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

December 02, 1985|KATHLEEN DOHENY | Doheny lives in Burbank. and

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.

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