Book World Live: Novelist Dean Koontz
Monday, December 1, 2008; 1:00 PM
A young man receives a heart transplant -- and soon afterward, starts receiving some very strange gifts, and then visits, from a young woman who looks just like his organ donor. So begins Your Heart Belongs to Me, the latest thriller from bestselling novelist Dean Koontz.
Koontz, whose novels have sold over 375 million copies worldwide, was online Monday, December 1 to discuss his thriller writing, his forays into comics, his collaborations with his beloved golden retriever and more.
A transcript follows.
Join Book World Live each week for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World or in the weekday Style Section.
Dean Koontz: Hi, I'm Dean Koontz. I write novels, groom dogs, collect Hawaiian shirts, and drink enough red wine to ensure that I will live for 345 years. My latest novel, in stores now, is YOUR HEART BELONGS TO ME. I'm ready to answer your questions about this book or about anything else -- except electromagnetic field theory, of which I'm ignorant.
New York, N.Y.: What did you teach when you taught school and what did you think of your teaching experience?
Dean Koontz: I worked in Saxton, Pennsylvania, under Title Three of the Appalachian Poverty Program, tutoring disadvantaged kids. Then I worked in Mechanicsburg, Pa., teaching 9th and 10th grade English. I loved teaching, enjoyed the kids -- some of whom still write to me even now that they're 90 and in nursing homes -- but I didn't care for the bureaucracy of the educational system. Hated it. Quite. Became a writer.
Why thrillers?: I am not really a reader of the thriller and mystery genres -- I guess I don't really "get" why they are so popular. Do you have any theories as to why they are, not only in books but also on TV, movies etc? Thanks!
Dean Koontz: I don't think of myself as a thriller writer. I write novels that happen to be suspenseful. Many of them -- LIFE EXPECTANCY, ONE DOOR AWAY FROM HEAVEN, THE DARKEST EVENING OF THE YEAR -- are also comic novels. I mix genres to avoid boredom, and write with a mainstream interest in subtext and language. BUT any novel that attempts to deal with life with seriousness must contain suspense, in my estimation, because suspense is the fundamental quality of our lives.
Ann Arbor, Mich.: I have a feeling the favorite character you've written is Odd Thomas. If it is, do you have a second favorite character?
Dean Koontz: Yes, I have a special affection for Odd. There will be 3 more books in the series, seven in all, and while I have no idea of their content, I have realized his end point, which has greatly excited me. The implicit meaning of the series is more complex than I thought in the beginning, and it gives me LOTS of opportunity to fall flat on my face. Second favorite character? Too many to pick one. But I dearly loved Leilani and Curtis from ONE DOOR AWAY FROM HEAVEN.
Lyme, Conn.: I look forward to reading your latest book. The description is very catchy and has pulled me into the story already. How do you come up with your plots? I know that may be hard to describe, yet I am wondering how much your ideas change from when you begin to write through the last rewrite, and in what books might you have made major changes or additions to the original idea?
Dean Koontz: Ideas come from many sources. LIFE EXPECTANCY from a line in a song by Paul Simon. ONE DOOR AWAY FROM HEAVEN from my disgust with the utilitarian bioethics infecting our medical schools. YOUR HEART BELONGS TO ME popped into my head while I was in the middle of a phone conversation with a friend who was talking about transplant ethics and technology. He mentioned one curious fact, and I stopped listening to him for a minute because my brain spun up a novel idea from what he had said.
Rockville, Maryland: It amazes me that fiction can maintain the illusion of the flow of time and the suspense of action, when it is really a very static product. But I can read stories again and again and still keep a sense of anticipation and risk. How do we manage it?
Dean Koontz: Once you have become a reader of fiction and discovered how to immerse yourself in it, good books will always be more exciting and involving than the best films or other forms of entertainment, primarily because as a reader you are required to participate in a book, to use your imagination to translate the words into mental images, whereas with a film you are entirely a passive participant. Fiction feels real because it requires of you an intimate relationship.
Rockville, Maryland: You ever miss the older days of Science Fiction? I am reading my Heinlein again and think it is like the future we never had.
Dean Koontz: I loved Heinlein, Sturgeon, Bradbury, and so many others in science fiction. Read hundreds of books in the genre before I was twenty-one. And I wrote some really bad ones in my youth! One of the problems with SF is that it dates in a way no other genre does. Heinlein was visionary, and is still enormously readable, but every one of his books now has to be seen as an alternate-world story because it is set in a future that can no longer be ours. As a writer, I don't miss the genre. I'm happy here, now.
