'The Golem of Hollywood' A Talk With Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman

Jonathan and Jesse have co-authored, a crime novel with elements of myth and the supernatural.
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Photo: Joan Allen

Jonathan Kellerman has written 43 books. Thirty seven of them have been novels; all have been bestsellers. Twenty nine of the novels have featured Alex Delaware, a child psychologist who is a consultant to the LAPD.

Jesse Kellerman, Jonathan's son, has written five novels. Two of them have been international bestsellers. He is also an award-winning playwright. Jonathan and Jesse have co-authored The Golem of Hollywood, a crime novel with elements of myth and the supernatural.

In The Golem of Hollywood, burned-out LAPD detective Jacob Lev, for reasons having nothing to do with his detection skills, is assigned a gruesome case. A severed head is found in an abandoned house high in the Hollywood Hills. There is no body, no blood, and the Hebrew word for "Justice" has been burned into a kitchen countertop. As Jacob investigates this bizarre case, mysterious occurrences abound, and the novel combines chillingly fantastic events--past and present--with up-to-the-minute details of forensic crime investigation.

What prompted the co-authorship of The Golem of Hollywood?
Jonathan: I visited Prague and was taken by how pervasive the golem myth is on the culture. I wanted to write about it, and knew it had a preponderance of supernatural elements. But, I'm basically a crime novelist and was swamped with two other novels I was writing. One day, Jesse came over to the house and I asked him if he would like to write this one with me. He agreed.

It's been a wonderful experience, and I think sometimes the best books derive from ventures that seem like they'll be great fun. Then of course, the serious work begins: outlining, discussions, the crafting of the novel. It took a long time to get this book structured because there's so much going on. Jesse, is that accurate?

Jesse: It's accurate. When my dad shared the premise with me, it wasn't originally for the sake of bringing me on. It was to share this cool idea he had while he was in Prague. My father's enthusiasm is very infectious. I encouraged him to write the novel, but the conversation drifted toward the idea of collaborating. At first, I think we looked at it as a lark. It was the Kellerman adult equivalent of going into the garage and building a go-cart. We were also motivated to do this because we enjoy each other's company. I had some trepidation about working with someone else, especially a family member. You don't want work to affect your personal relationship. But, it was a seamless process. We were both able to subjugate our egos and create something better than the sum of its parts.

Jonathan: I must say, I couldn't have suggested this to Jesse had he not had tremendous success as a writer with some internationally bestselling novels. I knew he was a fine writer, but wondered what collaboration would be like. I expected there might be a few dust-ups. I guess there would be more drama if I could say arguments happened, but they didn't. We each have a good work ethic. We get in the office, and write.

How did you go about the mechanics of co-writing this novel?
Jonathan: It involved my doing a draft; sending it to Jesse; he would make revisions and send it back. We'd keep sending it back and forth. The only experience I'd had with collaborating was with Faye. Earlier on in our careers, we collaborated on two novellas. Even though we were both working from home, Faye and I chose not to meet face-to-face to discuss the work. Instead, we e-mailed everything back and forth. When I write my own novels, I'm very proprietary about them. They're almost like my children, and I get really protective about them. When collaborating, you have to have a different mind-set. I'm not typically a collaborative writer, but writing with Jesse was great fun.

Jesse: I had some experience writing collaboratively when I wrote for the theatre. But what made this collaboration so effortless was that I'd seen how my parents write; and their work ethic is all about getting your butt in the chair every day and writing. It was also striking how Dad and I often anticipated each other's changes as we went along. The more we worked on it, the more we came into alignment. It's something like marriage: you have to pick your partner wisely.

Does the novel reflect one or the other of your writing styles?
Jesse: I think it's a true synthesis of our styles. When I was writing, I had my dad's voice in my head. All writers start out mimicking other writers. I've never relinquished that. I have a good ear for speech and writing patterns. I was able to sit there with my dad in my head, and ask myself how he would write this. My dad's style is a little more staccato, while mine is a little more grandiloquent. We tugged each other slightly toward one another. We ended up with this interesting hybrid.
Jonathan: Because I'd never done a book with supernatural elements, I called Stephen King and asked him if he could find the time to read the novel and give me his thoughts. Steve is a great guy, and is very supportive of fellow writers. Three days later, I heard from him. He said, 'I know your work and I know Jesse's work, and this is truly a synthesis.'

I like working with people, despite my having a solitary profession as a writer. For years, I worked as a psychologist with a team of professionals at a hospital and enjoyed being a harmonious leader. In this case, I wasn't a leader; I was a partner.

Jesse, as a playwright and novelist, will you talk about the differences between writing novels and stage plays?
Jesse: The most significant difference between the two is when you're writing plays, you're collaborating. The final product in a play is not just the written word. It's the production, the performance. The script is, of course, a very important piece; but it's only one element. Ultimately, yours is one of several voices. People can change your work in a play for better or worse. I've been fortunate because most of my scripts have been elevated by other people: actors, directors and so forth.

