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Interview: March 7, 2008

March 7, 2008

Stephen White --- the author of such novels as DRY ICE, KILL ME, MISSING PERSONS and BLINDED --- recently published DEAD TIME, his 16th book in the bestselling Alan Gregory series.

In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, White discusses the evolving relationships between the series' protagonist and various recurring characters and explains the process by which he chooses the particular narrative style of each installment. He also describes his unconventional method (or lack thereof) of planning story arcs, expresses his surprise over the unexpected success of his books despite his two-decade career and ponders the ultimate end of Alan Gregory. A great deal of DEAD TIME concerns a visit to the Grand Canyon that ended in the mysterious disappearance of a young woman. Much of your description of the Grand Canyon and its environs appears to be from firsthand knowledge. Given the (relative) proximity that you live to the area, do you spend a great deal of time there? Were you a regular visitor to the Grand Canyon before you started writing this book?

Stephen White: I am delighted that I give the appearance of having firsthand familiarity with the Grand Canyon. Sadly, I’ve only visited the canyon twice in my life. Neither visit was in the recent past and I’ve never made the trek I describe to the canyon floor. To fill in the voids in my knowledge and experience, I relied on the descriptions of many friends who have made more recent and thorough visits, and did a combination of old-fashioned research (books!) and modern investigations (yes, the Internet).

BRC: In DEAD TIME, the relationship between Dr. Alan Gregory and Sam Purdy is a moving force behind the story. Much is written about women’s friendships, yet men’s friendships can be, and are, just as complex. Here, the men tentatively regain contact and in some ways switch roles, with Purdy dispensing advice and Gregory in the thick of the action. Does their friendship mirror any that you share?

SW: I’ve had to think about this question for a while prior to responding. I don’t think that there is much personal experience revealed in the relationship I’ve concocted between Alan and Sam. I have some male friendships I treasure, but none of them resemble Alan’s and Sam’s. Their evolving friendship has become --- to me --- a charming feature of the series. I made a conscious decision in this story to use the telephone as a way to allow them to re-establish some of the intimacy that they had lost, to ease back into their personal connection. Ultimately, they do switch roles in this story. I think the change is an indication of the evolution of their friendship --- their relationship is based much less on their roles (detective and psychologist) than it once was.

BRC: At the close of DEAD TIME it appears that Gregory and Purdy are going to be geographically separated. Will you be bringing them back together in subsequent books, or will Purdy be offstage for a bit?

SW: I hesitate to admit this because it’s kind of embarrassing, but I don’t have a series arc in my head. When I write the last line of a book, it’s rare that I have any idea how I will deal in any subsequent stories with the circumstances I’ve just created. When I finished DRY ICE, I didn’t know how the revelations about Lauren’s earlier romantic life would be treated in the next book. Now we know. Back then, I didn’t. Much gets resolved in DEAD TIME, but the relationships, as you note, are constantly evolving. What’s next? Stay tuned. I will.

BRC: Alan Gregory’s wife, Lauren, is absent throughout the majority of DEAD TIME, yet she casts a shadow over events throughout the novel, influencing Gregory’s actions in some spheres, and not without some ultimate irony. She also, apparently, will be a moving force in the next Alan Gregory novel, given what occurs in this book. How did Lauren’s back story, which leads to her absence here, evolve as you wrote the book?

SW: I was aware from the start of DEAD TIME that the book was going to be about primitive procreative forces --- the working title of the project from day one was CLEAVAGE (THE OTHER KIND) --- and I was aware that I was going to endeavor to resolve some of the conflicts, especially in relationships, left dangling from the previous book. Shortly after I made the decision to give Alan’s ex-wife Merideth a prominent position in the narrative, I reached a conclusion that I wanted Lauren off-stage. From that point on I had a pretty good idea about what Lauren’s role would be in this story. It’s unusual for me to have that degree of early certainty about these things, but most of Lauren’s arc in this book was clear to me from the beginning of the creative process.

BRC: You do things a bit differently in each of the Alan Gregory novels. You have some books where he is heavily involved and in the thick of things, others where he is more an observer than a catalyst, and you’ve even relegated him to what might be described as a cameo role in KILL ME, where his appearance is nonetheless a pivotal one. In DEAD TIME, you change things up yet again, going from third person when discussing the past events that took place in the Grand Canyon, to alternating first person viewpoints (“His Ex, Merideth,” “Her Ex, Alan”). How do you ultimately settle on how to tell your story in each novel? Is there any particular exercise you go through? Have you ever completed a novel, and then changed the viewpoint or the method of the narrative?

SW: I love this question.

