Author Dean Koontz Answers Questions

Number one bestselling author Dean Koontz has thrilled and chilled his devoted fans in one blockbuster novel after another — from Watchers and False Memory to The Face — coming soon in paperback — and his most recent bestseller, Odd Thomas.

Book Specific Questions

Question: Are you planning on doing any more books like ODD THOMAS-first person-narration, etc.? That was one of the best books I have ever read. Brian, Washington, DC

Answer: Thank you, Brian. I have seldom written first-person narration-TWILIGHT EYES, FEAR NOTHING, SEIZE THE NIGHT, ODD THOMAS-because I've always felt that each first-person narrator should sound unique, not like me when I write in third person, and not like one another. Because first person necessarily narrows the scope of a story, I only want to use it when I have a character so fresh (at least to me) that more is gained by his or her voice than is lost by the narrower scope. For some reason, suitable first-person narrators have been coming to me more frequently than in the past. LIFE EXPECTANCY, which will be published in December of 2004, is in the first person. Because I was so enchanted by the character of Odd Thomas and because reader mail related to that book has now exceeded the mail volume for any other book I've published, I plan to return to Odd and see where his life has gone since I left him listening to music with Elvis; I'm sure he has more to tell me.

Question: ODD THOMAS was wonderful. How are you able to create such nuanced characters like Thomas and his girlfriend? Are they modeled off people you know? Chris, Austin, TX

Answer: Thanks, Chris. No, the characters aren't modeled off people I know, though traits I see in several people can sometimes coalesce in a single character. After more years at this keyboard than seem possible-or sane!-I've learned how to let characters speak for themselves. This might sound mystical and a little weird-who? me? weird?-but I realized one day, in '97, that every act of human creation-whether by a writer, bricklayer, carpenter, seamstress-is a reflection of the divine Creation, the one with a capital C. This is particularly obvious in the case of writers, who create whole worlds and populate them with life, if only on the page. When this insight came to me, I didn't need to brood on it for long to realize that the most generous thing I could do for my characters, the thing that would make them the most lively and alive, would be to give them free will, as God gave us: the free will to flourish or to fail, to learn from suffering or to be broken or embittered by it; to discover themselves and who they are through the course of the story rather than to have any traits imposed upon them. Then an amazing thing happened: Step-by-step, as I learned to let go of my characters, learned to stop shaping them with too much conscious intent, they began to shape themselves in greater depth and with far richer nuance than they would have had if I had kept them under tight rein. In books like ODD THOMAS, I learn about the characters at the same pace that the reader does; I am amazed to watch them flower and become real. There are wondrous and eerie aspects to this process. It is not something I could teach in a writing seminar; the understanding is deeper than instinct, something akin to a spiritual experience. When you allow characters to shape themselves, as you watch them mature before your eyes, there is something humbling about their growth, as well, for it seems that you are tapping not some great genius in yourself but some more profound creative force in nature, and that you are merely allowing it to work through you. See, I said this would sound mystical and weird, but there it is. And though most critics and readers have always been kind about my characters, response to those written since '97-beginning with Chris Snow and his friends in FEAR NOTHING-has been even better. Nevertheless, should I ever need them, I do have on permanent reserve a pleasant suite of rooms at Happy Haze Home for those afflicted with genteel lunacy.

Question: What contribution did Brandon Tartikoff make to STRANGE HIGHWAYS? Sallymop, Shropshire, UK

Answer: Everyone who knew Brandon loved the guy. Have lunch with him just once, and you were charmed. He was a genuine, warm, kind, and enthusiastic man. Most people who run networks or have equivalent positions in the entertainment industry are insufferable in one way or another; they either trade their humanity for the thrill of power or are sadly deficient human beings to begin with. Brandon Tartikoff had none of the arrogance, none of the egomania, none of the venom so often found in others who have achieved his position. When he fell ill, after he left NBC, as he fought for his life, he remained full of enthusiasm and energy, and sought ways to channel them productively. My agent, Robert Gottlieb, a friend and admirer of Brandon's, thought that with all of Brandon's entertainment contacts, he would be well-advised to start a book line of his own, within an existing publishing company, with the intention of trying to promote film and television projects based on them. STRANGE HIGHWAYS was the first-perhaps the last, I'm not sure-in that imprint because cancer will too often have its way. Brandon didn't have as much time left as everyone who knew him hoped he would. His contribution to STRANGE HIGHWAYS would have come if he'd been able to operate with his characteristic energy and if he had lived.

