When he was a senior in college, Dean Koontz won an Atlantic Monthly fiction competition and has been writing ever since. His books are published in 38 languages. He has sold 325,000,000 copies, a figure that currently increases by more than 17 million copies per year.
Ten of his novels have risen to number one on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list, making him one of only a dozen writers ever to have achieved that milestone. Fourteen of his books have risen to the number one position in paperback. His books have also been major bestsellers in countries as diverse as Japan and Sweden.
The New York Times has called his writing “psychologically complex, masterly and satisfying.”
Novel Journey has called Dean Koontz “Novel Journey’s super-coolest interviewee to date” … faster than a speeding metaphor … leaps tall plot holes in a single word … stronger than a passive sentence … Look up on the NYT Bestseller List … It’s Super D!
What new book do you have coming out?
THE DARKEST EVENING OF THE YEAR arrives in stores on November 27. It’s a dog story, a suspense novel, a love story, and a comic novel about commitment, redemption, mercy, the wonder of the human-dog bond, the nature of identity, the mysterious order that underlies all examples of chaos, and the wisdom of having a Power-Pak II crematorium at your disposal at all times.
Was there a specific “what if” moment that sparked this story?
Books like THE HUSBAND and THE GOOD GUY start with a what-if, but not this one. An interest in volunteer groups that rescue abused and abandoned dogs, in particular golden-retriever rescue, led me to the realization that this would be a good background for both a lead character and a novel: colorful, emotional, and fresh.
I knew at once that it would also be a novel in which virtually all the characters had secrets that would detonate throughout the story and that it would be about the strange patterns in life to which we often willfully blind ourselves. Don’t ask me why I knew those two elements would be essential to the story; when writing, I travel on wheels of intuition.
You are known as perhaps the hardest working novelist of our time. To what do you attribute your work ethic?
Two things. First, I am enchanted by the English language, by its beauty and flexibility, also by the power of storytelling to expand the mind and lift the heart. Language and story offer possibilities –intriguing challenges–that I couldn’t exhaust in many lifetimes. The work is joy when it’s going well, even when it isn’t. Second, I believe that talent is a gift and that it comes with the sacred obligation to polish and grow it.
You wrote two books on writing popular fiction. If you were to write another today, what advice would be different?
Probably 99% of it. I was young when I wrote those books, and in the hubris of youth, I thought I knew so much. Later, I learned that after decades of dedicated work, I knew about 1% of what I had thought I knew back then. The learning never stops.
You are one of the most prolific fiction writers of our time. What keeps you going?
In addition to the enchantment with language and storytelling, there is the fact that I wouldn’t know what the hell to do if I were not doing this. Some leisure is fine, but not an unrelieved diet of downtime. I’m also writing to ensure that our foundation–which focuses largely on organizations for the severely disabled, critically ill children, and dogs–will be deeply funded and able to support those organizations long after Gerda and I are gone.
You seem to be the writer other writers look up to. I know novelist Alton Gansky has made small references to your work in his own, and James Scott Bell holds up your work as a great example in his book Plot and Structure. Who do you look up to?
Among writers, Dickens, T.S. Eliot, the late suspense novelist John D. MacDonald, who at his best was a wizard at character, Flannery O’Conner, the cultural theorist Philip Rieff, G.K. Chesteron, C.S. Lewis, Walker Percy….
I’ve read that you will rewrite a page until it’s right before moving on, sometimes redoing a draft thirty or forty times. This must make for a slow process. Approximately how long does it take you to write one novel?
I work 10- and 11-hour days because in long sessions I fall away more completely into story and characters than I would in, say, a six-hour day. On good days, I might wind up with five or six pages of finished work; on bad days, a third of a page. Even five or six is not a high rate of production for a 10- or 11-hour day, but there are more good days than bad.
And the secret is doing it day after day, committing to it and avoiding distractions. A month–perhaps 22 to 25 work days–goes by and, as a slow drip of water can fill a huge cauldron in a month, so you discover that you have 75 polished pages. The process is slow, but that’s a good thing.
