Interview: January 22, 1997
January 22, 1997
On January 22, 1997, THE BOOK REPORT welcomed bestselling crime novelist Jonathan Kellerman to discuss his novels, including his latest, THE CLINIC. Jennifer Levitsky (BookpgJL) was THE BOOK REPORT interviewer.
Marlene T: Hello, Jennifer and Mr. Kellerman, welcome!
BookpgJL: Thank you, Jonathan for being here tonight!
J Kell 97: Thank you. Great to be here.
BookpgJL: In THE CLINIC, Alex says to Milo: "Fame is like stripping in a dark theater. You never know who's out there." How have you found this to relate to your public writing life?
J Kell 97: Actually, I'm quite obscure. One of the advantages to being a writer rather than an actor is that a writer, at best. becomes "pseudo-famous. No one knows who I am so I can lurk around L.A. eavesdropping.
BookpgJL: Do you lurk? Where?
J Kell 97: Absolutely.
BookpgJL: For story ideas?
J Kell 97: All over L.A. This city is the best setting for crime novels because it's really a third-world country --- extreme contrasts between high and low income and the rather unhealthy influence of the film business. The dialogue I pick up at various locales is unbelievable.
BookpgJL: What's the most unbelievable thing you've ever heard or seen?
J Kell 97: I can't think of any single line but people really do like to be noticed. Especially actors. You'd think they want privacy but they tend to flaunt themselves and to talk rather loud.
BookpgJL: In your current book, THE CLINIC, and Faye's current, PRAYERS FOR THE DEAD, you both have doctors and medicine at the heart of the stories. Coincidence or planned?
J Kell 97: Both Faye and I have backgrounds in health-care so I suppose it's natural that we'd each gravitate toward that world. Faye and I never discuss our works before we begin them, so in that sense it is a coincidence. I have written about docs, shrinks, etc., many times.
BookpgJL: Let's talk about that. How easy or difficult was the transition from child psychologist to bestselling crime novelist?
J Kell 97: It wasn't really a transition. I've been writing compulsively since the age of 9. For many years I was a failed writer with a very good day job.
BookpgJL: Compulsively....what did you write as a child? Dreck or good stuff?
J Kell 97: Depends upon who you ask. My mom thinks it was great. Everyone else would probably call it mega-drek.
BookpgJL: The next obvious question: How much are you like Alex Delaware?
J Kell 97: AD is my Walter Mitty fantasy. I decided, finally, to write what I knew but I'm a rather boring fellow, married with kids, dogs, etc., and could never get into the trouble he does. I'd like to think I share his compassion and curiosity about people and, certainly, some of the more technical aspects of psychology that find their way into the novels emerge from my own experience. Oh yeah, he's also in much better physical shape.
BookpgJL: In THE CLINIC I was sad to note that Robin and Alex barely spoke except in notes. Why?
J Kell 97: Doing smething interesting with Robin is always a challenge. Sometimes she takes a more active role, as in THE WEB. Sometimes she's busy with her own life. I have enough trouble working in a shrink, a gay cop, and a dog. Believe me, this is not an easy formula for commercial success.
Question: Do you find that you are promoted more heavily than your wife because her books are categorized solely under Mystery while yours are put under general fiction?
J Kell 97: The question of categorization is always arbitrary. For some reason, I've usually been put in fiction, but not always. Actually, Faye has been very well promoted by Morrow. She's quite happy with them and just signed on for another 3 books. I'm thrilled at her success because I think she's a brilliant novelist.
Question: Jonathan, I saw a movie entiled When the Bough Breaks. Is that based on your book and did you have any involvement in the making of the film?
J Kell 97: There've been several movies by that name. The only one based on my book was a t.v. film aired in 1986 on NBC starring Ted Danson. Unfortunately, you can't copyright a name and there've also been a spate of cheap straight-to-video trash thrillers called WTBB. On the NBC movie I was a technical advisor and I don't think it came out half-bad.
