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Interview with Jesse Kellerman


Photo : © Isabelle Boccon-Gibod

This questionnaire was written by Liliba and Jacques, who have both published articles on Beau Parleur for the Polar-Collectif website.

Translation : Julie Sibony.

L'entretien en français est ici.




 Jacques.  Firstly, a big thank you, Jesse, for accepting to answer our questions to mark the publication of Beau Parleur in France.

Jesse Kellerman. My pleasure—thank you.

 Jacques. How would you introduce yourself to French readers who do not yet know you and are about to discover your novels?

 Jesse Kellerman. I aim to write the kind of books that I enjoy reading. As a reader, I’m interested in novels that explore the boundaries between literary and commercial fiction. I want a good story, and I want that story to be told in a new and exciting way, with fresh language. I also have a taste for the bizarre and the dark, and my sense of humor is rather appalling—my instinctive response to horror is to laugh. It is perhaps for this reason that I’ve found greater success in Europe than in the United States, where everybody expects a happy ending.

 Jacques. After three novels you are now a well-known author in France where you are considered to be one of the most promising contemporary thriller/suspense writers around. Did you expect such success when you started writing?

 Jesse Kellerman. I started dictating stories to my father when I was very young—at the age of two, before I could write them down. Clearly, I was obeying an instinct, rather than pursuing a goal. (I doubt any two year-old thinks of his future career.) It is an instinct that I have continued to obey for the last thirty-two years, and it is almost incidental that I have come to make my living doing so. That is to say: the writing impulse, the storytelling impulse—they precede the desire to publish, or ought to.

 For many, many years I wrote without publication, without attention from anyone save my family, without compensation save self-gratification. So while I was, by most people’s standards, quite young when I sold my first novel, at that point I had been getting rejected for over two decades. I had a respectable career lined up (I was bound for law school), and I imagined my future as an ordinary man in an office, with a peculiar hobby. Thus it was for my father, a psychologist, for fifteen years. (Thus it was for Kafka for his entire life!) That things have turned out differently for me is still hard to comprehend. Nor do I take my good fortune for granted. At any moment I expect to fail, and to be forced to find a more conventional job. Hence I write with a sense of desperation and panic, of trying to keep myself at it for just one more book.

 Anyone who writes expecting success is either deluded or has a grotesque sense of entitlement.

 Jacques. Your parents, Faye and Jonathan, are both internationally renowned authors. Did they influence your decision to become a novelist? Was writing always an obvious, “natural” vocation for you?

 Jesse Kellerman. (See also above.) My parents never overtly pushed me to do anything. Really, it’s true. Hard to believe in this day and age, when parents (Western parents, at least) start programming their children as soon as they’re yanked from the birth canal. Of course, my parents’ mark on me is indelible, as any parent’s is on any child. They crafted my moral sense; they schooled me in matters large and small. Every family speaks its own language. For another family, it might be mathematics or politics; for us, it was stories and characters.

 With respect to the craft of writing, their most powerful lessons were taught not explicitly, but by example, and they had more to do with the daily devotion required to write professionally than anything aesthetic. Write every day, even if you’re not in the mood; outline; rewrite; persevere; rewrite again.

  Liliba. I cannot speak for the US, but in France the term “thriller” is extremely marketable and attention-grabbing. However, in my opinion, this categorization is too narrow for your novels, which could be considered mainstream literature even if they contain a certain element of suspense. What is your view?

 Jesse Kellerman. I would not be so arrogant as to set myself apart from other writers, nor so foolish as to second-guess the marketing department. Suffice it to say that I feel uncomfortable in either the literary world or the genre world, and that one of my artistic aims (if I may claim to have any) is to smash the wall that divides them.

 Jacques.  In Les Visages you reveal the secretive modern art world, in Jusqu’à la folie the inside of a New York hospital and in Beau Parleur we enter the campus of Harvard university. How do you choose the backdrop for your novels?

 Jesse Kellerman. My wife is a doctor; I went to Harvard; I am an art fanatic. However, this is too simple. More often I begin with the theme or the nugget of story, and I build out from there; the protagonist then suggests the setting, because every protagonist needs a milieu, a profession, a history, and so forth. In the case of Beau Parleur, for example, I wanted to write about a man by his nature incapable of action, who is then forced to take extreme action. The world of the philosopher is bound up in books and words, and it seemed the right medium for Joseph Geist to be paddling in. For Les Visages, I was inspired by a particular painting, by the American artist Henry Darger, who depicted violent and beautiful scenes of children at war. The question occurred to me: what if I was looking at a painting, and saw a face that I recognized? The art world seemed the obvious place to set the story.

 It’s worth noting that, although my books are suspense novels, I seldom write from the perspective of people in law enforcement. (Sometimes I do, but they’re not typically the protagonists, and they are almost always oddball characters.) This is because I want to open up a new world with every book. Moving a thriller out of the police station is a way to look at traditional tropes in new ways. The effect can be startling.

