Friday, July 27, 2012

Jesse Kellerman at the Poisoned Pen Conference

The Poisoned Pen Conference was held at the Arizona Biltmore. Barbara Peters mentioned that the room we were sitting in was once the movie room for the Wrigley family. We were in the Aztec room, the room that from the outside has a copper roof. But, Jesse Kellerman told us he thought of it as the "Tea Room". Eight or nine years ago, his family spent Passover there. They were on a Passover Package Vacation. He wrote about those trips in an article called, "Let My People Go to the Buffet."

Kellerman's latest novel is Potboiler. He had a delightful time writing it. He wandered through the narrative. All of his novels are unwieldy beasts. There has been a gap between his novels because he has a three-year-old child. Kellerman said he once had an ambitious writing schedule of ten pages a day. Then it went to seven pages, then five pages.

Potboiler is a thriller and a parody of a thriller. It follows a failed literary novelist, Alfred. His best friend, Bill, became a massive bestselling author and got the girl. But, Bill was lost at sea. Alfred flies in and reconnects with the widow. Then, Kellerman's book takes a hard left turn. Every time the reader gets comfortable, Kellerman tweaks it. He deals with a curse. The first book is so successful that the author lives in terror that the next time they sit down to write, they have a blank mind. Harper Lee comes to mind as an author who only had one book.

Kellerman said Potboiler pokes fun at the publishing world and the thriller world. He has fake blurbs at the front of the book. He thought it would be funny to have fake blurbs for the book the author wrote. He wanted blurbs for the fake series and the fake character. Stephen King and Lee Child both agreed to write fake blurbs. Lee Child had one he always wanted to use. "Of all the books I have read this year, this is one of them." There's even a reference to Barbara Peters in the book.

Peters asked Kellerman if there was pressure growing up wanting to be a writer in a family with two bestselling authors, his parents, Jonathan and Faye Kellerman. He answered that his goal was to do it his own way. It was not to distance his parents, but he has a different voice. It's not a collective family voice. There's always sales pressure, but it was not a goal to sell as many books as his parents. Jesse Kellerman has written five books. He has a distinct voice. Hopefully his readers now read him for him, and he has his own readership.

Kellerman said his father quotes Bob Parker. He doesn't understand the concept of writer's block. Plumbers don't have plumber's block. It's your job. But, some people just have one book in them. He brought up Harper Lee again. He thinks all authors really only have one story. That's their central theme, and it resonates in their work. It's consistent, and they spin their ideas in many different books.

It's sad when an author only has one book, but it can be graceful if an author knows when to stop. Think of writing To Kill a Mockingbird. Fame can be intimidating. It's a tragedy to peak early. Kellerman will be thirty-four in September. He hopes his best years are ahead of him. Every book is a chance to learn and grow.

Peters mentioned that Kellerman's publisher, Putnam, specializes in thrillers. He called them "Thrillers-R-Us." They have Clive Cussler, Randy Wayne White, and Stuart Woods. Jesse Kellerman is an anomaly at Putnam.

He admitted he had privileged access to the publishing world because of this parents. It would be arrogant and disingenuous of him to say he didn't have access. There were two repercussions. He was twenty-four when he sold his first novel. Putnam signed him thinking they'd get Kellerman light, that he'd produce a series and be reliable. But, that's not who he was. As a result, they were a little perplexed as to how to market him.

Kellerman was published a little before he was ready to publish. He was not ready at twenty-four. He should have waited two or three more years. He was a playwright when he was published. Kellerman wrote his first play at thirteen. He loves the theater, but only have the work is done by the author. He was ready to write for the theater. He can't say he was ready to write novels.

Jesse Kellerman writes standalones. That gives him freedom because everyone is the book is in jeopardy. He creates a whole new world in each book. It's extra work. The characters, setting, tone and style change in every book. Readers don't know what may happen in a Jesse Kellerman book.

Kellerman then summarized his earlier four books, telling us what inspired him. Sunstroke is southern California noir. A woman is in love with her boss who goes to Mexico and disappears. She goes to find him, and gets embroiled in a lot. That's inspired by his mother-in-law's co-worker.

In Trouble, a young medical student witnesses a crime on the street. He intervenes, and kills the attacker. He becomes a hero, and goes on to have a sexual relationship with the woman he saves. That was inspired by his wife's experience on the medical ward. There's a thin line between kindness and cruelty.

The Genius is about an art dealer in New York City. He was disowned by his family. Then, he gets a call from his father's right-hand man. He has an apartment filled with art for him to look at, and they want to sell it. It connects to boys who were murdered forty years earlier.

The fourth book, The Executor, is about a student at Harvard who can't finish his dissertation. His girlfriend kicks him out, and he's homeless. He answers an ad for a conversationalist. His client is a housebound woman who likes to talk philosophy. He may never want to leave the job.

Kellerman just loves Potboiler, his latest book. He was giggling while he wrote it. He finds it hilarious. It's satire. To appreciate satire, a reader has to be familiar with the subject that is satirized. In this case, readers who know and love themes of thrillers might appreciate it. There's the person who is wrongly accused. There's the woman who betrays him. There are all the tropes of a thriller. Kellerman uses a singular stake for an ordinary person, asking himself, what would I do as an ordinary person. Everyman stories appeal to him.

When Peters asked him what he's working on now, he said he's doing three books at one time. One involves the anatomy of a murder in San Diego where he lies. It's set against the backdrop of the housing crisis. His pet project is a comic novel. It's bizarre, and he doesn't know what he'll do with it. The third project is one he's working on with his dad. His father told him he had an idea for a book outside of his series. He pitched the idea to Jesse. Jonathan Kellerman is outlining it. Jesse's writing the first draft, and then they'll collaborate on the rewrite.

He said he prefers his parents' standalones. He likes Jonathan Kellerman's The Butcher's Theatre. He likes Billy Straight. And, he likes his mother's book, The Quality of Mercy.

Asked if his parents read his manuscripts before he submitted them, he said they did at one time. They gave his honest critiques. He argued with his mother about it. As he matured, he went to them less and less for feedback and guidance. They were always parents who would almost pin his stuff on the refrigerator, "My son, the writer". He said he doesn't trust their feedback. They think everything he does is brilliant, and he should be a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

Kellerman said he can appreciate the qualities needed to write serial novels. It doesn't hurt to be obsessive-compulsive and like routine. His father and Lee Child are organized. It's how they learned to work. He isn't like that.

Jesse ended by saying he was leaving before they end of the day since the conference was on a Friday. His family keeps an Orthodox household, and they keep Kosher. That makes it difficult to travel. He flew to Phoenix and back in one day. His father says he's too old to that shit anymore.

Jesse Kellerman's website is

Potboiler by Jesse Kellerman. Penguin Group (USA), 2012. ISBN 9780399159039 (hardcover), 336p.


Jane R said...

Over the years I have enjoyed Jonathan Kellerman's novels. But, I had no idea that he has a son who is also an author. Your post about his books and his writing is great and I'm impressed that he currently has not one, but three books that he's working on. I have trouble just keeping track of one book at a time and I'm only reading it, not writing it! Thanks for the insight, as well as a few new titles to add to my book list!

Lesa said...

You're welcome, Jane. I read Faye Kellerman. My husband read Jonathan. I have two of Jesse's books, and I'll see what I think. It's nice to know he has his own style.