He is one of the most recognized, read, and loved suspense writers of the 20th century. His imagination is a veritable factory of nightmares, conjuring twisted tales of psychological complexity. He even has a fan in Stephen King. For decades, Dean Koontz's name has been synonymous with terror, and his novels never fail to quicken the pulse and set hearts pounding.
Koontz has a lifelong love of writing that led him to spend much of his free time as an adult furiously cultivating his style and voice. However, it was only after his wife Gerda made him an offer he couldn't refuse while he was teaching English at a high school outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that he had a real opportunity to make a living with his avocation. Gerda agreed to support Dean for five years, during which time he could try to get his writing career off the ground. Little did she know that by the end of that five years she would be leaving her own job to handle the financial end of her husband's massively successful writing career.
Koontz first burst into the literary world with 1970's Beastchild, a science fiction novel that appealed to genre fans with its descriptions of aliens and otherworldly wars but also mined deeper themes of friendship and the breakdown of communication. Although it is not usually ranked among his classics, Beastchild provided the first inkling of Koontz's talent for populating even the most fantastical tale with fully human characters. Even at his goriest or most terrifying, he always allows room for redemption.
This complexity is what makes Koontz's work so popular with readers. He has a true gift for tempering horror with humanity, grotesqueries with lyricism. He also has a knack for genre-hopping, inventing Hitchcockian romantic mysteries, crime dramas, supernatural thrillers, science fiction, and psychological suspense with equal deftness and imagination. Perhaps The Times (London) puts it best: "Dean Koontz is not just a master of our darkest dreams, but also a literary juggler."
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Shortly after graduating from college, Koontz took a job with the Appalachian Poverty Program where he would tutor and counsel underprivileged kids. However, after finding out that the last person who held his job had been beaten up and hospitalized by some of these kids, Koontz was more motivated than ever to get his writing career going.
When Koontz was a senior in college, he won the Atlantic Monthly fiction competition.
Koontz and Kevin Anderson's novel Frankenstein: The Prodigal Son was slotted to become a television series produced by Martin Scorsese. However, when the pilot failed to sell, the USA Network aired it as a TV movie in 2004. By that time Koontz had removed his name from the project.
Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Koontz:
"My wife, Gerda, and I took seven years of private ballroom dancing lessons, twice a week, ninety minutes each time. After we had gotten good at everything from swing to the foxtrot, we not only stopped taking lessons, but also stopped going dancing. Learning had been great fun; but for both of us, going out for an evening of dancing proved far less exhilarating than the learning. We both have a low boredom threshold. Now we dance at a wedding or other celebration perhaps once a year, and we're creaky."
"On my desk is a photograph given to me by my mother after Gerda and I were engaged to be married. It shows 23 children at a birthday party. It is neither my party nor Gerda's. I am three years old, going on four. Gerda is three. In that crowd of kids, we are sitting directly across a table from each other. I'm grinning, as if I already know she's my destiny, and Gerda has a serious expression, as if she's worried that I might be her destiny. We never met again until I was a senior in high school and she was a junior. We've been trying to make up for that lost time ever since.
"Gerda and I worked so much for the first two decades of our marriage that we never took a real vacation until our twentieth wedding anniversary. Then we went on a cruise, booking a first-class suite, sparing no expense. For more than half the cruise, the ship was caught in a hurricane. The open decks were closed because waves would have washed passengers overboard. About 90% of the passengers spent day after day in their cabins, projectile vomiting. We discovered that neither of us gets seasick. We had the showrooms, the casino, and the buffets virtually to ourselves. Because the crew had no one to serve, our service was exemplary. The ship dared not try to put into the scheduled ports; it was safer on the open sea. The big windows of the main bar presented a spectacular view of massive waves and lightning strikes that stabbed the sea by the score. Very romantic. We had a grand time.
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In the summer of 2006, Dean Koontz took some time out to talk with us about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your career as a writer?
The high-school grammar textbook with which my teacher, Winona Garbrick, repeatedly rapped my head.
Otherwise, hundreds of books have had an effect on me. Perhaps the book with the most impact on my career, after the aforementioned textbook, was A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which I did not read until I was in my thirties. The final scene reduced me to tears. More important, I began to think about how modern publishing had compartmentalized fiction into so many narrow genres. A Tale of Two Cities, as a new piece of fiction, would be hard to place on a contemporary publisher's list. It's too much of an adventure story and too much of a love story to win the favor of most editors of "literary" fiction. It is a serious novel of politics and revolution but is also darkly comic in places. Dickens does not shrink from the depiction of evil, and some scenes are horrific, but he also tells a story of redemption and self-sacrifice and hope that some (never me!) would consider almost sentimental.