 Liliba. In Jusqu’à la folie, your main character, like Joseph Geist in Beau Parleur, is not very likeable. Why do you choose to create unsympathetic protagonists?

Jesse Kellerman. That said, your talented writing compels us to want to discover what will happen to these characters, so perhaps I’ve found my own answer to this question ;-)

 There’s an accepted truth in publishing that your protagonist must be relatable and likeable. I hate this idea. I think it’s miserably confining and utterly beside the point. Some of the most fascinating characters in literature are in distasteful, or even repellent. Humbert Humbert, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Meursault… So I’ve set out to create characters who are complex, and complete, and often ugly. To me they’re real. Real people have ugly sides. I know I do.

 It’s worth noting (fascinating, I think) that not everyone finds Joseph unsympathetic. Quite a few readers have told me that they find him piteous and tragic. Of course, your judgment of him depends largely on whether you consider his behavior the product of choices or the expression of fate. This is one of the questions at the heart of the book, and for this reason I think he must be the way he is, warts and all. He forces us to look at him and judge him; that judgment then reveals something about ourselves, to ourselves.

 Jacques. What or who inspired you to create the character of the philosopher Joseph Geist?

 Jesse Kellerman. I addressed this a little bit before, when I mentioned why I made him a philosopher. I’ll add that his background (or at least, the background that he chooses to share with us) makes him uniquely suited to provoke a debate about whether his moral collapse is his fault. What is him? What is upbringing? What is fate? Joseph is a lab rat to explore these questions.

 More literally, I had a friend in Cambridge who lived for several years as a tenant in an old house with an old woman. Their relationship was actually very sweet and beautiful, but somewhere in the recesses of my mind it was transfigured into something perverse and symbiotic.

 Liliba. The chapter in which Joseph relates the crime he has committed distinguishes itself from the rest of the novel because instead of speaking in the first person, he refers to the reader “you”. This is done in a very effective way as the “you” is repeated a number of times. Why did you choose to “distance” the character in this way? Are Joseph’s emotions too strong for him to acknowledge them and continue to narrate events in the first person?

 Jesse Kellerman. Oh, that’s an excellent question. I’ll tell you that I first wrote the chapter in the same style as the rest of the book, in first person. But it felt wrong. I began to experiment with the second person, and what I discovered as I read my own words back was that I felt implicated, and culpable, and very uncomfortable. With the second person, the reader is shoved into the story and thereby forced to ask him or herself if he would do any differently. If you were panicked, and freezing, and alone—what would you do? Would you do any better? I’d like to think I would, but I can’t say for certain. I feel even less certain now, having written the chapter.

 Whether it is Joseph who wants to create that tension in the reader, or me, the author, I won’t say.

 Jacques.  Joseph finishes his life in prison and manages to settle down and find his way much better than in the outside world in which he lived “before”. For certain individuals can prison actually provide “protection” from the outside world?

 Jesse Kellerman. That’s extremely difficult to say. Protection… That’s a tricky word. I’ll say that I think some individuals have a difficult time living in conventional society. This is getting dangerous, here. I don’t want to open up a debate about prison or about forced institutionalization… I can’t stomach it right now; it’s too much pressure. Pass.

 Liliba. Taking your time, letting the reader absorb the décor and emotions of the characters, developing and building their personalities; do you consider this to be your trademark?

 Jesse Kellerman. I like to let a story gather like a distant storm. It requires a little more patience and faith on the part of a reader, because in my novels you’re not necessarily going to see fireworks on the first page. But to me the impact of crime is far more powerful when you’ve had some time to get to know the characters in the daily lives. In particular, the effect of physical violence (which is almost always at the center of a crime novel) is made more shocking and more horrifying.

So many thrillers—and this is really the fault of Hollywood, where bad guys get shot and evaporate, like characters in a video game—treat violence as something easy and quick, when in fact the smallest episode of violence is, for a normal person, utterly terrifying and psychologically destructive. I was once assaulted on a bus. A man sitting behind me leaned over and began choking me. I was fine. Nothing lasting happened to me. But the reverberations of those ten seconds continued for weeks and weeks.

 In the first season of one of my favorite shows, The Wire, a character is shot during an undercover operation. The brilliance of that show is that it actually spends time showing what happens in the aftermath of the shooting: it shows the victim hobbling on a walker to do her rehabilitation, the extreme outrage of her colleagues, and so forth. Getting shot is a very big deal. Murder is a very, very big deal. Even a slap is not a small deal. It’s important, in my mind, to fully realize the world of the character, so that the effects of violence can be appreciated. The more time you spend with a character prior to that disruptive moment, the more you understand and invest in them, and the more you’re going to feel the true horror of an act of physical violence.

 Liliba. Another recurring theme for your characters is their capacity for self-deprecating humour or self-derision. Do you yourself possess this quality?

 Jesse Kellerman. Nah, I’m an egomaniac.

