A Conversation with Jonathan Kellerman, author of The Murder Book
Where did the idea for The Murder Book come from?
This particular novel grew out of my desire to learn more about Milo. When I wrote my first Delaware novel, When the Bough Breaks, I never thought it was going to get published let alone that I would write a series. I followed it up with two more Delaware stories and then a non-Delaware novel. At that point I said to myself if I'm going to do more books about this guy I want to learn more about him. So the next novel in the series, Silent Partner, featured Delaware as the protagonist. He wasn't just a professional solving a problem for others; he was the focus of the story. I did the same thing again in Bad Love. The Murder Book takes that same approach for Milo. He has been a major character of the series since the beginningto some extent as important a character as Alex himselfand I wanted to further explore his life. The story also grew out of my desire to write a book that resonated beyond the crime story. The Murder Book explores Los Angeles in greater depth than previous books in the series. It's a classic novel of corruption that spans several decades. I know that's been done before but I thought I could put a unique slant on it.
You're already well known for documenting the social and economic climate of Los Angeles. How is this book different?
It's not different in type as much as in degree. While I always go back in the pastI'm enough of a psychologist to believe you can't escape the past, you have to deal with itThe Murder Book provides more of a historical perspective on Los Angeles by going back in time and dealing with changes in the city over a twenty-year period. I've always considered Los Angeles a character in my books. I'm often identified as a writer of psychological thrillers. But reviewers have also noted these are very much LA novels, and that's how I see them. With the exception of one book all my novels have taken place here. I think that puts me well within the tradition of Southern California hardboiled detective writers.
What is it about Los Angeles that so fascinates you?
I've always been fascinated by the extreme disparities between the haves and the have-nots in this town. They've become much more acute over the years and helped turn Los Angeles into a Third World colony. They also lead to anger and tension and frustration and hunger, which in turn breeds crime and extreme behavior. And although Delaware does solve mysterious puzzles, what he's really exploring is human behavior under extreme circumstances. I'm also fascinated by the influence of the film industry here. I've lived in Los Angeles since I was a kidsince 1959and over the years I've watched this city become more of a company town than ever before. Los Angeles used to have a much greater range of businesses. Today it is permeated through and through by the film industrynot just economically but in its entire zeitgeist. There's a blurring of reality and fantasy here that's almost palpable.
Prior to the 1985 publication of your debut novelthe first in the Delaware seriesyou spent fourteen years churning out a slew of novels that ended up being rejected. What changed for you as a writer that allowed you to make that breakthrough?
There were a couple of things that changed. In 1981 I realized I needed to approach fiction writing more professionally. I had always used writing as a catharsis. Well, if you want to do that you might as well write for yourself and stick your work in a drawer. If you want to write for other people you need to approach it as you would a job. I began writing with a lot more discipline. I outlined and polished and rewrote and honed it. In other words I worked a lot harder at my writing and took it much more seriously. By that time I also had much more to say because I had had some interesting life experiences. When I won the Goldwyn award at age 21 I was the epitome of callow. I wasn't experienced enough to have anything significant to offer. But by the time I was in my early thirties I was a veteran psychologist. I had worked in the trenches long enough to have something to say about human misery. That enabled me to write a more interesting story.
Up until that time you had worked very hard at keeping your identity as a psychologist separate from your fiction. Why?
Essentially it was cowardice. I was afraid to reveal anything about myself. On some level all fiction is biography. If you're going to succeed as a fiction writer you have to be willing to put yourself on the line. It took a long time before I was ready to do that.
To what extent do you draw on specific experiences from your years as a hospital psychologist in writing the Delaware novels?
I've never drawn on my list of patients to depict specific individuals or families in distress. And I never will. But I certainly know what it's like for families or individuals to be under stress. During my time as a hospital psychologist I treated thousands of children suffering from chronic and terminal diseases, birth defects, handicaps, and injuries. I also dealt with the aftermath of alcoholism, drug abuse, homicide, suicide, divorce, rape, physical abuse, sexual molestation, and grinding poverty. I like to think what I learned in those years imbues my writing with emotional authenticity. I also benefited from the fact that Children's Hospital was multi-cultural in the strictest sense. I was dealing with people of every conceivable background: paupers and the idle rich, educated and uneducated, Black, White, Hispanic, you name it. I couldn't have found a better training ground to be a writer if I had tried. In retrospect I'm glad I was a rejected writer for fourteen years. It gave me a chance to learn.
