much as it provides context. Any facility I'm fortunate enough to possess with motivation, character development, or dialogue has been sharpened by my knowledge of psychology and enriched by my experience as a clinical psychologist.