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Telling the Stories He Likes to Tell

By Adam Meyer

After 38 installments of his Alex Delaware series—and more than 50 novels total—Jonathan Kellerman knows the drill: start with a strong hook, set up an intriguing mystery, and then slowly unravel it.  His latest novel, UNNATURAL EXPOSURE, shows this technique at its best, as psychologist Delaware is called in by his friend, LAPD Detective Milo Sturgis, to help deal with a traumatized witness after her boss is found murdered.

As Delaware and Sturgis learn more about the victim, a young photographer, they realize that his death could be connected to him being the son of an elusive billionaire.  Or it could be fallout from his passion project, a series of photo shoots with people he called “the Wishers.” These were homeless people that he brought into his studio, dressing them up and posing them so that they could fulfill their deepest desires…at least on camera.

For Kellerman, his own deepest desire was always simple: to become a writer. “I’ve been writing since at least the age of eight or nine,” he says. “I was one of those kids who wrote poetry and stories. And I had a fourth grade teacher who was really encouraging to me. And she said, ‘Jonathan, you have so much talent.’”

Kellerman, however, did not imagine that talent would lead anywhere.  “I never saw writing as a career or as a job,” he says. “Academically, I was oriented towards science and towards psychology. And that’s what I thought my job was going to be. But I was just driven to write.”

That drive led him to enter and win the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award in college, which promised to open the door to a career in screenwriting. Kellerman didn’t want to write for the movies, but the award gave him confidence, and a cash prize, which he used to buy an engagement ring for his wife, Faye, a future bestselling author in her own right.

Jonathan Kellerman
Credit: Joan Allen

From there, Kellerman’s path as a novelist was anything but straightforward.  “I spent the next 13 years as a failed writer with a good day job as I became a medical school professor and psychologist,” he says.  “I wrote nine novels, from 11:00 PM to 1:00 AM in my garage, an unfinished garage. And I was just really driven to do it. And I kept getting rejected. Not for any conspiracy to keep me out of publishing, I just really wasn’t good enough.”

Even after he finally sold his first novel, When the Bough Breaks, the advance was not enough to live on. “I always say, I calculated and it came out to three bucks an hour,” he says with a laugh. “I could have flipped burgers at McDonald’s and done better.”

Not that it mattered. As he recalls, “I was still vindicated because of all the years of struggle. I said, ‘Okay, so now I am a novelist, but I really can’t afford to do this very often. Because it takes a lot of time to write a book and there’s no money in it.’”

That calculus would soon change, as Kellerman’s debut—which first introduced the character of Alex Delaware—unexpectedly made its way to the bestseller list. Even then, Kellerman didn’t quit his day job.  “After five novels I started to say, oh, maybe this is gonna work out,” he says. “So I eased out of my practice figuring I can always go back to it. And you know, the rest is history.”

Like his debut, the dozens of novels he’s written since are mostly set in southern California, the place he’s called home for more than 60 years.  The city itself is more than just a character in his books. It informs the stories he tells, many of which are about the collision of fantasy and reality. “I don’t think it’s coincidence that some of the greatest crime novels have been written in Southern California,” he says.  Los Angeles, he explains, “revolves around businesses that truck in fantasy and appearance. And there’s an obsessiveness about it. And so growing up in that environment and living in that environment, one starts to think about that kind of thing.”

Despite living here for so long, Kellerman will still venture out into the City of Angels to scout locations for new novels. “I do reconnaissance all the time,” he says. “To drop a name, I was talking to Dean Koontz several years ago and Dean said, ‘People are starting to recognize me. I don’t like it, ‘cause I like to sneak around and eavesdrop.’ Fortunately, no one knows who I am. I keep a low profile.”

Kellerman relaxes with his old National guitar.

Sometimes, Kellerman’s research extends beyond the city streets to other places where Alex Delaware might go. “I’ve been to the morgue,” he says. “I’ve been all over the place because you want a certain authenticity.”

Years ago, one of Kellerman’s most intense research trips took him to a hospital for the criminally insane.  “Another psychologist who worked there, she got me in on the contingency that I would give a lecture to some of the prisoners,” he says.  “Now, these are all murderers. These are all people who are too crazy and dangerous for the prison system. So she had a group of these guys, and they all happen to be veterans. And she comes to me, she goes, ‘Oh, Jon, there’s been a change in plans because they’re vets, and we always start by singing the Star Spangled Banner and do the Pledge of Allegiance. And the guy who plays just beat up a psychiatrist. So he’s not with us.’ So I say, ‘I play guitar.’”

That kind of research requires a certain kind of courage, but then again, so does writing. “I never think about writing a book, cause that’s terrifying,” he says. “Terrifying! What I think about is writing five good pages a day.”

That five-pages-a-day approach and his love for his characters has kept the Alex Delaware series going for almost 40 novels now.  “I think you develop a certain style and if you like it, you just do that your whole life,” he says. “You know, writing a series, a lot of people bitch and complain about it. Raymond Chandler hated writing about Marlowe. But he was a difficult guy anyway.”

While he plans to continue working on the Clay Edison novels that he co-writes with his son, novelist Jesse Kellerman, he’s otherwise content to stay on track with his long-running series.  As Kellerman freely admits,  “I like writing a series. I like Delaware, I like Sturgis and they’re great vehicles for telling a certain type of story that I like to tell.”