 Liliba. I quote a fellow blogger, Daniel Fattore: “Alma is a pretty extraordinary old woman. But she seems to have had a troubled past. The author suggests that she was involved with the Nazis and refers to this briefly again at the end of the novel, but otherwise he does not elaborate on this narrative strand.” Why?

 Jesse Kellerman. Alma is a young woman during the war, and while she herself is never directly implicated as a Nazi, her father is. (Or so Eric says.) I didn’t want get deeply into the war, because once you do, you can’t escape: it’s a book about the war. I also think that when a Jewish writer (and I am a Jewish writer, even if my books are not [so far] explicitly Jewish in nature) mentions Nazis, he runs the risk of introducing narrative and emotional elements that are not otherwise relevant to the story. That is to say, a Jewish writer talking about the Holocaust means something, or ought to. It should not provide a cheap metaphor for evil.

 That said, because this is a book about fate and family and choice, I sought to create similar resonances in all the characters’ backgrounds. We understand that Alma’s money is tainted, in the severst way imaginable. It carries a curse. Of course, nobody as rational as Joseph would ever believe such a thing. But there is much that he fails to understand, and in the end his downfall is linked to his greed for this revolting, Faustian pile of lucre.

  Liliba. Similarly, you lure the reader with several amusing and titillating scenes (the three housemates) but leave us hungry for more! Why did you choose to abandon these characters, who could have added an amusing element to the story?

 Jesse Kellerman. One of the chief pleasures of fiction is that it allows me to digress and do these little tap-dances at the side of the stage for a moment before returning to the matter at hand. I do try to keep them at least marginally relevant; I want to use them to illuminate something about the primary characters or the themes. Joseph’s three roommates, for example, illustrate the extent to which he’s totally out of touch with people his own age, and drive him deeper into Alma’s bosom.

 At any rate, if it’s the tap-dances that amuse you, my next novel, Bestseller (see below) will make your day.

 Liliba. Free will and freedom. What is your opinion on this (vast!) topic? Each character in the novel seems bound to another (I quote Daniel Fattore again): “No one really acts as they would like. At the most innocuous level, Alma is wrapped around Eric’s (her parasitic nephew’s) little finger. More disturbingly, although less present in the novel, Yasmina, Joseph’s ex-girlfriend, goes mad preparing for a wedding she is not sure she wants to go ahead with and breaks under the pressure exerted by her family. As for Joseph, caught up in an affair which is beyond him, he is forced to reflect and choose his actions in the (very) short term. And finally his parents get married without really wanting to…”

 Jesse Kellerman. Yes, it’s a vast, unanswerable question, and I wrote the book to wrestle with it, because I find it so upsetting and impossible. I think my opinion varies as I need it to. That is, when I am successful, and happy, I feel in control of my world, and I attribute my state of being to my own will. But there’s something enormously consoling, isn’t there, about yielding that control. To be able to tell yourself that you in fact have no choice, that your decision-making process is an illusion of biology and physics—how comforting, especially when you feel overwhelmed and unequal to the task. When I feel envious of other writers, when I am frustrated or anxious about my time on earth slipping away, I remember that I am ultimately little more than a sack of water, one that will pass from this earth largely unnoticed. A friend of mine is fond of saying: “Remember: no matter how great or terrible you think you are, a billion Chinese people couldn’t care less.” And another quote, this time from Nabokov: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

 The real question for me is: what am I going to tell my children? Am I going to present to them the picture of a man confident in his choices, or one riddled with doubt, or a passive man, buffeted by forces beyond his control? What is healthier for them? The truth? A lie? Ambiguity? I have no idea. It’ll be a miracle if they turn out normal.

 Liliba. Can you tell us about your new novel, Bestseller (publication October 2013) ?

 Jesse Kellerman. Arthur Pfefferkorn is a failed literary writer. His best friend of forty years, William de Nerval (!), is a hugely successful thriller writer. To make matters worse, William married the woman they both loved. The book opens after William dies in a boating accident and Pfefferkorn travels to attend his funeral. There he meets up with the widow, who invites him to spend an evening at her house. Wandering the halls late at night, he finds an unpublished manuscript in a drawer, and, overcome with need, he steals it—publishing it as his own. It’s a massive success. And then things spiral out of control, in a way that I cannot begin to describe. I guarantee that you won’t guess what’s coming next.

 I simply can’t wait for this book to get to France. I think it’s going to find a tremendous audience there. A thriller and a parody of a thriller at the same time, it’s utterly unlike my previous books. I feel happiest teetering on the edge of the disaster (and pulling back), and I believe that this book manages to do it. It’s wild, it’s surreal, it’s cerebral, it’s childish, it’s an explosion straight from my id. I hope people enjoy it.


Voici quelques chroniques publiées par un polar-collectif sur les romans de Jesse Kellerman :

Beau parleur (Liliba)

Beau parleur (Jacques)

Les Visages (Jacques)

Jusqu'à la folie (Liliba)

Jusqu'à la folie (Jacques)


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