Partners in crime: The Kellermans share a knack for suspense
The Kellerman household seems to be in a state of controlled uproar on this particular afternoon. Faye Kellerman is leaving in the morning for a nine-day book tour in Germany. There is a hum of activity in the background during our phone conversation. Last minute preparations and pressing household matters occasionally take Faye away from the call.
"She's never been to Germany," Jonathan Kellerman tells me during one of his wife's absences. "They've wanted her to come for many years." He says her tour will focus not only on Stalker, Faye's current thriller, but on many of the other novels in her popular Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus detective series. "She's a big personage in Germany," he adds with obvious pleasure.
Of course Jonathan Kellerman is no slouch himself. He has written more than a dozen bestsellers in his Alex Delaware series since the mid-1980s. Commenting on the first, When the Bough Breaks, Stephen King announced that Jonathan Kellerman had reinvented the detective novel. Ardent fans continue to agree.
His latest effort, Dr. Death, centers on the brutal murder of a Kevorkian-like figure. Suspicions fall on the husband of one of Dr. Death's most recent "patients." As always, Los Angeles, vividly described, is also a character in the novel. Many advance readers (including this interviewer) think it may well be his best book yet. Jonathan, who gave up a career as a noted child psychologist to write full-time, believes the book is his most successful attempt to interweave a family psychopathology theme and "a really creepy killer."
Together, the Kellermans have an extraordinary publishing record. Each produces a novel almost every year, an astonishing pace to sustain for the better part of two decades. Stalker, which focuses on the experiences of Peter Decker's daughter, Cindy, as a rookie in the LAPD, is Faye's most successful book to date, the first to crack the top five in the New York Times bestseller list. Jonathan's last book, Monster, was a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback.
As we continue the interview, Jonathan mentions that one of their four children is also working on a novel, "a brilliant historical novel, a rather ambitious and wonderful book," he calls it in one of those warm, big-hearted comments that typify his conversational style.
Jonathan is illustrating a point about the importance of plot. He says his son has come to realize that at some level or another all literature is mystery. It's an excellent point. It's a point that puts Jonathan at odds with much fashionable contemporary writing. And it's a point on which Faye and Jonathan emphatically agree. Unfortunately, I am too distracted to quite take this in. I am thinking: What? Four children? Two prodigious, very successful writing careers under one roof? And now, possibly, a third? How is this possible? How do they ever manage it?
"Doing well in marriage is a good preface to doing well in a household like this," Faye says. "I think the key to managing this is the art of compromise."
"Right," Jonathan says. "Faye and I were married 12 or 13 years before either of us got published. It wasn't as if the two of us met at a writer's conference and brought these egos in. Faye was 18 when I met her; I was 21. To the extent that we've grown up at all, we've grown up together. The fact that our relationship was solid before we got published really helped."
It seems to be true. Throughout the hour we spend talking, the Kellermans graciously take turns answering questions; they trade jokes and witticisms; they encourage one another with praise and endearments and thanks. They say they really don't compete, that they are honestly happy for each other's successes. They seem genuinely to respect one another's work.
Asked to comment on each other's strengths as writers, they are quick to answer. "From the very outset, Faye had a golden ear for dialogue," Jonathan says. "It took me a while to learn to write dialogue. But Faye could do it right away because she's always been a gifted mimic. She also has an innate sense of pacing. Her books are lean, never padded. The story moves along at a rapid pace, because Faye is that kind of person. She's a busy person. She doesn't have a lot of patience for wasting time."
Faye responds, "Jonathan's strength is his consistency in always writing a fantastic story, his ability to keep the story moving and his wonderful prose. He uses the perfect metaphor -- not five perfect metaphors. He's able to inject much more into his thrillers than the average thriller-writer because of his training as a psychologist and his keen insight into people."
In fact, the only thing resembling a dispute comes up during a rambunctious discussion of the movies. The two spar playfully over which is the greater movie, Jaws or The Poseidon Adventure. They come to a sort of agreement on Titanic. "That movie finally picked up once they hit the iceberg," Faye exclaims gleefully. "I mean once the water started pouring in, I turned to Jonathan and said, 'All right! Now we've got a movie!'" Jonathan agrees, and adds, "But for me, it wasn't worth waiting through two hours of sloppy romance for 20 minutes of iceberg."
To be honest, all this warmth and tenderness is a little disconcerting. And the Kellermans know how I feel. "I'm always wary of interviews like this," Jonathan says, partly in jest. "What happens is that we come across as disgustingly smug and goody two-shoes. Honestly, we don't have any big skeletons in our closets. But we're both extremely intense people, with very artistic temperaments. There's no doubt about it."
Of the two, Jonathan is probably the most intense. "Everything, everything seems destined to impede my writing," he says. "I'm so paranoid about this. I see life as a series of obstacles. I've got to get into my office and not be distracted. I'm just a fanatic about achieving focus, just trying to shut the door and shut off the phone. My secretary knows not to come in for anything short of an emergency."
Then, during one of Faye's absences, Jonathan says, "Faye has been so wonderful in taking care of me that she basically leaves me free to do this. She manages to do everything, so she's a lot more impressive as a human being."
"Anything that's great takes a lot, a lot, a lot of work," Faye says, later. "We like to write our books and we're grateful that they're successful, but we do work. This is a job. I mean this is a working household."
"Faye and I are very much enmeshed," Jonathan says. "We have four kids, we hang out a lot together, we both work at home, we generally have lunch or breakfast together three, four, five times a week. So we're like a retired couple. Our writing is the only private time we have. We each go into our little offices and close the doors. We're each pretty protective of that. We talk about the financial part of the business but we don't talk much about creative aspects. We don't talk shop."
So the success of this immensely productive marriage isn't just about compromise and work and family? It is also about allowing, even encouraging, private, creative spaces?
The Kellermans definitely agree. In fact, Faye might be speaking for them both when she says, "We love each other, but this is a very personal thing. Jonathan and I collaborate on almost everything that pertains to life. But we want our stories to be our own. For better or for worse, our books are our own personal little slices of life."
Alden Mudge writes from his home in Oakland, California.
Author photo by Jesse Kellerman.