Interview with Dean Koontz: Born to write
Published: October 31, 2003
Dean Koontz manages to be life-affirming--while scaring the heck out of you
Once, when asked to share with an audience the deepest truths he had learned about life, Dean Koontz offered among his bits of hard-won wisdom this piece of advice: "Never pick a fight with a man who has the words 'Born to Die' tattooed on his forehead."
As a writer, Koontz, one of the most successful suspense novelists of our time, is hardworking, totally dedicated, focused and persevering. But he also is a man with a well-honed sense of humor and feet firmly planted on the ground.
Over the last 35 years, he has written more than 75 books, including Odd Thomas, due out this month. His work has been published in 32 languages with worldwide sales of more than 250 million copies. Ten of his novels have risen to No. 1 on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list, a milestone fewer than a dozen writers have achieved. The Times has called his writing "psychologically complex, masterly and satisfying," while USA Today has observed, "He chronicles the hopes and fears of our time in broad strokes and fine detail, using popular fiction to explore the human condition."
Perhaps the real secret of Koontz's success is that he connects so powerfully with his audience. While he is a master of the technical aspects of writing, including pacing, atmosphere, dialogue and setting, it is the often soaring lyricism of his language and his ability to tap deeply into his readers' emotions that make his novels hard to put down. Try reading the final chapters of his recent novel The Face, about a psychopath obsessed with a Hollywood superstar and his 10-year-old son, without feeling a flood of strong feelings wash over you. Koontz can sweep you off your feet emotionally, bring you gently back to earth as he brings an intricate plot to a conclusion and even plant a parting smooch on your sweaty forehead as you turn the final page.
His novels can be, by turns, breathtakingly suspenseful, poignant and tongue-in-cheek funny. And, yes--very scary. Take Watchers, for example, in which a sinister top-secret laboratory has genetically engineered two supra-human creatures that are polar opposites: Einstein, a lovable, highly intelligent animal, and his counterpart, an unspeakable horror that remains unnamed, referred to simply as the Outsider. Or Intensity, in which Edgler Foreman Vess, a self-styled "homicidal adventurer," pits himself against psychology student Chyna Shepherd, a 26-year-old survivor of childhood abuse, who has chosen the wrong evening to visit her friend, Laura Templeton. It is the evening Vess has chosen to exterminate everyone in the Templeton home. Or take Sole Survivor, in which Joe Carpenter, still numb with grief over the loss of his wife and two daughters in a plane crash that killed everyone aboard, notices a woman taking photos of his family's graves, a woman who claims to have been a passenger on the doomed plane. Soon he learns about a government cover-up of the crash, and that one of his children may still be alive, but as he tries to pursue the truth, sinister figures threaten him at every turn.
As dark as some of his scenes can be, as you finish reading novels like Watchers, Intensity or Sole Survivor, which crackle with tension, you may just find your soul expanding. That's because Koontz's characters embody the worst--but also the best--of human nature. He has had the courage to buck the tide that has long engulfed many "serious" contemporary writers, who feel they must indulge their bleak, despairing world view to earn the "serious writer" label. Koontz's work, in short, is life-affirming. The message of Intensity, for example, is that people do not have to remain victimized by their pasts, and that with enough courage, you can reshape your life.
In the end, Koontz's novels succeed because the people who populate them are never cardboard cutouts and are always interesting. Koontz says he begins his works by creating characters he finds compelling and giving them "free will." Action and plot grow organically out of character, and so, ring true.
He can, without flinching, scare the bejeezus out of us by turning a rock to expose the underside of a serial killer's soul. But in his best works--and this is more challenging-he also unmawkishly shows friendship, courage and self-sacrifice in action.
The contrast between the worlds of shadow and light also figured largely in Koontz's own life. His father, Ray, was an alcoholic who was diagnosed as mentally ill. His inability to hold down a job forced his family to live in impoverished circumstances. He terrified Koontz, an only child, during the boy's childhood in Pennsylvania. Koontz's mother, Florence, was a protector and nurturer.
Koontz graduated from Shippensburg State College and worked as a counselor and tutor of underprivileged children with the Appalachian Poverty Program and later as an English teacher in suburban Harrisburg, Pa. He worked nights and weekends on his writing until his wife, Gerda, offered to support him for a time to allow him to try to make it as a writer. The rest is, as the saying goes, publishing history.