Question: PHANTOMS is my favorite book of all time. Where did you get the idea for such a scary book? Kendra, Odessa, MO

Answer: Since adolescence, I'd been fascinated with stories of real-life mass disappearances (those mentioned throughout PHANTOMS) and had from time to time tried to imagine explanations for them, not as the plot for a novel but just to satisfy my own curiosity. One day, driving from somewhere to somewhere, when there was nothing on the radio to entertain me and no extraterrestrials seemed interested in abducting me, I started mulling over these disappearances-and into my head popped the concept of the Ancient Enemy. As soon as I realized this could also explain the extinction of the dinosaurs, I knew I had a cool story line for a novel.

Question: Hi, Dean! One of my all-time favorites is STRANGERS. Any plans for this to be made into a movie? Scott, San Francisco, CA

Answer: Hi, Scott! I've got a standing offer from a fine producer, with whom I've worked before, to turn STRANGERS into a high-profile TV movie. With the exception of INTENSITY (a miniseries), THE FACE OF FEAR (a two-hour TV movie), and some parts of SOLE SURVIVOR, I've not been too pleased with longform TV and don't want to do more of it at this time. Currently, with my Frankenstein project at USA, I'm hoping that the series format will work better. I am no doubt a fool in full denial.

Question: What was your inspiration for TWILIGHT EYES? Of all your books, that one stays in my mind the most for some reason. Janice, Tallahassee, FL

Answer: I've written previously about my unpleasant childhood-the drunk and violent father, the poverty, the ravenous alien parasite that lived in our basement... I often dreamed of running away from home. We lived across the highway from the county fairgrounds, and when the carnival came for a week each summer, that was the high point of the year. I longed to run away with the carnival...and this yearning led to an interest in the culture of carnivals, about which I came to be something of an expert. With so much background knowledge gained over so many years, I one day realized I had a terrific setting for a novel. What came to me was TWILIGHT EYES.

Question: You often refer to "The Book of Counted Sorrows." I can't find this book in any local bookstores. Is it out of print? Do you know where I can obtain a copy? Thank you. Mildred, Pensacola, FL

Answer: The book did not exist when I began citing it. The verses from it were written by me. I now await the knock on the door that will be the Book Police with a warrant for my arrest on charges of poetry-attribution fraud. Last year, a small press - did issue COUNTED SORROWS as a beautiful limited, signed, numbered collector's edition at $100 per copy, complete with all verses and a 22,000-word comic history of the text. Because books of poetry don't sell well, I've not been able to find a sucker-I mean, publisher-willing to issue the book in a lower-priced edition.

Chris Snow/ Fear Nothing

Question: When can we expect to hear from Christopher Snow again? Catherine, Denver, CO

Answer: When I started the third Chris Snow book, I quickly discovered that it was likely to be a huge adventure story, packed full of wild stuff, and more epic in scope than the first two. I put it aside to think about it, intending to write FALSE MEMORY and then go back to it-and instead have written a series of books while I work on the third Snow, which is titled RIDE THE STORM. It will be done one day, but it's a book that insists on setting its own pace.

