When Jesse Kellerman hit a crisis of confidence midway though his debut novel, he turned to two people whose expertise in such matters is pretty much unquestioned.
The 27-year-old fledgling author is the son of Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, the husband-and-wife writing duo who have each written more than a dozen best-selling thrillers.
So when Jesse, the eldest of four children, sent them an early draft of his thriller, “Sunstroke,” he was looking for some tough literary criticism. What he got instead was parental support.
“They’re both relentlessly encouraging and positive and optimistic — to the extent that I don’t really trust them, truthfully,” he says. “They’re going to like it no matter what: I’m their kid.”
They did, of course. But so did others, including The New York Times, describing him as “a keen storyteller who writes in a style that’s boldly his own.” The book, published Jan. 5, has gone through two printings — for a total of 42,000 copies — and is a main selection of the Book of the Month Club.
But not all reviewers were charmed. The Washington Post said “Sunstroke” is “a shaggy-dog tale, the characters are ciphers, and the dialogue is silly,” while Publishers Weekly wrote “the adventure is a bit too cool and cerebral to be a thriller and too literary to be a genre mystery.”
What’s in a name?During an interview in the Upper East Side apartment he shares with wife Gabriella, a medical student, Kellerman struggles with his parents’ shadow. He knows what everyone’s thinking: His name got him published.
“It’s just unavoidable,” he says. “People are always going to assume that there were nepotistic forces at play, but my hope is that people will read the book and understand that it was published on its own merits.”
He’s at pains to point out that his parents’ publisher passed on “Sunstroke” and their agent did the same regarding him. And, he adds, if his lineage is so powerful, why was one of his earlier, unpublished novels rejected by 21 editors?
Mom backs him up. Faye Kellerman, author of the popular Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus series, says the family’s name closed more doors than it opened and yet Jesse endured.
“His talent is his own,” mom says in an interview from the couple’s Los Angeles home. “Whether it’s God-given or genetic, he has a very unique voice that is different from mine and different from Jonathan’s. I’m so happy for him and I’m so thrilled.”
Jesse insists that his parents had little direct role in his career other than cheerleaders and as role models. “They never said, ’Do this; don’t do this,”’ he says. “I think everyone assumes that I talk to my parents a lot about writing, but I didn’t — they’re my parents. We didn’t have constant workshops running in my household.
“Because it’s a very unusual situation, people want to imagine that the circumstances that produced it are themselves very unusual. But they’re not,” he says. “It’s like it’s not that unusual for two doctors to produce a doctor. No one asks them, ’Oh my God! What was it like growing up with two doctors in the house?”’
Jesse Kellerman’s story centers on Gloria Mendez, 36, a single, Mexican-American secretary who is secretly in love with her older boss. When he is reported dead in a car crash while on vacation in Mexico, Gloria pokes around — and uncovers secrets.
While it might seem a little unusual for a first-time novelist to pick as his hero an older woman, Kellerman says that the story came first and Gloria just happened to fit best into it. A female protagonist also appears in his next-to-be-published novel.
“I have three sisters ... if you want to do some dime-store psychoanalysis,” he says with a smile. “As it’s turned out, the majority of the situations have demanded a female character for some reason or another. If I get a bunch of letters from angry 36-year-old, Latina divorcees telling me, ’You totally messed this up’ then I’ll know I didn’t do a good job.”
Kellerman, who got a bachelor’s at Harvard University and a master’s from Brandeis University, has had his plays produced throughout the United States and at Edinburgh’s fringe festival in Scotland. Most recently, he received the Princess Grace Award, given to America’s most promising young playwright.
According to family lore, Kellerman showed promise at a young age. His parents recall him at age 3 or 4 — before either was published — dictating a series of stories to them. The first was called “Apple of Danger,” followed by “Pear of Danger,” and there were plans in the works for “Orange of Danger.” Each had a word to a page and was illustrated.
In college, Kellerman approached his parents to broach the idea of becoming a writer himself. His father, a clinical psychologist by training and author of the Alex Delaware thrillers, was supportive.
“I told him, ’You do run the risk at least at the outset of being known as my kid or mom’s kid. But if you have talent with a small “T” I would think that could be a problem. But I feel you have talent with a capital “T,“”’ Jonathan Kellerman recalled telling his son.
Jesse Kellerman’s first stab at a novel, written while a sophomore in college, “was truly sophomoric — it was a horrible, anemic, plotless, catastrophic disaster,” he confesses. Next was a sprawling historical epic with 150 characters whose first draft came in at a whopping 1,000 pages.
Kellerman regrouped and produced “Sunstroke,” the first of a two-book deal he landed with Putnam. But fans shouldn’t expect a sequel: He has a queue in his head of books in all sorts of genres waiting to be written.
“I don’t intend to write the same kind of book for the rest of my life because I feel I would not be satisfied only writing in one mode,” he says. “Being a member of the Nintendo generation, I’ve got a really short attention span.”
There may be no sequel for Jesse’s book, but there may be more Kellerman talent to come: Jesse has three sisters, who his parents say are all good writers. One is in graduate school for neuropsychology, another at Barnard College and the youngest in high school.
“They’re all pretty good,” says Jonathan Kellerman. “We’ve created a dynasty without even trying.”