Dean Koontz has sold more than 450 million books, and has added to that pile this winter. His new novel, Ashley Bell, hit stores earlier this month. He’s an author often described in numbers—nine pen names! fourteen hardcover #1 New York Times bestselling novels!—but there’s more to him than mere statistics. He also possesses a bright intellect, a warm heart, and, as a writer, an incredible stamina. He loves the English language and a good narrative with compelling characters, and he wants you to love those things, too. It’s tempting to think about Koontz’s success first and his writing second, but that’s a big mistake. His writing has brought him fame; but his numbers are a side effect of his dedication to a literary life, not the underlying cause. It’s not the main storyline.
From his love of G.K. Chesterton to his methodical secret for overcoming self-doubt, and from his interest in quantum mechanics and Catholicism to his childhood with a violent, alcoholic father, Dean Koontz talks about everything—especially about life and writing, as only he can.
The Rumpus: Tell me about Ashley Bell. I’m interested in how you think it’s similar or different to the other titles—what will readers find that’s familiar? What’s different about this story?
Dean Koontz: I always hope the only thing they find familiar is the worldview or the voice, because that’s the one thing you have that nobody else has. Every writer has his own voice. Other than that I’m always trying to do change-ups and publishers haven’t always been happy about that. Sometimes many publishers prefer that you write the same book every time, but I have a low boredom threshold so that isn’t going to happen. My current publisher is thankfully much better about bending and flexing with whatever I want to do.
This book, what interested me in it was that I have spent my life with books, and books transformed my life not just as an adult when I became a writer, but when I was a child in a very untenable sort of house—violent alcoholic father, poverty, all that. Books showed me that there were other ways to live a life. It may sound strange, but when you’re a kid and you’re in that environment, for some reason for a long time you think, when the doors are closed in other houses, this is what it’s like everywhere. And then at some point you begin to realize that isn’t true, and books were really the educational system that showed me that there were many better and different ways to live a life.
So I wanted to write a novel in this case that kind of took the issue of books and how they shape our lives, and how imagination shapes our lives, and how we use our imagination for good and bad, and sometimes we use it to deceive ourselves. This book is about truth and deception and self-deception in many ways. I kind of think it’s a new way for me to write about subjects I’ve written about before. And it also says that within that bigger issue of books and imagination, the power of family, the power of friendship, the power of love, those are subjects I’ve covered before but I think somewhat differently in this book. It was inspired a little bit because I have a friend who has [a disease like the one in the book] and has already lived longer than predicted. And one day I finished reading a letter from him and I was sitting here kind of brooding and the idea came into my head of a novel about someone who has this who’s told she has a year to live and she says, “We’ll see.”
That’s where the whole thing began and it’s really, in spite of everything else I said, the spine of the story is about do we have free will or are we victims of fate? This character believes she has free will, but her parents, interestingly enough, believe everything is fate and it’s the tension between these two things that carry the book. I think and I hope that people find that part of it interesting.
Rumpus: There are so many interesting things to follow up on there. That sounds almost to me like an age old question writers have been asking since the Greeks. Do the fates control us or can we assert our destiny? So it sounds pretty timeless.
Koontz: And it will be timeless two thousand years from now. We can only poke at the issue. We can’t resolve it. But I fall down on the side of free will, simply because if you look at where I came from, and what I was able to do in my life, what was able to happen. I imagined a life that turned out to be pretty much exactly like the one I’ve had. That fascinates me endlessly. I wake up many mornings, and it almost wouldn’t surprise me if I woke up from it and it was all a dream. So I come down on the side of free will but I have sympathy for those who believe in fate because there is something about life which we feel we have no control over.
Rumpus: You mentioned imagining this life for yourself and then pursuing it and becoming an author, becoming a bestselling author, and I wondered, did it happen all at once? Was there a moment—for example in college when you won the Atlantic’s fiction contest—was there a breakthrough moment where you realized, hey, this life I’m imagining is possible?
Koontz: I didn’t even know the story had been entered. It was one of my teachers that entered it. I think this contest had been going on for quite a few years; the Atlantic did a college writing competition. She submitted this story, “The Kittens,” and it ended up winning one of the prizes. Which did two things for me. First, I was kind of a slacker student, I always was, high school and college, and I only pursued something if I had a great, deep interest in it, otherwise I faked my way through the course to a C. And I was perfectly happy with that. I later learned that I am basically a pretty good autodidact. I can teach myself things. In fact, that’s what I was doing then, but it wasn’t the things that college courses required you to learn.