Question: As a mother to a beautiful little girl with Down syndrome, I notice many of your books have characters with DS in them. I also notice that they are always treated respectfully, a rare find-usually books contain outdated information regarding DS. I was just wondering if you have someone "special" in your life that inspires you to place these characters in your books? My favorite quote is from your novel SEIZE THE NIGHT: "Those who don't perceive beauty in the face of a Down's syndrome person are blind to all beauty or are so fearful of difference that they must at once turn away from every encounter with it." This quote is hanging on my wall at work and it is a daily inspiration to me. Thank you. Jackie, Milford, NH

Answer: Dear Jackie-you are an inspiration to me, as are so many parents of Down's children, as well as those whose children have severe physical disabilities. My wife and I have long worked with organizations assisting the disabled, and we have been impressed that virtually all those parents say that their special children were blessings, that in caring for their children and helping them to achieve a full life, they (the parents) have grown emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. You are exceptional people, and because of that, your children will be exceptional and, by their example of triumph over hardship, will give hope to those in search of it and will inspire more tolerance and compassion in society. I have no DS person in my family, but those I have known are gentle, kind, and in many ways a lesson to those in our world who value flash and glitter and only the standard for beauty that our largely shallow pop culture promotes. My books are based on a worldview that values taking responsibility for those around us and thus brightening the corner where we are; a worldview that also values perseverance in the face of hardship. The rewards of self-discovery and the rewards to the community of those values are deep and lasting.

Advice Questions

Question: If someone were trying to get a publisher interested in a manuscript, what makes up a great query letter? Bianca, Raleigh, NC

Answer: You need to interest an agent first. What agents want to see in a query letter is the story of your novel captured in 100 or fewer words, the fewer the better, in such a way that presents its concept clearly and in such a way that makes it sound fresh. They don't want long plot summaries. They don't want to be told that it is thrilling or suspenseful or moving. They want to be shown in a succinct fashion that it's exciting. This means, unfortunately, that they favor "high concept" over subtler or more complex stories. But as a new writer, you have to deal with the new realities of the industry. The perfect high-concept novel is arguably JURASSIC PARK, which could be presented like this in a query letter: "Using DNA preserved for millions of years in amber, scientists engineer dinosaurs, which are alive again in our time. They lose control of the project." Not only thrillers and genre fiction lend themselves to high-concept summaries. Books like THE LOVELY BONES and THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN are high concepts, too.

Question: First, I just want to tell Mr. Koontz he is a fabulous author. I have read about 75 - 80 percent of all your books since I was in my early teens. What advice would you give to a beginning writer on story development? Heather, Colorado Springs, CO

Worry less about story development than about vivid characters. Find a premise, a simple but strong story idea, then give more than a little thought to what the story is about, not just in terms of plot but as regards theme. BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, for instance, is about responsibility, the burden and the beauty of taking responsibility for others. ODD THOMAS is about perseverance in the face of suffering and loss, and about how hope gives us the strength to persevere. Once you understand what central theme (and there may be numerous secondary themes) is the obvious outgrowth of your initial story idea, you're ready to think about your lead characters. What kind of people do you need to properly explore the central theme inherent in your story? When I made Dylan my lead in BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON and gave him an autistic brother for whom he had given up anything like an ordinary life, the female lead evolved in minutes as someone who would at first be in dramatic conflict with Dylan and his worldview but whose arc of self-discovery would lead her to understand that she was, at heart, more like him than not. Once you have a theme that enlarges the simple story idea, once you have the bare bones of the characters who will best express and explore all the many ramifications of that theme, you need to trust in those characters and give them free will. (See my answer to the second question herein.) They will develop your story for you as you follow them on the path that their intellects, emotions, and values will logically take them. If they have no values, if your story has no thematic content, then you will be best served by mechanically cobbling together a plot outline and hoping that pace or novelty will be enough to carry the day. Both approaches work, but I seldom find that the second produces a book worth reading.

Question: When you were getting started as a writer, how many rejection letters did you receive? Mary, Orange, CA

I sold the first short story I wrote-"Kittens"-then wrote several that didn't sell before getting back on track. My first three novels never sold. I think I collected approximately 75 rejections -and then never got another. Perhaps you see why perseverance is one of the values my fiction most often touts!


