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Jonathan Kellerman

Jonathan Kellerman Says…
In This Interview

Jonathan Kellerman’s most influential books

What it takes to succeed as a writer

And the jobs before he made it big

Fact File
Photo by Jonathan Exley

Jonathan Kellerman

Current Home:
Beverly Hills, California

Place of Birth:
New York, New York

B.A. in psychology, University of California-Los Angeles; Ph.D., University of Southern California, 1974

Edgar Award, Anthony Award for When the Bough Breaks, 1986


“I like to say that as a psychologist I was concerned with the rules of human behavior,” Jonathan Kellerman has said. “As a novelist, I’m concerned with the exceptions.” Both roles are evident in Kellerman’s string of bestselling psychological thrillers, in which he probes the hidden corners of the human psyche with a clinician’s expertise and a novelist’s dark imagination.

Kellerman worked for years as a child psychologist, but his first love was writing, which he started doing at the age of nine. After reading Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels, however, Kellerman found his voice as a writer — and his calling as a suspense novelist. His first published novel, When the Bough Breaks, featured a child psychologist, Dr. Alex Delaware, who helps solve a murder case in which the only apparent witness is a traumatized seven-year-old girl. The book was an instant hit; as New York’s Newsday raved, “[T]his knockout of an entertainment is the kind of book which establishes a career in one stroke.”

Kellerman has since written a slew more Alex Delaware thrillers; not surprisingly, the series hero shares much of Kellerman’s own background. The books often center on problems of family psychopathology—something Kellerman had ample chance to observe in his day job. The Delaware novels have also chronicled the shifting social and cultural landscape of Los Angeles, where Kellerman lives with his wife (who is also a health care practitioner-turned-novelist) and their four children.

A prolific author who averages one book a year, Kellerman dislikes the suggestion that he simply cranks them out. He has a disciplined work schedule, and sits down to write in his office five days a week, whether he feels “inspired” or not. “I sit down and start typing. I think it’s important to deromanticize the process and not to get puffed up about one’s abilities,” he said in a 1998 chat on Barnes & “Writing fiction’s the greatest job in the world, but it’s still a job. All the successful novelists I know share two qualities: talent and a good work ethic.”

And he does plenty of research, drawing on medical databases and current journals as well as his own experience as a practicing psychologist. Then there are the field trips: before writing Monster, Kellerman spent time at a state hospital for the criminally insane.

Kellerman has taken periodic breaks from his Alex Delaware series to produce highly successful stand-alone novels that he claims have helped him to gain some needed distance from the series characters. It’s a testament to Kellerman’s storytelling powers that the series books and the stand-alones have both gone over well with readers; clearly, Kellerman’s appeal lies more in his dexterity than in his reliance on a formula. “Often mystery writers can either plot like devils or create believable characters,” wrote one USA Today reviewer. “Kellerman stands out because he can do both. Masterfully.”
Good to Know

Some outtakes from our interview with Jonathan Kellerman:
“I am the proud husband of a brilliant novelist, Faye Kellerman. I am the proud father of a brilliant novelist, Jesse Kellerman. And three lovely, gifted daughters, one of whom, Aliza, may turn out to be one of the greatest novelists/poets of this century. ”

“My first job was selling newspapers on a corner, age 12. Then I delivered liquor, age 16 — the most engaging part of that gig was schlepping cartons of bottles up stairways in building without elevators. Adding insult to injury, tips generally ranged from a dime to a quarter. And, I was too young to sample the wares. Subsequent jobs included guitar teacher, freelance musician, newspaper cartoonist, Sunday School teacher, youth leader, research/teaching assistant. All of that simplified when I was 24 and earned a Ph.D. in psychology. Another great job. Then novelist? Oh, my, an embarrassment of riches. Thank you, thank you, thank you, kind readers. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.

“I paint, I play the guitar, I like to hang out with intelligent people whose thought processes aren’t by stereotype, punditry, political correctness, etc. But enough about me. The important thing is The Book.”

More fun facts:
After Kellerman called his literary agent to say that his wife, Faye, had written a novel, the agent reluctantly agreed to take a look (“Later, he told me his eyes rolled all the way back in his head,” Kellerman said in an online chat). Two weeks later, a publisher snapped up Faye Kellerman’s first book, The Ritual Bath. Faye Kellerman has since written many more mysteries featuring L.A. cop Peter Decker and his wife Rina Lazarus, including the bestsellers Justice and Jupiter’s Bones.

When Kellerman wrote When the Bough Breaks in 1981, crime novels featuring gay characters were nearly nonexistent, so Alex Delaware’s gay detective friend, Milo Sturgis, was a rarity. Kellerman admits it can be difficult for a straight writer to portray a gay character, but says the feedback he’s gotten from readers — gay and straight — has been mostly positive.

