When Stephen White, PhD, began writing his first novel about a crime-fighting psychologist in 1989, he had little idea that 14 years later he would be giving the keynote address at APA's Annual Convention.
He had even less idea that it would be in the role of a full-time novelist, rather than that of a clinical psychologist--the profession he had been practicing for more than a decade.
White's transformation from a psychologist specializing in pediatric oncology patients to a writer of best-selling thrillers took a lot of work, he says: first a year of writing a book while continuing to work as a therapist, then thirteen months of diligent attempts to get an editor--just one--to read it.
One turned out to be enough. "Privileged Information" was published by Viking Press in 1991, and ten more books have followed, including eight New York Times best sellers. A twelfth will be published next year.
Most of White's thrillers center on Alan Gregory, a fictional therapist in Boulder, Colo., whose psychological expertise comes in handy as he becomes entangled in one murder mystery after another.
White came to writing by a roundabout path. In college, he lasted only three weeks as a creative writing major before two D's and an F in his first writing course turned him toward psychology. It's a path he says he's glad he took.
"For all I know, I deserved those grades!" he says. "I wasn't ready to write when I was 20. I didn't have a perspective on life that would have permitted me to write the kinds of books that I ended up writing when I was 40."
Perspective came from years of treating patients. After receiving his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado in 1979, White established a private practice in Boulder while also working at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and, later, as a staff psychologist at The Children's Hospital in Denver. He became well-known as an expert on the psychological effects of marital disruption, especially on men.
"The understanding of motivation, I think, is crucial for a fiction writer," says White. "For fifteen years, I spent six to ten hours a day listening to people talk about their lives. That not only gave me an incredible repertoire of stories, but it also gave me a tremendous feel for dialogue."
Even so, White has no regrets about giving up life as a practicing psychologist. "It's difficult to talk about this, especially with people in the profession, but the reality is that I haven't missed it for a day," he says. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to have practiced, and grateful for the chance to make a difference in the lives I touched, but this new career of mine suits me very well."
White has won kudos from the psychological community for his realistic depiction of the ethical challenges therapists face. Last year, APA's Div. 46 (Media) gave him its Golden Psi Media Award for two of his books, "The Program" (Doubleday, 2001) and "Warning Signs" (Delacorte Press, 2002).
"Our committee was very impressed with the way he handles ethical issues in his novels," says Harriet T. Schultz, PhD, chair of Div. 46's Media Watch Committee. "His books, while thoroughly entertaining--and I am personally a big fan--also serve a public education function."
White says he's pleased with the support his books have gotten from former colleagues--even if he's not sure the sample is unbiased. "I think I only hear from the ones who like them," he says with a laugh.
"Mostly, people thank me for the books, and for the portrayal of psychology, which I try to make realistic within the confines of writing a thriller," he adds. "I think that people in the field are entertained by the puzzles the stories create and happy they don't have to deal with the same situations in their practices."
Asked for the secret of his success with the rest of his readers, White demurs. "I've never been able to answer this question--it's always been perplexing to me," he says. "I'm just grateful that they've found something that keeps them coming back."