If we are to believe that it is never too late to have a happy childhood, then we’d like to elect best-selling author Dean Koontz the president of our playground. After enduring a torturous upbringing, a horror show of extreme poverty and physical violence at the hands of an alcoholic father, a 20-something Koontz simultaneously embraced Catholicism and his own powerful and prolific creativity to pen a virtually endless stream of popular fiction that has skated across genres to brisk sales. By the early 1980s, the soft-spoken Koontz, who lives waterfront in Newport Beach, CA, with his wife of nearly 50 years (and their coterie of dogs, natch), was a bona fide superstar, moonwalking in the same stratospheric firmament as Stephen King, John Grisham, and J.K. Rowling thanks to smash hits like Watchers, Whispers, and Dark Rivers of the Heart.
At the age of 69, Koontz this week publishes Saint Odd, the final installment of his Odd Thomas septet, the series of novels launched in 2003. Equal parts supernatural thriller, cultural satire, character study, bildungsroman, offbeat love story, road trip, spiritual meditation, and apocalyptic adventure, the Odd Thomas books – centering on the titular, 20-year old protagonist with an often burdensome ability to speak to the dead (including, with tongue in cheek, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and Alfred Hitchcock) who finds himself at the center of a volatile, cosmic battle – are more than irresistible page-turners. They are intimate, haunting, often heartrending, exhilarating, and beautifully composed.
A former English teacher whose publishing team proudly announces that he has sold more than 450 million books, Koontz is a self-described journeyman, writing always just beyond his comfort zone, striving to improve always as a storyteller, as a sentence maker, as a human being. The notion of aspiration is evident in Koontz’s best work and, also, in conversation. Gratitude, too, is a key component of Koontz’s composure, the constant choice of a man who has shed old skin baring ancient wounds and, instead, resting his gaze on a universe he says radiates with infinite wonder. Sounds like a very happy childhood to us.
Seven books later, the tale of Odd Thomas is now complete.
It was a sad day to finish the series because I loved the character so much. On the other hand, with the first book, I made a promise to the character, and it needed to be fulfilled, and it could only be fulfilled if the series came to an end.
". . . if there’s anything autobiographical about Odd Thomas, it would be his intuitive understanding that life is amusing at even its darkest moments. With tragedy, there lie kernels of humor. No matter what's happening to you, there is light around the corner. I'm not a Pollyanna, but I do have that kind of optimism, and I always have, and Odd Thomas shares that with me. . ." − Dean Koontz
Now that the series has concluded, some readers might determine that you’ve just finished your masterpiece. What do you think?
(Laughs) I think there have been so many books that it gets very difficult to make those kinds of assessments, at least for me. People ask me, "What is your favorite character or book, whatever?" To a degree, you have to almost say all of them because, even though I write pretty quickly, I’m still choosing to spend a lot of time with these characters, in these stories. I will say, though, that Odd Thomas was special to me. He wasn't always well received, though. When I turned the first book in to my (previous) publisher, there were people there who so dislike the character and the conflict that they wouldn’t even talk to me about it. In me, that triggers a certain response.
What response is that?
“Oh, yeah! Well, then, I’m going to write seven of them!” (Laughs) I wanted desperately to write more about this character, and I think people came around to understanding him finally, but initially, the fact that he was a character with significant humility, that he was self-deprecating, that he wasn't some kind of superhero who could tear off doors from their hinges with his bare hands, the typical action hero, that was problematic for some people. But I always thought, “His humility is the exact thing that gives him strength.” This is a character who came to me, who was given to me, and I’ll always be grateful for that. Whether it’s a masterpiece or not? Who knows? I wouldn’t ever claim anything like that.
If Odd Thomas is not your typical action hero, I would guess, from the outside looking in at least, Dean Koontz is not your typical best-selling author. Odd Thomas feels like a very personal character for you – maybe even autobiographical.
Well, if there’s anything autobiographical about Odd Thomas, it would be his intuitive understanding that life is amusing at even its darkest moments. With tragedy, there lie kernels of humor. No matter what's happening to you, there is light around the corner. I'm not a Pollyanna, but I do have that kind of optimism, and I always have, and Odd Thomas shares that with me. Also, there’s the sense that life is meant to be take seriously, but at the same time it's meant to be understood, to some degree, as a comedy.
The character’s humility is noble, to be sure. It’s also unusual in a hero, and it causes him a fair amount of trouble along the way.
Yes! The real tenor of these books is this character's journey toward absolute humility, and I often said in the years that it took me to finish the series, “What am I going to do when I get to the last book and I have to write about somebody who has absolute humility?” Humility is a trait I do not share with him. (Laughs) But that's what's wonderful about fictional characters. If you give them, essentially, free will, they'll show you how to write about them. When I got to the last book, it turned out not to be as difficult as I had thought.
The pop culture arena does not give much affection to works of optimism these days. Darkness and nihilism tend to dominate a lot of our most popular entertainments, which makes you something of a rebel.
I actually was doing an interview not long ago and one of the questions was, “What’s one book you couldn’t finish or had to put down or threw across the room?” And I said, “Well, it's been happening a lot these days.” As soon as I get to the point where I realize the book is going to say that life has no meaning, and it's going to be an endorsement of nihilism, I'm finished with it. Once you've said that, you have nothing left to say. I'm wondering why the author ever bothered writing a book at all. If you generally believe that nothing in life has any meaning, then why did you bother writing a book to say so? I believe that darkness is not only worth exploring, but important to explore, but you don’t have to be a misanthrope. You don’t have to hate humanity. You don’t have to be grim.
