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Reprinted (with an updated introduction) from the book Giants of the Genre by Michael McCarty, published by Wildside Press, 2003

See also the more recent "Tribute to Dean Koontz: Forty Years as a Published Novelist" in this issue.

Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz must have been a gourmet chef in a past life because he can take science fiction and suspense, mystery and monsters, love and lust, humor and horror, and blend them all together into a delicious nonfat novel.

Koontz is the author of over eighty novels, including ten New York Times Number One Best Sellers: Midnight, The Bad Place, Cold Fire, Hideaway, Dragon Tears, Intensity, Sole Survivor, From the Corner of His Eye, One Door Away from Heaven, and The Husband.

The master of suspense doesn't rest on his laurels. He has been penning novels almost nonstop for four decades. This might account for his phenomenal success, since over 200 million copies of his books have sold worldwide.

There is no doubt that Koontz is one of the hardest-working writers in speculative fiction.

Michael McCarty: It is reported that you spend twelve hours a day, seven days a week when you're working on a book. What kinds of things are you doing during that time: Writing? Plotting? Rewriting? Outlining? Character development? Or is this just an elaborate excuse to your wife so you don't have to take out the garbage?

Dean Koontz: I sit down at my desk about 7:30 [a.m.], or 8:30 if it's my turn to walk the dog—9:00 if I also have to polish the alligator—and I'm there until dinner, because I rarely eat lunch. When I need an excuse to avoid taking out the garbage, I usually claim to have been abducted by extraterrestrials, because deadlines aren't a sufficient excuse to deflect Gerda. Why she buys the evil-aliens story, I don't know, but she's never called me on it.

Outline? I never outline. For me, fiction is character driven, not plot driven, so I start with one or two interesting characters and a brief premise—and then leap off the narrative cliff. On the way down, like a circus clown, I'm desperately opening a series of ever larger umbrellas, hoping to slow my speed of descent and land on both feet.

Character development? That isn't something I do as a separate task. I don't cobble up lists of a character's favorite foods, habits, preferences in clothing, political attitudes, favorite game shows, or his excuses for not taking out the garbage. That's all useless. If characters come alive, they do so by virtue of their actions, their decisions and choices, and it's in the writing that they assume dimension, not in some portrait or capsule biography written prior to launching the book. Though I was once a Freudian writer, showing how every character's traumatic past shaped the person he became, I have in the '90s become virulently anti-Freudian because I believe it's all bunk, and dangerous bunk to boot. Freudian-colored writing—which is 99 percent of all fiction in this century—reduces every character to a victim on some level; and the writer who either consciously or unconsciously uses Freudian dogma to explain his characters' motivations is reducing the mysterious complexity of the human mind to a monkey-simple cause-and-effect mechanism. Dickens's characters were not given depth by mechanistic psychological analyses of their childhoods; Freud hadn't yet started to infect the world, and Dickens defined his characters by their actions, by their decisions and choices and attitudes. Some critics won't get what I'm doing, because they're conditioned to looking for certain devices and techniques as signs that characterization is taking place—but, happily, most have not only caught on to it but have supported it as more natural and, ultimately, deeper reaching.

Strangers

As for plotting . . . well, this is also something that resolves itself in the process of writing, not in an outline. If I keep the characters moving, keep them thinking and feeling, the plot will evolve as I go. An outline always felt unnatural to me, and I stopped using one when I began Strangers. Before that, I created outlines, but the books never followed them anyway.

Rewriting is also not a separate task for me. I don't bang out a book, or even a chapter, and then go back to revise it. I rework every sentence before moving to the next, and then rework every paragraph before moving to the next, and then revise each page twenty, thirty, fifty times before moving on to the next. When I reach the end of a chapter—which has by that time been revised exhaustively—I then print it out and pencil it three or four times, because I see things on the printout that I don't see on the screen. By the time I reach the end of the book, every line in it has received so much attention that there's nothing to go back and revise—unless the editor spots a problem that, on reflection, I agree needs to be addressed. I've sometimes described this method of writing a novel as being similar to the way coral reefs are formed from the accreted skeletons of marine polyps—though I must admit I've never polled any polyps to see if they agree. Some writers have wondered how I maintain spontaneity when working in this fashion, but it's no problem at all, because you get so intimately involved with the fine details of the story that it remains eternally fresh to you on a lot of levels rather than just on the level of plot. I'm sure all those polyps feel spontaneous and full of life as they form colonies, reproduce, and finally die in the service of creating underwater tourist attractions and providing the raw material for junk jewelry and dust-catching paperweights.