When you're writing a novel, there's no safety net. You are the director. You are the lighting technician, the set designer. You are everything. There's both freedom and responsibility that comes with that. From a technical standpoint, with a play, you have much less to work with--you only have dialogue. It's the director's responsibility to create the picture, the visual elements in a play. As a novelist, I get to tell the reader what the city of Prague looks like. And most significantly, in a novel, the characters have an internal life, whereas in a play, the characters don't, at least not one that's readily available. To me, writing a novel is one-hundred times harder than writing a play. You're juggling so many more things in a novel than in a play.

Jonathan, will you talk a bit about writing dialogue?
Jonathan: Dialogue is something I didn't think I was that good at when I first started writing. It took me a long time to get published as a novelist. I felt dialogue was a weakness of mine, so I really paid attention to it. The key with dialogue is not to write the way people actually speak, because it's boring. There are many pauses and repetitions. The key is to create this fiction that resembles what readers sense people sound like when they talk. I look at some of the best writers of dialogue--Elmore Leonard and others--and my wife, Faye. From her very first novel, she was able to nail dialogue. She's a great mimic. She could have gone on stage and been the female Rich Little. She can imitate; she has perfect pitch and has a golden ear for dialogue. I really paid attention and learned from her. As a psychologist, I got to do a lot of listening, which helped me pick up the nuances of speech. But you know, there's a lot of rewriting. From early on in my career, dialogue is something I've really worked on.

Many members of your family are writers. Is it nature, nurture, or both?
Jonathan: It's always an interaction of both. At the age of three, Jesse would say, 'I have a story I want to tell you. Write it down' His first novel was Apple of Danger. I wrote it down and read it back to him. And he changed some of the words. The sequel was Pear of Danger. He was just a toddler. Part of what was fascinating to me was that neither Faye nor I was writing at the time. So, I think there's a strong genetic component. Jesse's sisters are fine writers, as well. It's the same situation with Stephen King. His wife's a great writer and both his sons are fine writers. These things are not coincidental. The nurture part in our family is the kids grew up seeing both parents writing.

What has surprised each of you about writing fiction?
Jonathan: The surprise to me is that I've been able to make a living at it. I was trained in psychology and was heavily into academic medicine, and saw my identity as such. But I loved to write. But I never saw it as a way to make a living. But When the Bough Breaks became a bestseller, it changed everything. Now, I've been writing professionally for thirty five years, far longer than my involvement in psychology. I think it's the greatest job in the world. People sometimes like to think of the 'tortured writer," but that's not the case with me. I've never been depressed in my life. I've been very lucky not to have the mood issues some creative people can have.

Jesse: Very little about the business of writing has surprised me because I grew up from age six or seven, witnessing what the actual business of writing entailed. From a craft perspective, I've been really surprised that writing gets harder as you go on. You would think it should get easier because you get more practice. But, you're trying desperately not to repeat yourself, even though most writers really write one book and write the same thing over and over again. It's just a question of how well they disguise it. You end up wondering, Have I made that analogy before? Have I said this before? When I describe an emotion, am I always looking at it through the same lens?

The other thing that's surprising is that if you're serious about your craft, you're always trying to improve. And the better you get at writing, the better able you are to see your flaws and shortcomings. So, the growing challenge of writing has been a surprise to me. But, I must say, that's part of the pleasure of writing, because it never gets boring.

Jonathan: I agree completely. The more books you write, the tougher it gets. With every book, I do the same thing I did with the first one: I sit down and try to write the best book possible. That does make it tougher. I have to have enough in the book that people are comfortable with because it's the same character, but I want to be original all over again.

What do you love about being a writer?
Jonathan: It beats honest labor (Group laughter). My life as a psychologist was very structured. As a writer, I have the freedom to make my own day and create something.
Jesse: I love that every day is a surprise.

If you could have dinner with any four or five people, writers or historical figures, living or dead, who would they be?
Jonathan: I think King Solomon is a very interesting guy. I would love to meet Freud. I'd want to have dinner with anyone who changed the world in a landmark way. Lord Byron's daughter would be a guest. She invented the computer back in the 1800s. She was a brilliant mathematician, but because she was a woman, she really wasn't heard from. I spent a little time with Gorbachev, who was very interesting. I'd like to spend more time with him.
Jesse: Darwin would be on that list for me. Rabbi Akiva would be there. I think they'd have an interesting conversation. Nabokov, though he'd be extremely grumpy. Magic Johnson would be there. And, no kidding, my dad would be there.

I understand The Golem of Paris is coming next. Will it feature Detective Jacob Lev in another case?
Jesse: Yes, this is a series about Jacob and the Lev family.

Congratulations on penning The Golem of Hollywood, a collaborative novel that transcends genres and was a fascinating read from start to finish.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of Mad Dog House, Mad Dog Justice and Love Gone Mad

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