Jesse Kellerman has published five novels to date: The Executor, The Genius, Trouble, Sunstroke and his latest I’ll Catch You (Sphere, Oct 2012). He holds a Master’s of Fine Arts in theater. He has won several awards for his writing, including the 2003 Princess Grace Award, given to America’s most promising young playwright, and the 2010 Grand Prix des Lectrices de Elle, for Les Visages (The Genius). He lives with his wife and son in California.
SJI: Welcome to Shots, Jesse – it’s great to have you here! Your latest novel I’LL CATCH YOU has just been released in the UK. I absolutely loved it, primarily because it was not at all what I expected. Theblurb has been kept deliberately vague, butcan you give us the premise of it without any spoilers?
JK: My pleasure – thank you so much. Glad you enjoyed it. Okay, here goes: this book is about Arthur Pfefferkorn, a failed literary writer, who has to suffer the indignity of watching his oldest childhood friend, William de Vallee, become a massively successful bestselling thriller writer. To make matters worse, Bill married the woman they both loved. The novel opens after Bill has died, and Pfefferkorn goes to attend his funeral. While there, he reconnects with Bill’s widow – and discovers one of Bills’ unpublished manuscripts. Pfefferkorn steals the book and passes it off as his own, with some very, very, very unexpected consequences… That’s about as much as I can say without ruining what I hope will be a wild and surprising ride for most readers.
Where did the idea come from?
Novels are unruly beasts, and it’s rare that I can point to a single point of inspiration. In this case, I wanted to write something fun and funny, really cut loose. After four rather dark novels, I was starting to feel that people only saw one side of me, the perverse, disturbing side. In truth, that’s not really me, or at least I don’t think so. So I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to go for it.’ And this is what resulted.
I also was thinking about a conversation I had with a writer friend when we were in college together. He asked me where I thought we’d both be in twenty years. As it turns out, we’re both professional writers (he writes non-fiction), and I’ve found myself revisiting that question often. There’s always an element of friendly (or not so friendly) competition between writers. The novel’s version of that is, obviously, ratcheted up several orders of magnitude.
The novel was great fun to read – did you enjoy writing it? Coming up with the characters and of course the fictitious country of West Zlabia must have been great…
I had an absolute blast writing it. I was also terrified, because striking out in a new direction entails a certain amount of risk. But look: if, in the end, I only make one single person laugh…then that's not very good at all, is it?
The surreal parts of the novel are in keeping with the stuff I used to write back when I was primarily a playwright. It’s the kind of humor that I grew up loving – Python, the Marx Brothers, the ones who sees the world through this gloriously warped lens.
Did you intend to make any political statements with this novel or was it purely meant to be darkly comic and observational in nature? It kind of turns the whole ethos of thriller writing on its head…
JK: When I began to think about writing a comic novel, my first idea was to write about a couple trapped on their honeymoon inside an East Asian country run by a ruthless military dictatorship. (I know, funny, right?) My wife and I travelled through Burma on our honeymoon, and while it’s clearly a horrible, horrible place to live (it’s a little better now than it was eight years ago), there is something undeniably absurd about a whole country catering to the whims of a few really deranged individuals. North Korea is the best example of this. I mean, the Kims – they’re maniacs, and they’re IN CHARGE, which means that all their craziness gets writ large over millions and millions of people. It’s startling and awful and bizarre and often inadvertently funny, all at once.
What you have in the Zlabias, East and West, are two examples of that. One is brutally communist and the other brutally capitalist; the effect on the average Zlabian is more or less the same: he gets crushed. So if there’s any political statement at all, it’s that no one person or cadre should have that much power – self evident, I think, but hard to avoid in practice. Look at Africa; look at Russia. Unfortunately, that kind of system is the rule, not the exception.
Also, I wanted to make clear the disastrous economic ramifications of overinvesting in goats.
Ha ha – good advice! It’s clear from your previous novels, which are all standalone crime thrillers that you like to keep your subject matter and protagonists varied – do you intend to keep doing this, or have you any plans for a series?
I think I’ll always write standalones for my own work. I’m too impatient and ADD to live with one character for very long. Crime series typically feature cops or private investigators – the kinds of folks who run into danger over and over. But I’m not a cop. I’m not a vigilante. I’m an ordinary guy, and my interest is in ordinary people, struggling in extremely trying circumstances. I ask myself what I would do, confronted with an unusual situation, and then I write.
But, since you’re asking (sort of), I’ll drop a hint that my dad and I are working on a project together that we hope to extend into a series. I’m extremely excited about it for many reasons, not least of which is that he’s a terrific collaborator.
Well that’s pretty exciting – your mum and dad (Faye and Jonathan) have also collaborated in the past too – maybe the three of you can have a go next time! Apart from your parents, who or what influences you in your writing?
Everything I’ve ever read or experienced. That sounds flip but it’s true. I really can’t shut off my mind. It’s terrible. I have chronic insomnia, because long after the lights go out I’m still putting together words and ideas and I CAN. NOT. STOP.
If you’re asking which writers have influenced me most deeply, I can be a more specific: Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, Ruth Rendell, Kafka, Vonnegut, David Mamet, Tom Wolfe, John Fowles … A fuller list would probably overload your server.
A varied list! So what’s your favourite of your own books?
Pass. No way I’m answering that. They’re all my children! Well, I’ll say that I feel that my first two books are decent but show a lot of inexperience. The Brutal Art, The Executor, and I’ll Catch You have a little more polish to them. I always aim and expect to do better with each successive book. If I felt I had plateaued at thirty-four, how depressing would that be? So my favorite is always the next one.
I love discovering new authors and I’ve come across some fantastic ones this year, Jennifer Hillier being one. Do you like to read books by new authors, and if so, is there anyone from the US that we should be looking out for in 2013?
Golly. Well, just today I received a galley I’m extremely excited about, for a book called Double Feature, by Owen King. I think Owen’s immensely gifted, and I can’t wait to read it.
I’ll also plug my nonfiction writer friend mentioned above, Avi Steinberg. His book Running the Books isn’t quite new, but it is fabulous. It’s a memoir of the years he spent working as a prison librarian. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Sounds excellent. Can you tell us about what you’re working on at the moment?
It’s an anatomy of a murder in Southern California. It starts with the discovery of a body and then goes back several years, to work up to that point. It’s a massive headache and I can’t wait to be done with it and take a break. But it’s going to be fantastic. Really. A masterpiece. Just start sending me checks now…
You sound like Pfefferkorn! So, finally…what question does no one ever ask you, that you would you really, really like to be asked?
Nobody’s ever asked me if I would like a free trip to Hawaii. Yes. I would.
Ah, well nobody’s ever asked me that either – sorry I can’t help! Thanks for talking to me Jesse, best of luck with I’LL CATCH YOU – it’s definitely the most unusual and surprising book I’ve read for a while!
Again, my pleasure. Thank you for the great questions…
Read SHOTS' review of I'LL CATCH YOU
Dated: November 2012