The more I thought about A Tale of Two Cities, the more determined I became to write novels that bridged genres. This began to bear fruit with Strangers, and to a much greater degree with Watchers. My publisher at the time resisted both the variety I was delivering, book to book, but also the mix of genres within each book. Pressure was exerted to stay within the limits of one label. We had some wonderful rows! In time, readers responded with enthusiasm to my attempts to tell stories with the flavors and the techniques of multiple genres. I doubt I would have had a career half as successful if I had followed another path.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
For three decades, I read no fewer than 200 books a year, and I still read a book a week. Out of that volume, choosing eight or ten as my favorites is no easy task, and a final list inevitably has an arbitrary quality dependent on my mood at the moment. In no meaningful order:
The complete novels of John D. MacDonald -- His work taught me more about how to create suspense, about how to create vivid characters, about creating a sense of place, and about the beauty of an economical prose style than have the novels of any other single writer. When I discovered John D., I read 34 of his books in 30 days, not just in his Travis McGee series, but in his stand-alones, which are even better. That was the most exhilarating extended experience I've ever had as a reader.
The Moviegoer and Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy -- I am drawn to writers who believe in timeless virtues, who have a tragic sense of the human condition but remain hopeful, who have a pellucid style that is deceptively simple even as, in fact, it deals with First Things, the least simple of all themes.
The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity by James M. Cain -- I love noir fiction from the first half of the 20th century, and these are two of the finest examples of the genre. I don't find much contemporary noir that interests me, largely because it is bleak and hopeless, often anarchic and misanthropic. The great noir fiction was informed by a moral sense, so that the self-destructive actions of the leads, and even the indifference of fate, left you with a sense of meaning and a feeling that, in your own life, you have been damn lucky to squeak by without self-destructing.
The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis -- Over sixty years old, this beautifully written little book has proved stunningly predictive. The society that Lewis foresaw, arising from the "intellectual" elite's contempt for such virtues as courage and honor and selflessness, is the crumbling civilization we now inhabit. I read it every year to remind myself that ideas matter and that bad ideas, surer than guns and bombs, can bring down a nation, a world.
The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon -- This science-fiction novel has more stunning ideas packed into a couple of hundred pages than some authors' entire bodies of work, delivered in a limpid yet magical prose. Bravura storytelling.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller -- A post-nuclear-holocaust novel that combines science fiction and mysticism in a compelling story told in sometimes hallucinatory prose. This is one of those rare novels that is genuinely sui generis, a unique reading experience.
The Complete Poems of T. S. Eliot -- He demands much of the reader, but no other poetry so richly rewards close reading, repeated reading, and contemplation. His early work is darker than what he wrote later, but dark in a way that is half a step short of utter hopelessness. Of the later poems, "Four Quartets" contains arguably the most distilled language in English verse, relentlessly pushing us to confront the central truth of our existence. The lines are hard and clean, beautiful, evocative, insistent, haunting, and with redemptive power.
The Busy Body, The Fugitive Pigeon, and The Spy in the Ointment are three of Donald E. Westlake's early books, among the funniest suspense novels ever written. I read these in my youth, and many years later they inspired me to mix humor with suspense in books like Life Expectancy. Westlake is versatile, continually switching throughout his career from hard-boiled suspense to comic suspense, to mainstream fiction as easily as another writer might change his shirts.
There Must be a Pony by James Kirkwood -- A tragedy, a comedy, and arguable the funniest novel ever written from an adolescent point of view. The voice of the narrator rings so true that you can hear him long after you've turned the last page. Kirkwood deserved a lot more success as a novelist than he enjoyed.
Solider in the Rain, Temple of Gold, Control and The Color of Light by William Goldman -- Goldman has had a strong career as a novelist, but his greatest success has been as a screenwriter. If he hadn't scored so big with movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, if his energies had gone entirely into novels, I think he would have been HUGE. He creates some of the most appealing characters in all of contemporary fiction, unafraid of sentiment and never stepping across the line into sentimentality.
The four books I named are radically different from one another, yet you hear the wonderfully assured and ironic Goldman voice unmistakably on the first page of each. The Color of Light is one of the most dead-on portraits of a writer's struggle ever written, hugely entertaining; but if you learn nothing from it other than the mortal danger of taking the write-what-you-know dictum too seriously, it's worth a hundred times its price.
I could go on for pages. So many writers have made my life so much richer than it otherwise would have been.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Films do not move me in the same way that novels do because they lack the ability to explore the interior of a character in any depth. Consequently, I tend to find films of high intellectual intent to be empty shells, and the films that burn themselves into my memory are those that deliver sparkling wit or genuine emotion, or logically crafted suspense. I can watch The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, and other screwball comedies every three or four years, and they are fresh to me because the writing crackles. Contemporary comedies seem incapable of the spot-on hilarious dialogue of so many films in the 1930s and '40s.