Do you ever go back and reread your earlier novels?
Very rarely. In my down time the last thing I want to do is read my own work. I'd rather read the works of other authors and spend time with family and friends. Except for the occasional need to check a fact or two, I rarely go back to my previous works. When I write a novel I live with it every day for about a year. And during that process I tend not to be too introspective. I think to some extent introspection can be the enemy of productivity. One reason I've been able to write so many books is I focus on each project to the exclusion of all else. I have no doubt that if I did read my earlier books I'd spot things I wouldn't necessarily do today. That notwithstanding, on those few occasions when I do leaf through an old passage the work seems to hold up pretty well. When the Bough Breaks came out more than 20 years ago and still sells at a steady pace. Apparently when people pick up a new Delaware novel they often decide to go back and check out the older ones. I get a big kick out of that. It's a very gratifying feeling.
Writers often talk about finding their "voice." How do you describe your writer's voice?
I don't think about it much. It's just the way the words come out of my head. I'd much rather write than talk about writing. What people say they like about my books is the sense of place and the memorable characters. And they like the psychologythe insights they feel they're getting. They like that peek into another world. My voice in the Delaware novels tends to be somewhat hardboiled. There's an element of cynicism in it. It's the outsider, the observer, looking in. And that's what a psychologist is. The stories are rarely about Delaware himself but rather about what he sees and the people who talk to him. The voice is that of the observer offering comments to others or, more often, to himself. Much of the story in these books takes place in Alex's head. That's why they're not turned into movies. A lot of what goes on is internal.
What inspired you to make Milo Sturgis, Delaware's partner in crime solving, a gay homicide detective?
I wish I could say it was some great sensitivity on my part. I never liked the notion of an amateur detective coming in and showing up the cops. I felt a psychologist who worked with cops was much more plausible. Once I figured that out I knew I had to have a policeman in the story and I wanted to avoid the boring cliché of the gruff, grizzled veteran detective. This was back in 1981 and I knew the LAPD officially had no gay officers. So I thought making Milo gay would create a certain amount of tension. Ironically, one of the guys who wants to be the next police chief here is a gay, Jewish associate chief. That shows how far things have come at the LAPD. But back then a gay homicide detective was a revolutionary concept and certainly played against stereotype. For the same reason I had Delaware's first girlfriend working with power tools while he was the one dealing with emotions. What interests me in the world are the exceptions rather than the norm.
Among the secondary characters in The Murder Book are several Los Angeles real estate moguls. Are they based on anyone in particular?
No. That's always been a point of pride with me. The fun of writing fiction is in making things up. And because I came to fiction as a psychologist I was always careful not to betray confidentiality. That made me a better writer because it forced me to use my imagination. In Silent Partner I had a Howard Hughes-like character. I viewed him not as a person but as an icon, a metaphor, and a larger than life figure. In Flesh and Blood I had a character that was a colleague of Hugh Hefner. But he was quite different from Hefner. These guys were made up of a whole cloth, as are all my characters. Each time you write a book you're creating new people. It's a godlike illusion.
A well-known quote about writers suggests they hate to write but love having written. Is writing easy or hard for you?
That's a tough question to answer. In one sense it's very easy. I never get writer's block. Words just seem to flow out of me. But that's because I outline compulsively in order to get a firm grip on my stories, which tend to be very plot heavy. It's not that I love plotting but I believe a writer should never cheat the reader. That plotting process is hard work. The writing I find most difficult is non-fiction, which requires you to aim for clarity and elegance of style. Fiction writing allows you much more leeway because you're creating a whole world.
Your wife, Faye Kellerman, is also a well-known best-selling author. What's it like to be married to a fellow writer? Do you talk about writing or give each other feedback on story ideas?
It's great being married to another writer. One of the nice things about our situation is we don't compete with each other because we were married for 12 or 13 years before we got published. And neither of us came to writing from an English department background. (Mine was psychology; hers was theoretical mathematics and dentistry.) We don't trade ideas but we do read each other's books. It's a great luxury having an in-house critic who's really constructive and on your side. We used to read each other's work in progress every week or so but over the years we've gotten more secure in our own abilities. Nowadays, instead of looking for help from each other we basically say, "read it and have fun with it." Fortunately we enjoy each other's stuff. When we do "talk shop" we tend to focus on the business side of publishingwhich can be very strangeas opposed to the creative side.