So when this won I think it kind of surprised people. And suddenly, because teachers had been submitting student’s work to that contest for years and nobody had ever placed for an award, and even in those courses that the teachers had very little skill in teaching, or that I had very little ability or very little interest to be able to learn what they wanted to teach, it didn’t matter, the teacher’s problem or my problem, I was suddenly getting A grades that I wasn’t earning, simply from having won this award. And I realized then the power of being seen as somebody who can write coherently. That’s about all it takes.
There’s still a fascination with somebody who can write at book length, no matter what the book is. And that had a big impact. And then, secondly, there was no prize money. I got a certificate or something, I can’t even remember what. But there was a little magazine called Readers and Writers that didn’t last very long—I don’t think my story killed it, but it could have. (Laughs) It was a national magazine and they paid me $50 for “The Kittens” and in those days $50 went a long way from my perspective. Because paperbacks were like sixty cents or something like that in those days, so I saw it as way over one hundred paperbacks that I could buy, and some paperbacks were even forty-five cents.
It was the first time I realized you might make money at writing, and you might even make a living at it. So after that I didn’t write stories just for the class but wrote them for the purpose of submitting them somewhere, and at some point in the process, I began writing them just to please myself and that’s where you begin to see the real value of a life of writing. Because while I like people, I do also like being alone in a room and seeing what you can do with a particular theme or subject. And what this incredibly beautiful language of ours allows you to do.
Rumpus: I saw you speak once at ALA—the American Librarians Association conference—this was years ago—and I remember you talking a little bit about your creative process. I think you said you’d write one page, revise it until it was perfect, and then move on to the next page, so that when you finished the book, it was finished for good—all the revision was up front, in other words. Can you talk about how you came to write this way?
Koontz: That is still the way I write except for one exception. I rewrite the page until it’s as perfect as I can get it, which will never be perfect. And that’s the frustration. But I’ve always operated with a great deal of self-doubt. Every time I start a new book it’s like, well, this one will destroy the career and I have to overcome that feeling especially in the first hundred pages of the book. The only weapon I really have to overcome that fear, to shoot it down is, the constant rewriting until the page really flows and the prose really excites me and I move on to the next page and the doubt all comes back again. But as I inch my way through it—I think I’ve said before—I kind of build a novel the way marine polyps build a coral reef, it’s millions and millions of little precarious bodies stacked on one another. And in my case, that’s thousands of minutes I go through to get from one scene to the next and build it that way. It’s still the way I write and I love writing that way. And as much as I’ve produced, and it looks to people like I must have written quickly, but it isn’t that—because I put in in a sixty- or seventy-hour week.
And when I’m in the middle of a book it can go up from there. When you’re putting in those hours, the real world kind of fades and the world you’re creating becomes almost more real to you than the outside world. And when it takes me six, seven months to write a book at that pace I’ve got a lot of time to let the subconscious work on things. Sometimes, because I don’t do outlines, I won’t know where the book is going and the characters help me discover that. But I will see a big problem coming because suddenly I’ll realize there’s turn in the book that’s going to have to take place, and how am I going to make the reader go with me when that turn comes?
But this will be something going on in the back of your head for maybe a month, six weeks, whatever. And when you get there, suddenly the subconscious has really done a good job. You have two or three solutions to the problem. And you can try each of them until you find the one that works best. For me, that’s the only thing that works. If I had to write a rough draft, all the way through and then go back and start over, I probably would just stop writing. I wouldn’t find that interesting. I would feel that I had committed so many things to the paper that I couldn’t easily undo because one thing leads to the next, the interconnectedness, the sequences would make it very hard to change something that simply didn’t work. So if I’m going through it very slowly, I can take the time to be sure that it works and when I get to the end it’s great. It doesn’t mean the editor won’t see some things and say, can you address this and that, and I go back through it and go, oh yeah, I can do that.
