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Interview: November 24, 1997

November 24, 1997

On November 24, 1997, THE BOOK REPORT welcomed bestselling psychological thriller writer Jonathan Kellerman to discuss his new book, SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST. In our brief time together, we managed to cover topics ranging from guitar playing to American perceptions of Israel. Interested? Read on for more about a thoughtful and intelligent writer. Our interviewer was Jennifer Levitsky (BookpgJL) and our host was MarleneT.

Marlene T: BookpgJL (Jennifer Levitsky) of THE BOOK REPORT will be interviewing Mr. Kellerman tonight. Good evening Jen and Mr. Kellerman, welcome!

BookpgJL: Thank you, Jonathan, for being here with us tonight.

JKellerman: Hi, pleasure to be here.

BookpgJL: Let's get started! SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST is much darker in subject matter than some of your previous novels. Was this a conscious choice? A trend we'll see more of in the future?

JKellerman: No conscious choice. I let the story and the characters guide me. This book was appealing on two levels: I got to pair Alex Delaware with Daniel Sharavi, of BUTCHER'S THEATER fame and I got to explore some social issues that trouble me.

BookpgJL: Reading about a murdered retarded girl was difficult. How was it to write?

JKellerman: Tough. It's always tough when you get into the characters. But, let's face it, I write crime novels, so I'd better not be too faint-hearted.

BookpgJL: We have a member question selected from our message board. Jadeless wants to know: What prompted you to include Daniel Sharavi in this novel?

JKellerman: I really enjoyed writing about him in THE BUTCHER'S THEATER but for the next few years I didn't intend to bring him back. Then this particular story came to me and I realized he'd be perfect. So it was an opportunity to get him together with Alex Delaware to see how they'd interact. Also, it gave me the opportunity to get a little risky: write a Delaware novel with multiple points of view. This way we get to see Delaware through the eyes of another. All in all, I had a great deal of fun and I hope that comes across to the reader.

BookpgJL: Why make Sharavi a slightly suspicious character at first in SURVIVAL?

JKellerman: Once again, just to keep things interesting. I believe all good fiction must have some degree of mystery. Certainly this is true for crime novels, where the mystery is the prime ingredient. I'm always searching for ways to keep myself and --- hopefully --- my readers interested. The challenge, when writing a long-standing series, is to avoid hacking out the same old stuff, getting complacent, etc. Always striving to keep it fresh.

BookpgJL: Sharavi's role in SURVIVAL seems to play into American-held stereotypes about Israelis. He's secretive, has all these weapons and spy toys, etc. Why do you tackle him in this way?

JKellerman: Though I consider myself a staunch Zionist, I have lived in Israel and consider myself fairly knowledgeable about Israelis, the Israeli gov. etc. I think this is a very accurate portrayal. Just look at what happened in Jordan, recently --- squirting poison in some Hamas guy's ear. There is a love of cloak and dagger stuff in Israel, primarily because it has worked pretty well in aiding the country to survive in the face of all that hatred. I wouldn't like to think that I painted a negative portrait of Israel, Israelis, simply one that is true-to-life.

BookpgJL: Tell us a little about your time in Israel. Would you want to live there again?

JKellerman: I attended rabbinic seminary in 1968, visited several other times, including a research trip in 1985 for THE BUTCHER'S THEATER, when my knowledge of Hebrew allowed me to interview street cops in their native tongue. I'd like to think part of that books accuracy (Netanyahu said he felt he had a map to Jerusalem when he was reading it --- comes from the time I spent there.) Most recently, I was there for a two month stay around six years ago. Wonderful place, but I consider myself very strongly American and have no plans to move.

Question: Do you have any tours scheduled? If so, where can we find out about them?

JKellerman: This year, no tour, as far as I know. I'm leaving Bantam to go to Random House and Bantam isn't too thrilled about promoting me. I suspect that when my first Random House book comes out in one year I'll be doing an extensive tour. The only problem is carpal tunnel syndrome prevents me from doing extensive signings. I do have a personalized stamp that was well received on a recent tour in the United Kingdom, but how well it would go over in the U.S. I don't know. All that sad, I love meeting fans, booksellers, etc. Despite the fact that I lead a rather hermetic existence I do come up for air occasionally and enjoy bursts of sociability.

BookpgJL: Tell us a bit about your deal with Random House. More Delaware books? Others?

