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Interview: March 3, 2006

March 3, 2006

Stephen White tackles a socially controversial topic in his latest book, KILL ME. In this interview with's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek), White reveals how a conversation with a terminally ill entrepreneur sparked his interest in the subject, and discusses how this particular novel differs in style and format from his previous work. He also explains how his writing career began and expresses what he hopes readers will take away from this title. We've read that a conversation that you had with Peter Barton (co-author of NOT FADE AWAY: A Short Life Well-Lived) sparked your idea for writing KILL ME. Could you share with our readers what you talked about with Peter?

Stephen White: I had agreed to talk with Peter at the request of mutual friends about some writing he had done, and about his dream that he could condense the dozens of essays into a published book in the few months he had left before he died of stomach cancer. I thought the actual role I'd been recruited for was to tell Peter what his old friends hoped not to have to tell him --- that his writing wasn't publishable, but was rather best preserved as a memoir for his children.

I was wrong on so many levels. Much of what Peter had written was magical. The short life he had lived was in many ways a chronicle of the dreams of an entire generation. If he got the right help I thought his work was not only publishable, but needed to be published. I connected Peter with a writer friend of mine, Larry Shames, and together they created NOT FADE AWAY: A Short Life Well-Lived (Harper Perennial, 2004), a lovely, lyrical, inspiring book as different from KILL ME as night is from day. I highly recommend it.

The specific inspiration for KILL ME came on an early spring morning sitting outside with Peter at his house. He was telling me about the sudden, tragic death of a man his mother was involved with long after Peter's own father had died. I wasn't too surprised by the theme of the story; death was very much on Peter's mind those days. The man had died under suspicious circumstances in the Crestones in Colorado's southern mountains in a freak accident that involved a risky wilderness activity. Ice climbing, rock climbing, hang gliding --- something. I don't remember the details. While Peter described the man's demise the psychologist in me thought I heard some wistfulness, maybe even some envy, in Peter's voice. By then he was enduring severe pain from his cancer; his world was getting smaller as his tumor grew larger. I asked him, "Do you ever think about it? On a good day, going up into the mountains, having an accident, going over a cliff? Ending it. Dying like your mother's friend did?"

Without hesitation, Peter acknowledged the fantasy. I don't recall what words he used. I do recall what he said next though. He said, "I could never do it. The kids would wonder." He was talking about his three children, and his absolute insistence that his death, like his life, be a model for them. Enough said.

I dropped the issue. Peter and I never spoke of it again. But driving home that day, I couldn't get our conversation out of my head. As novelists do, I began to ponder something: What if someone in Peter's peculiar circumstances could do it --- end his life --- in a way that his kids wouldn't wonder, that his family would never know? Peter was a wealthy man. What if it turned out that a person like Peter had the foresight to hire somebody to end his life under circumstances that would make his death appear completely accidental? What, I began to imagine in the days and weeks and months that followed, if there were a company that would agree, for a steep fee, to kill you should you ever become so sick or so disabled that you would choose not to continue living?

That is how KILL ME was born. The seed was an unanswered question left over from a short conversation with a dying man.

BRC: KILL ME can be viewed as a stand-alone instead of as a series title in your long-running Alan Gregory series. The most immediate difference is that Gregory, while still important to the story, is a subtle, third person presence. You have taken a similar approach before --- in HIGHER AUTHORITY, for example, or THE PROGRAM --- but never to this extent. What inspired you to write this installment from a different viewpoint? How did writing KILL ME differ from your suspense novels that have Alan taking a non-narrating role?

SW: I knew within hours of leaving Peter's house that day that I was contemplating a story that I could write as a stand-alone thriller. In fact, my initial instinct was to write the story that way. I knew the concept would require the creation of a major character, and the new character would need to be at the center of the book. But, as the writer of a thirteen-book series, the decision to break from the series and write a stand-alone novel is a complex one --- it is not only a question of writing and craft, but it is also a publishing decision.