Gerda, who quit her job to take care of the business end of her husband's writing career, has been patron, muse and nurturer, as well as partner. The two have been married for more than 30 years.
Today, Koontz and his wife live in an ocean-view home in California, where they've found room for Koontz's library of 100,000 books. It is a far cry from the modest rental in Pennsylvania where they started out as young marrieds. It is a level of success he and Gerda have worked hard to achieve. Given the circumstances of his childhood, it also represents a living illustration of themes he returns to repeatedly in his work: redemption, second chances, hope and perseverance. Indeed, Koontz counsels aspiring writers, "Always remember, perseverance is as important as talent."
In a recent interview with The Writer, Koontz talked about his early days, his thoughts on writing, and his best moment as a writer.
Who was the first person to encourage your writing dreams?
Winona Garbrick, my high school English teacher, was the first person to tell me that I had writing talent and that I'd be "a darn fool" if I didn't pursue it. I was a shy kid from a poor and quite dysfunctional family, and this rare encouragement had a profound effect on me. Later, after Gerda and I married, after I had sold a dozen short stories and a few novels, she offered to support me for five years so I could work full time at writing. "If you can't make it in five years, you'll never make it," she said. I tried to negotiate her up to seven years, but she was tough.
What writers were important influences as you developed? What writers do you read today for pleasure or instruction?
From the age of 15 until I was 35, I read on average 200 novels a year, so scores of writers influenced my work. The primary ones were John D. MacDonald, Charles Dickens, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, James M. Cain, Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers.
These days, when I have time for pleasure reading, I reread the above plus Jim Harrison, Anne Tyler, Somerset Maugham, Joyce Carol Oates and John O'Hara.
What kind of writing schedule do you have?
If it's my turn to walk the dog, I start writing at 8, otherwise at 7, and I work straight through until dinner, never pausing for lunch. I work 60-hour weeks on average, 70 if a deadline is rushing at me too fast.
Do you work from an outline?
I use no outlines. For me, they murder creativity. I begin with a premise or a situation, always with a character or two I think I'm going to love. If the characters come alive, they take the story places I could never have foreseen.
Do you revise as you go along or do you write the entire first draft and then revise?
I cannot move on to Page 2 until Page 1 is as perfect as I can make it. On average I do 20 to 30 drafts of a page, occasionally many more, and then proceed to the next page. At the end of each chapter, I print out and pencil the text a few times, to catch problems I didn't see on the screen. I build a book much the way marine polyps build a coral reef through the accretion of millions of their calcareous skeletons: slowly.
How long does it take you to write a book?
From the Corner of His Eye took a year. The Face took just six months--but on that one I virtually always worked 70-hour weeks. I love long writing sessions because I drift completely away into the fictional world, and the characters become more real to me than they would if I worked shorter hours.
Has one of your books ever "written itself"--flowed effortlessly onto the page and needed almost no revision?
Large parts of Watchers, virtually all of The Face and all of Odd Thomas were written while I was in what psychologists call a "flow state." This does not mean no revision was required. I still wrote maybe 20 drafts per page of The Face and Odd Thomas, but each draft flowed smoothly, and there were none of those deadly days when you stare at the screen for hours and come up with a lousy six-word sentence. This is an exhilarating state: You feel that you are in touch with a higher power and that the story is coming to you as a gift.
You write believably both about spooky serial killers and about innocent and lovable people. What is the key to creating credible characters?
To create convincing antagonists, you've got to believe in the reality of evil. If you think evil isn't a real force in the world, if you think everyone could be reformed with enough psychiatric analysis and compassion, you don't understand the darker side of human nature, and your villains won't ring true.
To create convincing protagonists and supporting characters who are complex, realistic and lovable, you've got to like people, all kinds of people. And when writing, you have to avoid pushing your character along from one calculated plot point to another; give your character free will, as God gave free will to us, for only then will the character act as a real individual, surprising you and your reader.
Do you believe that characters and plots bubble up out of the subconscious? If so, how do you "get out of your own way" to allow them to emerge?
I read dozens of publications each month--various sciences, history, current events--and odd facts stick with me. They cook in the subconscious, and from time to time they blend together into an edible stew that is a story idea. At that point I have a premise and often a theme--The Face is about many things, for instance, but the themes of redemption and faith are the core of it--but I still do not have a plot. The characters create the plot as they explore their own free will.