Twenty-five years ago you helped found a psychosocial rehabilitation program for kids with cancer at the Children's Hospital in Los Angeles (CHLA). The program endures to this day and is considered one of the finest of its kind in the country. Are you still actively involved?
Not directly. I'm still a Clinical Professor of Pediatric Psychology at USC's School of Medicine and a Clinical Professor of Psychology at USC's Department of Psychology. Although I don't do a lot of teaching I do occasionally supervise grad students, post-doctoral fellows, medical residents, and so on. Some of my students are full professors. I try to keep in touch with the field. Aside from that my main contact now is philanthropic in nature. For example, our foundation recently funded a quality of life research study at CHLA of children with brain tumors.
We've talked about how your work as a clinical psychologist played a major role in what you bring to the Delaware character. Does your work as a writer impact what you do as teacher and psychologist?
I don't think it does. When I sit there with a grad student talking about a case, we're just talking about the case. I'm a psychologist again, not a writer.
How does it make you feel to know, twenty-five years later, that the CHLA program you directed and help found has been so successful and changed so many lives for the better?
I was there for only a few years but I consider myself very fortunate to have been part of that program. Like most people who become healthcare professionals I became a psychologist because I really wanted to help people. It was a chance to give something back and make a difference in people's lives. I treated a lot of kids and they got better. There's no greater feeling in the world. With perhaps one exception I've always considered the work I did as a psychologist much more important than what I did and continue to do as a novelist because when you get right down to it fiction writing is very narcissistic work.
What was the exception?
In 1993 I published a book called Devil's Waltz, a Delaware novel that dealt with a condition known as Munchausen by Proxy, a dangerous form of child abuse in which a parent induces symptoms in his or her child in order to win the attention of healthcare professionals. At the time few people had heard of the syndrome, including most doctors. After the book came out I got a number of calls from doctors and nurses around the country who said, "You know, we have this kid and we didn't know what the hell was going on with him and now we know." That novel saved lives. It was incredible.
Is there any part of you that misses your old life as a psychologist?
No. I like what I'm doing now. But it did take me a while to totally let that old life go. I wrote three books while working full-time as a psychologist. Eventually, however, I had to give it up. The demands were antithetical to what I wanted to accomplish as a writer and what I needed to do for my publisher. For example, it's difficult for a psychologist to just up and leave town. But publishers want you to go on book tours and travel. I decided I was going to try writing full time to see if I liked it and so I eased out of my practice. (It took a couple of years to finish up with the kids I was seeing.) What I really like about full-time writing is the personal freedom. As a therapist every hour of my day was booked up for months. I'd routinely have nine or ten appointments per day. Now I can wake up and say, "Gee, I can do whatever I want." It's very liberating. Fortunately, one of the things I got from my former career was a strong sense of discipline. A lot of people have difficulty dealing with a lack of structure in their lives. If they have too much leisure time they get nothing done. Because of my years as a psychologist that was never an issue for me.
What do you consider your greatest strength and your greatest weakness as a writer?
Sometimes I think I get a little too wordy. I'm always trying to rein myself in and say more with less. At the start of each day's writing I always go back and revise my work from the day before. I consciously try to make sure I'm not over-writing. Perhaps my greatest strength is the psychological insight I bring to my fiction. I like to think there's a certain unique quality to what I do but that's up to other people to judge. I also think I have a pretty good sense of place. And people tell me I'm a very vivid writer; that there are scenes and characters that stick out in their minds. I also like to think I bring a sense of compassion to my writing. I'm basically an optimist. I don't want pat happy endings but I also don't see a need to write an ending that's morose. People should be entertained when they read. Arguments over whether a piece of writing is entertainment or literature are nonsensical and pretentious. If we don't stray too far from our caveman ancestors sitting around a fire telling stories, that's okay. Some of the world's most enduring classics are simply great stories at heart.
What's the most important thing your reading public should know about you?
How much I appreciate them. Like most writers I write for myself and not an audience. But at the same time I have a profound appreciation for my readers. It's a great thing to take a project from initial concept to finished book, put it out in the public, and have people not only buy what you've written but also come back again and again for more. I couldn't do this without them.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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