MM: How do you decide which political or social issues to incorporate into your books?

DK: I never think about it at the start, because the characters, as they form through the narrative, will show me what issues affect their lives. Of course, I always try to make a serious statement about the plight of the endangered lousewort, and I'd feel that I was worthless as a writer if I didn't always make it clear where I stand on the separation of church and MTV.

MM: Several of your books were also published in England with Headline Press. What do the Brits think of American authors?

DK: Headline has published all of my books—and very well. They're a great house. What do Brits think of U.S. authors? Well, they never mention the Revolutionary War, so I guess they've gotten over that, though a few are still pissed about the War of 1812. I suspect they feel we ought to wear monocles and say "Jolly right" more often than we do. Otherwise, they seem to take to us warmly enough . . . though I noticed that it's possible to outsell many of the books on their best-seller lists while being kept to lower numbers, behind homegrown authors. But that's an understandable bit of pumping for the homeboys, and none of them has ever called me a "bloody sod."

MM: If you had to choose five favorite books that you have written, which five would you pick and why?

DK: Watchers, Lightning, The Bad Place, Cold Fire, Intensity, Dark Rivers of the Heart, and the Christopher Snow trilogy. That's seven or nine, depending on how you look at it, but I never promised you that I would be perfectly cooperative. I haven't cut your head off and stowed it in the refrigerator, so I don't think you've got much to complain about.

Watchers
Lightning

Watchers was a dream to write, and during the whole last half of it, I was in something of a flow state. That does not mean I was having intestinal disturbances. A psychological flow state, what athletes call "being in the zone." I like the book because the characters seem real to me and because multiple layers of theme and metaphor thread through the narrative more unobtrusively than in anything I'd written to that time.

Lightning was a technical challenge greater than any other I've faced, and considering the tremendously convoluted nature of the time-travel element, I think I acquitted myself well enough to escape embarrassment. But I also have a particular fondness for the book because of the characters, because of the tragic love story of Danny and Laura and the angst-ridden love story of Laura and Stefan, both of which were wildly uncommercial, the kind of thing publishers warn you against doing, yet they worked. And in this book, I began to use humor to a degree and in an uncloaked fashion that I'd never before dared in a suspense novel—which has by now become an element in most of my better books.

The Bad Place
Cold Fire

The Bad Place was just flat-out weird from beginning to end, over the top, yet readers and critics seemed to think it worked—which showed me that virtually any outrageous development in a novel can work if you prepare the reader for it and if you ground it in sufficient real-world detail to make it feel right. And, of course, I loved the character of Thomas, the Down Syndrome boy. This was the first time I used a disabled person in a major role, and it was exciting to be working with such fresh material, struggling to create a viewpoint for him that felt true. The world is full of people who never get written about in popular fiction—or in literary fiction, for that matter. There's a socially useful purpose in writing about them, but there's also tremendous creative exhilaration to be had by tackling such tricky material.

Cold Fire: I enjoy twisting the reader through surprise after surprise, and this deceitful story line appealed to me. Again, it only works if the characters work, and the challenge was to keep Jim sympathetic even while leaving him shrouded in mystery and concealing central elements of his background, and leaving the door open to the possibility that he was somehow a threat to Holly; that was possible only if Holly was so appealing, so amusing, so clear a character that you fell in love with her, because then, as she fell in love with Jim, you had to want to like him simply because she did.

Dark Rivers of the Heart
Intensity

Dark Rivers of the Heart was a backbreaker, because of its complexity, but I enjoyed writing it because it was the first book of mine in which every metaphor, every simile, every image worked in the service not only of description but of the underlying themes of the novel—although this isn't something the reader should be able to see in the course of an ordinary reading. I was able to integrate text and subtext, story and technique, to a degree that I'd never been able to do before, so writing Dark Rivers kept me entertained. Since I'm not a masochist, I need to have fun while I'm working, to find the process exciting and entertaining, and I was entertained by the challenges of Dark Rivers.

