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By Jesse Kellerman
They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, but in Jesse Kellerman's case, it fell far enough for him to cultivate his own strain of literary fruit. The 27-year-old eldest son of crime writers Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, Jesse is - by his mother's own admission - an enfant terrible. He was awarded the Princess Grace award for promising playwright in 2003 and his 2001 Edinburgh fringe play, Very Very Small Things, was acclaimed by The Scotsman as "slicker than Seinfeld and twice as funny." His plays are performed all around the States, most recently in the East Village's Linhart Theater.
Sunstroke, Kellerman's novel about a 36-year-old Latino woman, Gloria Mendez, and the mysterious disappearance of her beloved boss, Carlos Perreira, was published last month by Putnam.
It's tempting to think that Kellerman Junior was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but it's not all been plain sailing. Since writing his first work at the age of three (Apple of Danger: one word and one picture per page, unpublished) through to the release of this novel 24 years later, there has been plenty of frustration - and a constant battle against assumed nepotism. (For the record, his last novel was rejected by 21 publishing houses, including his parents' publishers, Random House.)
And putting aside the inevitable crime-genre comparisons, one look at Sunstroke shows that Kellerman is his own man.
If you're looking for a racy crime thriller, this book will disappoint. Kellerman's cerebral novel is at least as much about how ordinary people deal with love, loss and soul-destroying guilt as it is about murder; and he has no problem with the fact that it takes a while to get on the road.
The author's style gives a nod in the direction of Hitchcock, Nabokov and Haruki Murakami, all of whom he loves, and is combined with the twisted, black humor of the Coen Brothers.
"I'm not going to write another James Patterson detective novel," says Kellerman resolutely. "I don't denigrate what those guys do, but I need to balance and satisfy both the pressing needs of making a living and intellect."
An observant Jew, Kellerman lives with his wife, Gavriella, a third-year medical student, on New York's Upper East Side.
You studied playwriting at Brandeis and your plays have consistently garnered critical acclaim. What made you choose to concentrate your energies on writing fiction?
It's strictly a money thing. Even the best playwrights of our generation, [David] Mamet, [Sam] Shepherd, Wendy Wasserstein who died a few days ago, didn't and don't earn enough from their plays to make a living. They make up the rest in films and TV drama. My play Things Beyond Our Control was just performed in New York, and Brandeis is putting it on in March. I miss playwriting, and I wish it were different, but I'm the only income earner in our house, and I can't be so self-indulgent. It's self-indulgent enough to write at all... if I'd had any seichel (sense) I would have gone to law school.
Is having your novel published different to having your play performed?
It's extremely different. A play doesn't really exist until it's performed. With a book, it's just out there. I have to pretend it's not really happening, that way the frustration and uncertainty are easier to deal with. A few days after it was released, someone reviewed Sunstroke on Amazon and gave it one star. It turns out he hadn't even read it, he just got pissed because the jacket of the book shows a picture of New Mexico, and the novel is set in L.A. and Mexico. I tracked him down and found out he was a librarian in New Mexico. I wrote to him and told him that I didn't even choose the jacket picture. The review got taken down.
This book is a crime novel which inevitably draws comparisons between your writing and your parents'. Yet you seem somewhat frustrated by this, so why choose the genre?
I started writing this novel at 24, and it was a safe framework to work within. There's a question at the beginning and a solution at the end. I'm not sure that at this age I could have written something successfully with a less rigid internal structure. It's like Judaism, we live our lives within certain structures. I don't think of it as constricting, or as a crutch. I adhere to it because I love it.
The seed of the idea for this novel came from your mother-in-law. What was the original story?
We were shmoozing and she told me this strange story in an off-hand way. She's a lawyer, and this friend's boss at her law firm called the office saying, 'I'm fine, I was in a traffic accident.' A couple of days later, the Mexican authorities call and say, 'Your boss is dead. Come get the body.' The guy has a son, but he can't be relied upon to get the body, so in the end the secretary goes down to fetch it, and she's handed this urn and told 'we cremated him.' That really happened, as weird as it sounds.
When this happens in your book you have some fun with the urn and the ashes. It's all very macabre. It turns out the ashes aren't ashes at all. They're coffee granules, and god awful instant ones at that, which is when the story really gets rolling.
[Chuckles.] Yeah, I e-mailed an undertaker, basically randomly, just to make sure that human remains don't dissolve. I signed it 'yours in grief.' He got back to me and said, 'very sorry about your loss' and reassured me that no, human remains don't dissolve.
This is hardly the only comic moment in the book. My favorite scenes were when the character of Carlos Perreira, the son of Mendez's boss, gets handcuffed to a beach chair.
I love the fact that for a large portion of the book he's walking around handcuffed to a beach chair. [Laughs.] It has so many comic possibilities.
It became so delightful. On stage it would have been a scream; it would have been hysterical. Because I've written so much for the stage I tend to think very visually, but in a book it takes three paragraphs to establish, and I had to make sure that it didn't become Carlos's Misadventures With a Beach Chair. What works comically on stage is not what works in a book. Sometimes you have to overstate the point in order to make it. Like with Reggie, Mendez's cop ex-husband. He steals all the food from her plate every time they go out to eat. Visually that's hilarious, and you wouldn't have to do anything for it [on stage]. Sometimes you have to overstate the point in a novel in order to make it.
Some critics have argued that this is a strange hybrid of a novel. There's a sense - and perhaps this is a little unfair - that you are trying to please everyone in 'Sunstroke': you have some humor, some intellect, a lot of character analysis, a little blood, sex, murder, with the result that you risk not pleasing anyone completely, perhaps not even yourself.
This book isn't only about what appeals to Jesse. People seem very confused, [saying] we just don't know what this is. And I'm just like, f**k you. Why does it have to be anything? Did you enjoy it or not? I'm so exacerbated with people telling me this isn't really a thriller, like Publisher's Weekly. Others, like the Kirkus Review, got right on board.
For me this is a book about how a woman deals with the loss of love. The murder is simply the fuel for her transformation from guileless infatuation to becoming wiser about herself. I hate having plots. I'm not a good plotter. What's interesting to me is not when Gloria Mendez is being Inspector Rousseau, it's when she's being herself. My model is Hitchcock, suspenseful but magnificent. Or [the Coen brother's] Fargo, it's a magnificent character study, a magnificent tragedy. A really magnificent crime-novel transcends genre.
You signed a two-book deal with Putnam. So what's coming next?
The next book is totally different. It's about a male med student in NYC who's closer to my age. He's in an emotional rut and is brought out of it by a bad and dangerous woman. On the one hand he's liberated by her, but on the other there's this terror in that she's a total f**king nutcase. It's even less crime-genre-likeâ€¦ There's a little bit more sex, and a little bit more violence, but there's no investigation. It's due to come out next January.
Finally, about your parents. Do you ever think that you'll stop being seen as the son of Faye and Jonathan Kellerman?
[Long pause.] I learnt from them that as a writer you're under an unspoken contract to provide an interesting ride, but we're very different, we have a very different philosophical bent. I think those differences will become more apparent with time. My folks are very content to write what they write indefinitely. They don't see it as an artistic concession. I'm... I think, more... intellectually restless. I'll do this [kind of writing] as long as I continue to grow. [Long pause.]
Q. You're hesitant...
A. I'm hesitant to talk about it. I respect all their decisions, they're just not necessarily the decisions I would makeâ€¦ I like what they've done, the question is, is this where I'm going to stay?â€¦ I feel like I'm a fairly unformed person. That's okay, I'm 27-years-old.