Question: In the Clinic there is a statement made by the female clinic doctor re Alex's friendship with Milo --- was there ever any question in Alex's character that would question this relationship?
J Kell 97: I assume you're asking if Alex has had doubts about his own sexuality. The answer is no. I thought it would be a cool thing to have a straight man and a gay man have a friendship. To my knowledge, this hadn't been done prior to WTBB, which I wrote in 1981, though it wasn't published til 1985.
BookpgJL: How did you arrive at the idea of a gay LAPD cop, a child shrink, a wood-fixing wife, and a drooly dog for a book series?
J Kell 97: Because I'm a masochist. Seriously, the main reason is I'm easily bored and wanted to avoid stereotypes within a rather structured genre --- the L.A. detective novel.
Question: How long does it take to write one of your Alex Delaware novels?
J Kell 97: One year. Three to six months of thinking, conceptualizing and outlining. Another half year to write. And rewrite. And rewrite.
BookpgJL: THE WEB, in particular, was psychologically challenging. How does your background help you? How much do you draw on it?
J Kell 97: With THE WEB I wanted to break free from the structure as much as possible. Also, Faye and I had a baby and I couldn't take a vacation, so I gave Alex one --- this is what writers do; they live vicariously. My background does help and, fortunately, I do enjoy doing research. But the greatest fun is making stuff up. You'll notice that I did send Alex to the South Pacific rather than downtown Burbank.
BookpgJL: Not that I think you would want a vacation with that much gruesome action!
Question: By using the same characters throughout all of your novels, do you feel it's easier or more difficult to come up with new stories?
J Kell 97: I don't think it matters. I find Alex D an excellent vehicle for telling the kind of stories I like to tell. I have done a non-serious book ---THE BUTCHERS THEATER, and I'm currently working on another non-serious book, quite different from BUTCHER and the Delawares.
BookpgJL: Mike Judge claims Beavis is the last name of his childhood bully....do your characters' names have any personal resonance for you?
J Kell 97: Sometimes I engage in bad puns --- e.g. a manic depressive named Richard Moody. Once, Faye had a troubador named Augusto Toon. It's amazing how seldom readers notice this. Mostly, I pick names out of the air.
Question: Do you and Faye consult on story lines?
J Kell 97: No. But we do show each other works in progress --- a great luxury for me, having a brilliant in-house editor.
BookpgJL: So, we asked Faye this in October, now your turn....why write gruesome crime novels?
J Kell 97: Because I'm a coward. Really, because matters of life and death concern me, I'm not really interested in exploring angst for 350 pages. I write about things that disturb me and frighten me.
BookpgJL: Does it tell of a dark side of you out there in sunny LA with a wonderful family?
J Kell 97: Well, Doctor, it all goes back to my childhood. Actually, I do have a rather sick appreciaton for the bizarre. Herr Doktor.
BookpgJL: Thank you, Dr. Kellerman....really....
Question: Do you still consult as a child psychologist in real life?
J Kell 97: I haven't seen patients for several years but occasionally I will do a consult. I remain on the faculty of USC med school and try to keep up with journals. I really loved psych but it's impossible doing 2 careers --- I published 3 novels while in full-time practice. Ah, but that was a younger man!
Question: What made you go in a different direction with THE WEB than all of your previous books, and is THE CLINIC going back to your old formula?
J Kell 97: I assume you mean formula in terms of L.A. setting and lots of Milo. It wasn't a conscious decision. Believe it or not, I never write commercially or with an audience in mind. Sometimes the books originate with a character, sometimes with a story. In this case both came into play: Hope Devane and the whole notion of fame gone wrong, political correctness, etc. I let the story guide me.
BookpgJL: You mentioned that you have a 5-book deal starting with Random House....will they be Alex Delaware novels?
J Kell 97: Four Delawares, one non.
BookpgJL: And the non?
J Kell 97: Working on it now. It is a crime novel. Can't say more.
