Stephen White On Dry Ice
Exclusive Web Site Interview
Question: The return of Michael McClelland (Privileged Information, 1991) in Dry Ice puts Alan Gregory, Lauren Crowder, and Sam Purdy in harm's way, both physically and professionally. Throughout this book McClelland seems to be one step ahead of them. Do you consider him your worst "bad guy" in this series?
Stephen White: An interesting first question. Why? I didn't choose to include Michael McClelland in Dry Ice because of any inclination I had to further explore any of Michael's traits, either good or bad—I chose to revisit Michael McClelland because his reappearance gave me a chance to take a fresh look at some of Alan Gregory's traits, both good and, well, not-so-good. Privileged Information introduced Alan Gregory. At the time I wrote it, I created Michael McClelland solely to provide a complex antagonist whose history, personality and actions would allow me an opportunity to highlight various aspects of Alan's character.
Alan turned out to be a reluctant hero in that story, and I think it's fair to say that he was someone who proved predisposed to let his principles be the primary determinant of his
actions. That was all fine for me at the time—it is what I had decided the first novel was going to be about.
As I wrote the books that followed Privileged Information, Alan evolved in many ways. The decision to reintroduce Michael McClelland at this point had to do with my desire to place Alan in circumstances that forced him to confront challenges similar to those he faced in the first story. I wanted to highlight the ways that Alan has changed in the intervening years, and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to begin to fill in some of the major holes in his personal history.
But, is Michael the worst bad guy? He may be the purest, and in that way the least sympathetic, but he has some serious competition on both counts. It's important to me that the antagonists I create not feel like they are cut from cardboard, and I think Michael proves to be a complex adversary.
Question: In Dry Ice, you have taken the major series characters and really shaken things up for them. Did you start writing this book with that plan specifically in mind? In your opinion, does every series need a good shaking up now and then?
Stephen White: Even before I finished writing Kill Me—and long before I had any awareness of what the next story would look like—I was confident that the new book would be a traditional
series book. Kill Me was a radical departure from the series and I felt that a clear return to the familiar series architecture was in order. (It's also fair to say that had my tendency been to stray any farther from the series with the subsequent book, my publisher would have forcibly interjected some of his wisdom into my creative process.) I also knew that I didn't want the follow-up to Kill Me to be just another series book—I did indeed want to disrupt the stable foundation below the series' ensemble in a way that would allow me a chance to deal with fresh dynamics between the players, and would force readers to question any assumptions they might have about the direction of the lives of the continuing characters.
As I've said in earlier Q&A's, Privileged Information was an accidental series book. When I started writing it I had no conscious plan to write a series. In fact, the idea of using the first novel to establish an enduring writing career was only the faintest of dreams back in 1989. But after almost seventeen years, things have changed. Dry Ice is
the fifteenth book in the series. Fifteen. My editor back when I was at Bantam, Kate Miciak, once asked me how long I intended to write the series. My reply to her was reflexive and instantaneous, and it surprised
me. I told her that I would continue to write the series as long as I didn't write the same book twice. The danger I began to feel after I wrote Warning Signs, The Best Revenge, Blinded, and Missing Persons in quick succession was that it would be tempting for me to fall into a pattern of writing books that involved Alan and his friends getting into, and out of, messes. As characters they would get older, their relationships would evolve, their kids would grow . . . but, would they?
In order to keep the series from becoming formulaic, and in order to allow fresh motivations to sprout, I did feel a need to shake things up in Dry
Ice, and it was indeed part of the plan I had in my head as I sat down to write. I had another agenda, as well: I was cognizant that Kill Me had done almost nothing to advance the series back story, and I
wanted to use this book—Dry Ice—as a way to re-accelerate that narrative line.
Generalizing the "shake it up" decision to other authors and to all series is a tough
proposition for me. I think if a writer has had the good fortune to keep a series alive long enough that it becomes an issue, the writer is probably capable of deciding how much of a shock his or her series requires
as it ages. I'm acutely aware at this stage of my career that long crime fiction series do indeed die, and I probably invest an inordinate amount of thought to wondering why. So far all that I have concluded is that
I don't really know.
