Author Dean Koontz Answers Questions

Best-selling author Dean Koontz has thrilled his fans in one blockbuster novel after another — from Watchers and False Memory to The Face — now available in paperback — and his most recent best seller, Odd Thomas. Where does he find such inspiration? In this online chat he answers questions about his novels, the future of character Chris Snow, | tips for writers, | reveals his muse.

New Questions as of June 11, 2004

Question: I am a 15-year-old Panamanian and am currently reading a huge book that contains three of your novels — Shattered, Whispers, and Watchers. How did you get the inspiration for each of your books, and are any of your characters in these three books based on real people? Jaime, Panama City, Panama

Answer: Fictional characters are seldom if ever entirely modeled upon real people. If they were, they might not feel natural to a particular story and theme, but might seem to have been imposed upon it. I've dealt with the subject of the character-theme relationship in the first round of these questions, so I won't repeat myself. In the time I save by not repeating myself, I'll play a game of crocodile golf, a recreational activity that features nests of surly reptiles instead of the traditional sand traps, which enlivens an otherwise tiresome sport by the prospect of sudden death. Watchers was inspired by a lifelong love of dogs, by the Jung quote that is featured at the front of the book, by reading I'd been doing into the future of genetic engineering, by thinking I'd been doing about the difficulty of changing who we are even when we recognize the need for change. Whispers was inspired by a Freudian world view left over from college, which I eventually grew wise enough to abandon, by a fascination with California, which is virtually a character in the novel and which I had at that time adopted as my new home, and by a desire to take on characters and character relationships of a more complex texture than I'd been able to do in the genre word that preceded this novel. Shattered was an early book, and the motivation was simpler: I'd long admired short, simple, punchy suspense stories by Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Brian Garfield, and their peers; and I wanted to try a book like that.

Question: Have you ever written about any real-life experiences? And how does your wife feel about your books? Amy

Answer: Virtually every novel includes real-life experiences of mine. I have not, of course, been pursued by a beast that has escaped from a genetic engineering lab, do not suffer from xerodermapigmentosum, and haven't encountered aliens. But the details of daily life, the little background and character moments that support the primary story line are often based on real events. Indeed, Gerda, my wife, says that when she reads a new novel, she is reminded of numerous moments in our own recent lives which have been folded into the story. Gerda is my staunchest supporter and, next to me, she is my toughest critic. Generally, she prefers books like From the Corner of His Eye and Fear Nothing and Odd Thomas to books like The Taking, but as she was reading the manuscript of The Taking, she said at the midpoint, "This isn't my kind of thing, and I'd hope you wouldn't write another one like it anytime soon, but I sure am having fun with it." So she has the broad taste to accept all kinds of books.

Question: I am now 23 years old. In sixth grade I got grounded for breaking the knob off our television. Picking up your novel Lightning was what turned me on to reading. Thank you so much for the novels that you write. Also Strange Highways and the story of Benny was something else — do you like this character? Cheers. John, South Glens Falls

Answer: I wonder why you broke the knob off the TV. Was some program so crappy (obviously not one on ABC) that you switched it off with fury? Were you in the mood to break something and the TV was just there? Were you channel surfing at high speed in primitive mode, sans remote? Were you running through the house in youthful enthusiasm, tripped over a duck, fell, struck the TV knob with your forehead, snapped it off, and therefore suffered amnesia for the next three years? Possessed by a demon? Well, whatever the reason for your violent, destructive frenzy, I'm glad that it ultimately led you to Lightning. I like the character of Benny, and I like the man his father came to be in that story. I've received considerably more mail on that piece, "Twilight of the Dawn," than on any other short story I've written.

Question: Whose books do you read? And has there been an author that has influenced you? Cheryl, Kissimmee, Fla.

Answer: I read almost everything, by anyone, in all genres, including so-called "literary" fiction, which is really just another genre. So many authors have influenced me that I'd test the capacity of the ABC Web site if I listed them all. Some of the deepest influences and the longest lasting have been Charles Dickens, James M. Cain, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Herman Wouk, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Conner, Emily Dickinson.

Question: Do you plan out your novels, such as with an outline, or do you just start writing and see where things go? Casey, Star, Idaho

Answer: For me, outlines are the death of creativity, but they work well for many writers. I start with an intriguing premise, theme, and a tantalizing character or two, then take the plunge. (See the first round of questions in which I discuss character and theme, which are pertinent.) Sometimes I worry that I have no ending, but if the characters work, they have a story to tell, and they always prove to know what their ending is-and should be.

Question: Do you listen to music when writing? If so, what type of music and what artists? Robert, Green Bay, Wis.

Answer: I love big band music; I listened to a lot of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, and their contemporaries when I wrote The Bad Place. As might be obvious, I listened to nothing but Chris Issak CDs when writing Fear Nothing and Seize the Night. As I noted in both From the Corner of His Eye and One Door Away from Heaven, I listened exclusively to the incredible music of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole while writing those books — as I did while writing Odd Thomas, and will probably listen to IZ again when I write the sequel to Odd. Weirdly, or so it seems to me, when I was working on Dark Rivers of the Heart for long hours during almost a full year, I listened to only one CD; Paul Simon's Graceland, hour after hour, day after day, over and over! Eventually I could sing every song, not only with perfect fidelity to the lyrics but with all the vocal nuances that Simon brings to them (though certainly not as melodically as he sings)-and I kept looking around for Garfunkel.