Two of the most involving and logically tight suspense films I've ever seen are James Cameron's The Terminator and Aliens. And I'm a Hitchcock fan because of the way so many of his movies blended suspense, humor, and love stories. For their ability to convey intense emotion (and a wide variety of emotions) in the service of important themes, I like Schindler's List, A Simple Plan, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you listen to when you're writing?
I listen to everything from classical to pop, but I particularly favor Big Band, Texas swing, and Zydeco. I've written hundreds of thousands of words listening to Chris Isaac, Paul Simon, and especially Israel Kamakawiwo'ole; Iz, the dynamite Hawaiian singer who died several years ago, had a beautiful voice and the ability to convey longing, joy, and other emotions with an effortlessness that enraptured the listener.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I give books based on the interests and tastes of the recipients, so I give all kinds of things. What I most like to receive are illustrated books on any period of art or any kind of decorative objects -- by which I mean everything from a book on an artist like Childe Hassam to a full-color book on Art Deco radios or on beautiful engraved rifles.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have to wear a five-point hat with five small bells, each of a different metal from the others, and leather gloves with knuckle spikes. Nothing unique about that. All writers have the five-point hat and the spiked gloves. I like the lighting low, music low, stacks of research surrounding me for easy reference, a bottle of flavored water -- usually cherry -- close at hand, which I'll drink either cold or at room temperature. For at least part of the day, though she might be bored, I like the company of my dog; she is a furry muse.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I sold the first short story I ever wrote. Then I collected 75 rejections before I sold anything else. I was a part-time writer for two years and a full-time writer for eleven years before I had a paperback bestseller. I wrote for another five years before one of my books appeared on the hardcover bestseller lists. By the time I'd had two hardcover bestsellers, a major national magazine made a snarky remark to the effect that I was an overnight success who had "jumped on the bloody bandwagon of the vampire-novel craze." Because more than 18 years of work seems to stretch the definition of "overnight" a tad too far, and because I'd never written a vampire novel, I figured everything else that I was reading in the magazine must be equally empty of fact, and I canceled my subscription.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Most of the criticism you receive will be directed at your unique style. You will be pressured to modify your voice, to adopt the attitudes and prejudices of one herd or another. Thriller writers, science fiction writers, mystery writers, writers in every genre are expected to write like the successful models who have gone before them, with just enough exotic spice to intrigue without seeming dauntingly original. Even if you write experimental literary fiction, you will find that people who write and review experimental literary fiction have dogma that they want to enforce, and even out there on the imagined cutting edge, you will be shown the line that you must walk to be considered a serious writer.
Resist. If you conform, you might be granted admittance to the club, you might be "discovered" and acclaimed, but you will not then be the writer you could have been. If you repress your true voice -- and therefore your passion -- long enough, you will burn out. Walker Percy gave the best advice about writing advice that I know: "The best thing to do with advice, even good advice, is to listen as hard as you can, take it to heart, then forget it."
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|Dean Koontz Home
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|In Our Other Stores|
|Dean Koontz Movies
Signed, First Editions by Dean Koontz|
|Demon Seed, 1973|
|Hanging On, 1973|
|Night Chills, 1976|
|The Vision, 1977|
|Face of Fear, 1977|
|The Key to Midnight, 1979|
|The Funhouse, 1980|
|The Eyes of Darkness, 1981|
|The Voice of the Night, 1981|
|The Mask, 1981|
|The House of Thunder, 1982|
|Twilight Eyes, 1985|
|The Door to December, 1985|
|The Servants of Twilight, 1988|
|Oddkins: A Fable for All Ages, 1988|
|The Bad Place, 1990|
|Cold Fire, 1991|
|Dragon Tears, 1992|
|Mr. Murder, 1993|
|Winter Moon, 1993|
|Dark Rivers of the Heart, 1995|
|Strange Highways, 1995|
|Santa's Twin, 1996|
|Sole Survivor, 1997|
|Fear Nothing, 1998|
|Seize the Night, 1998|
|False Memory, 1999|
|From the Corner of His Eye, 2000|
|One Door Away from Heaven, 2001|
|By the Light of the Moon, 2002|
|The Face, 2003|
|Odd Thomas, 2003|
|Every Day's a Holiday, 2003|
|Life Expectancy, 2004|
|Forever Odd, 2005|
|The Husband, 2006|
|Brother Odd, 2006|
|The Good Guy, 2007|