Question: How did it feel to be writing about all the series characters again after Kill Me (2006), which included only Alan in a smaller role than usual?
Stephen White: Kill Me was a rejuvenating change for me. It was different in so many ways—focus, structure, point-of-view. It forced me to juggle story components and narrative techniques and to work writing muscles and that I didn't know I possessed. Writing Kill Me was the aberration. Returning to the series to write Dry Ice felt familiar—slipping into Alan Gregory's voice is remarkably natural for me at this point.
In Dry Ice,
I brought back some old characters (Michael McClelland, Kirsten Lord, even a small taste of Carl Luppo), which was fun, and I created some new ones. I altered the story arcs for almost all of the major continuing
characters. I think I left the underlying story in an unsettled place that greatly increases my narrative degrees of freedom going forward. All of that feels good.
There are some shocking revelations about the main characters in this book. Were those back stories always there in your mind when you first wrote about Alan, Lauren, and Sam? Or were their past secrets revealed to you for the first time in the writing process of this book?
I've known the general outline of Alan's personal back story for years. As I have gotten to know him better as a character, I've allowed myself to sketch out—in my head, nothing on paper—the kind of developmental path that would have allowed him to become the man he is when we meet him as an adult. I wasn't certain I was ever going to use that back story in a book—I didn't develop his history with that in mind—but knowing the facts of his upbringing has provided a nice guide for me psychologically as I continually endeavor to get my arms around the character.
The subtext of Dry Ice is about secrets. Once I reached a decision that secrets were going to be the currency of the story, and once I had decided to reveal part of Alan's hidden past, I realized that from a dramatic point of view I had to throw more money on the table. Lauren's dilemma(s) evolved in my head during the course of this story, and to me are natural threads in the fabric of her character that I'd already woven. On the other hand, Sam's issues aren't new—they are echoes. Careful readers of the series will be able to look back at earlier books (Harm's Way, Blinded etc.)
and see some of the genesis of the struggles and demons that Sam is dueling with in Dry Ice.
There is one particular event in this book that will shock your longtime readers. No spoilers here but I think you know which event I am speaking of! Does the potential reaction of your readers effect your writing?
Stephen White: However much I might surprise my readers, they always surprise me more. I have long ago given up trying to predict reactions to what I write. The idiosyncratic ways that people read and
experience books is a constant source of amazement (and enjoyment) to me, and it is also oddly liberating. Since I find myself unable to anticipate readers' reactions, I feel absolutely no temptation to try to alter
what I'm writing to please or displease any particular category of readers. That's a good thing—I'm certain I would inevitably fail.
I do expect some intense reader reaction to the
event that you're alluding to. But I also expect to be surprised by whatever that reaction might be.
Question: When you look back at your work, do you have favorite lines or sections in each of the books?
I rarely look back at my work, and have never re-read a book after I've completed the task of proofreading the pages. I'm an inveterate rewriter, and the temptation—perhaps compulsion is a better word—to rewrite what I had written would certainly overwhelm any pleasure I might feel about going back and finding a well-crafted passage or nicely balanced phrase. Occasionally a reader will bring to my attention a section of a book that he or she found particularly well written. My reaction to the passage is often that I don't recognize it, and occasionally I'm surprised that I wrote it.
I did have to reread small sections of Privileged Information while I was writing Dry Ice in order to refresh my memory about some events, but I don't think I reread more than ten pages.
Question: Kill Me is being released in paperback the same week that Dry Ice comes out. Many people have written asking if the Death Angels will return in a future book. Any plans for that?
Stephen White: I suppose that it's possible that I could end up with two accidental series, but I have no current plans to revisit the Death Angels premise in the near term. Kill Me provided a unique platform that permitted me to focus my attention on a huge issue in modern society—quality of life, and its first cousin, death. I doubt that I would return to that platform until and unless I had something new to say that I wasn't able to explore in Kill
Question: The typical question: what is coming next?
Think conception problems (but, no, not the ones you might imagine), the Grand Canyon, and the unreliability of memories. More about secrets. The return of more old faces.
And, oh yes, LA.
Alan goes to LA.