Question: Have you and your wife considered writing a book together?
J Kell 97: We tried a comic novel. About as funny as a hernia. We share everything else but consider writing our private time. We have considered putting out a joint anthology of short stories and essays. Faye is much better at short stories than I am, but I have done a few. What do you think, audience? Any interest? We haven't talked to publishers, yet. Should we?
BookpgJL: What are your writing schedules like? How do you keep up with 4 kids and your menagerie?
J Kell 97: We try to write mornings and, if the day allows, we sometimes continue during the p.m. Once the kids are home from school, it's tough. The nice thing is, they write, too, so sometimes they're upstairs scribbling away.
Question: Your police detective is gay. Is that your way of counteracting stereotypes?
J Kell 97: Yes. I thought it would be interesting --- back in '81, when I conceived the characters --- to explore the notion of a first-rate detective who just happens to be gay. Because I thought American books and films paid way too much attention to what people did in bed.
Question: Jonathan, any movies of your great novels in the works (I just bought your new one today!)?
J Kell 97: Thanks for the kind words. Hollywood thinks the books are too "intellectual" and "internal." I have signed a 3-book deal with FF Copolla's American Zoetrope to develop t.v. movies. How they come out...who knows?
Question: Regarding Milo --- will you be bringing his relationship more into your writings?
J Kell 97: If it fits with the story. The story is king. I'm not adverse to it --- though I orignally intended Milo's gayness to be a very small part of the books, it became clear to me that as he developed, we'd need to learn more about him and that, sometimes, the story dictated it. We'll see what develops.
BookpgJL: Do you find at bookstore signings that you have a large gay following?
J Kell 97: Not particularly. The funny thing is when I first started I got lots of nice letters from gay folk thanking me. Now I get some carping about "How can a straight man presume to know what it's like."
Question: Mr. Kellerman, if you are going to sit down with a good novel, who do you like to read?
J Kell 97: I love many of my fellow contemporary crime writers --- E. Leonard, J. Wambaugh, Stephen Hunter, Ruth Rendell. Many, many more. I also like Michael Dorris. Loved Snow Falling on Cedars. Love the old classics --- Verne, H.G. Wells, R.L. Stevenson, Dumas, etc. I tend to gravitate toward books with a strong story line. Hate George Elliot.
Question: Who would you cast in the roles of Alex and Robin for the movies?
J Kell 97: Never thought about it. Honestly --- I really consider these characters my surrogate kids and don't want to share them. I did think Ben Kingsley would have made a great Daniel Sharavi (BUTCHERS THEATER) and Ben loved the book, wanted to play the role. But no one in Hollywood was interested.
Question: Comment and question: You're the only author I have time to read for pleasure! I've noticed that in a few of your recent titles you had an underlying theme of dark sexuality. Is it a selling point or a psychological aspect you enjoy exploring?
J Kell 97: It's never a selling point. I know you guys probably won't believe me, but I never set out to write commercially. It must come from my experiences as a psychologist. The things I saw...and heard.
Question: What kind of research did you have to do for all the spiders in The Web?
J Kell 97: When I was a kid I loved spiders, read all about them. For the book, I did some re-reading.
Question: Will you and Robin ever have children in your upcoming novels?
J Kell 97: Me and Robin? Or Alex and Robin? Either way, I'm in trouble. I don't think A.D. can ever get married. Too much responsibility. Same reason, though I love fast vehicles, that I don't get a Harley.
Question: Do you compose on a computer? Longhand? If computer, what type?
J Kell 97: Computer. IBM clone. That's about as technical as I get. I do wear out the letters on the keyboards. My computer guy says he's never seen anything like it.
BookpgJL: Faye writes so much about your religion. Your characters don't even approach it. Why?
J Kell 97: How could I compete with her? Seriously, I've thought about this and I think it's because I don't have any conflict with religion.
BookpgJL: What letters do you wear out on the keyboard, by the way?
