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The Siege Q & A With Stephen White

Question: The Siege features series regular Detective Sam Purdy, and Sam seems to be in over his head from the moment the story begins. In this book, he is dealing with the FBI, the CIA, international terrorists, and a crime on a much larger scale than anything he's been involved in before. Why did you drop Sam into this big story and connect it to your series books?

Stephen White: The story that became The Siege has a long history – it was at least five years in gestation. When I finally discovered a way to use the concept that was tumbling around in my head, I was faced with the same choice I had when I began writing Kill Me a few years before–do I write it as a series book, or do I integrate a series character into the narrative in a quasi-secondary role. Since I was pleased with the hybrid form of Kill Me, I initially began to conceive the new story in a form that would take place in two locations: New Haven, Connecticut, and Boulder. The New Haven part would be narrated by FBI Agent Christopher Poe, and the Boulder part would be narrated by Alan Gregory, who would be learning of the events at Yale from a patient who was the parent of one of the hostages. Meanwhile, my editor at Dutton, Brian Tart, had asked me if I had any story ideas that would feature Sam Purdy as a protagonist. I found Brian's question intriguing. The pieces began coming together when I considered the possibility of throwing Sam into this story in place of Alan. I imagined the wedding celebration. His presence in Miami. Carmen's pregnancy complications. What he might do in New Haven. I recalled how much I enjoyed writing Sam's brief narrations in Blinded. I decided it would be fun to give him a larger role this time, especially one that took him far from his comfort zone and threw him into the complex mix I was devising for Yale.

Question: The Siege primarily takes place on the Yale campus in New Haven, CT. There is a strong sense of place in this book. I felt like I was there walking the campus with Sam and that really adds to the reading experience. How did you get it so right?

Stephen White: It's funny, but I'm going into this publication season assuming that there are a lot of things I didn't get right about Yale. It's a complex institution with a three-hundred plus year history. When the book comes out, and people who are much more intimate with Yale than I am read it, I expect to have some explaining to do. To answer your question more directly, though, I know what I know because over the gestational period of the story, I spent a lot of time at Yale (as a Yale parent.) The sense of place, especially the inter-relationships of the buildings, and the peculiarities of the remarkable architecture, are crucial to the story. I was determined to provide enough detail so that readers could have some feel for the literal paths the characters were walking. For the first time in my career, I also commissioned a map for the front matter to assist readers in placing buildings on the grid. I should also acknowledge that my descriptions of Yale will seem accurate only to readers not already familiar with the campus. Why? I intentionally altered numerous features of the Yale campus, changed architectural details of important buildings, and ignored sight lines that didn't work for me. I've already discovered a significant mistake I made unintentionally. I'm wondering how long it will be before a reader points it out. I'm thinking not long.

Q: At what point did Yale's secret societies, like Book & Snake, catch your eye for a potential story line?

SW: The story idea originally had nothing to do with Yale's legendary secret societies. The first flash of a potential story hit me during the high-school year when my son and I were doing the college admission road show, traveling to visit campuses across the country as he learned whatever he needed to learn to narrow his college choices. At various on-campus admission forums, I began to learn about the wide variety of orientation experiences that colleges have begun to offer to begin to integrate freshmen into the campus community. Many of the schools we were visiting included a wilderness orientation option–small groups of freshmen would head out into some remote area and begin to bond with each other, with a few upperclassmen, and with the particular college culture. The first iteration of this concept had to do with the sudden disappearance of an entire freshmen wilderness orientation group. Yale wasn't initially a focus at all. I was never able to make the wilderness kidnapping work as a story, for a variety of narrative, conceptual, and logical reasons. I actually pushed the entire concept aside for a couple of years, believing that I would not be able to finesse the idea into a book. Then—on a casual walk through the Yale campus a couple of years ago—my eyes settled on the dark, imposing form of Skull & Bones, the tomb of Yale's most prominent secret society. It was a building I'd seen a dozen times before, but that time I remember thinking, the place is a damn fort.  Instantly, the dusty old wilderness orientation story jumped back off the shelf. In my head, I immediately moved the setting on-campus, to Yale, and within a few days, I knew I wanted to use a different secret society tomb, not Skull & Bones. I ultimately settled on the classic Ionic structure that houses Book & Snake a few blocks away.

Q: Do these secret societies at Yale really represent the elite of the elite? And how did you get your information?

SW: A criticism that I expect about The Siege, and one I welcome, is that there is precious little secret society lore in the book. That is intentional. Although I read a lot about the history, culture, and symbolism of the societies and their tombs, I ultimately decided that I didn't want the book to be about the secret societies, I wanted it to be about the terrorism that is at the heart of the story. Historically, the secret societies had elite membership. My impression from my research is that modern secret society membership is much more egalitarian. As I imagined this story, I didn't want to be constrained by the reality of the societies, by the interior architecture of their tombs, or by the composition of the actual membership. As is my proclivity, I made stuff up.