As I began to conceptualize the story, I recognized two things that influenced my choice of directions. One was that I wanted the story to have the power of first-person narration. The second was that this was a story that I couldn't tell in any fashion that approached linear. That second awareness became crucial --- the simple reality was that the story I had in my head would lose its punch and its suspense if it were told chronologically. How did I handle the dilemma? So that the narrator wouldn't seem to be manipulating the reader, I knew that I was going to need to develop a secondary character to act as a sounding board for the storyteller/narrator, someone who could hear his captivating story as the narrator chose to tell it, but someone who would not interfere with the progression of the narrative. I considered friend. I considered priest.

I chose shrink, and decided to use the opportunity to explore a new way for longtime readers of the series to perceive Alan Gregory. The bonus? For readers who have never read any of the earlier series books, I think that KILL ME reads as a stand-alone thriller. Alan's history in the series is completely immaterial to this story. It's the best of both worlds.

BRC: Your protagonist and narrator in KILL ME is unnamed. Did you set out to make him anonymous? If so, why?

SW: Initially, it was a non-decision on my part. The first chapter I wrote in the manuscript that became KILL ME turned out to be the prologue in the finished book. It was, for me, an unusual opening chapter in that it is almost all prose --- the narrator's description of a few miles he spends heading west in his car on Interstate 70 into the Rocky Mountains. No natural space existed in the exposition for the narrator to identify himself by name, so I didn't bother. At the time I was writing that scene, I don't recall giving the issue of the man's name much thought.

But when I got to the next chapter --- when the narrator is meeting his therapist for the first time --- he acknowledges a conscious intent to disguise his identity from his doctor as much as possible. I realized then that I had a dilemma. I think I recognized the dilemma so clearly because of my experience five years before writing THE PROGRAM. In that book I had to deal with a writing conundrum I created by developing characters who appear in the book using various pseudonyms. The opportunities for reader confusion were constant and required frequent remedies and reminders on my part. At some point early on, I began to think that I could avoid a similar problem in KILL ME by leaving the protagonist/narrator nameless. At first, I wasn't sure it would be possible. But I quickly realized that from a writing perspective the man's anonymity was serving the story well.

BRC: The opening chapters of KILL ME were exciting as they dealt with somewhat risky, though common, activities --- driving, skiing, diving --- in which things go badly wrong. In particular, the driving sequence was beautifully choreographed. Did you build the book from this scene, or did it come to you after you had the basic idea for KILL ME in place?

SW: The concept came first --- everything was constructed on that skeleton. When I'm fortunate enough to get an idea as pregnant with possibility as the one I had after my conversation with Peter, I find that everything in the creative process accelerates. Within a day or two of coming up with the concept, I found myself looking around for methods that an organization like the Death Angels would use to kill its clients. Every time I read about an accidental death in the newspaper or saw one on TV, I allowed myself to ponder, "Was that really an accident? Could it have been staged?" The first incident that really stuck in my head became the driving scene on I-70. I also knew when I began to write that scene that the beginning of the drive and the end of the drive were going to be divided in the book by hundreds of pages.

It's possible that no one but other writers will find this interesting (and it will mean nothing until readers actually read the book) but the most amazing thing to me about the writing process of KILL ME is that I wrote it in the precise order that it exists in the finished book. Not a chapter was moved. Why is this interesting? (Although I allow for the possibility that it's actually not interesting at all) I find it amazing because of the dozens of temporal changes that exist in the narrative. In retrospect it would have been much easier to write it in linear chunks and then chop it up.

BRC: KILL ME deals primarily with a man who contracts with a secretive group --- which he dubs the "Death Angels" --- to end his life, should he experience an irreversible incident, such as an incurable disease or accident. Are the Death Angels real or fictitious?

SW: I made up the version in the book.

More than a few early readers have asked me how they could get in touch with an organization like the Death Angels. Although I doubt that a sophisticated organization like the one I describe could operate with sufficient secrecy for long, I do imagine that there are many informal compacts between friends and loved ones that are designed to allow for the same kind of outcome. Someone draws a line in the sand marking the illness and/or disability they might choose to tolerate. Someone else agrees to assist that person's death should his or her health decline beyond the specified point.

BRC: There is a short, but chilling telephone conversation that takes place between the narrator of KILL ME and Lizzie from the Death Angels approximately halfway through the book. Did you build KILL ME from this exchange, or did it come about within the natural flow of the book?

