ABOUT JESSE KELLERMAN:
Jesse Kellerman was born in Los Angeles in 1978. He has published five novels: THE EXECUTOR, THE GENIUS, TROUBLE, SUNSTROKE, and most recently, POTBOILER. He also holds a Master’s of Fine Arts in theater. He has won several awards for his writing, including the 2003 Princess Grace Award, given to America’s most promising young playwright, and the 2010 Grand Prix des Lectrices de Elle, for Les Visages (The Genius). He lives with his wife and son in California. He completed this interview in airports throughout Europe, including Amsterdam and Prague.
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Although you studied psychology at Harvard, you decided to pursue your true love, theatre, to great success. What prompted you to switch to novels? Do you still write plays?
It's not as though I woke up one morning and decided I was no longer a playwright but a novelist. The truth is that I continued to write fiction while I was primarily writing plays and I continued to write plays for some time after I shifted the bulk of my energy to fiction. That shift was almost entirely driven by economics. It's simply not possible to make a living as a playwright in this day and age in the US, and rather than pursue the TV/movie route--as so many playwrights do—I decided to spend more creative time on my fiction. In a way it was a homecoming, because my first efforts at writing—say, from age three to age 15—were prose, rather than drama.
I don't write many plays these days, largely because I have a huge backlog of unproduced material, and I find it frustrating to add another to the pile. I'd rather see if I can make the idea fit into a novel, where I know it will find publication. It doesn't always work. Some stories are clearly plays, and attempts to shoehorn them into a book fail miserably...
Discussing your books or seeing your books reviewed rather than your words reacted to in front of a live audience must be a major difference between the two media. When you transitioned to novels how did you deal with that difference? Do you ever act out the scenes of your novels or read dialogue aloud to ensure they have the right rhythm?
An audience's reaction to live theater is entirely visceral—laughter, tears, etc. By contrast, written criticism of prose tends to be written at a greater remove. This difference holds in general; watching theater is a communal, emotional, direct experience of art; reading fiction is a private, intellectual, indirect one. Experience tells me to trust what I hear, sitting in the back of a theater, far more than what I read about my work. (Incidentally, I feel the same way about written theater criticism: I tend not to take it very seriously, whether it's good or not.) By the time anyone sits down to write about your work, they're more likely writing about themselves.
I do read out loud. There are huge differences between writing dialogue for the stage and writing it on paper—I could easily write a book about the nuances that distinguish them—but there are sufficient similarities to make it worth doing at least one read-through.
How does your background in psychology—especially as you specialized in anti-social behavior—feed into your writing? Do you feel you can create a more realistic villain?
I wouldn't say that my psych training enables me to be a better writer; I'd say that both interests reflect a more general fascination with human behavior, especially bad behavior. I try not to write traditional villains; pure evil is less interesting to me than good intentions gone wrong, or an ordinary person pushed to extreme behavior through greed or the compounding of small errors. Joseph in The Executor is an attempt to do demonstrate the malleability of human behavior, and the capacity for horrific behavior that I believe lies inside all of us. Or maybe I'm just a dark guy. I dunno. But I can easily imagine doing horrible things—I am plagued by nightmares and fleeting thoughts of doing such things—and my writing is a way of exorcising those images. For the same reason, I try not to write white hat heros. I admire people who write them well, but as I can't personally relate to that kind of persona—I am extremely unheroic—I can't write them with any authenticity.
Your strong religious ethics certainly impact your writing as much—if not more—than your background in psychology. You spent a year studying at a seminary in Israel, certainly an amazing experience. Have any of your experiences during that year leaked into your writing? If not, have you ever considered writing something set in Israel?
All five of my novels allude to my Judaism; they contain characters who are Jewish or address themes that reflect my moral and intellectual education. It's true, though, that none of my published novels address Judaism explicitly. I should note that I have written several short stories, plays, and essays that DO do that. (See, for example, my essay "Let My People Go to the Buffet.") But because Judaism is so large a part of my personality, and so central to my worldview, I have yet to find a way to incorporate it into a novel that doesn't feel in some way reductive. That is to say, the more explicitly I address Judaism, the more it seems in my mind to become essential to address it wholly, and fairly, and authentically.