J Kell 97: The first to go is L. Then M and N.
Question: Which book did you enjoy writing the most?
J Kell 97: All of them. Some are harder, some easier, but I honestly can't choose one over the other.
Question: Who started to write first? You or Faye?
J Kell 97: I did. I was nine. Faye was a math/science person, though she did write plays, as a kid. I never thought of her as a writer which is why I was so amazed when she handed me a manuscript. And it was wonderful! I called my agent: "Know what it sounds like, but my wife wrote a book." Later, he told me his eyes rolled all the way back in his head. But he sold that sucker in 2 weeks. THE RITUAL BATH. The woman's a genius.
Question: Does it make you feel better to write about what you fear. Does it lessen your fears?
J Kell 97: Definitely. Because crime novels offer the illusion of power. I think we all know that in real life justice doesn't always prevail. A writer is the closest thing one can be to God. Create people, determine their fates, etc. I think that's why I love writing crime novels and why people enjoy reading them.
BookpgJL: Playing God? What does your rabbi think?
J Kell 97: As long as I donate to the synagogue, he doesn't complain.
Question: I understand that you also write children's books. Can you describe what type of stories you write?
J Kell 97: I've written two books of light verse. Both I got to illustrate, but I wasn't happy with my drawings. I used to be a half-decent painter and have recently regained my chops. The problem is, publishers think of you as only one kind of writer and are inherently skeptical when one tries to cross genres. In fairness to them, very few adult writers have produced successful kids' books. But I did enjoy writing (and drawing) them.
BookpgJL: Write, paint, psychologize.......what can't you do?
J Kell 97: Change a lightbulb.
Question: Do your children read your drafts or books?
J Kell 97: They're allowed to but they're not very interested. My son, 18.5 years old is more into "serious" literature, e.g. Garcia-Marquez. Though he did recently get into Jim Thompson. My daughters are younger and don't seem drawn to my novels.
Question: Have you ever considered a non-fictional crime novel, ie: like Bugliosi?
J Kell 97: No. Too much fun making it up. Also, you tend to get sued a lot doing true-crime. Joe Wambaugh went through this repeatedly.
Question: I loved the Web! Is your new book going to be anything like it?
J Kell 97: Hard to say because I don't know what you liked about THE WEB. THE CLINIC returns to L.A., but I'd like to think both books share common elements of suspense and dark secrets, the past coming back to haunt the present.
Question: Who was the inspiration for the character Alex Delaware?
J Kell 97: I can't really give a straight answer to that. I just made him up --- using my own background as a psychologist then trying to pretend I was a dashing, physically fit, compassionate, decent guy.
Question: Does your religion impact your writing?
J Kell 97: I guess it might in the sense of a yearning for justice.
Question: When you say the story is king, do you mean that in writing your books, you concentrate on developing the plot first and letting characters follow?
J Kell 97: Sometimes it starts with a character, sometimes with an event, sometimes both. Often I try to have more than one story line because I believe in never cheat the reader. What I meant is that no matter how I start, I always like to have a strong story.
Question: Is there any way i can find out if you will be coming to a booksigning near me?
J Kell 97: I rarely do booksignings any more because of carpal tunnel syndrome. Typing's okay but handwriting really throws my hand out. Sorry.
BookpgJL: We're nearing the end of our time....how about one more question from the audience?
Question: Have you left child psychology for good? I am studying it in college and I couldn't imagine leaving it.
J Kell 97: As I said, I still read and consult. I agree it's a great field. And after all those patients it became clear to me that being a therapist is somewhat like being a parent. So I began the book PRIVATE EYES with "A therapist's work is never done." Thanks, audience.
J Kell 97: It's really been a pleasure. JK
BookpgJL: Thank you, Jonathan, for your visit tonight! It's been wonderful. I hope THE CLINIC continues its bestseller ascent!
Marlene T: Thanks so much, Mr. Kellerman and Jennifer!