Dog: OK, now I am curious. I have read and enjoyed some of your books but I don't know anything about your collaboration with a dog. Please explain.
Dean Koontz: My dog, Trixie, has written three books, the first two edited by me, the third -- BLISS TO YOU -- channeled through me after she passed to the other side! Trixie is working on her fourth book, which Hyperion will also publish, and I have written two children's books, which Putnam-Penguin will begin to publish in 2009. Trixie's first book sold 70,000 hardcovers, exactly 14 times more copies than my first hardcover. Humbling. Check my web site for lots of Trixie news.
McLean, Va.: Hi,
Dogs! Is your favorite breed the Golden (Darkest evening of the year), or have you a favorite? Do you have dogs at home?
Dean Koontz: I like all dogs. I suspect I was one in a former life -- before I screwed up and had to come back as a human. But my favorite breed probably is the golden retriever. They have such a gentle, friendly, and loving personality -- and each is an individual. Anna came to live with us in May, 10 months after Trixie died, but I don't think she will turn into a writer. One writing dog in the family is enough. Besides, Anna seems more interested in mathematics.
Brandon, Mississippi: I love your books, but I am surprised that more of them have not been made into movies. Do you have an explanation or theory on that?
Dean Koontz: A high studio executive -- by which I do not mean that he was on drugs, though he probably was on drugs, and probably on more than one, probably on 23 -- once told me, after a difficult development process, that novels are ideal for film translation when they are at heart short stories, so that much of their length can be stripped away without losing meaning. Mine, he insisted, were too twisty and dense -- think he meant this as a compliment -- to be easily condensed. Maybe he's right. I don't know. If he weren't in an asylum now, I'd ask him to elucidate further.
Whitesburg, Ga.: I love Odd Thomas. Do you believe seeing dead people is possible?
Dean Koontz: Just the other night, on TV, I saw John Wayne, Cary Grant, Lawrence Welk (briefly), and Buffalo Bob. All dead. So, yes, it is possible.
Munich, Germany: Your new novel sounds like it contains elements of the metaphysical, but in other novels, where, for instance, a serial murderer plays games with innocent people or and gives hints to police or journalists, what precedents exist in real life for this kind of thing? Was the Zodiac Killer the first role model for this type of crime fiction?
Dean Koontz: Virtually all my novels deal with the metaphysical, some more obviously than others. INTENSITY, one with a serial killer, keeps the metaphysical subtextual except for two scenes. The precedent, as you put it, is indeed real. In many of my books, the psychotic antagonist is based on a real-world killer -- and in every case, the behavior of the real-world figure was more bizarre than anything that I could invent. Indeed, to write the full reality would be to test the reader's suspension of disbelief. Fiction does not report life, it refines it and finds meaning.
Arlington, Va.: Mr. Koontz,
I've noticed that you seem to shy away from the spotlight and commercialization that's become so commonplace with many other writers of this generation. I'm thinking of Anne Rice and Stephen King as examples. Is there a particular reason for this, or do you just prefer your privacy (which I can greatly respect!)?
Dean Koontz: Some writers enjoy being public figures, God bless them, and I think they do a service to publishing by making the book seem more glamorous than it otherwise would. I may be the only writer on the bestseller list who has never done a national tour and who avoids as much TV as he can without annoying his publisher. I like radio interviews because some anonymity is preserved when your face isn't all over the tube. If I had my druthers, I would write and do NO publicity. For me, the joy is in the doing, in the creating, not in what comes next. Except for this event, of course, which I am enjoying IMMENSELY because we are all being so BRILLIANT here. Besides, I'm actually in Hawaii, and 346 monkeys are typing these answers.
Alexandria, Va.: Its a pleasure to write to you after all the years of enjoying your books (I haven't missed one yet!). I really like the depth of the characters you write, and wondered if you just have a wonderful imagination, or if you base your characters on people that you know? The details and personality quirks of the characters, as well as the adventure, are what makes me keep reading your books. Thank you for all the years of entertainment!
Dean Koontz: Of course, observation of real people shapes fictional characters, but less than you would think. Generally, I start with a character whose centermost personality traits seem ideal for the story I want to write. Often, the story is nothing more than a premise because I do not outline. I launch the first scene, and if the character is indeed an expression of the implicit meaning of the story, he or she develops more traits and quirks and attitudes page by page, almost as if he/she is building himself. When a character comes alive, you have to give them free will, step back, and see who they become.
Washington, D.C.: I'm a huge fan of your work and read your books as soon as they are published - which seems almost an annual event. How do you keep up this frenetic pace? How do you recharge, refocus and just relax in between books?