But there’s never any humongous next draft. I know a writer who every time he finished a novel—you would know his name very well—but his editor would come and live with him for a month. And they would go through the manuscript together and I thought that was, I love my editor, but that would be the definition of hell to me to live with someone and have them go page by page through my manuscript. That I want to avoid at all costs. (Laughs)
Rumpus: I read that you converted to Catholicism in college, and specifically believed some of the things G.K. Chesterton did. Is that still true? Can you talk about Chesterton, his legacy as a writer and a thinker? What about Graham Greene, another famous Catholic writer? Marilynne Robinson? How does being religious—or even just being open to the mystery and beauty of the universe in a spiritual sense—affect the way you write?
Koontz: Yeah, I found Chesterton long after I converted in college. I faded in and out and came back to belief, basically. As I mentioned earlier, as an adult I discovered that I was a pretty good autodidact, and can teach myself all kind of things. And developed a great interest in a number of different things from how to build a street hot rod from the ground up to quantum mechanics, and those two different kinds of mechanics, and it was really in the sciences, quantum mechanics, molecular biology, I would begin looking at these things looking for ideas, but in fact you don’t read it for ideas you read it for curiosity and interest in the subject. Sometimes the ideas pop up. What popped up more than that was the realization that I made as an adult that the world is this incredibly complex, layered, and mysterious place and if you stop and think about it the human cell is literally more complex than a fleet of 747s.
There are thousands of proteins in the cells, some of them very large chains of molecules. And the cell doesn’t function if one of those chains of molecules isn’t there, and you start looking at the complexity of life and the mystery of life, and then start thinking about things like the twenty universal constants, that if any one of them from Plank’s minimum to the mass of a proton, if one of them is the tiniest bit off, there would be no life or possibility of it in the universe. And the chances of them all being what they are is expressed as 1 to the power of, and then one hundred and thirty zeroes. And if you tried to write that out in regular mathematical notation, it would take you thousands of years to write out what are the chances of this happening at random.
So I just became fascinated with how complex and unlikely the universe is and life is and Catholicism gives me an answer to that. Do I believe that answer is one hundred percent the answer? I think no. I think we get a hint that there certainly is the Divine in things. My friend has written a couple very good books about this, Stephen Meyer. He is very knowledgeable in molecular biology. I’m just fascinated with writing books that are not particularly about faith, but are about saying, look at the world. Stop, think, and look at it. And you become kind astonished, mystified and intrigued.
That’s one of the underlying things I like to do in books, is just say, stop and look at this for a moment. Not that you’ve got to believe that Jesus was real, or not to believe in God, but the belief that it isn’t just happenstance. There is something here in a very complex and very strange way. And another way to be awakened by the beauty and complexity of the word is to get a dog. This may sound strange, but when we got our first Golden Retriever and I had to take her for a walk every morning and we walked through a neighborhood in which I had taken the same walk a thousand times I suddenly saw things in a totally different way. Small things like a plant that I had passed a thousand time and never given a second thought to. But the dog is curious. And the dog stops and wants to smell this and smell that. And the dog makes you look and focus and take the time. And it was also a dog that brought me around to seeing there’s something going on here that’s fascinating. It’s just I think the world is an interesting place and I don’t think anybody has the firm and final answer to what it is but I kind of assume there’s a purpose. And I’ll be delighted to find it out one day, I hope.
Koontz: I worked in the poverty program—the Appalachian Title 3 poverty program, for the better part of a year in a little coal mining town in Pennsylvania and that was an interesting experience. It was interesting because the way the job was sold to me, I’m just coming out of college, and it wasn’t much of a job in terms of pay, but it was sold to me that it would very small groups of students and they would be chosen by English teachers in the system and they would be the students from the poorest families with the highest potential. And I was stupid enough to think that was what it was actually what it was going to be.
But what it became: the teachers got rid of their worst discipline problems by pushing them off into my class. So that was an interesting year. At the end of it, I felt that I didn’t want to do any more of that. And I took a job teaching English in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. I did that about a year and a half. I always enjoyed teaching. I always enjoyed the kids, but I didn’t enjoy the bureaucracy of the educational system. And I was selling short stories and paperbacks, not particularly good ones, in a genre that I was a great reader of, but never really cut out to write, which was science fiction. Finally, my wife said, look, I know you want to write full time; I will support you for five years, and if you can’t make it in five years then you’ll never make it. It was a life-changing offer because it took nearly the five years to be able to rely totally on writing income so that she could quit her job and take over the management and business part of the writing.