I have a soft spot for Intensity 'cause it brings my anti-Freudian viewpoint to the surface, also because it was an exercise in exhilarating pace, and because the two-character structure was such a challenge. I knew Chyna Shepherd's "reckless caring" would be one of the primary qualities defining her, but I never anticipated some of the steps she took as the story evolved—and at times her boldness scared the hell out of me. I was dismayed but not surprised when a few reviewers said they found it difficult to believe in Chyna's actions because "no one would put his or her life on the line for a stranger." Well, first of all, the young girl for whom Chyna risks her life is, to Chyna, the image of herself as a helpless child. No one was ever there for Chyna when she was growing up under dreadful circumstance, and she has built a new and decent life for herself by striving to be everything that her criminally minded mother was not. That means living responsibly both on a public and private level. At first, Chyna wants only to get out of the killer's motor home—and she does. But in the service-station scene, she sees a photo of the young girl that Vess is holding captive somewhere, and in that photo she sees herself as a girl; it is not just a stranger that Chyna is trying to save . . . she's trying to save herself. Anyway, when a reviewer says no one would risk his life for a stranger, the reviewer is telling us that he would not do so and therefore cannot comprehend anyone doing so—and thus reveals an unpleasant truth about himself. The week I had to go out and do interviews in support of Intensity, the actor Mark Harmon risked his life to pull two total strangers from a burning car. The media made much of the incident—and so did I! But I pointed out we are a cynical culture, reflexively denying that heroism actually exists anymore, so the only time an heroic act makes national news is when it involves celebrities; yet every day, all over this country, people do what Mark Harmon did and are celebrated for it only on the local level, if at all. There is such a thing as "reckless caring," and by God there has to be in order for any civilization to arise and to be sustained.

MM: A lot of your books were turned into movies. Which are some of your favorites and least favorites? And how many lame sequels can Roger Corman squeeze out of Watchers?

DK: Watchers sucked. Watchers II sucked worse. Watchers III sucked like a tornado. Watchers Reborn proved to me that there must be a Hell, because Roger Corman has to suffer somewhere for all the bad taste and vile filmmaking that he has perpetrated. Hideaway reeked. I spent more in legal fees, trying to have my name removed from the film prior to its release, than TriStar had paid me for the film rights. I managed to keep my name out of the trailers, out of most advertising, and out of everything but the billing block on the posters, but I couldn't get complete removal—and then they used my name on the video. Condos in Hell are waiting for the guilty parties.

MM: On the same subject, some film critics claim you write your novels with eventual movies too much in mind. Is this true?

DK: What critics said this? I've never seen these statements. I never think of film when I write books—which is one of the reasons they don't adapt easily to the medium. The story lines are too complex, the characters too complicated, and the themes too dense for movies. Movies are basically short stories, and the novels that adapt best to film are those that have plots that can be completely summed up in two sentences: "high concept," it's called. Anyway, for the last five or six years, I've gone out of my way to avoid having movies made of my books. A couple of studios wanted to buy Intensity, but both of them wanted to make one big change to the story: they wanted to introduce a male lead, an FBI agent, who is tracking Vess, the serial killer, and shows up in time, at the end of the film, to save Chyna and Ariel. Since the story is fundamentally about Chyna's self-transformation and her rise to great courage, their version would have been a travesty. Not a travesty on the order of remaking Citizen Kane with Adam Sandler in the Orson Welles role, but a travesty nonetheless. I turned down their offers—and only made a deal for a miniseries when I had control to be sure no such horrendous changes would occur. I have refused to offer the Chris Snow books for film because they're too close to me, and I can't bear to see them screwed up. Besides, I know it is a major problem for anyone to turn these books into film because the first-person viewpoint cannot be recreated in a medium without interior dimension, and that viewpoint is crucial to the success of the story; secondly, everything takes place at night, and filmmakers hate such limitations and prefer stories that they can "open up" to lots of varying locations and lighting conditions. Besides, night shooting costs more. In short, throughout my entire career, I've been told that I've got to simplify, simplify, and then further simplify if I'm going to have major film sales, and I've always interpreted this as advice to dumb down the books, which I've ignored.

MM: What's the hardest part of being a professional novelist?

DK: The hardest part of being a professional novelist is wearing those silly looking paper hats and the badge that says "Hi, my name is Dean Koontz, and I'm here to entertain you." After that, it's doing publicity—which I try to keep to a minimum—and the related agony of reading about myself. Even when a magazine article is flattering and factual, I find reading about myself to be so embarrassing that it took me two weeks to get through the Rolling Stone piece, for instance. Yet I have to read them because people will ask things like, "Is it true what they said about you in that article—all that business about sleeping in bunny pajamas and sacrificing gerbils to Satan?"

MM: You have a great sense of comic timing in interviews and with your books. Have you ever thought of doing stand-up?

