Anyone who has ever tried his or her hand at writing has surely heard the sage advice "write what you know." Stephen White has most-assuredly taken that bit of wisdom to heart in creating his thrilling series of Alan Gregory novels. A clinical psychologist, White has crafted a character with a similar background that has also benefited from his fifteen years of professional practice.
White has been keeping fans of psychological thrillers on the edges of their seats ever since he published his first novel Privileged Information in 1991. The book introduced his literary alter ego Dr. Alan Gregory and made ample use of everything he'd gleaned while working as a practicing psychologist. "There are two benefits of my previous experience as a psychologist that I consider invaluable to my life as a writer," White revealed in an interview on his web site (www.authorstephenwhite.com). "The first is that my work gave me a chance to observe and study the infinite varieties of motivation that human beings have for their behavior. The other is that being a psychotherapist exposed me to dialogue in its purest form. For eight to ten hours a day over a period of fifteen years I had the privilege of sitting and listening to a wide variety of people just talk. I can't imagine a better training ground for writing dialogue."
As for how similar he truly is to his most-famous creation beyond their shared profession, White says, "The similarities don't exactly end there but there's no need to exaggerate them, either. Although neither of us is a model of mental health, his neuroses are different than mine. And he has advantages that I never had as a psychotherapist. First, he has the benefit of all my years of experience. And second, I get to think about his lines as long as I'd like. Real patients never offer that luxury." The resulting debut novel won rave reviews from the likes of The New York Daily News, Publisher's Weekly, and The Library Journal and established White as a writer to watch.
White followed Privileged Information with over a dozen additional installments of the Alan Gregory adventures. The latest may very well be the most exciting and psychologically provocative episode yet. In Kill Me, a happily-married extreme sports enthusiast and patient of Gregory's makes a deal with a clandestine organization called Death Angels Inc. that may very well bring his life to an untimely end. As always, Dr. Alan Gregory is present, but he plays more of a background role than he does in most of White's other novels. Still, fans of White's previous work will surely be captivated by the novel that Booklist has deemed "Bizarre, thrilling, and oh so much fun" and fellow bestselling writer Michael Connelly (Blood Work, The Closers) asserts is "his best yet."
In any event, White has no immediate plans of abandoning Gregory to write a non-series novel. "My series is commercially successful, thanks to all of you," he says. "As important for me as the commercial success is, the fact [is] that the series is also creatively flexible.... [I] anticipate staying with the series as long as the readers are interested..." If that's the case, then readers can expect the Dr. Alan Gregory to have a long and psychologically healthy life.
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Contrary to the rumor mill, the Stephen White who created Alan Gregory is not the same Stephen White who has written a series of books about...ahem ... Barney the Purple Dinosaur. However, White admits that he has occasionally signed the other Stephen White's Barney books when asked to.
For those who are wondering what ever happened to the seemingly long-lost book Saints and Sinners, which was excerpted in Private Practices, you may have already read it without even realizing. Shortly before publication, the title Saints and Sinners was changed to Higher Authority.
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with White:
"Jonathan Kellerman and I were colleagues in the early 1980's before either of us were novelists. At a time when our nascent field was very small, we were both psychologists specializing in the psychological aspects of childhood cancer. Jon was at Los Angeles Childrens Hospital. I was at The Children's Hospital in Denver."
"My brother is a better writer than I am."
"One of my first jobs was as a tour guide at Universal Studios. I lasted five weeks. That's two weeks longer than I lasted as a creative writing major during my freshman year at the University of California."
"I worked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971-72, running the upstairs café, waiting tables, and occasionally doing some cooking. Two of my bosses were Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower. They both cook better than I write. Jeremiah actually writes better than I cook."
"I learned to fly an airplane before I learned to drive a car".
"I'm a lucky man. I've spent much of my adult life in two terrific, rewarding careers. In the first, as a clinical psychologist, I spent eight to twelve hours a day in a room with one other person. In the second, as a writer, I spend a similar number of hours a day in a room with no other person, though sometimes I'm blessed with the company of a dog or two."
"A primary difference between the two experiences? As a psychotherapist, only one other person -- my patient -- typically observed my work. Virtually no one ever critiqued it. As a novelist, literally millions of people observe my work, and most feel no compunction whatsoever about critiquing it. Being a writer is a lovely thing. But adapting to the reality of being read has been a constant source of wonder for me."
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In the winter of 2006, Stephen White took some time out to tell us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
With rare exceptions, I'm not someone who looks back at life and sees transformational moments -- life for me has always been more about process than event. But I recall two separate epiphanies I felt while reading books.
The first occurred when I was a child, probably six or seven years old, when my father insisted that I had to read Jules Verne's Mysterious Island before he would permit me to watch something I desperately wanted to see on our family's new television. I still recall the wonder at Verne's ability to transport me to his reality.
The second reading epiphany took place much later in my life, as an adult, while I was reading John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman. Prior to reading that book, I think I perceived novels as having an underlying form or architecture that was not malleable. But watching Fowles play with the novel form in a book that was -- and remains -- so alluring in story and character made a tremendous impact on me. I'm sure that some of the freedom that I feel to juggle structure, form, and time in the series I write has been inspired by Fowles.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
How about ten quasi-contemporary novels that I admire for various reasons? If I were to go back prior to the mid-twentieth century or into non-fiction, it would be a whole different list.
In no particular order:
Paris Trout by Pete Dexter -- A great book by a great writer. A tough subject handled with honesty and grace.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee -- If you haven't read it for a while, go back and be impressed all over again. Wow. If you're a writer has only one novel in her, no apologies are necessary if this is the one she has.
The Cider House Rules (or A Prayer for Owen Meany) by John Irving -- A determined, imaginative, unafraid storyteller at the top of his game.
