Photo: Karen Miller
Faye Kellerman is the bestselling author of 26 novels, 22 of which feature the husband and wife team of Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus. Faye and her husband, Jonathan Kellerman, are the only married couple ever to appear on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously for two different novels.
Murder 101 is the twenty-second Decker-Lazarus novel. Peter is now retired from the LAPD. He and Rina have moved to a small town in upstate New York, to be closer to their four adult children and foster son. Peter works for the Greenbury Police Department, which usually involves little more than dealing with college-town problems. A possible break-in at the local cemetery where a mausoleum's Tiffany panels have been stolen and replaced by forgeries, leads to drastic consequences, including two brutal murders. As a former LAPD detective, Decker is called on to investigate a case that has far-reaching implications.
You have a degree in mathematics and received a Doctorate of Dental Surgery. At the age of thirty-four, your first novel, The Ritual Bath, was published. As a mathematician and dentist, how did you discover the writer within you?
I was always a kid with a vivid imagination. I made up stories in my head and played them out. I would walk around talking to myself to the point where my grandmother asked my mother, 'Is this child normal?' And my mother said, 'She's just playing her games.' I had all these little stories, and was also very good at math. I went into math because I had a hard time learning to read. I was phonetically dyslexic. I was a math major and became a dentist. After graduating from dental school, I took time off before going into dentistry to be with my son, Jesse. At that point, all the stories began coming back, because for the first time in 25 years, I didn't have to use my brain to advance my education. The imagination never goes away.
At that time, Jonathan and I were married for six years. He was always an avid writer. I said to myself, 'He's doing the same thing I'm doing, making up stories, except he's writing them down.' It took many years--seven or eight years--before I had something worth publishing. Jonathan's success encouraged me, and he himself encouraged me. I felt somewhat embarrassed about it, feeling I was making up stories when I should be drilling teeth. Eventually, I got published. Once that happened, there was no turning back. I knew from my husband's experience that you don't write to become a bestselling novelist. It's a fluke if it happens. A fluke has happened to me.
It's clear from reading Murder 101 that you write very detailed detective fiction. What kind of research do you do?
Over the years, I've done a great deal of research. I love doing research. It often revolves around art. I used to go in the stacks. Now, of course, we have the Internet. Even with the Internet, you still have to read books to get the details you want. When I write a novel, I try to write something that's coherent and entertaining. I spend the most time on building characters. You hope to write something with richness, but above all, the reader remembers the characters--people that seem to jump off the page. I just love doing research. I've visited police stations. I read science and books on forensics. I look things up and try to make the novel as accurate as possible. As for bodies, as a dental student, we had gross anatomy, so I know a body from the inside out. I do take a bit of literary license. If I don't know certain exact details, I'll make an approximation for the novel.
Your physical descriptions of characters are quite elaborate. How do you balance creating that richness while maintaining a novel's narrative drive?
I think of a character's description as something akin to scene-setting or stage-setting. It's not there for the sake of simply providing details. We're not Sherlock Holmes. We don't need to know about the dangling button. I want to give the reader an idea of where a scene is taking place; who the main characters are; and what they look like. I like to leave a little bit to the reader's imagination. But if you set the scene, what follows is not distracting. Once the scene is there, the characters take over with their dialogue, but they are placed in position for the reader.
As the Deckers have grown older, are you concerned they might no longer appeal to younger readers?
I try to make the characters as universal as possible. That was a consideration in Murder 101. I moved them to a small college town to keep it fresh and young. The introduction of a younger police detective who doesn't know the ropes was done to infuse the story with some youth. You want your books to appeal to as many people as possible. If my main characters are in an older age group, I try to balance it with someone younger.
Over twenty-eight years the, Deckers' lives have evolved. Writers often borrow from their own lives. Are there parallels between the Deckers and the Kellermans?
I'm sure there are, but not on a one-to-one ratio. As we grow and experience things, so do the Deckers. As we have experiences, they do, too. In my personal life, I have children and grandchildren, so I'm forced--in order to keep up with them in conversation--to be exposed to their interests and activities. You have to learn to use whatever resources are around you, and it keeps you fresh and young.
As a writing couple, what is a typical day like in your household? Are you and Jonathan on different schedules? Write in different places?
Dentistry and mathematics taught me the necessity of being focused and organized. Things are easier now because the kids are out of the house. We wake up when we want to as opposed to when we had children at home. We begin writing at about 9:30 or 10:00. We write at roughly the same time, most often in the mornings because we both feel fresher at that time. We spend about two to three hours writing, and then comes all the business of running your life. There's a lot of juggling with the books: promotion, writing, dealing with the business of writing. At first, I found it stressful, but now I have fun with it. After about 5:00 in the afternoon, I try not going to my computer. I want to relax, read a book, go out for dinner, or see a movie.
You and Jonathan collaborated on Double Homicide and Capital Crimes. How did that go?
It went really well. We e-mailed chapters back and forth. We did that with everything, beginning with the outline. I would write something; then, he would embellish it. Then I would embellish his embellishment. And finally, we had an outline. For each novel, one of us wrote the first draft. We'd go back-and-forth with that. It was really wonderful. You know, sometimes in my own work, I'd hit a wall. With the collaboration, if I wasn't quite sure how to end a scene, I'd send it to Jonathan, and he'd do it. I think the main thing was not to take a proprietary interest in the writing. It's a shared project and you have to leave your ego at the door.
Dentists usually have manual dexterity, and their hobbies often involve using their hands. How about you?
I've done a lot of sewing. I crochet. I really love gardening. If I have any spare time, I love to prune and plant. I love the aesthetic, and it's so rewarding. I sometimes play the mandolin and the guitar; so yes, I enjoy using my hands.
As a successful novelist since 1986, what has surprised you most about writing?
The biggest surprise is, it doesn't get easier. With most tasks, the more you perform them, the more rote they become. With writing, you can never, ever, sit back and have it come easily. It's always a struggle. It's a joy, but you're always thinking. It always gives me a headache. (Laughter). The more you write, the harder it gets because you've used up plots; you've used up characters; you've used up words. You wonder how you're going to keep this book fresh and new--especially in a series. You know, with genre novels, there's an expectation. You don't want your fans to lose that sense of anticipation. You want each book to be satisfying to you and you want it to be fresh. That's one of the major reasons why I moved the Deckers from LA to Greenbury. I wanted them to be in a new place with a different atmosphere, and I wanted them to face new challenges.
What do you love about being a writer?
I love the ability to let my mind explore whatever it wants. When you write it down, it has to be informed and make sense. But if you have an imagination, you can go everywhere. I love that--the inception--having a germ of an idea and building upon it. You can do whatever you want with it. Many writers would say you can play God.
If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, who would they be?
One of them would be Moses. I'd have a lot of questions for him. I'd love to have my literary idols there. Ross MacDonald would be at the table, along with Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Billy Wilder, and Chaim Potok. I've been rereading Jane Austin and realize she basically wrote Downton Abbey. I'd love to have her join us. F. Scott Fitzgerald would be another guest. And of course, there's Abe Lincoln. I'm really interested in people who did something revolutionary. I'd really want to have a huge banquet with all these people.
What's coming next from Faye Kellerman?
The Deckers are still in Greenbury and there will be more college mayhem.
Congratulations on penning your twenty-second Decker-Lazarus novel, a read that held me from start to finish.
Author of Mad Dog House, Mad Dog Justice and The Foot Soldier