A Failure as a Creative Writing Student, He Pens His Way to the Top
Jan. 27, 2000
By Ed Hayman
DENVER (APBnews.com) -- It's easy to imagine that author Stephen White and his fictional psychologist-detective protagonist Alan Gregory are the same person. White -- whose eighth Gregory novel, Cold Case (Dutton, $25), was published this month -- is a psychologist, too. They share the same Colorado turf, the same romance with the Rocky Mountains, the same calmly professional manner. Both are married.
But White is quite certain Gregory isn't his alter ego.
"He has the benefit of knowing everything I know about clinical psychology," says White, 49, who practiced for 15 years in Boulder before moving to Denver. "But we're dissimilar in more ways than we're alike. His neuroses are different from mine. And I get to think about his lines for a long time before he speaks them. I don't have that luxury with my own."
Furthermore, White chuckles, "if any of the events that happen to him in the books happened to me in real life, I'd be a basket case."
Overcomes numerous close calls
What White refers to as "events," in his understated way, are all the attempts, spread over eight novels, to kill Gregory. Many of them almost succeed. In Cold Case, he faces nightmare people in a nightmare mountain landscape. When they fail to kill him with guns and bombs, he winds up, just a short time later, in an even worse predicament.
Gregory survives each trauma with his psyche intact, returning to the calm and orderly life of a Boulder psychotherapist and the mountainside home with the spectacular view that he shares with his wife and partner in detection, Boulder Assistant District Attorney Lauren Crowder.
Crowder is pregnant in Cold Case. (White and his wife, Rose Kauffman, have a son, Alexander, 13.) And, as long-time readers know, she has struggled with multiple sclerosis since the beginning of the series. (White, too, suffers from multiple sclerosis, diagnosed in 1983.)
Keeping up the pace
The Gregory series, which began in 1991 with Privileged Information, has been so successful for White, he's been able to give up his own private practice and write full time. Four of the eight novels have been best sellers, and two of those made the New York Times list.
Keeping up the book-a-year pace publishers demand of a popular series character, White already has completed a draft of novel No. 9 and has the plot for No. 10 firmly in his head.
Today, he's a long way from the University of California at Irvine, where he majored briefly in creative writing but quickly dropped it when he got two Ds and an F on his first three assignments. "I didn't try creative writing again for 20 years," he says. "But it was just as well. I wasn't ready in my 20s. I had to be on another path for a long time."
Despite similarities, White says Alan Gregory isn't his alter ego.
Writing nonfiction 'like dental surgery'
Born in Wantagh, Long Island, N.Y., White's family went to California when he was young, moved back to New Jersey, then went west again. White went from Irvine to University of California at Los Angeles, then to Berkeley, where he graduated in 1972.
As an undergraduate, he had a series of majors, all of them related to history -- music history, American literature of the West, Indian affairs -- because his brother Richard, was a historian.
Finally, influenced by a favorite faculty member, he was drawn to psychology, and in 1979 earned a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado. His research appeared in Psychological Bulletin and other professional journals, and he became known as an authority on the psychological effects of marital disruption, especially in men. He opened his practice in Boulder in 1980 and joined the staffs of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and the Children's Hospital in Denver.
Writing nonfiction, particularly for professional journals, "was like dental surgery," he says. He was drawn back to fiction as an escape. It was great fun, he says, and now he can't wait to get to his computer at 7:30 every morning to write his self-assigned three pages a day.
Books share a common foundation
White says he never dreamed Gregory would become a series character. The first book, about a psychologist whose patients get killed one by one, was supposed to be a one-shot deal.
"But I was naive about the attachment publishers and readers have to series characters," White says. "They just won't let them go."
All of White's books are different -- he says he is careful to make sure of that -- but they share a common foundation: the authority that comes from his training and experience as a clinical psychologist. He describes his books as "psychological thrillers -- not whodunits but howdunits and, more important, whydunits."
His work has been praised for its careful plotting and rich character studies. Gregory, an unlikely action hero whose main weapons are his analytical mind and his training as an interviewer, is a seeker of motivation. "It's what I play with," says White.
White says he made a conscious decision early on "not to try to make Gregory -- or any of the characters -- larger than life."
"I wasn't ready [to write] in my 20s. I had to be on another path for a long time."
Praised for embracing controversy
Though Gregory is at center stage now, White sees him not as a star but a member of an ensemble that includes Crowder, police officer friend Sam Purdy and neighbor Adrienne. Crowder was the main character in one of the novels, Purdy in another. Those two novels were narrated by Gregory, but two others were written in the third person.
White has been praised, too, for his research and his willingness to take on controversial subjects like managed health care.
His own multiple sclerosis has given him the authority to portray Crowder's so accurately -- he says half his mail is from appreciative multiple sclerosis sufferers and health care professionals. But he says her disease and his have taken different paths.
Quiet reality, not dramatic excess
Neither pregnancy nor multiple sclerosis prevent Crowder, in Cold Case, from joining Gregory in a search for the truth about the deaths of two young women in the mountains 10 years earlier. The duo are invited to join the investigation by Locard, an organization of volunteer law enforcement professionals and forensic scientists.
Locard, named for the French scientist who pioneered forensics, is White's invention, but the organization it is based on -- the Vidocq Society -- is very real. Vidocq, which is more visible than White's low-key Locard, is named for the famous 18th Century French criminal-turned-detective who inspired Victor Hugo to create both Jean Valjean and Javert for Les Miserables.
Characteristically, White found the real Vidocq a bit too flashy for his taste. Quiet reality, not dramatic excess, is White's stock in trade.
He prefers a spare, understated style of writing. He pulls back from
obvious opportunities for beefy action and witty repartee, letting the
unfolding reality of the narrative speak for itself. And when the dam finally
breaks -- as it does at the conclusion of Cold Case -- the result is smashing.
Ed Hayman is a veteran newspaper journalist and critic who teaches journalism
at New York University.