Categorically ambiguous

Jesse Kellerman doesn't want his fiction to be defined as any particular genre.

Kellerman 521 (photo credit: Isabelle Boccon-Gibod)
Kellerman 521
(photo credit: Isabelle Boccon-Gibod)
About a third of the way through Potboiler, Jesse Kellerman’s new novel, there’s an exchange between two characters that strikes me as particularly interesting.
“A novel is a contract. It’s a promise to the reader from the writer. You’re asking people to trust you.”
As I recall, the words are spoken by Pfefferkorn, a failed literary novelist, to his agent. One wonders whether Kellerman is channeling the philosophy with which he governs his craft through his character.
But as it happens, I’ve made a mistake, and an important one. The sentence, Kellerman points out during a Skype conversation from his Los Angeles home late in the evening, is actually spoken by the other party, the agent. And we all know what literary agents are like.
“It’s the agent talking, and that is important because that is the kind of thing you hear all the time; They’re trying to get you to write a book that is easier to wrap one’s head around, I suppose,” Kellerman says.
“But [it is] important because this embodies the struggle at the heart of the book, which is to write a book that is meaningful but that also communicates to others; to write a book that is intellectually sophisticated without being pretentious.
You know, these are the things that I struggle with on a day-to-day basis.”
Jesse Kellerman, 33, has written five novels. The most recent, Potboiler, is quite possibly one of the more unusual books to have been published this year.
Subversively entertaining, it is ostensibly about Pfefferkorn, a washed-up novelist who makes ends meet by teaching creative writing in a tiny college. His failure is magnified by the runaway success of his best friend from college, William de Vallee, who pens unabashedly populist spy thrillers. Ostensibly, one might say, because the conflict in the book begins and ends with the rivalry between the men and the age-old argument about the presumed superiority of literary fiction over genre writing.
But it isn’t every day that this tension is parsed by means of a willfully ludicrous plot, featuring a mysterious death at sea, the purloining and appropriation of an unpublished manuscript, political assassination by novel(!), learning the art of spycraft in late middle age and the overthrow of the government of a country that rivals Borat’s Kazakhstan for sheer ridiculousness.
Somehow, it all sits together quite well. Go figure.
How did the idea for this romp come about? It seems to all hark back to a conversation Kellerman had many years ago with a friend, at the time also an aspiring writer.
“There was always a sort of friendly competition between the two of us. There is always an unspoken current of competition between writers, especially male writers,” Kellerman laughs. “He said to me, ‘I wonder where we will be in 10 years?’ I projected that question 20, 30, 40 years into the future, and what came up are the backbone of the novel. Pfefferkorn and De Vallee are sort of my fictional alter ego and his fictional alter ego in extremis.”
And his friend now? “He’s a very good writer of non-fiction.”
Amid the shenanigans that ensue when a mild-mannered, somewhat resentful literary novelist gets caught up in the plot of the worst book he could ever have imagined lies a very subtle point: sometimes it isn’t worth the energy and effort to categorize fiction. Or indeed to insist that one form is inherently superior to another.
“I’m very interested in the blurry zone between genres,” Kellerman says. “For me, the most interesting fiction is that which is impossible to categorize, and that is the fiction that I aim to write. And the specific, the concrete application of that idea comes in the relationship between two writers, one of whom is very literary – or sees himself as very literary – and the other who is unabashedly commercial.”
Is the distinction that lies between the one and the other – in fact and in fiction, his fiction – a dichotomy, or are they rather points on a continuum? Kellerman thinks the latter. “I think it will be difficult to make the argument that it is dichotomous because, if nothing else, there are so many writers that fall into this gray zone,” he says.
He mentions, admiringly, the novelist Jonathan Lethem. “For example, where do you put a novel like Motherless Brooklyn in the bookstore? It has got a non-fiction element, it’s a beautifully written book, it’s clearly a work of literature.”
This aside, there is a growing tendency among “literary” authors to co-opt the techniques of genre writing. “Chabon, Shteyngart, Foer, all these guys make use of genre conventions in their fiction. I don’t count myself among them – I’m not sort of a literary darling,” he continues, “but I read a lot of the same stuff that they do, I think, and my sensibilities are definitely informed by the idea that you can write a book that is of a certain quality and is gripping and compelling at the same time.”
It might be cheekily suggested that Kellerman uses the conventions of literary fiction to enliven genre writing – a rather novel prospect.
PERHAPS ONE reason why Kellerman is comfortable exploring the possibilities of genre writing is because he pretty much grew up amid it, as the the oldest son of Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, two of the best-known names in crime and mystery writing. (They remain, to date, the only married couple to feature simultaneously in the New York Times best-seller list for separate books). But Kellerman says that the most valuable lesson he learned from them was something else altogether. Having written five books by the age of 33 suggests a certain focus of mind; he attributes this regimentation to growing up in a household of writers.