This is a long way of saying that I have yet to find the story that brings out my Jewishness completely. However. I think I'm almost there. In fact, I know that several of my forthcoming works will have more explicit Jewish content. I can't say much more than that right now, but yes, it's coming.
Your latest novel, POTBOILER, is both a satire on the clichés of the thriller genre, and yet a real thriller in its own right. What inspired you to write it, and how did you walk the line between poking fun at the genre while keeping the reader engrossed in a "real" book?
As with all novels, POTBOILER did not have one single source of inspiration, but several that gradually knitted together. To name a few of them: 1) I wanted to write something funny, because having written four rather dark books I was eager to reengage with my surreal and silly side, 2) I wanted to write about a friendship complicated by jealousy, especially the jealousy that writers feel toward each other, 3) I wanted to satirize the publishing world, because I've been in it now for a decade and it continues to amaze me with how weird it is, 4) I wanted to pay homage to and simultaneously send up the thriller genre, because I feel such great affection for it and yet am ambivalent about being classified as a thriller writer. And so on. Part of what makes thrillers so pleasurable is that they carry us aloing with great speed, allowing us to lose ourselves in their momentum and temporarily forget the strict logic of the so-called "real world." Stuff happens so much faster and more explosively than it does in real life, and that's a wonderful sensation—it's what we call thrilling. In my mind the comedy of the book is created by ratcheting that up ten notches. I once had a professor who defined comedy as "tragedy sped up to 100 MPH." That's exactly what I aimed to do here. The structure and progress of the book is familiar to any thriller reader, and that's what makes it feel like a thriller. But the ante is upped: fast-paced becomes dizzying.
What's coming next for you? Any upcoming appearances?
Hell yes. I have upcoming dates in New York City (August 30) and Chicago (Sept 11-12), and in November I'll be making several appearances in the midwest (St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City). It's all up on my website, jessekellerman.com.
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QUICKIES WITH JESSE:
Writing ambience: I prefer total quiet. (I almost typed “need;” but with a three-year-old in the house, your definition of need changes radically.)
To outline or not to outline: Outline. Extensively..
Reading now: I’m almost done with Francine Matthews’ “Jack 1939” which I picked up at the Poisoned Pen conference...!
Book he wishes he could read again for the first time: Lolita.
Favorite sentence he’s written: Chapter 88 of Potboiler. Either that or—also from Potboiler—”He wondered how he could have let such a wretched cliché slip through the cracks.” Mostly because that sentence itself (deliberately) contains a wretched cliché. I’m not sure anyone’s gotten the joke. It’s a little precious, but I like it.
Book or eReader: Book. I don’t know if I’ll ever own an eReader. (See how I stand in 10 years.)
Cats or Dogs: Dogs. (I’m allergic to cats, anyway.)
Favorite protagonist: In crime it’s Reacher.
Favorite big or small screen detective: Can I say Jason Bourne? Not a detective, I guess. How about Bunk from The Wire?
If he could have any profession other than writer: Professional Scrabble player.
He’d like to travel to: Japan.
Period in history he’d like to time travel to: I would love to visit Jerusalem during the First Temple Period, so I could see what Judaism was like in those days. I know it was far, far different from the religion practiced today, and I’m fascinated by those differences. But—visit only, please. I enjoy living in a society with antibiotics, and without slavery or corporal punishment.
If he could have any superpower: Time travel. Or the ability to metabolize carbohydrates quickly and without affecting my waistline.
His biggest fear: Failure.
Favorite Online Resource: This is hard to remember cause I’m away from my computer and my bookmarks. But a totally awesome website that I use for learning new words is The Phrontistery.
Favorite independent bookstore: Poisoned Pen! Because Barbara is the best.