Next-gen Kellerman conjures golem with his famous dad

When whodunit author Jesse Kellerman teamed up to create a series of thrillers with his father, best-selling mystery writer Jonathan Kellerman, he had little concern about upsetting the dynamics of their relationship. After all, they’d been collaborating since he was crafting ideas with his Crayola box.

“When I was 3 or 4, I would sit with my father and dictate stories like ‘The Apple of Danger’ and ‘The Pear of Danger’ to him,” said Kellerman, 37, a Berkeley resident who grew up in Los Angeles.

While that nascent effort did not yield any professionally published works, it established an understanding among the Kellerman clan, which also includes his mother, acclaimed crime-fiction writer Faye Kellerman. They saw storytelling as a time-honored profession to be passed from one generation to the next.

Jesse Kellerman

The father-son collaboration centers on the golem, an anthropomorphic figure in Jewish folklore. So far, the results are “The Golem of Hollywood,” published in 2014, and “The Golem of Paris,” which was released in November. Father and son are planning to create two more books together, including another in the golem series.

The series was spurred by Jonathan Kellerman’s trip to Prague, where he discovered that the golem had achieved pre-eminent stature in the Czech Republic and in the national psyche. Czechs are well acquainted with the Golem of Prague, a clay figure reportedly brought to life by 16th-century Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel to protect Jews against anti-Semitic attacks.

Because both father and son are observant Jews and are fluent in Hebrew, they were able to consult original sources to learn more about the mythology behind the golem.

Far before his forays into the realm of golems, however, Jesse Kellerman had developed his writing chops. He published his first book, “Sunstroke,” which Booklist called an “extraordinarily self-assured debut novel,” before he was 30, and he followed up with four additional thrillers over the next six years, including “Potboiler,” which earned him an Edgar Award nomination in 2013.

It was in playwriting, though, not fiction, where the younger Kellerman first made his literary mark. After graduating from Harvard, he went on to earn an MFA in playwriting from Brandeis. A number of his plays were staged in off-off-Broadway venues and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and he won the 2003 Princess Grace Award, bestowed upon a young American playwright, for “Things Beyond Our Control.”

Kellerman said that while he always loved writing, no one in his family of high-achieving authors ever held a pen to his head. “My parents did not make a big deal about what they did for a living when my younger sisters and I were growing up,” he said. “I had a vague sense that they were doing something important, but it was all about us kids. They did not bring their writerly mishegas to the table. In fact, I avoided reading their books as a kid. It would not have been cool, and it is unnerving to read your parents’ books that contain sex and violence.”

It was also unnerving early in his career as a writer to carry on the family name. While he could wear the name Kellerman with pride, knowing that millions of readers worldwide associated it with fine crime fiction, he also knew that comparisons were inevitable.

Early on, he toyed with the idea of a nom de plume as a way to establish himself as an independent voice — Spud Money, for instance, an anagram of the word pseudonym — but he soon realized that any attempt to hide his identity in the Internet age would be completely ineffectual.

In point of fact, he said, any reader of all three Kellermans would readily distinguish Jesse’s voice from that of Jonathan or Faye.

“My father has a very clipped, terse style, more like Ross Macdonald’s or Raymond Chandler’s,” he said. “My mother has a heavy emphasis on domestic life. Readers feel as if they inhabit the lives of her characters. I don’t sound like either of them. I write long sentences and paragraphs, much like David Foster Wallace’s.”

So, given the disparate styles, how did father and son make the golem series work as a seamless fictional endeavor?

Kellerman said that he and his father each wrote huge chunks of the two books, then swapped them for heavy editing and rewriting. He said that thriller kingpin Stephen King paid his father the highest compliment by noting that Jesse and Jonathan together had created a completely new voice. “Three Jews, four voices,” Kellerman said, adding his mother to the equation.

However, one literary point of convergence among the Kellermans is an emphasis on Jewish characters and plot points. Judaism has played a major role in all their lives, off the page, and Jesse uses it to advantage when he sits down to write.

“I think that I bring a certain perspective that is inescapably Jewish and an insider’s perspective about traditional Judaism that is not sepia-toned,” he said. “Orthodoxy has a lot of contradictions,” he added, and in his writing, he endeavors to highlight its many shades and nuances.

Indeed, he said, one of the reasons he loves living in the Bay Area, and Berkeley in particular, is a de-emphasis on rigid demarcations among Judaism’s branches. Since moving here three years ago, he and his wife, physician-turned-startup entrepreneur Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, and 6-year-old son Oscar have belonged to Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel, which he described as “probably the most progressive Orthodox congregation in the country.”

“Berkeley is a good fit for me,” he added, “because it transcends labels.”

“The Golem of Paris” by Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 512 pages)

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.