Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Genesis of a Book

Stephen White is one of my favorite authors - I've written about him before. In his monthly email newsletter, he explains how he came up with the idea for his next book, "Kill Me". It's fascinating from a technical writing perspective, and an absorbing story in its own right.
A Note From Stephen White About His Next Book

Image I can’t always identify the moment a book is born. With KILL ME, though, the moment was clear.

Every one of us has been there. Most of us, many times. Someone we know or love – a friend, a family member, a co-worker – suffers some terrible tragedy. Maybe an automobile accident, maybe a stroke. A simple illness spinning out of control, a surgical procedure gone badly, or the slow motion train-wreck of rapidly progressing dementia. We see or hear about the unfortunate person’s abysmal condition and his or her hopeless prognosis and we say, perhaps aloud, perhaps to ourselves, “If that ever happens to me, I wish somebody would just . . . kill me.”


In January 2003, two of my friends asked me to meet a friend of theirs, a man named Peter Barton who was dying of stomach cancer. His physicians had just told him he had about three months to live. It turned out that Peter, barely fifty – a recently retired, wildly-successful cable TV visionary – had been doing some writing and was eager to talk with someone with some publishing experience about how to get his prose into print. As a favor to my friends I said I would talk to him. Driving to meet Peter that first day, I was convinced that my role was to accomplish the unpleasant task of finding a palatable way of telling a dying man that his life wasn’t really that special, that his stuff wasn’t really publishable, and that he should put whatever time and energy he had left into organizing his musings as a lovely memoir for his children.

It turned out, of course, that I was wrong about everything. Not only was Peter’s life far from pedestrian, but his stories and essays were also enlightening, moving, and enchanting. And so was he. A short time later, I introduced Peter to a writer friend of mine named Larry Shames and together they worked magic, turning Peter’s words and thoughts into the lovely, inspiring, haunting book "Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived" (Harper Perennial; September 2004.)

The finish line of his life was in clear sight then – his time left on the planet was numbered in weeks, not months. While he and Larry worked, Peter and I became friends.

On days when he had the energy Peter would tell me stories. One spring morning we were sitting on his deck getting buzzed by dive-bombing wasps, and he told me about the sudden, tragic death of a man his mother was involved with long after Peter’s own father had died. I wasn’t too surprised by the story; death was very much on Peter’s mind those days. The man had died in the Crestones in Colorado’s southern mountains in a freak accident that involved some risky wilderness activity. Ice climbing, rock climbing, hang gliding – something. I don’t remember the details. While Peter described the circumstances of the man’s demise though, the psychologist in me thought I heard some wistfulness, maybe even some envy, in Peter’s voice. By then Peter was enduring severe pain from his cancer; his world was getting smaller as his tumor grew larger. I decided to ask him something that I suspected his old friends would never ask him. I said, “Do you ever think about it? On a good day, going up into the mountains, having an accident, going over a cliff? Ending it. Dying like he did?”

Without hesitation, Peter acknowledged the fantasy. I don’t recall what words he used. I do recall what he said next though. He said, “I could never do it. The kids would wonder.” He was talking about his three children, and his absolute insistence that his death, like his life, be a model for them.

Enough said.

I dropped the issue. Peter and I never spoke of it again. But driving home that day, I couldn’t get our conversation out of my head. As novelists do, I began to ponder something: What if someone in Peter’s peculiar circumstances could do it – end his life – in a way that the kids wouldn’t wonder, that his family would never know? Peter was a wealthy man. What if it turned out that a person like Peter had the prescience to hire somebody to end his life under circumstances that would make his death appear completely accidental?

That is how KILL ME was born. An unanswered question left over after a short conversation with a dying man.

What, I began to imagine in the days and weeks and months that followed, if there were a company that would agree, for a steep fee, to kill you should you ever become so sick or so disabled that you would choose not to continue living?

Would you sign on the dotted line?

Would you?

Well, get ready to meet the Death Angels.

Get ready for KILL ME.

For me, writing this book was different. I think reading it will be different, too.

Watch your back.

--Stephen White--

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