Rumpus: As a follow-up to that, there’s a lot of talk about teaching writing in the US, ever since Mark McGurl’s The Program Era came out in 2009. What are your thoughts on learning to write, MFAs, the publishing industry, and if writing can be taught?
Koontz: I’m sure there are people who have taken writing programs and its has been of a great benefit for them. That wasn’t the case with me. This is really in the earliest days. I don’t even think there was such thing as a writing program where I went—there was just an English major that I had and I took a number of creative writing courses. I found them mostly just sort of numbing and I kind of rebelled against them. In fact, in Ashley Bell a writing program teacher appears, not in a terribly flattering light. I think there is value in it, but not necessarily for everyone. What concerns me is anytime you have a creative art taught and it’s not something like dance, but it’s something like writing or painting, there is a danger it becomes a kind of organized, structured thing that is taught coast to coast in pretty much the same way. And isn’t that the antithesis of what we think literature is? That’s my concern. But just because writing classes didn’t do any good for me doesn’t mean their not doing any good for other people.
Rumpus: I was curious because I know you wrote a book on how to be a writer—I think it’s called How to Write Best Selling Fiction—I read it some years ago—and I wondered if, considering the changes in the publishing industry since it came out in 1981, if we’d ever see a revised or reimagined version. That is, if you could give any young up-and-coming writers advice about making a living as a writer, what would it be?
Koontz: Well first thing I would tell them is—I actually wrote two books like that—if you read that book, please forget everything I told you because I didn’t know what I was talking about.
The great thing about writing is you never stop learning. Every book I write, if you want to challenge yourself and say, I want to do that because I’ve never done anything like it before, you discover all-new things.
When I was young, I thought there’s a certain number of tricks and if I just learn them, I would always be able to sit down and write a novel and sell it. Well, if you want to call them tricks, they are infinite in number—the techniques and approaches you can use with fiction. The ways you can use the language, it’s always a process of discovery, and that’s what makes it a great deal of fun. But if I have advice for new writers, first of all, at any time in the history of publishing in my experience, there will be endless number people telling you that you can’t do what you are trying to do. You won’t succeed, there’s something else you should be doing.
Some of them will be your agents. I’ve had a good agent. I’ve had bad agents. Some of them will be your publisher. I’ve had good publishers and bad publishers, and you’ve got to learn when the advice is sensible and when it’s not. And basically, it comes to when they’re criticizing something about your style, and I’m not talking about grammar or syntax. If you haven’t got that now you shouldn’t be doing this, but if they are criticizing your approach to things, and your view of the world, you have to totally not listen to that. Because that’s what you have that nobody else has.
And I can remember the times when I started including humor in novels that were suspenseful. I was told you can’t do that because you can’t keep the audience in suspense if they’re laughing. My attitude was, if the character has a sense of humor, then that makes the character more real because that’s how we deal with the vicissitudes of life, we deal with it through humor. So if the character has a sense of humor that the reader identifies with him more completely or worries about him more completely than would otherwise be the case. You can’t always win these arguments as a writer, but you have to just go ahead and say, well, I’m doing it that way anyway. Or I was pretty much at the beginning of the idea of crossing genres. Taking a bit of this and a bit of that. Now I think they’re called mashups or that sort of thing. There was a lot of criticism from editors and agents about that, and if I had listened I would never have gotten where I got.
So the biggest advice is being true to what you want to do. Don’t worry if other people understand it or don’t understand it. If what you’re doing has merit, it will find its way. As for the current publishing situation, wow. It’s a daunting world out there for a new writer to break in. I know everybody thinks that it’s easier because there’s so much independent or self-publishing, but in fact, that’s very seldom the route that works. And we’re living in a time when there is a big collapse in middle-class income. The average middle-class family has lost $7,000 a year in spending in disposable income over the last ten years. And that’s the money they buy books with, go out to eat with, go to the movies with. So, until there is a recoupment of that, I think we are in for a depressed period in the book business. I don’t think it has much of anything to do with e-books. That’s just a whole separate issue. And e-books can be quite profitable to publishers because of the lesser cost. During the Great Depression, books sales fell to a third of what they had been. And everybody thought that was the end of the publishing business. But, after the end of the Depression, book sales went to these massive numbers. That can happen again and I think it will.
