The Mystery of the Kellermans : Where Do They Find Ideas and Time to Pen His and Her Novels?

When Jonathan Kellerman and Faye Marder met 15 years ago, they shared career goals in health care. He planned to enter psychology; she wanted to become a dentist.

Since that time, they've married, had three children and watched their lives take an unexpected--one might even say mysterious--turn. With nary a writing course between them, the Kellermans have both become successful mystery novelists.

In the last three years, Jonathan's writing has become so rewarding and lucrative that he has reduced his patient load at his thriving child psychology practices in Sherman Oaks and Glendale to squeeze in writing time.

A New Career

And Faye, who initially postponed her dentistry career to raise their family, has decided to abandon the drill for the quill permanently.

Jonathan's first novel, "When the Bough Breaks," a thriller about a child-molestation ring (written before the molestation charges were levied against McMartin Preschool workers) was published this year by Atheneum. Now in its third printing, with a total of 30,000 copies, the novel has won favorable reviews.

The paperback rights were bought by New American Library for $75,000 and foreign rights were negotiated in five countries. A sequel, "Blood Test," is scheduled for publication by Atheneum in spring of 1986, with paperback rights bought by New American Library for a six-figure fee and movie rights optioned.

Faye's first novel, "The Ritual Bath," earned a $7,500 advance from Arbor House, with publication scheduled for spring of 1986. Two English publishing houses are vying for the British rights to her book, she said. She is at work on a second book.

These days, conversations around their home in the Beverlywood section of Los Angeles--a comfortable old white stucco structure with big rooms, shiny hardwood floors and a spacious yard overflowing with flowers, trees and vegetables--tend to center on plots, characterization, murder scenes, paperback rights, foreign translations and the latest telephone call from their shared New York literary agent.

'Tough Business'

It all sounds a little difficult to believe, as even their agent, Barney Karpfinger, allows. "Publishing is a tough business, especially for fiction," he said recently by phone from his New York City office, "and I think it's remarkable that a couple has broken into it with the panache the Kellermans have."

The Kellermans are a bit incredulous themselves. "I haven't come to grips with the fact that I've written a book and sold it," said Faye, 33.

A slender woman with naturally curly brown hair and deep brown eyes, she sat on a burgundy sofa in her family room during a recent interview, cuddling 1-month-old Ilana, the newest addition to the Kellerman clan of two adults, two children--Jesse, 7, Rachel, 4--and an affectionate five-pound papillon with the unlikely moniker of Macho.

The urge to write fiction struck the couple nearly simultaneously, and about three years ago they began writing during what Jonathan describes as "stolen hours."

"I'd write early in the morning, or late at night after the kids went to bed," said Jonathan, 36, dark-haired, blue-eyed and mustachioed. Faye would do likewise, taking advantage of spare moments between tending to the children and running the house to write.

While Faye's urge to write surfaced only recently (she had studied math and science as an undergraduate), Jonathan's urge was (as a psychologist might say) sublimated while he built his reputation as a child psychologist. At UCLA, he had written for the school newspaper and, as a senior, won the Samuel Goldwyn Award for writing. After earning his doctorate, he penned numerous scientific articles, three "My Turn" columns for Newsweek, a self-help book for parents and a textbook.

Secrets of Success

But he itched to write fiction. So, three years ago, he began to write what was to become his first novel, taking advantage of even a spare 10 minutes between patients to scribble down another thought or two.

Faye soon caught the writing bug and announced her plans to write. Jonathan remembers his skepticism. "I said, 'Sure, hon.' She'd never written a grocery list. Then I read her stuff. It was good."

If the Kellermans have discovered any secrets of success, they agreed, writing about what they know is probably one of the most important.

Alex Delaware, the protagonist in Jonathan's thriller, is a Southern California child psychologist who risks life and limb to help the police crack a child-molestation ring. He is similar but not identical to Jonathan. "He's intense and competitive, as I am, but I'd never do some of the things he does. I'm more easy-going and less physically fit than Alex," Kellerman said with a laugh.

Faye's mystery novel, meant to be "an outsider's peek at Orthodox Jewish life," draws on her own childhood and young-adult experiences.

The couple's wide-ranging leisure-time interests--including vegetable and flower gardening on their roomy double corner lot, painting and music--have supplied the grist for more than a few scenes in Kellerman novels. A cherimoya tree, for example, one of many unusual plants in their backyard garden, plays a significant role in Jonathan's "Blood Test."

The genre itself helps both authors keep on track. "Mysteries give me more of a sense of structure," Faye said. "(Writing) a mystery book demands coherence and discipline," her husband said. So far, writer's block has been no problem, said the Kellermans, who have two IBM personal computers--one in the family room, one in the backyard studio--and share a printer. "We don't indulge ourselves," Jonathan said matter-of-factly. Writing schedules are planned and sacred. Jonathan writes for three hours in the morning and sees patients in the afternoon. Faye, accustomed to writing while the older children were in school, is in the process of readjusting her writing time to accommodate the baby's schedule.

The easy access to "in-house" editing services that a two-writer household affords is a mixed blessing, the Kellermans have found. Having another writer around to critique one's work is handy, but can be ticklish and ego-threatening for both parties, said the Kellermans, who have learned to adjust to each other's style. "I think Jonathan takes criticism better," Faye said, "but he gives it in a more brusque manner. I'm more tactful with criticism, but I don't take it as well."

"I've learned to tone down my criticism," Jonathan said. "I'm getting much better."

Different Styles

A mutual admiration of their variant styles helps cushion the critiques. While Jonathan's style is highly descriptive, Faye's depends more on dialogue to get points across.

Their literary successes have changed their life style in some ways, but not others. Jonathan still considers himself primarily a psychologist, but doesn't take his writing lightly. "You don't have to do just one thing," he said. Faye is now certain that she prefers writing to dentistry.

Both authors are adamant that writing time not cut into family life. "The writing we've done is not at the expense of the kids," Jonathan said. Their life, as before, is centered in Orthodox Judaism, with regular attendance at temple services.

Perhaps the best reward of literary success for Jonathan is the luxury of spending more time at home. The book profits haven't inspired him to change his spending patterns nor usurped Faye's role as family financial manager. "I don't spend much anyway," he said. "Our life style is very traditional. I bring home the money and give it to Faye. I don't know what's going on financially. She runs that part."

"If he wants to make a major purchase, he just asks me if there's enough money," Faye said with a laugh.

Meanwhile, the two older Kellerman children remain uniformly unimpressed by the book publishing hoopla. "They know the titles, but our books are really no big deal to them," Jonathan said. "All they hope is that we make lots of money so they can buy more toys." And Rachel, perhaps subscribing to her father's philosophy that she need not limit herself to one career, has announced her plans to become both a psychologist and an artist.

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