Question: I'm always amazed by the names you give your characters. How do you come up with them? Johnny, Heist-op-den-Berg, Belgium

Johnny from Heist-op-den-Berg? Johnny Heist? Some names are so wonderful you can't make them up. You just seize upon them with glee. In some of my books, the names of characters are allusions to other works of literature that reverberate in theme with the themes of my work. In other cases, character names are chosen with a more Dickensian purpose, to signify character traits. For instance, consider Tom Vanadium in FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE. Vanadium is a rare element that is added to steel to toughen it and increase its shock resistance. It perfectly characterizes Tom's toughness, resilience, and steeliness of fine moral purpose. Shepherd, the autistic young man in BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, by the very nature of his problems and his needs, leads his brother through a life of purpose, responsibility, and meaning, and therefore is to him a kind of shepherd, bringing him along the right path. In my experience, characters names become memorable-and feel real-when they are not taken from the phone book but actually grow from their nature and their story purposes. Yes, this is the opposite of real life, in which we have our names before we develop character; but fiction is not reality, merely an interpretation of it.

Question: Several people in my office read your books and love them. Where do the ideas for your books come from and doesn't it get harder to come up with them as time goes by? Do you feel that as you have gotten older your writing style has changed? ODD THOMAS (loved it) seems a lot different than some of your first books. Donna, N. Wilksboro, NC

Actually, the older I've gotten, the faster the ideas have come and the better they seem to be. I think this is partly a consequence of how much time I've spent at the keyboard all these years. Practice improves a pianist, as well-although a thousand years of daily lessons would not have gotten me past "Chopsticks." Furthermore, the imagination seems to be like a muscle, responding to exercise. As to my changing style: If it didn't change over all these years, I would consider myself an abject failure. The English language is exquisitely beautiful and offers the writer infinite possibilities for what I'll call "lyrical clarity" that, while entertaining, can touch the heart and challenge the mind of the reader. In addition, life is so complex and so mysterious that story possibilities and themes, like the stars in the universe, outnumber the grains of sand on all of Earth's beaches. I wouldn't want to tell the same detective stories or haunted-house stories or gunslinger-comes-into-town stories over and over when the human experience offers so much rich material to inspire fiction. At my favorite restaurants, however, I order the same few favorite dishes over and over!

Question: You have a huge fan base here in the UK. I know that you do not like flying; however, do you plan to visit the UK for work or pleasure? Mark, Bournemouth, England

My wife and I would love nothing better than to come to England for both work and pleasure. We have planned it twice, and twice events beyond our control have terminated the plans on the brink of the trip. (London police, relieved, went into immediate stand-down.) We will get there one day, when I have gotten ahead of my deadlines and Fate allows.

Question: Do you believe that government is involved in conspiracies and secret experiments such as those that are the basis of some of your novels? I am a huge fan and have all your novels. Please keep up the great work. Brenda, Ottawa, Ontario

Politics of either the left or right can breed utopian visions. Utopians have not the patience, humility, or courage to change the lives of family and neighbors for the better on a one-to-one basis-in other words, brightening the corner where they are-but want instead to change the world by the implementation of one grand scheme or another. History reveals that no utopian scheme ever works because it treats human beings, in all their rich variety, as automatons to be manipulated into "right living." All the horrors of the last century, from Hitler to Stalin to Mao were the result of utopians imposing their vision of the perfect world on others by force, with the result that more than 150 million people were murdered by those three men alone. Most organized religions, for all their faults, view mankind as imperfect, as fallen, and therefore recognize that any utopian scheme created by the mind of man or woman will fail, and usually at a terrible price. But in the political realm, there are many who believe in the perfectibility of humanity, against all evidence to the contrary, and therefore will pursue any oppression or violence in the name of their ideals. If there are weird conspiracies and secret labs engaged on utopian quests, therefore, they are more likely to be run by government than by anyone else. Do they exist? I don't know. But they provide some fun story ideas!

Question: Who or what is your muse? Natalie, Chicago, IL

I think my dog, Trixie, may be an angel in disguise or at least a muse, whispering story points and character resolutions to me as I sleep.

Question: I anxiously await your new books and savor every moment of them. I wonder sometimes if you ever scare yourself with your graphic descriptions and plots twists. You certainly do scare me, and I am a grandmother. Marsha, Richmond, KY

Oh, great. Now, to be honest, the next time I have to fill out a questionnaire of any type, when they ask my occupation, I'll have to say "I scare grandmothers." I have only once spooked myself while writing a story-and that was during INTENSITY. It is easy to laugh out loud at a character's dialogue, as if I'm not writing it but listening to it, and in emotional scenes I can move myself to tears, but scaring myself isn't as easy. I don't know why. Maybe because I'm not half as scary as the news.