Because I don’t do a quick first draft and then revise it, I have plenty of time to let the subconscious work; therefore, I am led to surprise after surprise that enriches story and deepens character. I have a low boredom threshold, and in part I suspect I fell into this method of working in order to keep myself mystified about the direction of the piece–and therefore entertained. A very long novel, like FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE can take a year. A book like THE GOOD GUY, six months.
It’s been said that writers reveal their own struggles, fears, dreams, etc. through their work. Which of your novels reveals the most about you?
Everything I believe about life and death, culture and society, relationships and the self, God and nature–everything winds up in the books, not in one more than another, but equally, title after title. A body of work, therefore, reveals the intellectual and emotional progress of the writer, and is a map of his soul. It’s both terrifying and liberating to consider this aspect of being a novelist.
You had an agent in your early years tell you that you’d never be a best-selling writer. Did that discourage you or make you more determined to succeed?
I have more self-doubt than any writer I’ve ever known. That is one reason I revise every page to the point of absurdity! The positive aspect of self-doubt–if you can channel it into useful activity instead of being paralyzed by it–is that by the time you reach the end of a novel, you know precisely why you made every decision in the narrative, the multiple purposes of every metaphor and image. Having been your own hardest critic, you still have dreams but not illusions.
Consequently, thoughtless criticism or advice can’t long derail you. You become disappointed in an agent, in an editor, in a publisher, but never discouraged. If anyone in your publishing life were to argue against a particular book or a career aspiration for reasons you had not already pondered and rejected after careful analysis, if they dazzled you with brilliant new considerations, then you’d have to back off and revisit your decisions. But what I was told never dazzled me.
For example, I was often advised, by different people, that my work would never gain a big audience because my vocabulary was too large, because my stories were often too complex, because my themes were too much at variance from the cynicism of the postmodern reader. You see? Mostly, those people were underestimating the intelligence of the average reader–for whom there is often near contempt in publishing circles–or were assuming that their own cynicism was universal. That kind of thinking is dismaying but not discouraging, because it is a product of a detachment from reality.
Is there an up and coming writer you’ve read that we should be checking out?
Unfortunately, for a while now, family and professional obligations have been such that I read less fiction than I once did. Much of my reading is either research material or works of a philosophical nature, like those of Philip Rieff.
When I do read fiction, I tend to go back past the 20th century, to novels in which the characters were not based on the ravings of Freud and had more reality. I know I’m allowing a woeful gap to form in my knowledge, so I hope to get back to reading some contemporary fiction within the next year.
In your process of writing a novel, do you have a theme in mind before writing or does it naturally present itself as the story unfolds?
I never start with an outline, only with a situation, a hook, and a couple of characters that seem interesting to me. Sometimes, the theme or themes of the story will seem obvious: ODD THOMAS was primarily about the necessity of perseverance in the face of great loss; THE FACE concerned, in part, the power of love to lead the darkest heart to contrition, and was about the absolute necessity of contrition in a well-lived life.
With some books, the obvious theme remains the theme, though associated themes may arise. In other instances, the obvious themes collapse in a chapter or two, and other–and usually better–themes arise. If I write more than two or three chapters without a solid sense of what the book is about on a thematic–a subtextual–level, I back off the project because it feels empty to me.
Because you don’t outline, and have only a premise and characters in mind, do you ever write yourself into a corner?
I’m always terrified of doing so, after stacking up a few hundred pages. So far, I’ve always skated.
Is it true your first four novels never sold? What encouragement would you offer to newbies who are receiving rejection after rejection and wondering if they’re just fooling themselves about seeing their name on a book cover?
By the time I started writing novels, I had sold a few short stories, so I knew I wasn’t entirely delusional. These days, good-paying short story markets are so few that not many writers can begin as I did. Four failed novels did make me wonder if I was being unrealistic about my prospects.
What kept me going was reading fiction that I admired, that filled me with wonder and inspiration. But in truth, I also at times took consolation from reading bad fiction that offered ham-fisted prose, paper-thin characters, bad research, and muddy thinking. I would finish such a book and tell myself, If that can be published and succeed, surely there’s a market for something that strives to avoid all those faults.
