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Interview: February 7, 2003

February 7, 2003

In this interview with's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub, and Wiley Saichek), Stephen White discusses his characters and writing habits, and gives readers a teaser about his next novel.

BRC: Unlike many series, your Alan Gregory novels show the viewpoint of many characters, not just the first person point-of-view of your main character. Why did you choose this way of storytelling?

Stephen White: Ignorance can be a wonderful thing. When I started writing novels, I was naïve about the attachment that readers, and publishers, have for series fiction and series characters. When I began to develop story ideas that didn't focus on my primary continuing protagonist (such as in HIGHER AUTHORITY or THE PROGRAM) I didn't hesitate to alter the point-of-view and/or narrative voice to fit the story. Fortunately for me, throughout my career I've had editorial support and guidance that has allowed me to explore different ways of approaching series crime fiction.

BRC: In your acknowledgments for THE BEST REVENGE, you write that you were invited to witness an interview with Death Row inmate Gary Davis in 1997, and that helped create the idea for this book. Did you accept the interview invitation as a novelist or a psychologist? Were you working on another book that was put aside for THE BEST REVENGE? If so does that happen often: ideas for other books popping up that may make you want to set aside a book you're working on? If you don't put aside a current project, do you work on more than one book at a time?

Stephen White: I was invited to the interview as a psychologist and a crime writer. If I were only one or the other, I'm not sure the opportunity would have come my way.

The gestation for the idea that started on that trip to the Colorado State Penitentiary was almost four years in duration, so I wasn't forced to set aside anything else to work on it. In fact, I don't think I've ever set aside a book-in-progress during my entire writing career. I may be editing one while I'm writing another, but I write only one at a time.

BRC: In your acknowledgments for THE BEST REVENGE, you cite a number of books about the FBI that gave you background on the Kelda character. How, besides reading, do you conduct research for your books? On an average, how many law officials and legal experts do you speak with while writing/preparing a book?

Stephen White: Each book requires a unique amount of preparation. For example, HIGHER AUTHORITY took a year of constant research --- reading, traveling, interviewing, while another early book, PRIVATE PRACTICES, took very little research. Typically I can cover the crime aspects of each story with background reading and one or two consultations with experts in each field I'm writing about.

BRC: Has there ever been a character in one of your novels that people clamored to see again, but you just didn't want to bring back? If so, which character?

Stephen White: Carl Luppo from THE PROGRAM is --- by far --- the single character that I'm most requested to reprise. I actually have no reluctance to do so, but because of his unique life circumstances it's not going to be easy to find a story that permits him a graceful encore.

BRC: Do you have a character that is your favorite to write? Does writing that character come easier over time?

Stephen White: Favorite? Not really. The easiest character I've ever written was Kirsten Lord/Peyton Francis in THE PROGRAM. While I was writing the book her voice was so distinct in my head that there were times when I felt that I was channeling her. But --- so far --- she hasn't reappeared in any other books.

BRC: Do you keep notes on the details of your characters so you don't accidentally misstate something? Have you ever made a mistake and gotten away with it?

Stephen White: Here's a secret: I actually unintentionally changed a character's name from an early book to a later one. So far I haven't been called on it. But I don't expect to get away with it forever. And no, I'm not going to say which character.

I wish I'd had the foresight to keep character notes, but I didn't. I usually rely on an imperfect memory to try to keep things straight, though I recently asked the three thousand or so readers on my website mailing list to help me with a character-history question for the 2004 book. The response was wonderful, and it's nice to know that the help is out there when I need it.

BRC: Dorsey Hamm was an intriguing character in WARNING SIGNS. Did you meet "real-life" equivalents to Dorsey and her canines in your research for the book?

Stephen White: I love dogs and greatly admire those who train them, but Dorsey was a whole-cloth creation. 

BRC: We all appreciated the Photo Gallery on your website thinking it was incredibly clever to show readers these real-life places in your books. What inspired you to do that?

Stephen White: I can't take credit for it. I have an incredible webmistress named Jane Davis who runs my website for me. Virtually all of the creative flourishes on the site are generated by her. She tells me what to go out and take pictures of, and I go out and take the pictures. If people enjoy the site, and I hope they do, the credit should all go to Jane.

BRC: Have you ever thought about writing a book outside the series? If not, what keeps you from doing this?

Stephen White: Sure, I think about it. I'm aware of the fine writers whose careers have taken a great leap after they branched out into stand-alone fiction. I think that the flexibility that I've been able to build into my series (within the series I've written books from various first person points-of-view; I've written books in the third person; and I've written books that combine multiple points-of-view) has insulated me somewhat from the kind of ennui that sometimes propels writers to take a break from an existing series. I do think that once the series has run its course I will enjoy the opportunity to explore a couple of ideas that I've been playing with for a few years.

BRC: You have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. What would you consider to be the most important advancement in the field in the past 15 years?

Stephen White: Advancement? Easy: psychotropic medication. Detriment? Just as easy: managed care.

BRC: What are you working on now?

Stephen White: I've done a book a year for a while, which means that I'm expected to have one done when one hits the stores. The 2004 book --- still untitled --- is mostly finished with the editing process. What's it about? Marriage and serial murder. It is, no surprise, a series book. Alan Gregory narrates about half the book. The other half? For the first time I've written a story from Sam Purdy's point-of-view. I hope readers have as much fun with Sam's perspective as I did while I was writing.