In his spare time, Kellerman is a musician who collects vintage guitars. He once placed the winning online auction bid for a guitar signed by Don Henley and his bandmates from the Eagles; proceeds from the sale were donated to the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas.

In addition to his novels, Kellerman has written two children’s books and three nonfiction books, including Savage Spawn, about the backgrounds and behaviors of child psychopaths.

But for a 1986 television adaptation of When the Bough Breaks, none of Kellerman’s work has yet made it to screen. “I wish I could say that Hollywood’s beating a path to my door,” he said in a Barnes & chat in 1998, “but the powers-that-be at the studios don’t seem to feel that my books lend themselves to film adaptation. The most frequent problem cited is too much complexity.”
Feature Interview
In the winter of 2008, Jonathan Kellerman took time out to talk with our editors:

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer — and why?
The Babylonian Talmud taught me to think critically. The Count of Monte Cristo taught me the value of strong characterization in concert with a robust plot.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I couldn’t hope to limit the list to ten!

What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
To me, Fargo is the perfect movie – mordant, fast-moving, richly characterized, well-structured.

What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you’re writing?
I’ve been playing guitar for 50 years and am currently concentrating on classical. However, I love anything well-done – from Baroque to Rap.

What are your favorite kinds of books to give — and get — as gifts?
Well-done novels, visually beautiful art books, biographies. Really, once again, anything reductionistic misses the mark.

Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you’re writing?
I treat writing as a job — the greatest job in the world, but a job. One needs to be professional — e.g., get up, exercise, get some nutrition, shower, shave, get dressed … and prepare to open up a psychic vein for a few hours. No rituals, just intense concentration and a desire to write a novel that will entertain and, hopefully, enrich.

Many writers are hardly “overnight success” stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I won a literary prize in 1971 and published my first novel in 1985. Despite two previous publications of nonfiction books, I regarded myself during that 14-year period as a failed writer with a really good day job (clinical psychologist/medical school professor). The only inspiration I can offer is that sometimes an obsessive-compulsive personality pays off.

What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Forget “discovery,” “being a writer,” “fame,” — all nonsense and most destructive, all distractions from the core: writing. If you are driven to write and have talent, hard work and drive are likely to help. Experience life to the fullest, be intensely curious. Most important, write. And rewrite. And rewrite. And don’t take yourself too seriously. The guy who fixes your sink is doing something as important — perhaps more important — than you are. Says…
In This Interview

What Kellerman does for fun
On working with his wife
On his books made into movies

Jonathan Kellerman

Posted by Michelle on February 14, 2008

Jonathan Kellerman’s first novel was published in 1985, and he has since written many more. He is author of a series of crime books featuring Alex Delaware, plus other ’stand alone’ books.

Q. You have written a lot of books. Do you still remember writing your first one, ‘When the Bough Breaks’, and how did you feel when it was published?

A. I remember every book I’ve written. When I got published I felt vindicated. No longer a self-deluded rejection sponge.

Q. How did it feel to see that book made into a movie? Did the images on the screen match those that had been in your head whilst writing?

A. Great fun. They did a pretty good job. But, of course, there’s nothing like the book itself.

Q. To someone who has never read your books, how would you describe them? What do you think makes them different to other crime books?

A. I’d like to think that my background as a psychologist imbues the novels with a unique approach to human behavior and crime. But I’m not the judge; the reader is.

Q. Do you have a preference over writing books about the same person, such as Alex Delaware, or the ‘stand-alone’ novels?

A. I enjoy both, but Alex has certainly been good to me.

Q. Is it best to read the Delaware books in order, and do you have a favourite?

A. I write the series so that either is possible. Some people like to read in order. I find that with writers I admire, sequence doesn’t seem very important.

Q. You’ve written a couple of books with your wife – how did that compare with writing alone? And how does it feel to see your son become successful too?

A. Faye and I worked beautifully as a team. I’m incredibly proud of Jesse. But I was proud of him before he got published because he’s a really good guy.

Q. There has been some discussion on the forum about authors who employ writers to help with their books. As a regularly published author, is this something you’ve ever considered?


Q. Do you get a chance to read for your own pleasure? If so, who are your favourite authors?

A. I read very little fiction while I’m writing. Currently I’m reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams. And I just finished Bob Dylan’s autbio, which was brilliant.

Q. What else do you like to do to relax and unwind?

A. Play guitar, paint, hike, be with my wife and kids. And my grand-daughter.

Q. Can you tell us what you’re working on next? Do you think you’ll ever write a different genre?

A. My next Delaware novel, COMPULSION, will be published this Spring. I’m working on the book to follow and may also write a stand-alone. For the time being, I’m more than content writing crime novels.