Dean Koontz: I love the process. I love sitting down to a blank page and discovering the story hidden on it. As I said in answer to a previous question, I love writing, not having written. When I finish a novel, I feel exhilarated but also bereft because I came so close to the characters that I feel as if I'm saying good-bye to friends. I don't really need recharging between books, because I get charged up by writing itself. If you loved chocolate to the exclusion of all other pleasures, and if someone offered to pay you well just to eat chocolate, would you want to take regular vacations to eat spinach?
Washington, D.C.: What are you reading now? I am always curious to know what successful authors read in their "free" time -- you may not have much of that given how hard you work!
Dean Koontz: These days, most of what I read is research for the novel on which I'm working or for the next novel. Pleasure reading is conducted in the cracks of the work day, so I tend to reread work I admire: Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, John. D. MacDonald, Dickens, and a lot of poets who have gotten deep into my brain.
Chicago, Ill.: You wrote that books have more potential than films because they require active participation. Yet your novels are written straightforwardly, in a popular style, and ask very little of their readers. Do you find yourself able to appreciate books which are difficult and ultimately rewarding?
Dean Koontz: My books are popular, but not "written in a popular style." This is precisely the battle I've had with publishers most of my career -- until my current one. I was endlessly told that my vocabulary was too large to gain me a sizable readership, that the stories were too complex, that the characters were too involved, the the subtext was too layered, yadayadayada. Over time, none of those things prevent the development of a large readership. Publishers -- and you -- greatly underestimate the reading public.
New Orleans, La.: Many of your books are set in Southern California, where you live. Any interest in setting a book in a totally different location?
Dean Koontz: I do so much research into the subjects with which my books are concerned that I tend to set them in places I already know well in order to avoid research locale, as well. I have set books in Colorado (LIFE EXPECTANCY) and the Southwest because I'm familiar with those areas, but I won't set one where I haven't lived or traveled a lot.
Madison, Wisc.: Hi Dean,
I remember my mom reading your books when I was younger. I was too young to read then, but she says you are one of the best.
In any case, I am struggling writer who can't ever seem to get the energy, motivation etc, to finish a long story. What did you do when you first started out and what advice to do you have for other beginning thriller writers?
Dean Koontz: I don't know what you're writing, as to genre or story, but I would almost bet that your problem staying with a story to completion arises from one cause: you are writing what you think will sell or what you think the public might want -- and it isn't resonating with your mind and heart. I could be wrong. But that's often where new writers go wrong. Ask yourself what you, as a reader, have been most passionate about, and if that kind of story or theme seems like something beyond your ability, write it anyway. Take the plunge. Challenge yourself. And then you will desperately want to finish the story because you will need to know how it turns out.
Lyme, Conn.: Your wife deserves credit for giving you five years to see if you could write. I believe a lot of frustrated writers wish they had similar family support. Obviously, your wife recognized you had talent. How did your wife come to realize this gamble was worth it and how did her agreement to this come about?
Dean Koontz: Gerda is a special human being. I was lucky to find her. Of course, the deal was that if I didn't produce enough work to make a living in five years, she would not only stop supporting me but cut off my left hand. I was highly motivated.
Austin, Tex.: I've spent many hours reading your books and just want to say thanks -- it has been time well-spent. I forget the name, but my favorite book of yours is when the earth is visited by a spaceship containing hellish beings -- quite an unexpected twist at the end.
Is it ever hard for you to write about some of the experiences your characters go through -- in this case I'm thinking of "Piggy" and Nicole in The Darkest Evening of the Year. As a father it was just so terribly saddening to read those parts and I wondered what it is like to actually create those worlds for those characters.
Dean Koontz: In real life (as far as I recognize it anymore) my wife and I work with organizations that serve people with severe disabilities. I have met so many of them who have been inspiring and wonderful people that I like to include them in my novels. What Hope -- aka Piggy -- endures in THE DARKEST EVENING OF THE YEAR was difficult to write, but had to be written to keep the story honest. This story confronts the reader with Evil with a capital E, and if that evil were not convincing, the book would be morally bankrupt. Turning one's face away from evil is the first step to denying its existence. Anyway, I knew Hope was a survivor, innocent and therefore destined to be triumphant. And so she was.
Dean Koontz: Thank you all for being here today and for many quite interesting questions. I am not the most technological guy in the world (great laughter here in my office), but I hope I have been quick enough with these answers and reasonably coherent. May the rest of your day be free of crocodiles, angry Sumo wrestlers, and the like.
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