It turned out that I wasn’t just fooling myself. But we never know, do we? The ego so easily misleads, and hubris is the path easiest to follow.
Success is said to change everyone it visits. How would those close to you say success has changed you?
The better the books have sold, the more private I’ve become. The American fascination with celebrity disturbs and bores me. I do one in twenty interviews I’m asked to do. I’ve never done a national book tour. I’ve managed gracefully–I think–to decline invitations from a number of network TV shows.
The place I’m most public is at my web site–which really isn’t public at all. The longer I work at this, the more certain I become that talent is a grace and each new story a gift, and that it isn’t the writer that matters but the story that was given to him. I spend ever more time at home, and am happier year by year.
Writers often hold themselves back from writing something too far out there. You don’t seem to have that inhibition. Has that always been the case and if not, how did you overcome it?
It’s always been the case. Not to beat the same drum again and again, but it comes from viewing talent as an unearned grace–and trusting it because it comes from some power greater than oneself. My publisher, after reading the manuscript of ONE DOOR AWAY FROM HEAVEN, called me and said, “You sure do go out there where the trains don’t usually go, but it works.” In fact he sent me a painting he had the art department work up, in which a train is chugging trackless through clouds and stars, and I smile every time I see it.
If you give yourself entirely to intuition but then bring hard intellectual analysis to what the intuition produces, you’ll be okay. Take the far-out element and consider it in the same spirit that St. Thomas Aquinas used clear cold reason to prove the existence of God. Aquinas took the hardest challenge of all and succeeded brilliantly at it.
I’ve got a much easier task even when, as in LIFE EXPECTANCY, I suddenly find myself writing a clown, of all things, into the opening sequence, a clown in an expectant-fathers waiting room at a hospital. At the time, as I typed the word clown, I could not imagine where that could go or how it could be made believable, but I trusted intuition–which is seeing with the soul–and now it’s impossible to imagine that book without the clown.
If you could go back to the young Dean who was being supported by his wife and trying to break into the market, what advice would you have for him?
“You’re an idiot! Not always about the writing, but about a scary bunch of other things. Straighten up, Koontz. Think. Don’t forget that your end is in your beginning and your beginning in your end– and I’m not talking about your novels or suggesting that you’ve too often got your head up your ass, though you do. Eliot wrote that we are born with the dead, and that’s a truth we’re wise to remember every day.” I’d also tell my young self to stop, for God’s sake, wearing those hideous tie-died shirts.
Regarding branding: You’ve written under several pen names. If you were going to write something completely different from what fans expect from you (like a prairie romance), would you choose to use one again?
I’ll never use a pen name again. In the early days, I used them when agents and publishers insisted on it. The thinking was that the public expects the same kind of book each time from a writer, not just in the same genre but in precisely the same style. I drove them nuts by writing all kinds of different books, and I was not so successful that I could insist on putting them all under my name; I had to take the multiple-personality plunge.
Eventually, when my books became bestsellers, I was able to publish the best of those pen-name books under my name, in paperback, and as I had suspected, readers were happy with them and not at all troubled by different genres and styles as long as they could detect a thread of the author’s voice in the tapestry of the story. But even after I had seemed to be winning this argument, I continued to have problems with publishers who thought the latest book was too unusual or too far off the Koontz track.
When I delivered LIGHTNING, Putnam didn’t want to publish it. They wanted to put it on a shelf and hold it for seven years, because they said it was so different that it would alienate my audience, which had begun to make bestsellers of my books. We had a terrible, protracted row over it…but when they finally caved and published it, the book sold better than anything before it.
Years later, when I delivered INTENSITY to Knopf, they were wary of it. My editor told me it “moved too fast” and needed “a couple hundred pages of less interesting material” to modulate the pace. He also worried that it was “avant garde,” and therefore perhaps not appealing to thriller readers. I never understood–or got an explanation of–what he thought was avant garde about the book, which is after all a headlong thriller. I think he was referring to the use of present tense for the antagonist’s scenes, to what Louis Lehrman in a nice Times review called “tumbling, hallucinogenic prose,” and to the way metaphors and similes and other figures of speech were crafted differently for each point of view in the story.