Question: Do you ever visit any of the Dean Koontz fan Web sites? If so, do you generally like them, find them funny, or have any thoughts about them? Desiree

Answer: I have always found it embarrassing to read about myself or my work, and as much as possible, I avoid that, just as I've done my best to avoid the celebrity aspect of what I do. I've turned down more interview requests that I've accepted, declined three offers over the years to be an on-camera host of a TV show, a la Rod Serling, and rarely read newspaper and magazine pieces about myself. What I love about what I do is the act of writing and the process of revision. I'd rather people talked about the story than about the writer, in part because I think the creative process is magical, if not spiritual, and that I am sometimes more the conduit for the story than the creator of it. I'm flattered that there's so much interest in what I do. At a couple of the occasional book signings I've done, I've met the woman behind, and she seems very smart, personable, and lovely. With people like her carrying the torch for me, I should visit the fan sites . . . but then there would still be the embarrassment of reading about myself.

Question: I enjoy your novels so much; they are always so unique. I am willing to bet that "susurration" is your favorite word and is in every novel you've written; if it isn't there, it isn't an authentic Koontz. Love it! Thank you for a lot of good reading! Patricia, Billings, Mont.

Answer: Thank you, Patricia. As I sit here considering your comment, murmuring susurratively, with the susurrus of the rain at the window, I doubt that this word susurrates through every novel, although probably through most. But then again, I use the words wimple, hyperdactylism, foozle, zarzuela, and dink in every novel, without fail, not because I am obsessive or superstitious, but simply because I know I will die under the spark-spitting steel wheels of a demonic locomotive if, even once, I fail to use all these magic words in a book.

Question: I have always loved suspense and have enjoyed your books immensely. Did you love these kinds of stories as a child? Beverly

Answer: I loved any story that first stirred in me a sense of wonder and that, second, kept me breathless. Suspense, fantasy, spooky stuff, science fiction (when it wasn't saturated with politics, as so much of it seems to be these days, when it was about fabulous new ideas), and adventure stories in far corners of the world.

Question: I am a mother of three teenage boys and work a full-time job. How do you discipline yourself to work on your story a little every day, without making your loved ones feel neglected? I love to write but never seem to get the time.

Answer: First of all, I've never had children, let alone three teenage boys, so I'm amazed you can even think about writing let alone find the time to do it. Even Trixie, our golden retriever, demands (and receives) play and belly rubs that, on an annual basis, add up to enough time to write half a novel! Basically, over the years, I've found that I make writing time by denying myself other pleasures: Aside from architecture and antiquing, I have no hobbies; I seldom watch television, and my own reading time has declined so that whereas I once read 200 novels a year, I now read 20. But do not feel sorry for me; do not weep and pound your breast in despair over my self-denial. When writing, I'm doing what I love to do, and no vacation in Zanzibar, no game of golf or tennis would be a fraction as much fun.

Question: I've always enjoyed your canine characters (as well as the human ones), probably because I'm a pet professional and pet lover. Besides being entertaining stories, your books have educated readers about the countless positives of living with dogs-in particular the service animals. I understand you are involved with CCI (bravo!), and I wonder how you first became aware of the organization and interested in supporting its programs. Amy, Sherman, Texas

Answer: A good dog, under the gently controlling influence of a caring owner, is a source of joy and wonder and perpetual comic relief. Dogs can teach us patience because they are patience personified; they can teach us to enjoy the small things of life, for they are not driven by ambition; they are reflexively courageous; they have strength without arrogance, beauty without ego, charm without guile. Grooming a dog can be a Zen experience: Because she has a thick coat and because we have a no-hair-in-the-household standard, Ms. Trixie receives a 45-minute combing every morning and a 15-minute combing most afternoons. During these sessions, she languishes in limp enjoyment, as if she were at a spa, and whoever is combing her-sometimes Gerda, sometimes me-zones out, so focused on the beautifying task that the world is forgotten, with the consequence that a combing is like meditation, and restful. Every floor in the house still has to be swept every day, as backup, but we wouldn't give up the combing even if all could be handled by sweeping! As for CCI: I read an article about them just before I wrote Midnight, and I decided to included a paraplegic and his service dog in the story. Soon thereafter, we because deeply involved in this wonderful organization. For more about CCI-and dogs, and true stories that will lift your heart-I recommend the book Love Heels, by Patricia Dibsie, with an introduction by me, published by Yorkville Press.

Question: Is there any way that Oddkins would ever be republished? All available copies seem to either cost upwards of sixty dollars or are in poor condition. I don't want to resort to stealing the copy from my local library! Karen

Answer: I own the original film for the book, but I'm not sure that it is in good enough condition to allow the art work to be reproduced at full quality. It might be fine; I just don't have the knowledge to judge correctly. Since I feel that the art is as important to the experience of the book as is the text, I've not tried to make a deal for text alone. Perhaps if Robot Santa, my next book for children, sells at least as well as Santa's Twin, some publisher will want to investigate the possibility of reprinting Oddkins in all its original visual splendor. Don't steal from your library, Karen. That is immoral. Hold up a liquor store and use the proceeds of the robbery to buy a mint-condition Oddkins first printing.

Between the Pages: Book 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, D.C.

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, Texas

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

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, Fla.

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, Fla.

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

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, N.H.

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.

Tips for Aspiring Writers

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

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, Colo.

Answer: 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, Calif.

Answer: 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!

Muse Revealed

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

Answer: 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

Answer: 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

Answer: 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

Answer: 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

Answer: 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.

Answer: 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, Fla.

Answer: 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, Wash.

Answer: 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, Texas

Answer: 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, Texas

Answer: 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

Answer: 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, Utah

Answer: Intensity, False Memory, Dark Rivers of the Heart, and eight or 10 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

Answer: 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

Answer: 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, Ark.

Answer: 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

Answer: 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!