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Reading the Mind

USC College alumnus Jonathan Kellerman’s background in psychology supplies the inspiration and dedication to write annual best-selling crime novels.

By Laurie Hartzell
January 27, 2010

Crime novelist, trained psychologist and USC College Ph.D. graduate Jonathan Kellerman. Photo credit Blake Little Photography.

Crime novelist, trained psychologist and USC College Ph.D. graduate Jonathan Kellerman. Photo credit Blake Little Photography.

Many budding writers would give anything to get inside the heads of best-selling authors to learn their secrets to success.

Crime novelist Jonathan Kellerman ’74 can spare them the trouble.

As a trained psychologist, Kellerman is certainly qualified to analyze the workings of his brain. More than that, he’s also willing to share the time-tested methods that allow him to write best-selling novels year after year.

Kellerman, a USC College Ph.D. graduate, first started writing as a therapeutic hobby while working as a psychologist. After two decades of working by day and writing by night, and after publishing five books, he finally made the shift to writing full time.

Since 1985, Kellerman has written 31 best-selling novels, and in the past two years, he’s written four novels and an art book on vintage guitars. What could account for this prolific publishing schedule? His diagnosis is simple. “I think I have a touch of hypomania,” he said. “I talk fast; I move fast; I think fast.”

He has earned a prominent place in the writing world, but part of him has never left his original field of psychology. This training may be most evident in his creation of Alex Delaware, the star of 24 of Kellerman’s novels. The character is a retired child psychologist turned amateur detective who applies his expertise to help police solve horrific crimes. Kellerman decided to make Delaware a former psychologist because, as he puts it, “Write what you know, and I’m a psychologist.”

 

Acclaimed mystery writers Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, along with their son, Jesse, and daughter, Aliza, discuss how their liberal arts educations have impacted both their approach to writing and the artistic decisions they have made as writers. Video by Mira Zimet.

Kellerman’s background has influenced his writing process as well. Before he landed on The New York Times best-seller list, Kellerman already had been published in the field of psychology. Writing for a scientific audience taught him, among other things, “literary thrift,” which he admits is a challenge.

“One of my weaknesses is I tend to be very wordy, but I realize that about myself and rein it in,” he said. “I think scientific writing helped teach me a bit of discipline, in terms of outlining, organization, and paring it down to what’s really necessary to get your thoughts across,” he said.

Although he is aware of his weakness and attempts to use words wisely, Kellerman says that after finishing a book, he will still go back and cut it by 20 percent. “I tell writers, ‘The Bible is holy, your stuff isn’t. Learn to maintain confidence and cut. There should be a purpose to everything in your book.’”

Ninety percent of writing is in the preparation, Kellerman says, and he practices what he preaches. “I will plan a book for months, if not years, and I will only sit down to write once it is outlined in detail,” he said.

“I always progress through chapters by chapter outlines, and I realize it’s less for the sense of devising plots and more for my own confidence,” he continued. “People ask me, ‘Do you ever have writer’s block?’ I don’t have it, I think, because I have the outline.”

Another factor that drives Kellerman is setting attainable milestones: “If I think about writing a whole book, it’s too scary. So what I do is have a goal — to sit down every day and write five pages. And if I do that, I feel I’ve succeeded.”

Despite his background in psychology, Kellerman does not overanalyze himself. “Introspection is one of creativity’s greatest enemies,” he said. Although writing can be therapeutic, and even though his own career started as a form of therapy, he believes that all successful writers who have longevity treat writing as a job, not just as a creative outlet.

“I don’t doubt the therapeutic value of writing; I just think that too much thinking will hinder you,” Kellerman said. “You just have to do the work.”

And he certainly has done the work. Kellerman recently turned 60. He has had two successful careers in his lifetime, which leads some readers to ask him if he’ll ever retire. So can we continue to expect another book each year from Jonathan Kellerman?

“They’ll probably be lowering me in to my grave typing,” he said, laughing.

We’ll take that as a yes.

 

Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Fall 2009/Winter 2010 issue