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Interview: December 15, 2000

December 15, 2000

Jonathan Kellerman transports readers yet again with his new chilling and intellectual thriller, DR. DEATH. Join us as our resident Kellerman addict, Senior Writer Joe Hartlaub, delves inside the novel's doctor and author. Get a hint at what's in store for his popular recurring character, Alex Delaware, and much more in this interview.

TBR: DR. DEATH has a "real world" immediacy on a number of levels, dealing not only with a Dr. Kevorkian-type character but also with a character somewhat similar to Dr. Michael Swango, the physician who recently pled guilty to murdering hospital patients in a number of different cities. What originally drew you toward assisted suicide --- both voluntary and involuntary --- as the underlying theme of DR. DEATH?

JK: I can't really say what draws me to a specific topic. Though I avoid writing a "message book," I do find that many of my novels tend to feature so-called "social issues." Probably because I like to wrestle with things that bother me. That probably also explains my choice of psychology as a profession. I'm also drawn to complex issues, such as assisted suicide, because I find questions much more interesting than answers. At root, all fiction is about surprise and when I write I like to explore and to surprise myself. That way, hopefully, the reader will be engaged, as well.

TBR: What are your own thoughts about assisted suicides and doctors like Dr. Kevorkian?

JK: As I said, it's a complex issue and I don't profess any great wisdom. I do feel that we need to be aware of slippery-slopes and to use whatever credo it takes --- either religion or some secular code --- to explicate and buttress the sanctity of human life.

TBR: One of the more interesting elements of DR. DEATH is that it involves the investigation of the murder of Dr. Eldon Mate whose involvement in assisted suicides made him quite unpopular. While never explicitly stated in the novel, DR. DEATH very nicely demonstrated the premise that even an unpopular victim has the right to posthumous justice and closure. Was there any specific inspiration which drew you toward this premise?

JK: At the risk of appearing evasive, I really can't comment on the specifics other than to reiterate that pat issues should be the province of CNN and episodic TV, not novels. I like to say that as a psychologist I was concerned with the rules of human behavior. As a novelist, I'm concerned with the exceptions.

TBR: Another element that makes DR. DEATH more authentic was the interplay between Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis --- both characters are driven, working toward a common goal, yet occasionally at cross-purposes. The friendship was able to ultimately survive, but only because both of them were willing to work toward that goal as well. Are we going to see any more shifts in the friendship between Delaware and Sturgis in the future?

JK: I chose early on to create series characters who evolve --- in contrast with Agatha Christie's Poirot, for example, who is basically a static figure against whom events bounce and whose sole purpose is to solve puzzles. This is not to detract from Christie's genius. I simply opted to do it differently because, though I do invest a lot in plotting, my first love is creating characters. I walk a thin line --- parceling out the details of Delaware's personal life very stingily, because in most of the books, he isn't the story, he's the vehicle for telling the story. However, to me a crime novel remains a novel and I want to write it as richly as I can.

TBR: On a similar note, I've noticed that you are not at all reticent about changing the dynamics of Delaware's personal life. Do you have any plans for major changes in Delaware's life over the course of the next few Delaware novels?

JK: In terms of what changes I plan for Delaware in the future: You can't really think I'm going to tell you!

TBR: Do you have any plans for taking Alex Delaware out of his southern California environs, or for a novel which does not involve Alex Delaware in the future?

JK: I took AD out of California for THE WEB and that was great fun. Looking back, I think I did it because Faye and I had just welcomed a new baby to the family, and I couldn't travel much, so I vacationed vicariously through Alex. The book sold great but I did get a lot of cranky comments about the change of venue. Of course, that wouldn't influence me, if I came up with a story that lent itself to let's say...Paris? Tahiti? far though, Alex stays in LA. The series is, at root, wedded to LA.

TBR: Are there any plans, however tentative, to introduce a recurring character outside of the Alex Delaware novels?

JK: No plans but, once again, even if there were, I wouldn't tell you. The punch line must FOLLOW the joke.

TBR: What are you working on now?

JK: I've completed next year's Delaware and I'm about halfway through the one after that. And, please, no comments about churning them out. I don't write particularly quickly but I do write steadily. Five pages a day adds up to a manuscript sooner than one might imagine. Then I rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite.

TBR: What is your writing schedule like?

JK: Five days a week, I stagger downstairs to my office, sit down, turn off the phones, lock the door, and type. Whether I'm feeling "inspired" or not. When I'm through, I eat, play guitar, paint, sleep, etc. Hovering over all of this, of course, is the perennial attempt to be a good husband and father. And dog-owner.

TBR: Are there any plans for film adaptations of any of your Alex Delaware novels?

JK: My first novel, WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS, was one of NBC's most successful movies of the week in 1986. Since then, the film biz people haven't seemed very interested in my books. I've had lots of options, purchases, deals, etc., but in the end, the projects never go into production. The most common reason seems to be that the books are extremely hard to script because they're too "complex" or "intellectual." I suppose I should be flattered, though a film-biz guy's notion of "intellectual" is a strange thing, indeed. And in view of the shabby adaptation of many novels, perhaps I should consider myself lucky. However good books can be turned into good films --- e.g. SILENCE THE LAMBS, LA CONFIDENTIAL --- and the latter was pretty darned complex. So, if anyone knows my favorite film people, the Coen brothers...

TBR: What books have you read recently that you would recommend to your readers?

JK: I've been reading all of Bill Bryson's travel books and they're quite brilliant and hilarious. In general, I don't read much fiction when I'm writing. Too distracting.

Thanks again, Joe.