JKellerman: My deal is for 5 books. The first is a non-Delaware, my first in 10 years and I'm very pleased with it. So, thank God, are Random House and my foreign publishers. division, a "big-case" murder, a 12-year-old boy on the lam and multiple points of view. The other 4 books are Delawares and I'm about halfway through the first --- to be published in November of 99. The non-Delaware is due out November of 98.

Question: Mr. Kellerman, one of my favorite books, BUTCHER'S THEATER, is not an Alex Delaware book. Any plans to do more books that don't feature him?

JKellerman: As just answered, next year's book is non-Delaware. I became very attached to the characters and would certainly like to do more books with them. I'd like to see how this book is received as well as to come up with the right stories. From a novelist's standpoint, it's certainly appealing to stretch.

BookpgJL: In SURVIVAL, you talk about LA being the ideal hiding place for a stalker/killer because of its "country-sized sprawl." How does this effect the plotting and pace of your novels?

JKellerman: Interesting question. I've never really considered that consciously but there's no doubt L.A. plays a major role in all the Delaware novels. In some sense, the city itself is a character. I must like doing this, because Jerusalem is a "character" in BUTCHER'S THEATER. I grew up in L.A. and was very influenced by the S. California hardboiled writers --- R. MacDonald, R. Chandler, J. Latimer, N. West, etc. I think of L.A. as a third world nation --- severe distance between the have and the have-nots. The resulting tension is excellent grist for the novelist's mill. Probably why I still live here.

Question: What was the first thing you wrote that was published and how old were you when it was published?

JKellerman: I wrote all through college for the UCLA Daily Bruin, so if you consider that publication, I began at 16. My first published short story was in 1977, making me 28. Around that time I published several op-ed pieces, such as My Turns in Newsweek, etc. My first book --- a medical text --- came out in 1980. I'd been working on novels since 1972 but didn't get published til 1985. Thirteen year rejection phase. I'm the poster boy for perseverance.

BookpgJL: If you could team Alex up with any sleuth in the fictional mystery world, who would it be?

JKellerman: This is going to sound cute, but no doubt it would be Peter Decker from my wife's series, simply because I know him best and I do love her books. But!!! in answer to a sure-to-be asked question, Faye and I have no plans to collaborate. Other potential partners would include: Jacob Asch (Arthur Lyons) Sherlock Holmes, Lew Archer, and any of Elmore Leonard's sad sack heroes.

BookpgJL: Everyone wants to know: How much of you is in Alex Delaware?

JKellerman: Think of him as my Walter Mitty fantasy. We share common biographical factors --- because I finally figured out "Write what you know" was a good way to get started. However, he is a. handsomer b. more fit c. more reckless d. not married-with-kids and d. according to my, wife, a lot more straightlaced than I am. She feels --- and I must agree --- that Milo serves as my outlet for an often tasteless sense of humor. The thing about writing through Delaware's point of view is you get to edit and rewrite, so he always ends up saying the right thing. Real life is, alas, quite different.

BookpgJL: Does Alex have any major flaws we'll ever get to know about?

JKellerman: Well, I think he gets a little too self-righteous. I mean wouldn't it be great if the guy just cut loose and said something grossly politically incorrect? Or refused to help someone because he was too damned tired? Not gonna happen --- he is what he is and though I strive to stretch within the confines of this alter-ego I've created, there are limitations to what I can do without violating the character.

BookpgJL: Going back to Milo, will we ever get to know him more personally? Perhaps see him as a more main character than Alex?

JKellerman: It will all depend upon the story. I tried leaving him out in THE WEB, just to see how it would turn out and though the book outsold every previous book, I got lots of complaints. I don't think he'll ever replace Alex as the main character. I love to characterize but sometimes this leads to digressions that detract from the story. I have to keep reminding myself that this is a thriller I'm writing and anything that gets in the way of suspense is probably detrimental. Who knows, though. Never say never.

Question: What other authors do you enjoy reading?

JKellerman: I read very little fiction --- occupational hazard. And I'm always loathe to compose a list because there will be inevitable errors of omission. But...J. Wambaugh, E. Leonard, J. Ellroy, R. Rendell. The classic crime writers, as noted in a previous answer. Recently I've become quite enamored of the travel books of Tim Cahill. JAGUARS RIPPED MY FLESH was a particular favorite. I do think Stephen King will be read in high school textbooks in coming generations and venerated in much the same way we venerate Poe.

