When I ask friends who their favourite author is, many of them immediately respond Dean Koontz. Dean transcends genres with his innovative storytelling, delving deep into the heart of character, tugging at our emotions, and taking us on the ride of our lives. There are authors who are talented storytellers, others who are geniuses in the craft of writing–and Dean is a master of both.
Born in Everett, Pennsylvania, Koontz now lives in California and his last fourteen hardcovers have hit #1 on the NYT Bestseller list. I had the pleasure of reading an early copy of DEVOTED, his latest blockbuster. Prepare yourself to fall in love with a canine character like no other: Kipp, a Golden Retriever with very special skills. I was thrilled when Dean agreed to do an interview with the Rogue Women Writers to share insights into his writing and this new novel. Enjoy!
Dean: Thanks for those kind and generous words, but now everyone’s going to think you’re my sister! Well, for one thing, characters help determine language. The voice of each character inspires the stylistic choices of the language in scenes from his or her point of view, so that a chapter from the p.o.v. of a brilliant autistic boy like Woody will sound different from a scene in the voice of a sociopath like the antagonist, Lee Shacket, or in a scene from the p.o.v. of the dog, Kipp. At the same time, the book has to have a coherent sound overall, and the reader must not feel jarred when transitioning from one point of view to another. The English language is beautiful and uniquely flexible, and I’m always searching for new ways to create vivid pictures in the reader’s mind. There’s a school of writing that advises avoiding metaphors, similes, alliteration, lines composed in poetic meter, etc. No, no, no! That’s like a master woodworker trying to do his best craftmanship without drills and saws and chisels.
Rogues: One of the most remarkable aspects of DEVOTED was your compelling and believable scenes from the viewpoint of a golden retriever. How did you bring this voice to life?
Dean: Characters are more important to me than story, because vivid characters create the story as it goes, taking me places I could never have imagined in advance. Unusual points of view are an exciting challenge. The first time I wrote a novel with a Down syndrome boy as one of the protagonists, I researched the subject extensively, but then it was time for the imagination, guided by the heart as much as the mind, to get inside such a character and fully realize him. When numerous parents of Down syndrome children began to write to me, saying I had portrayed their son exactly, I was, frankly, thrilled. With the dog Kipp, I could rely on 25 years with three goldens of my own, which had brought me much understanding of dogs. But then I asked myself what was the most important thing about Kipp, the quality he had that no other character had, and I knew it was his pure innocence as well as the humility and devotion to others that innocence fosters. Unlike human beings, dogs do not lie, they are not capable of deceit. Once I wrapped my head around how this would affect the character’s every action, writing those scenes was a delight. I thought they were such fun that every time I finished one, I gave myself a cookie as a reward.
Dean: I don’t outline. I sort of kanoodle the story page by page. I start with a character or a few, and a premise. As the story unfolds, it demands a new viewpoint from time to time. I recall when I delivered STRANGERS, my first hardcover bestseller, the publisher insisted that there were too many characters, too many points of view, and wanted me to cut it by 40%. After the editor spent six weeks trying to show me where the cuts could be made, he finally called to say, “If any of these characters is cut, the entire story falls apart. In the future, if you’re going to write 250,000-word novels, you should write them so that some of the characters could be unplugged without damaging the story.” I wasn’t sure if he was serious or joking, so I agreed with false solemnity.
Rogues: Your work seems to smash through all genre boundaries, as your books include suspense, romance, supernatural, horror, and many other story elements. Is this an intentional choice or do you just go where the story takes you?
Dean: I read in all genres, including literary fiction, which is just another genre to me. When I sit down to write, I’m eager to employ the unique strengths that each genre offers. When I began doing cross-genre work, about 40 years ago, publishers and agents recoiled. Publishers love labeling writers in order to more easily market them, but labels restrict creativity and in fact limit a writer’s audience. When I delivered LIGHTNING, my publisher insisted it would destroy by budding career as a bestseller and that we should put it on the shelf for 7 years and publish it only after I had become more successful. Months of exhausting struggle ensued before she’d agree to publish it in a timely fashion. My agent at that time informed me that though I might have won that battle, I had lost the war, because this strange mix of genres would indeed be the end of me. I should have changed agents then, but it took me a few more years to admit the necessity.
Rogues: People with disabilities seem to be underrepresented in fiction, which is why I decided to create a series character who has type 1 diabetes. Was making Woody autistic part of a larger theme or message?
Rogues: Your personal story of becoming an author demonstrates that hard work and perseverance make all the difference. It’s lovely that your wife believed in you and supported your dreams. What advice would you give new authors who are trying to break into the industry at such a challenging time?
Dean: Without Gerda’s support and faith in my work, I’d never have had this career. As in anything, there are legions of people ready to tell you that you can’t succeed, it can’t be done the way you want to do it, that you’re doomed if you don’t follow the common wisdom of the day. Lots of people, family and friends, thought I was a bum during those five years when Gerda worked and I stayed home to write. Even after I was on the bestseller list, some of them clung to the belief that I was riff-raff. I’ll admit to the riff, but not the raff. If you have one person you care for who also cares enough for you to be honest about your work and support you emotionally—that better be enough for you. Because there will be times when that one is the only one.
Rogues: What have you read this year that you would recommend to Rogue Readers?
Dean: Every ten years I reread A Tale of Two Cities, which I just finished again. It knocks me flat every time, and I always finish it in tears. I have a little book that’s a collection of bad reviews of classics written when those books were first published. It’s amazing to realize that toward the end of his career, an effort was made to dismiss Dickens as a hack, and if not for Chesterton’s passionate defense of the man’s life work, the haters might have succeeded in diminishing his reputation. Every time someone tells me that the values Dickens championed are long out of date and somehow regressive, I know them for the soulless swine they are!
Rogues: Is Elsa taking over for Bella as the communicator for the Mysterium?
Dean: The Mysterium, in DEVOTED, is a secret society of special dogs that live among us. My Elsa was the inspiration for them because I swear she’s psychic. I love the photo of the two of us on the back of the book. A boy and his dog. An old, old boy and his dog, but a boy at heart.