Writers shouldn’t lose hope. They should just buckle down and stay with it.
Rumpus: I used to work at the now defunct bookstore chain, Borders. It was funny, when Borders went out of business a lot of my friends said, there are all these articles about are books dying, and a lot of my friends said, well, when Circuit City went out of business, nobody said are electronics dying.
Koontz: That’s excellent. I’m going to use that. You know, a friend of mine, a very dear friend from college, we live across the country but they still visit once a year or every other year, and when I first started selling books he very gently and repeatedly warned me that books were on their way out and there was no way to have a future or a career writing novels. And that was back in 1968, ’69, ’70, when I was just beginning. It turned out they weren’t dead and there was a way to build a career and it’s going to continue to be that way.
Rumpus: One aspect of your life that’s important to you—and that you’ve written about extensively—is your love of dogs, especially your Golden Retriever, Trixie, and—I hope I’m getting this right—her grandniece, Anna, who you adopted after Trixie passed on. Can you talk a little about your love of dogs and how it influences your outlook on life, your creative process—all of that?
Koontz: Yeah, her great-niece. Strangely enough, for many many years I didn’t talk about my childhood and then when I did I got a ton of mail—literally within a year I got a couple of thousand letters from people who’d had a worse childhood, a similar childhood, a less-bad childhood, and the question that was most often posed to me in those letters was: how did you get past the trauma of being raised by a violent alcoholic? And being raised in poverty and all these problems. How did you get past the trauma? The writers of these letters [would say], I’m fifty and I still can’t. It made me stop to think and I realized, as a kid I was not unhappy. I always thought happiness was a choice and I always chose things that made me happy, and books were one of those.
We never had books in the house. Not any book in our house. Not a Bible, not anything. So, I would go the library from a very young age and get the books out. And there was one thing after another that made me very happy as a kid, so, while it had its very dark side, and there were moments of despair, I was overall a happy kid, and I’ve been happy most of my life. And dogs are one of those things that make you happy and make you wonder.
We work with a charity that provides assistance dogs for people with severe disabilities. For people who are quadriplegic or paraplegic or have autistic children, and the interaction that these animals have with these people is—when you watch it up close for years and years and years, it’s another thing that tells you that the world is much more complex than just, oh yeah, dogs worked with us in caves and we’ve been together a thousand years, so dogs are man’s best friends. It goes beyond that.
There’s something very very odd about it. And I have hundred and hundreds of stories of things that happen with dogs and people with disabilities that just will amaze you. One young girl of eleven who had a neuromuscular disease, her parents were told by the doctor that once the neural pathway is lost it can never be recovered. So this disease, everything closes down on them as time passes. And so, they brought this girl to Canine Companions to see if the socializing with a dog would help her because she hadn’t spoken in a couple of years. She’d lost the pathways for speech. Her hands had closed up and she couldn’t open them. They were only opened by her mother to wash them and then they’d close right up again. A year before this she stopped being able to walk on her own. And when she looked at you, it was one of those drifting, unspecific stares.
And when she came to the program, to get a dog, the dog tends to choose the people. The program allows the people to think they have a chance of choosing the dog they like best, but the reality is they learned long ago the dog chooses the person, and the person at some point realizes that they didn’t choose the dog that’s best for them, and this other dog that came to them was the best dog for them.
There was a dog that happened to be named after my wife, Gerda, and she later apologized to the family for having a dog named Gerda. This dog went directly to this little girl, came in and went directly to her. Stayed by her side from that moment. The dog chose her and within a few days—in this case the whole family has to be there for the first few weeks—and after the first three or four days, this girl suddenly opened her hand so she could pet the dog. Well that was a tremendous surprise to the parents because they thought she’d never open her hands again. And the next thing, she started saying, “Good doggy, good doggy.”
Now, they had to actually take her out of the room because the dog was actually not performing its task properly and they didn’t want to reinforce it. But she started saying things, she opened her hands. By the end of two weeks, she was up and walking as long as she was holding on to her mother. And the family sent us pictures of her later and said that she had had piano lessons when she was five or six before this disease struck her. And one day she went back to the piano and started playing some exercises. Now, I don’t want to say this is a hallelujah kind of moment but what’s going on here is fascinating, because her doctors don’t understand it. These are neural pathways supposedly shut down and it is the relationship with the dog that starts to make some of this go away. And this girl will always have this disease, and it may progress again. But what is going on that just this association with an animal can make this kind of thing happen? And I’ve seen many, many situations like this. It’s fascinating to me. The world is a very complex and interesting place and that is what I really want my fiction to say: wake up to how amazing the world is.