“I think it comes from growing up watching my parents work. They are both very regimented and very organized. They worked – they continue to work – at home, and they are very disciplined people.”
He tries very hard to emulate their work ethic. “I treat the ritual of moving from my bedroom down the hall to my office as a commute, and to make that transition mentally and emotionally significant, so by the time I arrive at my desk, I am at ‘work.’” Writing has a place in the Kellerman family fabric, it seems. “There is something – you could call it genetics, you could call it environment – there is something about the Kellerman family dynamic that encourages us to tell stories and to shape our life through a narrative lens,” he says.
It would be easy to assume that, given his family antecedents, fiction writing was the natural career choice for him. But even though he says that he had been playing around with words with words from a very young age, the notion of making a living from writing came to him relatively late.
After earning a degree in psychology at Harvard, he studied theater at Brandeis.
“I always wrote, but the idea that I could make a living doing so – and this may sound disingenuous, but it is true – I never thought of making a career out of it until I sold my first book.”
In 2003, he was awarded the Princess Grace Prize, which is awarded to the most promising young playwright in America.
Still, “I was shocked the first time anyone offered me money for a play,” Kellerman recounts. “I still laugh when I get paychecks, it still feels ridiculous to me on some level. But when I sold the first book, then it became a reality to me that this could be a job.”
Kellerman is an observant Jew, and I wonder what impact this has had on his writing.
It is striking, for instance, that one of the principal characters in Potboiler is Jewish, but Jewish as a matter of fact rather than as the means of advancing a plot device or as an exotic foil to the plot. This, I venture, is not at all common in mainstream fiction.
Kellerman says that he would like to write explicitly on a Jewish theme at some point in the future. He does point out, however, that in one significant respect, Judaism is a constant feature of his fiction.
“I would say that it is the ethical values, the sort of moral engine of every novel [I write]. I cannot separate my morality from the morality of my faith.”
After high school, Kellerman spent a year in Israel, studying at a yeshiva. “It informs – it has informed – every day of my life, literally, because it changed my relationship to Judaism so deeply. It attached me to the Land of Israel in a way that I hadn’t been before, in a very real way.”
He’d like to write about it someday, he says; Perhaps a memoir, “especially because for Americans it is such a foreign concept. Going to another country to study religious texts is very bizarre. When I tried to explain it to people when I got to college, they’d say, ‘Oh, so you were studying to become a rabbi,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, not exactly.’” Does being observant affect his career in other ways? “Well, one of the benefits of this job is that I make my own hours. With the exception of book tours, my time is mine,” he says.
Book tours can generally be negotiated easily. But occasionally, a delicate balancing act is demanded. The Genius (published in England and other territories as The Brutal Art) was nominated for a British Book Award in 2009. “The ceremony was on a Saturday, and it is a big deal. Also, they tell you in advance that if you are not at the event itself, then you are not eligible. So we stayed in a hotel at the same place [as the ceremony] so we wouldn’t have to travel on Shabbat.”
Oddly – or perhaps not – it mirrors a similar event early in his father’s career. Nominated for an Edgar – America’s premier award for mystery writers – for his first novel, Kellerman’s father attended the event, which also took place on Shabbat.
“He won the debut novel award, and he gave his acceptance speech in a ballroom with a thousand people on a Friday night – without a microphone. And my dad has a soft speaking voice and doesn’t like public speaking. But he did it because it was important to him, and that lesson stuck with me.”
Literary subversion aside, Potboiler’s philosophical premise is leavened by an extraordinary repertoire of very black humor. (I warmly recommend the section in which Pfefferkorn, approaching his twilight years, is obliged to learn a new language as part of his indoctrination as a novelist-cum-spy. It involves replicating the typical childhood life of a native speaker, and is quite possibly the most inspired – and disturbing – thing I’ve read this year.) Kellerman agrees that the novel is played for laughs. “It’s the 12-year-old boy in me. I just wanted to write something wacky and silly, and I wanted to take every opportunity in the book where the reader has the right to expect a certain direction and twist it the other way. As soon as the reader begins to get comfortable, I was determined to wrench that comfort away,” he says.
Despite this, there is a thoughtfulness to his approach. “When I was training in theater, my personal mantra was ‘tragedy without comedy is melodrama, and comedy without tragedy is meaningless.’” Humor – even the wackier fringes – is an essential part of the human condition. “The idea that things that are intensely sad can also be intensely funny in a way is something that I intuitively accept,” he says.
He wonders aloud whether this sensibility means that his books tend to do better in Britain and the rest of Europe than in the US. “But it’s not a knock on either group. It’s just that my sensibilities tend to lean in a particular way.”
Ultimately, the last word lies with his readers. How does he see them? “Well, [Potboiler] is going to make a certain kind of person laugh, and that’s the sort of person that I’m trying to reach, the kind of person who would hang out with me.”