Dean Koontz Interview
Becky: When and why did you start writing?
Dean Koontz: at the age of eight, I was writing stories, making them into little booklets and peddling them to relatives for a nickel. Which was odd considering that there were no books in our house, and reading wasn’t considered a sensible use of time. I was a regular presence at the library by ten. As a college senior, I sold a short story, and thereafter never looked back. But why? I’ve long been compelled to write, no less than to eat. I don’t really know why. It’s just the way I’m made.
I’ll tell you though, I’m glad that I began when I did, long before this dreadful economy. It’s much more difficult these days for a young writer to build a career. In the last few years, the average family has lost nearly $15,000 in disposable income, which means a lot less money for books and other pleasures. No one ever imagined that the paperback market would collapse to 15% of its former size, but people without jobs won’t buy any books. It really isn’t primarily the internet that’s eating away at the audience for books, it’s the lack of economic growth. Until that changes, it is going to be a cold market for everyone but especially for new writers, which is a terrible thing for the culture
B: How have you managed to produce such a large, successful, and diverse amount of work in a relatively short amount of time?
DK: I spend on average 60 hours a week writing, and I’ve been doing that for over 40 years. It’s hard work but at the same time it’s play. A long writing session flies by, whether I get six or seven pages out or only one. When you stay at it like that, it’s surprising how much you can produce. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the imagination is like a muscle, that it grows stronger the more you use it; over time your ideas get better, your execution gets better… the success of the work depends on how in tune you are at any moment with the culture at large, by which I do not mean scoping the market and writing what is wanted. You can strive to connect with the culture only so long, only with limited success; the connection has to be natural, a consequence of who you are, of what you’ve read and seen, of what you’ve thought and dreamed. Diversity? I bore easily. So I like to go from flat-out scary, like The Taking, and then do a change-up with a comic novel that is full of heart, like Life Expectancy. I read everything. I have no prejudices about genres of fiction, and I find “literary” fiction to be just another genre. I also read a lot of science—especially quantum mechanics, molecular biology and associated subjects—poetry and philosophy, and I particularly enjoy really intelligent cultural theorists and critics like Philip Rieff, whose book My Life Among the Deathworks is brilliant. If you take in a variety of material, you’re almost certain to produce a diverse body of work.
B: How do you manage such seemingly effortless transitions?
DK: Do I? Does it seem effortless? Hah! I conned you. What I already said about packing your brain with a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction is key to being able to shift gears. It also helps to set challenges for yourself, take on a story or an approach to storytelling that you’ve never tried before. Risk falling on your face in a public way. That tends to inspire the extra effort that might make the change-up look effortless. With Innocence, because of the nature of the narrator (as it is ultimately revealed), I had to a lyrical voice that from start to end spoke in luminous prose that suggested transcendence. In The City, I chose to tell the story through the first-person narration of a 57-year-old piano man who tells about a wondrous, scary, and amazing chain of events that occurred when he was only 8, 9, and 10. I’d never done a looking-back kind of first-person narration, which allows an adult voice to recall the conditions of childhood, sort of like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, looking back as an adult to those key events in her past. There are great advantages to this, but there are also limitations and traps that make the task challenging and exciting.
B: If you could choose one book that defines your personality, not necessarily one of your own, which would it be and why?
DK: The book that is most like me, that is infused with my own take on life is Life Expectancy. As Jimmy Tock says in that story, “No matter what happens, no matter how bad things get, there’s always cake.” I’m no Pollyanna, but I’m an optimist, and I find humor in almost everything. The character that I like to think is most like me is, strangely enough, a young girl with a disability, Leilani Klonk in One Door Away From Heaven. Every moment I spent writing her scenes was a dream, and I felt as though I knew her as I know anyone in real life.