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Interview: December 10, 1999

December 10, 1999

In his latest thriller, MONSTER, Jonathan Kellerman's reoccurring psychologist Alex Delaware is back on the job, searching for a killer who brutally murdered another psychologist. TBR Senior Writer Joe Hartlaub delved into the mind of Kellerman --- the author and psychologist --- and into the heart of his new book in this insightful interview. Find out why Kellerman keeps Delaware in the City of Angels, his views as a psychologist on mood altering drugs, how to raise your kid to be the 'good guy' of his novels as opposed to the monsters, and much more.

TBR: Your new book, MONSTER, is dedicated to Kenneth Millar, who wrote the Lew Archer novels under the name Ross MacDonald. Among other things, these books documented the social climate of southern California post World War II. I've noticed that collectively your novels, in an understated but incredibly effective manner, have also chronicled the people and mores of Los Angeles. Is this something that you deliberately set out to accomplish?

JK: I struggled for many years to get published. One of my (many) problems was finding my voice. Several factors combined to help me and one of them was discovering the novels of Ross MacDonald. For here was someone writing --- brilliantly --- about psychopathology in Southern California. Talk about epiphany! I told myself that, with my background, the same focus might work for me because I'd experienced some pretty raw things working as a psychologist in a public hospital and I needed a way to integrate them. I feel RM is the greatest hard-boiled crime writer who ever lived and I know others agree. James Ellroy refers to him as "Ross the Boss." While I do appreciate Chandler and others, RM really did it all: characterization, style, plot (Chandler wasn't much of a plotter.) Unfortunately, he's rather underappreciated. I would have loved to meet him, and we did have some mutual acquaintances, but sadly, he was already ill with Alzheimers by the time I got published.

Yes, I do set out to explore L.A. in my novels --- to me L.A. is a character in the books. Thank God I live here, rather than Cleveland or Philadelphia. Between the weather --- which gives us more time to get into trouble --- extremes of wealth and poverty, and the influence of the movie biz, what better setting could there be for the excavation of perversity?

TBR: MONSTER has been one of the most highly anticipated books of this year, and lives up to --- and surpasses --- that anticipation in no small measure due to Ardis Peake and particularly to the Crimmins Brothers, who are compared within the book to the Menendez Brothers. Were the actions of the Menendez Brothers the impetus for the genesis of MONSTER?

JK: I'd rather not talk about the Crimmins brothers because that might give away too much plot. I was not influenced by the Menendez Brothers; there's no shortage of psychopathy out there if you know where to look. The fun of fiction is making stuff up.

TBR: One topic discussed sub rosa in MONSTER is the use of psychotropic or mood-altering medications for the treatment of behavioral disorders. There are those who feel that the use of medications is one of the most important advances to date in the treatment of mental problems. There are others who feel overmedication is a big problem. What is your stance on this?

JK: As is the case with most serious issues, our instant-information society tends to create artificial controversy. These medications aren't any different than any other class of pharmaceuticals. Administered under proper supervision, they can do a lot of good. Abused, they can be disastrous. With regard to schizophrenia, the data are pretty clear: about one-third of patients achieve miraculous results and greatly improved quality of life, sometimes verging on cure. Another third achieves partial improvement, and the last third doesn't respond. One of the reasons we have a "homeless problem" is that we shut down mental hospitals and release schizophrenics to the cruelties of the streets. A good number of these people could be helped by proper medical care, including medication.

TBR: You transported Alex Delaware to Jerusalem in THE BUTCHER'S THEATER. Do you have any plans, however tentative, to feature him in an environ other than southern California in the future?

JK: Will I write another book set in Israel? Doubtful. THE BUTCHER'S THEATER took a lot out of me.

TBR: How do you go about your development of secondary characters in your novels. Are they drawn from chance encounters, created from whole cloth, or a combination of the two?

JK: As I just mentioned, the fun of writing fiction is making stuff up. Normal people often have difficulty understanding the warped, meandering, hyperactive mind of a novelist --- occasionally I hear from folks who are certain they KNOW someone I've fictionalized. But it just ain't so. John Irving did a good job of dealing with this in A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR. I plot my novels extensively, so I have a pretty good idea where the story's going (though that often changes.) In the outline, the characters tend to be rather sketchily drawn. When I actually sit down to write the book, they come to life. It's a rather bizarre and wonderful experience. I love my job.

TBR: You have four children, which, in and of itself, irrespective of your educational and professional background, qualifies you as an expert in parenting (not to mention stress management). What, in your opinion, is the most important environmental element a parent can provide to a child in the hope that the child will grow up to be more like Alex Delaware, as opposed to Derrick Crimmins?

JK: You really don't want me to get started on my kids --- I'll go on obnoxiously about how wonderful they are. I think the best thing I did for them was marry the right woman. Faye, in addition to being a gifted novelist, really is Super-Mom, sometimes at great cost to her energy level. I don't think there are any big secrets to raising moral children. Given kids with normal neurological systems, you have to provide them with love, affection and LOTS of attention. LOTS and LOTS. I'm an old dad with a seven year old, so know of whence I speak. Needless to say, you also have to set a decent example. Really bad people rarely sprout randomly. I deal with this in my nonfiction book SAVAGE SPAWN: Reflections on Violent Children. The precursors of serious evil are generally pretty blatant. In other words, it takes a lot to screw up a kid.