DK: My wife says I'm a frustrated stand-up comic. Actually, I'm a frustrated blacksmith, but I conceal my yearning for the forge and the anvil, so no one is aware of the aching void in my heart. Over the years, from public speaking, I've learned that I can keep an audience laughing loudly for an hour—which is an incredible power, a real rush. If Hitler could have done that, he would have wound up playing early Vegas instead of trying to rule the world; ruling the world isn't half as much fun as getting a laugh—and comedians don't have to sit in meetings with economists and farm-price specialists. Because the amusement factor was high on some of the appearances I've made on Tom Snyder's show and others, we get a lot of requests for me to do television and radio, most of which I avoid—because otherwise I would become a game-show fixture and start thinking about changing my name to Shecky Koontz. One producer recently called to invite me on a show, and he said, "We don't want the scary you, just the funny you." So either he thinks I'm twins pretending to be one person . . . or have multiple personality syndrome . . . or maybe have a little switch on the back of my neck with three positions: SCARY, FUNNY, UNKNOWN. Better never jog it to UNKNOWN. That might be my lounge-singer mode.

MM: You've written over seventy books. Have you ever suffered from writer's block? What are some of your cures for blocked writing abilities?

DK: Never had it. All writer's block arises from self-doubt, and I have as much self-doubt as any writer I know. But the trick is, turn the doubt into a tool, use it to force yourself to revise and revise and polish and revise some more, improving the work—rather than letting it weigh you down like a dinner of gnocchi in cream sauce.

Fear Nothing Seize the Night

MM: Since you brought up the Chris Snow books: you have never written a sequel before. Why did you decide to tackle a trilogy starting with Fear Nothing?

DK: The characters came alive for me to such an extent that I did not want to let them go. Apparently readers feel the same way, because our mail has jumped from thirty letters a day to about seventy, at least for the past month, and all of the increase is about Fear Nothing and now Seize the Night. When I finish this trilogy with Ride the Storm,[1] I might return to the characters from time to time.

MM: Who are easier to work with: agents, editors, directors, or producers?

DK: Mafia hitmen. Mad dictators. No, really, I've had little trouble working with agents and editors. Disagreements. Some of them agonizing and prolonged. But in the end, it was all in the service of seeking the best book possible. And recently, with Bantam, I have finally found a publisher—and an entire group of people therein—who understand what I do, relate to it, and are unhesitatingly supportive. For once, we're all pulling the train together—and in the same direction.

MM: Last question: what advice do you have for beginning writers?

DK: I tell every young writer to find the material about which he or she can become passionate, work hard at using the language as well as he/she can use it—and to persevere. Throughout my career, until recently, I was continually told that my books would never hit big, that I couldn't mix genres the way I did, that my stories were too eccentric, that my vocabulary was too large and therefore limited the potential size of my audience, that even the very subtle spiritual elements in my work were too prominent and would bore or flat out offend modern readers, that readers didn't want stories with as much thematic freight as mine carried . . . blah, blah, blah. I was even told these things, relentlessly, after I'd seen my books rise to the number one slot on best-seller lists. What every young writer has to realize is that if he or she is doing something truly fresh, it will not immediately be supported, will not win big ad budgets, will not be understood. You must keep an open mind to criticism if it's about technical matters—that is, about grammar and syntax, about logic holes and clear story problems—but must diplomatically reject all criticism that relates to style, intent, theme. If you have clear and passionate purpose in your writing, something to say, and a determination to say it in a way unique to you, if you can explain to yourself exactly why you are doing what you're doing in the way you are doing it—then you have to stand fast and politely resist all attempts to change you. At the end of the day, if you write with conviction and passion, then the world will come around to your stories. If you bend too much to the will of others, you'll be reduced to blandness, to vanilla fiction, and no one will care. It also helps to sell your soul to Lucifer.

MM: Dean Koontz has been creating fresh, exciting novels since 1968. Thank you for doing this interview.

Footnote

[1] On June 8, 2006, Koontz issued an updated statement on his plans for the thrid Chris Snow novel:

I fully intend to finish the third book, God willing. The problem has been that when I started Ride the Storm, I quickly saw that it was going to be different from and potentially much longer than the first two books, and I wanted to take time to consider it carefully before continuing. Then an unprecedented flood of story ideas washed over me, all of which I was passionate about, and I have been busy realizing them for the past few years. Writing talent is a gift that sometimes controls the recipient.


Michael McCarty


Michael McCarty (darkduets@yahoo.com) is a former stand-up comedian, musician, and managing editor of a music magazine. He is the co-author (with Mark McLaughlin) of the upcoming novel Monster Behind the Wheel (Corrosion Press, an imprint of Delirium Books), and the author of the upcoming book of interviews Modern Mythmakers (McFarland & Company). His previously published books include Giants of the Genre, More Giants of the Genre, and Dark Duets. His websites are http://www.myspace.com/monsterbook and http://www.geocities.com/mccartyzone.
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