Rumpus: This is an interesting aside, I don’t know if you caught it yesterday, but I think it’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, they had some ornithologists on yesterday on NPR, and this guy said something. I also read a lot of those books. I think when I read Erwin Schrodinger that he’s saying kind of the same things as Anton Chekhov or something. But this guy said they think birds migrate by using quantum entanglement in their eyes. Have you heard that?
Koontz: Yeah, I have heard that.
Rumpus: I just could not believe it. I just thought that was the weirdest, coolest thing I had ever heard.
Koontz: I wrote a book after I had for years been reading book after book about quantum mechanics. Richard Feynman said one of his famous quotes—and he was one of the fathers of this form of physics—he said, “Nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Because it is so mysterious and strange. And we know it works. If quantum mechanics didn’t work, most of our electronics wouldn’t work. So we use the theories of quantum mechanics to develop technology. But proving these things may never be possible.
Years ago, after I had read a lot of this, one day it popped into my head. I thought this whole thing about what one of the simpler expressions of what quantum mechanics tells us, it’s super-simplified, but it helps people understand, you’ve heard it, the Butterfly Effect. Butterflies take flight in Japan, it affects the weather in Chicago. It’s a way of saying that every atom in the universe, is in some way we don’t understand, is in sympathy and synchronized with every other atom. And when you start thinking about that, your head spins. But one day, I thought, you know what, human relationships are the same way. Everything we do has an effect on people we’ll never meet. And that’s why it’s important to as often as we can, do the right thing. I sat down to write a book that would express this. It was a book called From the Corner of His Eye, and it took me a year of about seventy hour weeks to write that book. I don’t know if I achieved what I was trying to achieve but it’s a huge cast of characters and you see in the course of the book, many of them come together, some of them don’t, and you see how lives were profoundly affected by something somebody did in a distant location that had no clue that what they had done would reverberate in the way it does.
Rumpus: My dad and my wife and I—my whole family actually—we’re big fans of Odd Thomas. So I have to ask if we’re going to see another book in that series, or maybe another film or TV adaptation of those books—fingers crossed!
Koontz: When I published St. Odd earlier this year, it was meant to be the last book. I never saw it as an open-ended series. I always felt in the first book, Thomas, something terrible happened to him and he was changed by it but he has gotten this little fortune teller’s card from a machine in a carnival. He’s very happy—it tells him about his future, but by the end of the first book it appears that card couldn’t possibly be true. But, give his nature, the kind of person he is, he wants it desperately to be true, so he accepts it as a promise.
As I started to get so much mail on this character, and I realized audience and reader so identified with this character that I couldn’t dare not fulfill that promise one way or another. And so I knew the series would end, but I didn’t know how many books. And it turned out to be essentially eight. As I was writing it, I did mention to my publisher, the thought had occurred to me to write a book that takes place right after St. Odd—it would be a very large fantasy adventure and I thought about it. I doubt that I’ll do it because something feels right about leaving Odd where he is.
I don’t know. As for the movie, I thought Steve Sommers did a really good job directing it, and he had a horrible financial crisis in the middle of the movie. It was independently financed. He had a thirty-million-dollar budget and a lot of it didn’t show up halfway through the picture. And they wanted to shut the picture down. And Steve is such a good guy, I really like him enormously. Apparently everyone who works with him likes him enormously because the entire crew, about a hundred and fifty people the entire cast and crew agreed to stay in Santa Fe where it was being filmed for a full month at their own expense while Steve tried to get the budget restored or to find other financing to finish the picture. I don’t think most directors would have that degree of loyalty. But he did.
He didn’t get the full funding, and that meant certain sacrifices had to be made during the filming, but given all he went through, I really like the movie. Unfortunately, there were so many legal entanglements it never got a theatrical release. But I’m hopeful someday, somebody will come back to Odd. We’ll see another movie. There’s always rumblings about it.
This interview was transcribed by Mary Allen.
Author photo © Joan Allen.