TBR: You have an extensive background as a child psychologist --- a field where you remain highly respected to this day. What initially inspired you to make the "jump," so to speak, from the practice of psychology to the writing of novels?

JK: I never really "jumped." The arts and science have always been dual interests. I began writing at the age of 9, worked as a journalist and cartoonist in college, tried my first novel at 19, won a literary award at 21 and thought I was pretty hot stuff. I even had an agent! My first PUBLISHED novel came out 14 years later, so that gives you a pretty good idea of my struggle. Basically, I was a failed writer with a really good day job. Piles of rejection letters. However, I don't want to imply that I went into psychology in order to bide my time until the acceptance letters arrived. I was fascinated by the field and decided to become a child clinical psychologist during my freshman year in college. Psych was going to be my lifelong job, for even though I loved writing and wanted to get published, I never considered it a way to make a living. Surprise, surprise. Sometimes I still can't believe it. So thanks to all the readers who allow me to continue this great gig. The obvious thing, of course, is that without my training in psychology, I'd never have published fiction. For a long time, though, I was too stupid to realize the obvious synergy.

TBR: Notwithstanding your success as a novelist, you recently returned to writing nonfiction with the publication of SAVAGE SPAWN, your first nonfiction work in eighteen years. What was the impetus for your return to nonfiction?

JK: I wrote SAVAGE SPAWN because a) I was really upset by the rash of school yard shootings, particularly Jonesboro, Arkansas, and b) the editor of the Library of Contemporary Thought asked me to do it the same day I'd dashed off an op-ed piece on the topic for USA Today. Just one of those strange confluences. I thought I should take that to heart. Writing my first psych book in nearly twenty years was fun but there's no doubt in my mind that I prefer fiction. After fifteen years in academic medicine, I've had my fill of footnotes, references, etc.

TBR: Do you have a preference for writing fiction or nonfiction? What about when it comes to reading?

JK: When it comes to reading I tend to favor nonfiction. One of the occupational hazards of my job is that I tend to read fiction editorially rather than hypnotically. I do, however, love really great novels.

TBR: If you don't mind letting us peek over your shoulder, could you describe your work schedule to us?

JK: Both Faye and I prefer to write in the morning, when the kids are in school and the house is relatively quiet. I'm not cranky about this, however. During my failed-writer days I wrote late at night in my garage, after discharging my duties to patients and family. So I'd like to think I'm flexible. Afternoons I often rewrite or deal with business issues.

TBR: Are you working on anything new right now?

JK: Next year's Delaware novel is complete and I'm about halfway through the one after that. It's not that I write particularly quickly --- I don't. But I have a pretty good work ethic and try not to get distracted. Also, I still love writing, so that makes it easier.

TBR: What writers, other than Ross MacDonald, have influenced you?

JK: The other hard-boiled California writers --- Chandler, Hammet, Jonathan Latimer, Horace McCoy, etc., --- as well as Joseph Wambaugh, E.A. Poe, A.C. Doyle, Dumas, Verne, HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, James T. Farrell. And many others. Anyone with style, grace, and a strong sense of story.

TBR: What are you reading now?

JK: A scholarly tome on hermaphrodites.

TBR: There has been consideration in the past of adapting one or more of your novels to film. Can you tell us if any of your novels are presently being scripted? Is there one in particular that you would like to see on the big screen?

JK: Big-screen folks have no interest in my novels --- allegedly too "complex" or "intellectual." WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS was a very successful TV movie in 1986 and that's the only time I've been adapted for any size screen. Coppola bought three books for TV a few years back and BAD LOVE was scripted and ready to go. Then some TV executive came aboard and kaboshed what her predecessor had done. Typical. BILLY STRAIGHT has been scripted for TV, but whether or not the project will actually go through is anyone's guess. I have very little interest in film, though if a terrific director/actor/production company wanted to do one of my books --- at the right price --- I'd be amenable.

TBR: We are rapidly approaching the close of the 20th Century. What one advancement would you like to see in the field of child psychology?

JK: I'd like to see a more balanced view of nature-nurture issues develop --- recognition that both are vital with less bifurcation into one-or-the-other dogmas. I tend to be optimistic about children --- there's some good research showing that "experts'" dire predictions tend to be inaccurate. Kids aren't much different today than they ever were --- as a matter of fact, I wrote an essay on that for the current Land's End Catalogue. My primary worry is the impact of divorce upon children. There is a tendency to under-appreciate the consequences of divorce, particularly upon 7 to 11-year-olds.

TBR: And finally, the question we are asking everyone, what are your thoughts on the millennium?

JK: To me the whole millennium issue is nonsense. Just another year. But maybe I'm saying that because I just turned 50 and keep telling myself that's arbitrary, as well.