The imagination is like a muscle: The more you use it, the better it performs and the quicker you get ideas of a higher caliber. If you aren't getting ideas, the problem isn't usually that you need to "get out of your own way," but that you aren't feeding your subconscious a rich enough diet from which to build stories.
Facing overwhelming evil, your protagonists, motivated by love, find courage. Love and friendship are important in all of your novels. Hope illumines them. Why?
Because I have no interest in writing noirish novels about cool characters embittered by experience and beaten down by fate. That's easy writing because it involves no character arcs, and the bleak end is inherent in the bleak beginning. Yawn. This world is a magical place; creation is full of mystery, and we're here for a purpose. We find that purpose through deep relationships based on friendship and love. I like writing about people with the capacity for friendship, wonder and hope. They get life.
What are your favorite pastimes? Do they help you with your writing?
My wife and I share a love of architecture, interior design and antiques--especially French and Asian antiques and pieces from the Art Deco period. We both hate shopping for clothes, but in search of the right Tang Dynasty ceramic horse or a genuine Chiparus bronze, we will shop to the point of physical exhaustion! These interests have led me to a deeper sense of history and style that have given my descriptions of place more depth and verisimilitude.
How can a writer sustain suspense throughout a novel?
I believe that a suspense novel can be equal in quality to any "literary" novel ever written because suspense is the fundamental quality of life. None of us knows what will happen to him--or to his loved ones--from one day to the next. We live in a perpetual state of suspense, but in order to enjoy life and to get on with living, we suppress awareness of this truth. If you write suspense with the full appreciation of how suspenseful even the most mundane day really is, then you imbue your scenes with a subtle sense of impending jeopardy, and your reader feels your characters are at risk virtually paragraph by paragraph.
Often, though not always, my novels contain a large dose of humor because the way that we all cope with the constant suspense of our lives is humor. We laugh at fate and misfortune and often even at death. The laughter tells us we are alive.
How do you deal with days when you don't feel like writing?
I always feel like writing. I love the process of writing, the struggle with character, story and language, and every morning I can't wait to be at it. What I don't enjoy is publication and the publicity that goes with it. I dislike celebrity. I think the story is what matters, not the writer. I believe I'm the only writer on the bestseller lists who has never done a national tour, never appeared on any of the morning network shows. Writing is joy, especially when it's hard, challenging; having written is agony.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a suspense novelist?
Never write down to your audience. Editors may actually encourage you to do so, because in publishing there is often a contempt for the audience that reads "popular" fiction--as if Dickens wrote in a garret and was read only by a handful of academics. The audience is smarter than most of publishing, however, and while they can be persuaded, for a while, to shell out their money for junk packaged with flair, they give long-term fidelity only to fiction that does not pander to them and that has texture, depth.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your writing career?
I began to sell short stories during my last year of college, and I placed my first two novels less than a year after graduation. The experience was exhilarating, but I sometimes wish I hadn't launched a career in my 20s. Most of us are mad fools at that age, sure that we know so much when in fact we know nothing. There were a lot of books from my 20s that I had to buy back from publishers in order to pave the way for my real career!
What was your worst moment as a writer?
Attending a genre convention, as a young published author, and meeting several authors who were among my heroes. All but one of them turned out to be sloppy drunks, and more of them than not were arrogant and mean. I realized that the character of a writer cannot always be deduced from his work.
What has been your best moment as a writer?
A principal character in One Door Away From Heaven is an 11-year-old disabled girl--with a deformed leg and deformed hand--who faces life with unrelenting optimism and verve. A similarly disabled girl, though she was 13 or 14, came to a signing for the book, having already read it. She was shy, charming and very smart. The signing lasted five hours, and the girl's mother returned at the end of it, alone, to tell me that her daughter, always before so self-conscious of her deformed hand that she hid it, had suddenly begun using it to shake hands and was no longer self-conscious. From the character in my book, she had found the courage--and the necessary attitude--to accept her own difference. The mother was so astonished and delighted by the turn-around in her child that she wept when telling me about it. This is the best moment of my career, for it exemplifies the power to inspire and to change the heart that affecting fiction can possess.