Question: Why doesn't Hollywood "get" you? Your books sell millions, yet most of the Hollywood projects made from your works barely register on the public radar. As an A-list author, do you have much input with the projects and do you want more control? Rob, Winter Park, FL

Hollywood is good at adapting a novel that, at its heart, has a short story that's been expanded upon. They sheer away all but the essential core of the story, and it still has narrative cohesion in that pared-down version. Most of my books don't dissect that easily, which frustrates them. The genre-bridging nature of the stories also baffles some people. I've often heard: "This is a suspense/love story/science fiction/comic novel. How in the hell are we supposed to market that?!?" I've tried writing the script only to see a director turn it on its head. When I got to choose the writer and approve the director, as in the case of INTENSITY, the result was better than usual. But no approach has been terribly successful, so recently I've told my agents only to bring a deal to me if it involves filmmakers whose work I respect and who have proven that they have taste. This reduces the opportunities drastically-but maybe it raises the possibility of success.

Question: I am a big fan of your literature. What inspired you to write about the ocean, sunsets, the West Coast, the California seashores, etc.? Did you live in the Northwest at one time? Margaret, Lynnwood, WA

I've always loved writing that conveys a strong sense of place, which requires capturing nature on the page. Because I live in southern California and am familiar with the Southwest, I tend to set my books there. I do so much research for other aspects of each story that I take some pressure off myself by setting them in places that I know well.

Question: How early in your life did you know you wanted to become a writer and who were your heroes as a child or young adult? Nancy, Price, TX

I was writing stories when I was eight years old, but I didn't realize that I might be able to have a career as a writer until I was a senior in college. When I was a kid, my heroes were writers whose work took me out of the poverty and violence in which I lived and transported me to other places: Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, all the great science fiction writers who virtually invented the genre in the 1930s and 1940s.

Question: Do you enjoy your craft as much now as in the beginning? Patricia, Austin, TX

I enjoy it more now than ever before. The older I get, the higher I set the bar with each book, trying to do things I've never done previously and that I might not be able to pull off. The risk keeps me interested. And my love of the language only grows year by year. As far as my writing goes, this is the happiest time of my life.

Question: I have completely enjoyed your books, the diverse subjects you have touched on. Considering the intensity, the intricate details of the complex subjects-how much rewriting do you do before finally getting to the finished product? Annette

I write one page at a time, revising and polishing it until I can't make it better. That can mean 20, 30, or even more drafts. Then I move on to the next page. Slowly, I work my way through the book. At the end of each chapter, I do a printout, which I pencil because I see possibilities for improvements on the printed page that I am not able to see on the screen. After three or four pencilings, I move on to the next chapter. When I reach the end of the novel, it is done-except for whatever editorial notes inspire me to make changes. Those usually take a couple of days.

Question: Will you always have supernatural elements to all your novels? You have written a couple of books without this element, and it was a great mystery novel. Will you do more of these? Do you get tired of coming up with supernatural elements? Ray, St. George, UT

INTENSITY, FALSE MEMORY, DARK RIVERS OF THE HEART, and eight or ten other books of mine have no element of the fantastic. Most of the rest have some science-fictional element like time travel or ETs or nanotechnology or genetic engineering, as in WATCHERS and the two Chris Snow books. Of my 43 books in print, only ODD THOMAS, THE FACE, HIDEAWAY, DARKFALL, THE MASK, and THE SERVANTS OF TWILIGHT include genuinely supernatural elements. But I seem to be tending in that direction these days, more than in the past...though the mix of upcoming novels includes some with elements of the fantastic of different types and some without. I don't calculate what to write, and I certainly don't write what I'm "tired" of. I just go where current passion takes me.