Question: Does CTS affect your writing ability? How do you cope with it? J

Kellerman: The syndrome is at a fairly early stage and through excellent exercise rehab --- stretching, weight lifting --- I've been able to prevent progression. I'm able to type for 3, 4 hours, but I do break every hour of so. The other activity I'm thrilled to be able to continue is guitar playing. The only thing that seems to really make it worse is handwriting --- I'm a lefty and hook in a terrible way. Ergo, very few signings.

BookpgJL: What do you like to play on the guitar? Do you sing?

JKellerman: I'm an old picker --- and I do mean old --- pre-Beatles. I used to teach guitar, played in a band. I play rock, jazz, pop, just about anything other than heavy-duty classical. I also have a pretty maniacal guitar collection. This has been a lifelong passion. I used to sing. I won't comment on the quality of my baritone but let's just say no record companies have been knocking on my door.

Question: I've always been a fan of your wife's, Faye Kellerman, as well as of you. Is there a sense of competition around the house when it comes to writing?

JKellerman: Honestly, no. At first it was a little tough because I was selling quite a bit more and Faye used to get "Oh, so you write, too," a lot. Now, however, she's doing great. In fact, recently, she's been the one getting the "celebrity treatment" and I don't mind at all because I prefer to remain in the background --- writing, playing guitar, etc. Faye and I have been married 25 years plus and it's really quite a wonderful match. We were married twelve years before we became novelists, so we were pretty cemented. We like to joke that there's no competition because it all goes into the same bank account. The other thing that makes is easy is we genuinely admire each other's work.

Question: What advice can you give to aspiring authors?

JKellerman: Well, maybe I'm not the best person to ask because it took me a long time to break in and I certainly wasn't viewed as a "big author" until the public --- God bless 'em --- went out and bought WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS. No one was more surprised than me. And my publisher. However, some basics: write what you know, it all comes down to an interesting story about characters we care about --- that doesn't mean we have to like them. I find rewriting a necessity and I try to be open-minded about editing. One gets so close to one's work that sometimes the point of view of another is helpful. Also, don't spend too much time introspecting. Write, write write. Perspiration along with inspiration. Treat it like a job.

BookpgJL: Your life seems pretty happy, right? So why write about such gruesome crimes?

JKellerman: I guess I have a warped mind. Seriously, though my life is good, it has not been without its share of trauma. I had cancer 10 years ago. Prior to that I worked with children with cancer and other serious diseases. As a psychologist I witnessed some pretty terrible things. I suppose I write about things that trouble me. As in SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST: the rather terrifying tendency of technology to outstrip ethics. I worry that the slippery slope toward total devaluation of human life is well on its way. I suppose I am, fundamentally, a rather serious fellow who probably does too much worrying. Most of us crime novelists are cowards. We make a living describing our terrors.

BookpgJL: Does living amid LA and the infamous LAPD provide a lot of fodder for fiction?

JKellerman: I try to stay away from the well-publicized cases because they're already out in the public domain. But, sure, it's a crazy city. No shortage of material.

Question: Can you share with us how you and Faye met?

JKellerman: Faye was 18, I was 21. It was a college sports night. She was serving a volleyball and looked adorable. I tried to pick her up. She demurred but did agree to go out with a group of friends. We were secretly engaged 3 months later. Very romantic, huh?

Question: When you wrote the first Delaware novel did you know that you wanted to do a series of books about him or did it just happen?

JKellerman: I'd failed for so long that I didn't think BOUGH would get published, let alone spawn a series. I mean can you see building a series around a shrink and a gay cop? When they accepted BOUGH, I said, Okay, as long as they're letting me through the door, I'll give them another. And another. The rest is...rather trivial...history.

Question: Did you have any interesting jobs during your 13-year rejection phase that have turned up in your books?

JKellerman: I was a failed writer with an excellent day-job: I worked as a psychologist and medical school professor. Did behavioral medicine research --- pediatric pain control, hypnosis, psychosocial rehab. Etc.

BookpgJL: We're out of time, unfortunately. Thanks for being here!

JKellerman: Thanks for having me and most important --- thanks to all you readers who took the time to listen.

Marlene T: Thank you Jen and Mr. Kellerman.