Dean Koontz: On Writing

Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Dean Koontz is one of the most recognized, read, and loved suspense writers of the 20th century, with books published in 38 languages. The New York Times describes his writing as “psychologically complex, masterly and satisfying,”  and  Rolling Stone calls him “America’s most popular suspense novelist.” Dean is the author of several bestsellers, including Hideaway (1992), Intensity (1996), Odd Thomas (2003), Velocity (2005), The Good Guy (2007) and What the Night Knows (2010).  According to the Times (London), he “is not just a master of our darkest dreams, but also a literary juggler.” His novels (more than seventy) are usually cross-genre, blending elements of suspense, horror, supernatural, and romance literature. Dean currently lives with his wife, Gerda, in southern California.

Trixie-Dean

Dean Koontz, who recently finished a novel–INNOCENCE– was interviewed by M.J. Fievre for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

M.J. Fievre: Dean Koontz, I’m a big fan. I love your work for its unabashed brand of storytelling, the Odd Thomas series particularly, pushing well beyond the boundaries of the expected, into intricately designed worlds with bodachs and silent ghosts, and even elements of science fiction. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, you mentioned that you give your characters free will, “just as God gave it to us.” Are there really no limitations you place on your work and the places you’re willing to go?

Dean Koontz: When a story suddenly takes an astonishing turn that I never anticipated, I sometimes pause to consider whether the twist is over the top or in some other way damaging to the narrative. If it isn’t just a gee-whiz-this-would-be-cool idea, if it comes out of giving the characters free will and letting them evolve, it is in my experience always a good direction to follow, even though I may be wary about where it will lead. Recently I finished a novel that had an experimental structure, an unusual first-person voice, a philosophical point of view contrary to that found in most of the pop culture, and some surprises of an epic nature that required careful preparation to sell to the reader. I expected pushback from some editors and publishers here and/or in other countries, but the book has been received with unalloyed enthusiasm everywhere, as one of the best things I’ve ever done. If I’d kept the characters on a tight leash and been timid about letting the story expanded to the farthest corners of its potential, editors might have liked it, but not as much, and it would have been a lesser piece. The biggest rewards, creatively and even financially, require risk, sometimes a lot of risk.

MJ: How does your characters’ free will affect the editing process?

DK: I’m so obsessive that by the time the manuscript is submitted, every page has been revised and polished to the point where the editorial notes are generally minor and the process of revision swift, a few days at most. My editor at Bantam is the best I’ve ever had, with a keen eye for what is not elegant. But because the characters do have free will, they are dimensional and coherent, so that there’s hardly ever an editorial note related to a character’s actions or attitudes being inconsistent. The editorial notes on the aforementioned novel were important, pointed–but were addressed in one day.

MJ: Since we’re on the topic of craft, I’m curious to know how your stories come together. What sort of process typically, if there is a “typically,” do you employ?

DK: I start with an intriguing premise. If we go all the way back to WATCHERS, the premise is What if an experiment, seeking to enhance intelligence, produced a dog as smart as any human being, and what, if the dog escaped the laboratory? Then I wonder about the lead of the story, the first person who will interact with the dog. This is all in my head. I don’t write character profiles. When I have the character that seems the most interesting one for the story at hand–in this case a former soldier and a widower, Travis, who in the first scene is going into the woods to commit suicide–I ask myself what the book is about. I don’t mean plot. Call it theme, subtext, whatever you want.

Often the theme comes quickly when I have my main character. Travis is in a dark place and to get himself out of it, he desperately needs to change. The novel, then, would be about the difficulty of changing who we are, of undoing what we have become and redeeming ourselves. Now I can start to write. The subtext infuses every scene, and as the story advances, additional associated themes can arise from that central spine, or the initial theme can be twined with another equally strong, so that they become a sort of double helix that contains the DNA of the story. In the case of WATCHERS, the exploration of how difficult it is to change who we are and redeem ourselves quickly morphed into a stronger theme that is best expressed by a quote from Jung–“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” In other words, it is more difficult to change oneself than to be changed by interaction with another. Writing with that in mind, I soon saw another theme arising from the story, one best expressed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.” I had my double helix, and from that point the characters knew where they were going even if I didn’t, and when they brought me to the end of the story, I was exhilarated as I never could have been by writing to an outline.

MJ: You lost your Catholic faith for a while, but later returned to is.  Is there anything different about your writing work now as opposed to when you turned away from your faith?

DK: It’s funny, but even before I returned, my stories were full of a sense of the world’s mystery, of the ineffable. I think the only fundamental change was that my characters became warmer and took on greater depth. The volume of reader mail soared after FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE, and again after ODD THOMAS, and though readers still loved the stories, they especially loved the characters.

MJ: Your characters often wonder about the afterworld. What do you think happens after death?