Hunting Down Amanda (or Don't Say a Word) by Andrew Klavan -- An exemplary crime writer who has managed to escape acclaim. His craft is superb and he is always inventive and original.
The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler -- Tyler teaches patience, and yet she always rewards the reader for ambling along with her.
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem -- It will not be everybody's cup of tea, but I consider it the work of a literary Houdini. Lethem handles his protagonist's voice with a skill that is breathtaking.
Blood Work (or The Black Echo) by Michael Connelly -- I've heard Michael argue that character is more crucial to crime fiction than story. These two books prove that he is one writer who doesn't permit himself to make that choice.
Easy Money, Jenny Siler -- This book by a woman who should have been too young to write this well serves as a reminder that being youthful and being inexperienced are not excuses. Original and skillful.
When the Bough Breaks by Jonathan Kellerman -- This is the book that convinced me that stories based on psychology could be interesting to a large audience. Jon literally created a subgenre with this effort.
Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris -- Classics, both.
What did I leave off the list? In crime fiction alone, there's Gorky Park, The Magus, Presumed Innocent, Booked to Die, The Alienist, Free Reign, Word of Honor, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Horse Latitudes, The Devil's Teardrop, Mystic River, and many more. Oddly, although I've ignored non-fiction on the list, the book that I read over the past year that has stuck with me more than any other is Brian Greene's Elegant Universe. What an effort.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
The second part of the question is much easier than the first. For a movie to be anything beyond entertainment (not that there's anything wrong with that) the writing must sing. For me, it's the "necessary" part of "necessary but not sufficient." The rest? What I love about film, as opposed to novels, is the collaborative nature of the creative process. When all the collaborators -- writers, director, actors, set directors, costumers, etc., etc. -- manage to make time stop for the ninety minutes that their work is on screen, the movie becomes enduring. Examples? Although I'm not much for "favorites," Chinatown, The Conversation, and the first two Godfather films come quickly to mind.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I can't, or at least don't, listen to music while I'm writing. I find that it interferes with my concentration. The disruption I feel is more intense for vocal music than for instrumental music. I was, briefly, a music history major as an undergraduate at Berkeley, and I've gone through long love affairs with classical, jazz, and rock 'n roll. Lately, to my great surprise, I've even begun to identify some hip-hop I get along with just fine.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
The question has an inherent premise problem -- the thing is, I wouldn't have a book club. Why? Saying it sounds petulant but -- at the simplest level -- I've never liked to be told what to read. I think maybe it goes back to that Mysterious Island incident.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
This one is more about philosophy than about books. The perfect gift -- to receive or to give -- is something that the recipient would truly want but wouldn't think to get for himself or herself. To give a book as a gift I would need to know someone well enough to know not only what he or she would like, but also to be able to identify a literary direction or at least a new author that the reader might not have previously considered.
The nice thing about books is that the right choice is always out there. One of the immutable truths that keeps the publishing industry alive is that every reader is eager to discover a new favorite writer.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
When I was writing my doctoral thesis, my dissertation chairman, Dr. Bernard Bloom, gave me some advice I've never forgotten. He said that the most important thing a writer does each day is put his butt in the chair.
The single most crucial ritual I have each day is simple: I sit down to write whether I feel like it or not. What is on my desk is irrelevant. Quiet is good. Interruptions are not ideal. But the key, for me, is not to permitting distractions to become excuses. When I intend to write, I write.
And, oh yes, I read Strunk and White's Elements of Style at least once a year. Sometimes twice.
What are you working on now?
I'm currently working on my fifteenth novel. Much more so than Kill Me it is a traditional series book. The series protagonist, Alan Gregory -- who plays a supportive role in Kill Me -- finds that his past, something that I've intentionally avoided in the earlier books, is catching up with him with destructive force.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I consider myself to be an incredibly fortunate working writer. Early in my career an agent told me that in publishing, "you can make a million, but you can't make a living." One of the things I am most proud of is that I've managed to prove her wrong; I've written fifteen books, and I've been making a living as a novelist now for a dozen years. How cool is that?
In the beginning, a completed manuscript in hand, I spent a year of concerted effort in an attempt to interest an agent in representing that first book. I accumulated a cascade of rejections -- some kind, some rude -- but ultimately failed to find an agent willing to take me on. Instead, through the kindness of some friends of my oldest brother (thank you, Patty and Jeff) I ended up selling Privileged Information un-agented to Viking in 1990. Prior to that, the last un-agented novel purchased by Viking was Ordinary People in 1979. To the best of my knowledge, they haven't bought one since.
Did I say I consider myself lucky? I do.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I left Baine Kerr's, Wrongful Death, off the above list of favorite books because I looked ahead and saw this question coming. When I have doubts about how to make difficult concepts and distasteful topics interesting in contemporary fiction, I go back to this exquisite story by an attorney from Boulder. It is accomplished in so many ways. It has certainly not found the audience it deserves.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
During the fifteen years I was a practicing psychologist. I grew wary of giving advice. Why? As a clinician, I was often in a position to offer a patient direction on how to cross some emotional mine field. Over the years I learned that if it turned out my counsel was faulty I wasn't the one of us who got blown up, psychologically speaking. With that caveat in place, here's my advice to aspiring writers: Don't look to be discovered. Do something to get read. Then do it again. And again.
What does that mean? Every day, put your butt in the chair and write the best stuff you can write. Nothing is more important. Once the writing is done each day, do something that will help you put your work into a reader's hands. You are not going to get two readers until you get one.
Very few writers ever get "discovered." Fewer still will get anointed. Very few. For the rest of us, success boils down to some difficult to decipher amalgam of craft and determination.
And a little luck. Luck is good.
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