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Writing the flip side of homicide

The Kellermans are married in all but their bestseller work. Now a Hollywood plot twist binds them in a book.

March 26, 2004|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

For all their writing lives, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman had a glib answer to the incessant question. No, they were not going to combine talents and do a book together.

No need for a married couple to play with explosives around the house, they would say. Who knows what kind of sparks they'd touch off by trying to contain two egos in one volume. Besides, they'd say, there's economics to consider. A pair of bestselling authors gets more space on the bookstore shelves if they write separately.

Then, a twist in the plot. As you might expect, considering their hometown, it started with Hollywood.

The Kellermans are big in the realm of popular fiction -- very big, indeed, having sold some 60 million whodunits between them. But their names are curiously rare in movies and TV, a fact all the stranger because they live in Beverly Hills and rub shoulders with those in the business.

So inevitably, a friend who is a producer enticed them to think about a project. In the duality that is the Kellerman household, they pitched two. One is still passing around town. The other had this problem and that problem and -- stop.

Faye looked at Jonathan. Jonathan looked at Faye. What does Hollywood know? Thank you very much, we'll make it into a novel.

OK, so which of them would write it?

Faye retreated into her softly lighted birch-paneled office just to the left of the front door. She began a first draft, five to 10 pages a day. Jonathan walked to the far corner of the other side of the house, to his leather-paneled word-shop out by the garden, and began a first draft, five to 10 pages at a time.

The result is "Double Homicide," due out in autumn. It will be a flip book with a cover that reads, "By Jonathan and Faye Kellerman." Flip the book over and another cover will read, "By Faye and Jonathan Kellerman." Start from either side, read to the middle. Bestsellers united.

There's nobody like them: not in Southern California, not anywhere.

They are as wholly improbable as they are successful. Synopsis: Raised in households of modest means, an overachieving dentist and an overachieving doctor meet, fall in love, become mystery crime novelists and move to Beverly Hills.

Forget the story line about the tempestuous, tortured, suffering writers. Substitute curved driveway, sprawling lawn, butterflies in the garden, summer weddings upcoming for the two oldest of their four children. Peek in on them and you catch glimpses of an orderly, small-town, religious life in the vast city.

And five to 10 pages a day. Per person. Forty pages a week in the leather office; 40 pages in the birch office. Four hundred pages apiece in 10 weeks. Then the rewriting. A novel a year, give or take, each of them. Plus what they have now done together.

They have a house in Malibu, a place in Santa Fe. They just bought in New York. They do their own research. Jonathan plays the guitar every day and right now is letting his fingernails grow and teaching himself classical. Faye plays the mandolin and the guitar. With her delicate hands, she once built a guitar. They jam every so often. They work out in the gym daily. As a hobby, Jonathan paints. Their youngest daughter is 11 and lives at home. They have two dogs that are both older than their daughter. Their kosher kitchen was designed for home cooking.

"Overworked and overpaid," jokes Faye.

Perhaps things can be explained by circuitry.

"I'll tell you about this matter of left-brain, right-brain," says Jonathan. "What's important are the nerve bundles that connect the two, the corpus callosum."

Thus, under a single roof a pair of ample and well-traveled corpora callosa link right-brain imaginations with rigorous left-brain, scientific kinds of minds that get a young woman math whiz a doctorate in dental surgery and allow a man to finish up a clinical internship in psychology and a doctoral dissertation in the same year. The outcome: The 20 novels of Jonathan Kellerman have all been New York Times bestsellers; nine of Faye Kellerman's 17 books have also been bestsellers.

'I love rewriting'

In the words of his wife, "Jon loves writing more than anyone I know."

In his own words, Jonathan Kellerman says, "I'm getting paid to do what used to get me in trouble in school -- spacing out and making up stories." He smiles. "There is nothing I don't like about writing books. I love writing. I love rewriting. I love research."

He is sitting on the patio, near the koi pond, wearing all black, which he favors. His hair is black, his eyes deepwater blue. He is a compact man. There is never anything like a pause -- not even a split second -- before he forms an answer to any question you care to throw at him.

He was born in Queens and has been writing since he was 9. He enrolled at UCLA at 16. He wrote for the Daily Bruin. He was the Bruin's cartoonist. He played guitar gigs to earn spending money. In his senior year, he won a Goldwyn Award for the manuscript of a novel. An agent inquired how was he going to capitalize on the recognition.

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