Q: In The Siege, we are introduced to FBI Agent Christopher Poe, who ends up working with Sam. I think Poe is a perfect example of the term "the walking wounded." He is a survivor of the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City, and that trauma has almost completely destroyed him. Poe's PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) is very vivid and realistic. Did you interview survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing to get this realistic understanding? Or people with PTSD?

SW: Poe is a character I originally created for a spec screenplay I wrote in 2002 or so (it was never produced.) I later disinterred Poe for a series television pitch I put together with Jeffery Deaver (I continue to think it was a fine concept, but was never produced, either.) The Siege marks Poe's second reincarnation and will be his first time in actual print. Poe's PTSD is mostly informed from my own clinical experience treating various patients with PTSD over my many years in clinical practice.

Q: Poe is relentless in his pursuit of terrorism because of his own experience. Is he based on a real FBI agent that you've met or read about?

SW: Poe's fictional FBI squad is based on an actual unit that was contemplated by Congress in the weeks after 9/11. Since I wasn't at all interested in being constrained by FBI reality, I didn't research whether the real unit was ever funded, or if it was, whether it is still functioning within the Bureau. Poe's story, and his demeanor and tenacity, are based only on my imagination. I was determined to create a sense of what life would be like for someone who had lived through the traumas he experienced.

Q: Poe's love for Deirdre Drake, a CIA analyst, is the one thing that seems to keep him from self-combusting. Their love story added an unexpected sweetness to this very scary thriller. They are two extremely interesting characters. What inspired you to include a love story in this book?

SW: Dee surprised me, as characters often do while I'm writing. I didn't contemplate her character, certainly not the complexity or richness or balance she brings, prior to the day that I wrote the scene that introduces her, the one that starts, "'Jerry doesn't get you, you know.'" Almost instantly, Dee's presence in Poe's life felt natural to me, even essential. Her recollections of his traumas and their time together over the years became such an organic storytelling device that she became crucial to the narrative. The scenes with her and Poe almost wrote themselves. Dee, I think, brought the love to the book. I didn't see it coming. She became one of those characters that, as I wrote, I seemed to be chasing her more than creating her. (For previous readers, think Carl Luppo.) It's now hard for me to imagine telling this difficult story without the soft edges that the Dee and Poe love story provides.

Q: The terrorists in this story attack a pretty elite group of people through their children. Do you think that most people would do whatever it takes to save their child even if it risks the greater good? Even if it puts their country at risk?

SW: As a writer, I like to ask big, meaty questions, but try not to answer them. I want the reader to feel personally engaged in the characters' dilemmas, but I don't want to insist that any reader adopt any particular point of view. In my experience, the reader is always capable of providing that. In the foggy situation I create in the first hundred pages of The Siege – with the facts initially so unclear – I am not sure what I, as a parent, would have done if faced with the choice. For me, personally, it would be much easier to sacrifice myself in similar circumstances than it would be for me to sacrifice my child. I hope readers can feel the conflicting pulls of these horrifying circumstances.

Q: The history of the terrorists in The Siege could have sprung right from the newspapers. Were you inspired by a particular real event when creating their motives?

SW: The motives of the antagonists inside the tomb came late to me. From moment one, I knew I wanted to write a story that worked regardless of the terrorists' motives. I didn't want the story to be limited by the terrorists' allegiances. This is a book about imagination and preparedness, about the evolution of yesterday's tactics into tomorrow's terror. It is, by intent, not about Al Qaeda, or Hezbollah, or white supremacy, or drugs, or anything else. I did want the motivation of the terrorists, once revealed, to feel current. In that sense, I chose events with a strong foundation in current experience. A draft of the book was complete before ongoing events in the real world began to make me look a little too prescient.

Q: Bottom line: this is a thriller, a terrorism story, a love story, a cop story. a child-in-jeopardy story.  Did I miss anything?

SW: I am gratified that The Siege feels like all those things to you, and I'm also gratified that you haven't asked a question about the story structure, which is as challenging as any I've ever created. The book mostly takes place over four consecutive days, but the story is rarely told chronologically. There are multiple narrators (both first person and third person,) multiple points of view, and I utilize both past and present tense throughout the story. After writing a couple of thrillers that were psychological in nature—Dry Ice and Dead Time—I was eager to write a thriller that felt turn-the-page-dammit relentless, even more relentless than Kill Me. I'm a moviegoer who likes the first half of the movie, Jaws, much more than I liked the second half. I wanted the thriller part of this book—from start to almost finish—to feel like the first half of Jaws (before the shark was revealed.)

 

The Siege paperback (USA)

Signet (USA) Paperback, 2010, ISBN: 0451228480

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