SW: Although I don't recommend it as a process, I've written all fourteen of my books without an outline and without a character roster. That means that Lizzie didn't exist in my mind in any form when I wrote the first page of KILL ME. And it means that the nature of the narrator's illness wasn't determined until the page that I describe it the first time. The scene that includes the phone call between the narrator and Lizzie developed naturally as the plot unfolded in my head.

But --- at a gut level, I knew early on that there would be a scene with those stakes, and with that power, at about that point in the narrative. The daily evolution of the characters and the plot details are part of the rejuvenating process of discovery that allows writing to remain fun for me after fifteen years.

BRC: Could you tell our readers a bit about your background and share what prompted you to make the (gradual) career change from practicing psychology to writing fiction?

SW: The truth is a little embarrassing. This is where I'm supposed to discuss my lifelong dream to become a writer and all the travails I suffered along the way. What actually happened? In 1989 I bought my first computer in order to help me manage my clinical psychology practice. It came with word processing software --- Write and Spell --- that I had no clue how to use. In order to teach myself the software I decided to write a story. About five months later the "story" became PRIVILEGED INFORMATION. It was the first intentional fiction I had written since I was nineteen years old.

I've often thought that "deciding" to support a family as a novelist would be about as practical as using Powerball as a retirement strategy. I continued practicing while I wrote the next two books. I closed my practice in the mid 1990's.

BRC: Much of KILL ME takes place in New York, where you spent part of your formative years. Do you plan to keep the locale of your novels primarily in Colorado, or will you be sending your stories and characters to more varied locales?

SW: Early in my writing career I focused most of my attention on the Rocky Mountain West. But over the last few books I've intentionally begun picking locales that offer a distinct contrast to Boulder. BLINDED has big chunks that take place in Laguna Beach, southern Georgia, and Indiana. MISSING PERSONS features urban Las Vegas. KILL ME uses New York City and New Haven. Contrast, like conflict, is rich ground. I imagine I'll continue to gravitate toward environments that provide a distinctive feel that can be contrasted to Colorado.

BRC: Was KILL ME "easier" to write than your other novels, or more difficult? Why?

SW: It almost wrote itself. The only other book that was as easy to write was THE PROGRAM. Why? I wish I knew. God, I wish I knew.

BRC: Right to die issues have always been controversial, as we all have seen in recent years. You finished KILL ME prior to the end of the Terri Schiavo case, when right-to-life issues were all over the news. Did your editor or publisher express any concerns about KILL ME's storyline?

SW: I expected resistance. The expectation was based on two primary factors --- the controversial subject matter, and the fact that the format of the book would stretch the series architecture to the limit. From a publishing perspective, I feared that the latter issue would be more problematic than the former. In fact, at the meeting with my editor, when I discussed the concept for KILL ME, I did something I had never done previously in my career --- I came to the meeting with an alternative proposal in my pocket.

I didn't need the alternative. My editor was enthusiastic from day one and I've received nothing but encouragement and support from Dutton.

BRC: What do you hope readers take with them after finishing KILL ME?

SW: Mostly? I hope they enjoy it. I try not to lose sight of the reality that my biggest responsibility is to provide a good read. If I'm able to take readers for an enjoyable ride --- compelling characters, good story --- I find most are more than willing to deal with some issues along the way.

In terms of the topic, I'd be pleased if it stirred discussion. The book is about concerns and fears that seem universal. Everyone I know has been part of a conversation --- after a friend or loved one has become seriously ill or suffered a terrible trauma, or begun feeling the ravages of dementia --- when someone, maybe us, says "If that ever happens to me, I wish someone would kill me." I hope the book precipitates introspection and conversation about what "quality" means in "quality of life" and about what constitutes a good death.

BRC: What are you working on now? Can readers expect anything different for Dr. Gregory in the future?

SW: I'm cognizant that the series is mature and I'm going to try to allow whatever books remain to reflect that. The manuscript I'm currently finishing will feel more familiar to series readers than KILL ME. The underlying structure of the 2007 book is similar to many, but not all, of the earlier series books. Alan Gregory narrates and many of the series regulars appear.

But the book is a major departure in another way --- for the first time in fifteen books I explore Alan's demons and the forces that have shaped him as a man and as a therapist. It's not all pretty. The title? Stay tuned.