By the way, that last device led to one of the most ignorant bad reviews I ever received. Writing in a major magazine, a reviewer decided I was illiterate because in the opening scene, which is from the killer’s point of view, he stands overlooking a vineyard and compares a woman’s face to a succulent bunch of grapes. If the reviewer had read farther than two pages, he would eventually have discovered that the antagonist–Vess– suffered from synasthesia, a condition in which his senses became confused, so that for him some sounds had a smell and some sights had a taste, etcetera, and his pov scenes contained figures of speech reflecting that condition.
Anyway, the book was published without the 200 pages of less interesting material, it went to #1, and over the years it has continued to sell strongly. Again, all the concern about it was based upon the same conviction that drove the demand that I use pen names: a conviction that much of the reading public is dim-witted.
Is there something you’d like to write that might surprise us?
I would hope that, to some extent, each book surprises, and that by now readers will go along with my changes of direction at least long enough to determine whether, this time, I’ve lost my mind.
Do you think a new novelist should take the route you did and write some easier to place genre fiction to get their foot in the door or begin with the type of fiction they hope always to write?
Out of the gate, run with what you most love. Starting in a genre–if you don’t expect always to stay there–will label you, and the labor needed to strip off a publisher’s label, once it has been applied, is Herculean. I know because I’ve had to reinvent myself more than once.
What props do you use when you write (pictures, whatever)?
When I’m working, stacks of reference works, specific to the subjects touched upon in the novel, surround me, but otherwise the only things on my desk are a lot of framed photos of Gerda and me, of our beloved (and now gone) golden retriever, Trixie, and of friends.
You are a master of metaphor and simile. How do you constantly come up with ones that aren’t cliched?
Following Hemingway, rich figures of speech fell out of most fiction. Hemingway wasn’t bland. His stripped-down style had a poetry of its own. Personally, I find the world view of his work depressing and wrong-headed, but as concerns style, he was a genius. Unfortunately, the inarguable brilliance of his work led to generations of writers who imitated it, but who imitated only the surface effects and not the substance of the style, which is where the poetry is embedded.
Think of Hemingway’s work as a helping hand held out to struggling writers who are trying to find their way; in the upturned palm, they see the skin, the pads of the fingers, the metacarpal creases, the heart line and the head line, and they recreate all that in their work, but the result is bland because the substance of his style is in the muscles and tendons and bones of that hand, in the veins and arteries, which you don’t see but without which the hand would have no life, no function.
So we’ve had decades of bad imitations of Hemingway. And then a worse thing happened–a lot of writers adopted a minimalist style because it was easy if they didn’t care that they were recreating only the surface effects of Hemingway. Even in a book using swift, almost minimalist prose–like THE HUSBAND or THE GOOD GUY–there is room for metaphor and simile if they, likewise, are crisp.
For me–and a writer can only talk about what works for him or her, no rules are universal in this game–the figures of speech in a novel can be kept fresh if you hold in mind four things.
One: a metaphor isn’t meant to dazzle readers, but to seduce them into a more intimate relationship with the story. This means every figure of speech should be consistent with the mood of the scene in which it appears. In a moment of brooding menace, you don’t want a metaphor or simile to delight a reader into an amused laugh or to give him a spiritual lift–unless the spiritual lift, by leading him to think of the peril to the human soul in fallen world, adds to the brooding atmosphere.
Two: you should never go inside more than one character’s mind in the same scene; each scene is from a singular viewpoint, and therefore a metaphor or a simile should be in the voice of the narrator of the scene. It should come out of his or her life experience, either out of what has thus far been revealed to the reader or out of what is yet to be revealed.
Three: Metaphors and similes and other figures of speech describe a scene or a character more succinctly and more colorfully than chains of adjectives, and they are tremendously useful to reinforce mood, but some of them also can have–and ideally should have–a connection to the underlying themes of the work.