There are a number of important creative steps I go through in anticipation of writing each book. First on the list for me is, “What is this book going to be about?” This isn’t really a story question (a what’s-going-to-happen thing) for me, this is a concept question --- a way for me to identify a theme or dilemma that is captivating enough to keep my interest for as long as it will take me to write the book. The second question tags onto the first. It is, “Okay, if I’m going to write about X, what entertaining story can I tell about X?” I need to find a narrative skeleton that will permit me to construct an interesting and, I hope, enlightening book. Once I have some initial, minimal narrative components, just enough to allow me to frame what’s coming --- in DEAD TIME those components were Merideth’s situation and the missing girl in the Grand Canyon --- I’m left to face a creative decision that I often stumble over: “If this book is going to be about X, and the story will be about Y, how am I going to tell it?” To me, this question is about form, and about structure, and about architecture. It always ultimately becomes, too, a question about point of view and about narrative voice.

In a roundabout way, the initial creative decisions about story dictate the ultimate choices I make about the characters that will be featured in the story, and about the narrative voice or voices I will use to tell the tale. I don’t set out to write an Alan Gregory story, or a Sam Purdy one; instead, I populate the story I plan to tell, allowing ensemble characters to take on appropriate roles. If those roles are minor, so be it. If none of the existing ensemble characters fits a need, I’ll gladly create someone new.

The final decisions about point of view and narrative voice are questions of fit. Although I’ve never actually finished an entire novel and then gone back and changed a narrator’s voice or point of view, I have written significant portions and decided that my first instinct had been too limiting or not appropriate to the material. A good example is THE PROGRAM. I had no intention of writing so much of the book in the voice of a female narrator. Only after I’d written dozens of pages did I go back and adopt her voice. The writing immediately became effortless.

In DEAD TIME, I was enamored with the idea of looking at a slew of relationships from both sides. By allowing both Alan and his ex-wife unique narrative voices, they get to give unfiltered (and divergent) perspectives on their failed marriage. That back-and-forth created a template for examining the other relationships, major and minor, in the book the same way. The occasional use of the third-person point of view was a requirement for telling the parts of the story that were unknown to the two narrators. 

BRC: You seem to be quite comfortable writing about Alan Gregory, even as you constantly, and realistically, change his life and circumstances. Do you ever foresee writing a stand-alone work unrelated to the Gregory mythos, featuring other characters or, perhaps, even outside the thriller genre?

SW: Alan is familiar to me, maybe even comfortable, but I don’t find him easy to write. I didn’t create Alan with a series in mind, certainly not a long series. Much of his complexity is internal, which is not necessarily the best choice I could have made for the foundation character of a thriller series.

The flexibility in structure and architecture that I employ (you allude to in the previous question) has allowed me to do a lot of yoga with series form, and the creative freedom granted to me by my editors and publishers over the years has permitted me to stretch the series in ways that wouldn’t be possible were I forced to focus only on writing Alan Gregory first-person narratives.

I do have story ideas that I adore that cannot be adapted to fit within the series. At some point I’m sure I will write them. For now, the series has proven to be a gift that endures and I’m yet to feel confined by its boundaries. Crime fiction readers have shown themselves to be willing conspirators as I stretch the parameters of the series.

BRC: You are well into your second decade of writing fiction. What, if anything, are you doing differently now?

SW: That is a kind description --- I’m actually huffing up to the starting gate of my third decade of writing fiction. What’s different? I’m more reflective, I think, about the work. I have a much higher degree of confidence in readers than I did when I was starting out. I hope I have surprised some readers over the years, because readers constantly surprise me. Every time I get advice (and ignore it) that something I’m doing (structurally, thematically, with my vocabulary --- whatever) overestimates readers, the readers prove the advice to be wrong.

BRC: DEAD TIME is your 16th novel. Did you anticipate your writing career continuing for this length of time, and for so many books? Which of your initial goals have you achieved? And do you have any that you plan to accomplish?

SW: I never anticipated a writing career. I didn’t even let myself think much about being a published novelist until the magical day I held my first galley in my hands.

I knew almost nothing about series fiction when I started to write the story that became my first novel. The Boulder characters were built for a sprint, not a marathon. (Okay, a pair of sprints. The second book, PRIVATE PRACTICES, became a sibling to the first because I had been way too optimistic about how much material I could fit into the first story.) Back then, I couldn’t dream about galaxies far, far away because I couldn’t even see myself on the moon.

I long ago exceeded any expectations of reward I had from being a writer. While I was a practicing psychologist (or before that, a cook and bartender), I never really considered that I could be a published novelist. I became one. I never thought I could make a living writing stories. I’ve done that. I hardly thought that the words “bestselling author” would become modifiers to my name. They have. I absolutely didn’t think I would have a writing career measured in decades. I have that career. How do I feel about it all? I marvel, and I’m grateful. Grateful, grateful.

BRC: What would you be doing vocationally if you were not writing or practicing psychology?

SW:< Were I to go back to school tomorrow, I would probably study architecture and design. I have no particular talent in either, but I’ve never let that obstacle get in my way.

BRC: Given the length of time that the series has flourished, the question now needs to be asked: Do you have the last Alan Gregory novel written and waiting in the wings? Or, at the least, do you have any plans for how things wind up for Alan?

SW: The end of the series isn’t written, but I know a lot about it. I know what it’s about, I know some of the bones that will make up the skeleton of the story, and I’ve made some important decisions about the structure. When will I write it? That is something I don’t know.