Feature

Before Jonathan Kellerman, PhD, climbed best-selling book charts, he spent 14 years working as a clinical psychologist at a children's hospital and in private practice, where he got a close-up view of human nature in all its facets. Kellerman credits that psychology training for his success as a novelist with 18 best-selling books to his name, including psychological thrillers like "Over the Edge" (Atheneum, 1987) and "Dr. Death" (Ballantine, 1997).

Kellerman will be the keynote speaker for the opening session at APA's 2003 Annual Convention in Toronto, Aug. 7-10, where he plans to compare and contrast his two careers paths and passions--psychology and writing.

"They are two fantastic jobs. They are very different, but they are also very similar," Kellerman says. "I would never have been a novelist without working as a psychologist....It was a great education in human nature. But because of confidentiality, I bend over backward to never write about my patients. I think adhering to confidentiality has made me a better writer because it forced me to invent, but it gave me a sense of authenticity."

Though he spends most of his time writing now, Kellerman continues to contribute to psychology as a clinical professor of psychology and pediatrics at the University of Southern California. And his first career shouldn't go unnoticed.

As a psychologist, he published three volumes on psychology, including "Psychological Aspects of Childhood Cancer" (Charles C. Thomas, 1980) and "Helping the Fearful Child" (W.W. Norton & Co., 1981). Kellerman was also the founding director of the Psychosocial Program at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, where he and his hospital team created a primary clinical model for psychosocial care for children with cancer. This psychosocial rehabilitation program--which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary--continues to serve as a model for programs throughout the nation.

While Kellerman was in private practice, he became inspired by author Joseph Wambaugh, a former Los Angeles police detective, who used his police background to write best-selling crime novels. Kellerman, using his psychology expertise, wanted to do the same.

A mind 'running wild'

So in 1972, as a self-professed "compulsive writer" with a "very warped imagination," Kellerman began to combine his creativity with psychology and wrote several unpublished novels. "I was a failed writer with a really good day job," he says.

Four years later, in 1985, Kellerman's book, "When the Bough Breaks," was published, honored with the Edgar Allan Poe and Anthony Boucher awards and adapted as an NBC movie of the week. Every year since, he has produced a best-selling novel.

In 1988, after his third best-selling novel, Kellerman began to gradually leave his private practice to focus on his novels. "I gave it up with great reluctance," Kellerman says. "But I do enjoy writing full time."

Today, he is working on his 21st novel, and in May, he will release a new novel, "A Cold Heart." "I'm basically doing something that I used to get in trouble for at school--spacing out and making up stories," he says. "My mind is always running wild. The challenge is to transform those ideas into a novel. That is a very difficult task."

His novels have a psychotherapeutic bent, he acknowledges. For instance, the main character in a series of his novels--Los Angeles psychologist-detective Alex Delaware--doesn't do as much talking as he does listening to other characters. "Even though he works crime, he's very much a psychotherapist--he knows when to use silence and when to talk, and has a sense of compassion as well," Kellerman says.

At the core of Kellerman's novels is usually a family whose story evolves around a crime, a catalyst he uses to set the story in action, he says. "When I was working with patients with an acute crisis, I would see how a severe crisis changes everything and how families change," he says. Furthermore, as a psychologist, he believes a person's past cannot be ignored. That's why he often has the past resurface to haunt his characters.

"I write what I think will be entertaining and what I'd like to read," he says. "I'm tickled that a few more people like it, too." In fact, those "few" are the more than 40 million readers of Kellerman's books, which have been translated into 24 languages.

APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, says his decision to ask Kellerman to give the address at APA's 2003 Annual Convention was simple. "He's my favorite modern novelist," Sternberg says. "And he is a psychologist to boot."

Although Kellerman no longer practices and has stored away his Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for now, he continues to have a deep affection for the profession. "I very much still see myself as a psychologist," he says. "I am really grateful for being trained as a psychologist, and I feel like I gave something back. I see my novels as a product of my life as a psychologist."