Question: When you began writing and as you moved forward as a writer, how did you teach yourself to keep the tight, furious pace you write with? I loved MR. MURDER; it made me breathless. How can the author best be aware of the tempo he or she wants to use in storytelling? Sharron, Los Angeles, CA

I'm always terrified of boring the reader. I've also got a low boredom threshold myself. And I've always admired those writers who tell stories of substance with the pace of suspense-not the least of which is Dickens. You can't find a boring page in any of his major novels even though some are huge. For me the trick is in those 20, 30 and more revisions of each page, because I take advantage of every pass to trim and tighten wherever possible. Some critics will take a look at a 600-page book and declare, by habit, that it is overwritten. But when a publisher of mine once told me I would have to cut a 900-page manuscript to 600 pages, the editor spent months poring over the script before finally suggesting just ten pages of cuts. After multiple readings, he reached the conclusion that everything in the book was essential to its structure and coherence. Literally line by line, paragraph by paragraph, I ask myself whether the information is essential-and whether it serves multiple narrative purposes. For instance, if it is scene description, I want it to have more than one purpose: Not only should it help the reader see the place, but it should help to establish the mood of the scene, and because every description is made through the point of view of a character (or should be), it can also serve to illuminate the character by showing us what is important to him in a landscape or a room. Furthermore, depending on the theme of a particular book, the metaphors and similes used in scene descriptions can subtly echo those themes. Bad weather is almost a character in THE FACE, and if you examine the descriptions of the rain that saturate the book, you'll find images that refer to or reflect the supernatural matrix-angels, devils, the power of contrition, the hope of redemption-that is the heart of the story. When language is required to serve multiple purposes, it not only deepens the story but powers it to a fast pace.

Question: When you first started, your wife supported your family and offered you the opportunity to focus solely on your writing. Do you think you would have been as successful (or successful at all) if you were not given this initial support? Stephen, Mount Vernon

I've always said that this career has two engines pulling it: Gerda and me. I could not possibly have been as successful if she had not made her generous offer, and perhaps would not have broken through to best-seller status at all. But there were three considerations that made our bargain work. First, we had no children and did not intend to have any until I had given the writing a shot. With kids in the mix, such a risk could not have been taken. Second, I felt such a moral obligation to match Gerda's generosity with Herculean effort that, from day one, I worked 60 hours a week and often even longer, and drove myself as hard as I could. Third, before she made this offer, I had proved there was at least a modicum of talent worth supporting because I'd sold perhaps fifteen short stories and three paperback novels; I wasn't earning much, but we had some modest proof of potential.

Question: You're a wonderful writer! I'm sure you go through writer's block on occasion. How do you work through it? How long does the writer's block usually last? It varies for me. Also I just LOVE Trixie! What a wonderful golden retriever! Christa, Malvern, AR

Christa, you're a wonderful reader! Such taste! Such insight! Writer's block? Never had it. All writer's block arises from self-doubt, and I have more self-doubt than any writer I know; however, I turn that negative energy into a positive by the magic of revision and polish. By doing the aforementioned 20, 30, and more drafts per page, I force myself into a deeper intimacy with the prose and the story, with the result that as it is polished, I become more confident about it and can move on to the next page, where new doubt will arise but will be assuaged by revision. It might not work for you, but it works for me. Staring at the keyboard accomplishes nothing-but revision keeps you at work and in the story. And now Trixie wants to say something:

Ms. Christa, you are good human, good. May you get plenty of biscuits. And tug toys. And tennis balls. And tummy rubs.

Question: Many of your books attribute special powers to animals, especially dogs. Do you feel that animals are more intelligent than most people believe? Ted, Houston, TX

I can't speak with authority about other animals, but I have no doubt that dogs are far more intelligent than most people believe. I have seen complex reasoning in Trixie's approach to the world, a sense of humor that is sly and charming, and even behavior that I am convinced is based on moral judgment. Most people don't look closely and with full consideration at the behavior of dogs, but when you do...they are every bit as uncannily smart and mysterious as Jack London portrayed them. Someday I will write about Trixie, who has changed my view of the complexity of reality and of nature, and when I do, those observations will not be tainted to any degree by anthropomorphizing. But for now: Dogs rule!