DK: Something rather stupefyingly wonderful. Steve Job’s sister reported his dying words as “Oh, wow. Wow. Wow,” and I thought, yeah, that sounds right. Odd Thomas will die in the final book in the series, but I’ve got a big surprise for readers after that and it deals with what comes next for him. So for now, I’ll say no more.

MJ: Odd Thomas often talks about the importance of keeping the tone light when telling a story, and I quote, “Pessimism is strictly for people who are over-educated and unimaginative. […] Melancholy is a self-indulgent form of sorrow. By writing in an unrelievedly dark mode, […] the writer risks culturing darkness in his heart, becoming the very thing that he decries.” I’m curious about your models. Was there a particular author who gave you an appreciation for humor?

DK: In school I was something of a class clown. My wife has long said I’m a frustrated stand-up comedian. When I first started putting a lot of humor in some books, my publishers panicked because they felt suspense and humor don’t mix. But if you want to portray life as it really is, it’s difficult not to include both those elements. After all, suspense is central to everyone’s life, because we don’t know what might happen to us an hour from now, a day from now. Though we don’t like to dwell on it, we live in a constant state of suspense. And the best way to deal with that tension, the way most sane people deal with it, is through humor. I will acknowledge that some stories, like INTENSITY, can’t make room for a laugh, but most of them can. As far as humor goes, I was less influenced by writers than by old screwball-comedy movies like BRINGING UP BABY and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, by comedians like Bob and Ray and later by guys like Stephen Wright.

MJ: This leads me to your becoming a writer. You wrote under a number of pen names earlier in your career, including “David Axton,” “Leigh Nichols,” and “Brian Coffey” in order to avoid “negative crossover.” Your work, though, challenges any attempt at labeling. Your books are so different from one another. Is the reader someone you consider while writing, or do you divorce yourself from such concerns?

DK: Your commitment has to be to the story and to our beautiful language, not to the publisher or even the reader. You want to please the reader, of course, because if you don’t, that’s the end of your career. But what’s so strange is that the harder you try to please the reader, the less you’re likely to do so. The more you forget about the reader, about the marketplace, and the more you fall away into the story, letting characters and narrative events sweep you along, the more that readers will like it. They sense your giddy enthusiasm and find it infectious.

MJ: I think it’s natural for readers to conclude that part of your stories comes from personal experience. Ozzie Boone comes immediately to mind. Also Granny Sugars. Where do these characters come from?

DK: Everything a writer does, everything he or she witnesses or thinks or wonders about in life eventually winds up in one novel or another. But in my experience, anyway, the best characters are the ones the spring full-blown from the imagination. I did have a 400- pound editor once, but he was not much like Ozzie Boone.

MJ: Let’s talk about the Odd Thomas series on tape.  When I heard David Aaron Baker read one of your books, I was thrilled, as I couldn’t imagine a better voice for my favorite character. Were you involved in any way in the selection of the reader?

DK: They suggested David Aaron Baker and sent me a sample of his work, and I knew at once that he was ideal for Odd. Ever since, it has been a condition of mine that he read the books. He’s fabulous.

MJ: I recently downloaded the Dean Koontz app on my iPad. How does technology benefit your writing process? Does technology have any negative impact on your writing whatsoever?

DK: A computer facilitates revision and polishing, which makes it possible to do twenty drafts of a page in half the time it once might have taken to do three or four. That’s the benefit. E-mail can eat you alive, which is why I didn’t even have it until about three years ago. And I never go on-line for research. I leave that to an assistant, because I have seen more than a few writers waste endless hours on-line.

MJ: What’s on the horizon for you? There are rumors about a movie…

DK: The director Stephen Sommers–THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY RETURNS, the only faithful version of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN– wrote and directed a wonderful version of ODD THOMAS, which gets very high marks in test screenings. Stephen is the nicest, smartest, and most energetic and honorable guy you could hope to meet in the film business, and I have dedicated DEEPLY ODD to him. But certain other folks in the mix were perhaps less than entirely competent or trustworthy, and now the film is so trammeled by bad decisions and entangled in legal actions that I suspect it won’t ever be released. I’ve had other dreadful experiences with Hollywood, so I allowed myself only a day of disappointment. But I feel badly for Steve, who delivered on his promise, and for Anton Yelchin and Addison Timlin, who were both stunning as Odd and Stormy. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to do such good work and have it go unseen.

Comments

  1. Dean Koontz was my introduction to literature. His spins a mean yarn and every time I pick up one of his books I’m blown away.

  2. Dean Koontz was my introduction to literature. He can spin a mean yarn, and every time I pick up one of his books, even all these years later, I’m blown away.

Trackbacks

  1. […] an interview with M.J. Fievre, best-selling suspense writer Dean Koontz discusses his craft. “The biggest rewards, creatively and even financially, require […]

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