For instance, in VELOCITY, a novel that is in part about the tension between personal autonomy and the necessity of a strong community, and that is in part about thorny issues of free will–such as, when is it virtuous to repress certain desires and when is it not? when does righteous violence become something darker? when is sacrifice an error that serves self-pity and when is it a an admirable act? can mercy sometimes be misguided and serve evil?–so it’s not happenstance that throughout the novel, a significant percentage of the figures of speech refer to birds, which serve well as both a symbol of community (the flock) and of the singular potential beauty of each human heart (one soaring figure in the sky).
Four: ideally, a metaphor or simile, or other figure of speech, should bring the reader into communion with the mystery of this world and mystery of our lives. We live in a magical world of which science understands only the tiniest fraction. If you don’t believe that, then read a lot of science by the best writers in their disciplines, and you’ll see that what we know of anything is but a shadow of the full and still hidden truth. Every discovery in, say, molecular biology, raises many new questions. And that we exist, that we think and love and hate and yearn, is arguably the most amazing thing of all; there are thousands of different insects and species of plants beyond counting, but there is as far as we yet know only one consciousness in this material world that can build civilizations and contemplate its purpose at profound depth–human consciousness.
For me, a metaphor or other figure of speech can be an enchantment that brings the reader more intimately into the story by speaking to his or her subconscious awareness of the mystery and magic of the world and the human journey. If you keep those four things in mind, more often than not, the figures of speech in your work will be fresh, apt, and engaging.
How do you get into character? Before you begin writing a new novel, do you use charts or have real people in mind?
I begin with a character in a stressful or intriguing situation–the narrative hook. Then I ask myself what kind of person would I find most interesting to follow in my desire to see what happens next. In THE DARKEST EVENING OF THE YEAR, Amy Redwing rescues abused and abandoned golden retrievers. Logically, the novel should open with a sufficiently dramatic rescue to grip the reader and to establish vividly the dog-rescue background.
When I ask myself what kind of woman would be most interesting in such a scene, I answer that she should be clever, quick-thinking, and emotionally solid–but also absolutely reckless in her commitment. It’s always fun to read about a character who has reckless disregard for her safety–but the recklessness can avoid seeming self-destructive and stupid if it is founded on competence and experience. Then it becomes a kind of courage, even a grace.
Next I ask myself why a woman would put her own life at risk and take such terrible chances to save a dog. She would love dogs, of course, but that would not be enough to motivate her to these extremes of action. A woman might be driven to save dogs at virtually any cost and might take great risks if the work was a continuing act of redemption. Therefore, she must have something terrible in her past, some experience that has driven her to seek redemption through her service to abused and abandoned dogs.
That’s when I start writing. I don’t want to figure out what that secret in her past might be. I want her to show me what it is as she leads me through the story. I have no charts. If the character comes alive in the opening scenes, if her dialogue sparkles and her actions compel attention, she will weave for herself a complex character with the warp and woof of every line.
Giving characters free will, instead of outlining them in detail before the writing begins, allows a story to flow naturally and allows the characters to become more real and more interesting than they could be if they had to act within a rigid profile created in advance of the actual writing.
With as much success as you’ve had, is there anything left that, as a writer, you’d still like to accomplish?
An infinite number of stories wait to be told, with an infinite cast available. I write largely to remind myself of the beauty and the wonder of this life, this world, and to explore for my own enlightenment the meaning of it and the remarkable ways that people find hope or forsake it. I love the process, dislike the aftermath. I like writing, not having written.
The one accomplishment that matters is achieving those moments, in the course of telling a story, when I feel that I am in contact with a higher power, when the very act of creating a story feels like communion with the ultimate Creator. Those moments are exhilarating, full of a quiet joy that alone makes the hours at the keyboard worthwhile, which is why I kept my hands on the keys during all those early years when success seemed unlikely and when a life of genteel poverty seemed all but assured.
If your writing isn’t about making money or being famous, if it’s not about ego, but about seeking to understand life and yourself, to explore the extent of your talent and discover its limitations, then in my experience, the success comes almost as a side-effect.