About 40 years ago, you probably couldn’t have imagined the career you’re enjoying. Tell me about getting started as an author.
Back in the day, my wife and I were married with $150 and a used car and the clothes on our backs, basically. We both had jobs, but neither one of them paid very much. I had come out of a very poor family that had no indoor plumbing, no indoor bathroom. That was life until I was 11. I never knew how the next house payment or the next grocery bill was going to get paid. My wife, Gerda, and I had been married two or three years, and I was selling short stories and, now and then, a paperback novel, but I was not making anywhere close to a living on it. And one day, she offered to support me for five years. She said if you don't make it in five years, you'll never make it, but you have to try. And I seized the moment. I became among, on all sides of our family, the worst husband for a few years. Nobody believes that this made any sense for her to do it. I always think it's one of the most generous and selfless acts that I've ever seen.
Indeed. We should all have that kind of support.
So you’re right; I can hardly believe it, though I remember all of it. We decided back in 1969 or so, that if I could ever make, reliably, $25,000 a year as a writer, that would be a good life and I would just go on writing and she could have a part-time job or work with me or whatever. It was about 4 ½ years and she quit her job.
It was still a few years before you hit the proverbial “big time,” though.
Yes, it was a lot of years from that moment when I went full-time to hitting the best seller list. Even when I had my first best seller, it was only a paperback and it was published under a pen name, which was very frustrating. I’d go into the bookstores and stand there pointing and say, “That's me!” Of course, nobody believed me, nor should they have. (Laughs)
That’ll teach you to use a pseudonym!
Exactly! I started using my own name then and there. I had a few more paperback best sellers, and about four years later, the first hardcover best seller. And then Midnight went to number one. A lot of people look at the career from the outside and think, “Well, that sure happened easily.” But it’s never been easy in my experience. The publisher I was with back then, they were so resistant to the idea that anything I could ever write would become a best seller. I was succeeding almost in spite of their apparent indifference to my hard work. They were doing virtually nothing to promote the books, so how could they actually be selling 100,000 copies? Whenever we hit number one, the publisher would call me – and you’d think this would be some sort of glorious moment, where you’re popping champagne and celebrating – and she’d say, “So you’re going to be number one, but don’t think it’ll ever happen again to you. You don’t write those kinds of books.” So it’s kind of been a struggle every step of the way.
You mentioned a moment ago the leap of faith your wife took on you and your talents. You’ve been married almost 50 years now. How did the love story begin?
Well, at the very beginning, I didn't even meet her; I just saw her. It was an encounter. (Laughs) We were both in high school, and I saw her standing on the street corner, and I had to ask her out on a date. I just had to. She turned me down four times, but she finally said yes. I’ll never forget seeing her that first time, though. I was riding shotgun with a friend when we passed the corner where she stood that afternoon in high school, and I think all the time, still, “If I hadn't been in that place at that moment in time, if I hadn’t seen her that day, nothing else in my life would have evolved the way that it has.” We don’t always recognize the turning points in our lives, so we end up throwing away a lot of beautiful opportunities. As you get older, I think – I hope – you recognize those moments in your life a little more easily. I try to seize them. But, still, I’m an idiot. (Laughs) I don’t see all of them!
"Every time we learn more, we find there’s still more we don’t know. I try to convey that in my books, that sense that the world is a place of deep mystery, and part of that deep mystery is this incredible beauty that surrounds us. That matters to me because if the world were just an efficient machine, it wouldn’t need to be so beautiful." − Dean Koontz
The idea of fate or destiny or opportunity is something that moves through all of your books. What do those ideas mean to you?
Well, to me, they’re more just themes or literary devices. It's basically the way I see the world. I am a believer, and I do see in the world these immensely complex and fascinating layers, more than we ever could comprehend. I've been, all of my adult life, an avid reader of science, quantum mechanics, molecular biology, and there are certain fields that really fascinate me. I have hundreds and hundreds of books on these subjects. I often say to people, “The more you learn about science, the more you realize how little we know.” That’s where faith comes in for me. Science may be trying to answer all of the big questions, and even most of the small ones, but the more we learn, the more layers we find. Every time we learn more, we find there’s still more we don’t know. I try to convey that in my books, that sense that the world is a place of deep mystery, and part of that deep mystery is this incredible beauty that surrounds us. That matters to me because if the world were just an efficient machine, it wouldn’t need to be so beautiful.
That said, your novels are also shot through with a lot of darkness and, sometimes, extreme violence. There's this balancing act, this duality, the terror and wonder. When we spoke a few years ago, you said that this was probably the result of your very intense childhood.
My dad was a very problematic man. He was an alcoholic. He was a womanizer. He was a gambler. We never had any money when I was growing up because whatever he did earn was sort of gone into one of these pursuits. My mother was basically the one working at the department store trying to keep everything together. My dad was given to violence, and he held 44 jobs in 34 years, and was unemployed at various periods. So I grew up in that very uncertain environment. Fortunately, I had a mother who did her best to protect me from the worst of things, though she was never strong enough to prevent the physical stuff. My mother was always, to me, an example of the right way to do things. I look back and I think, “She did everything right, and she had a kind of terrible life in many ways, and she died young at 53. I guess anything can happen.” I think she was just worn out by all of the chaos. So I grew up with that, but I look back on it now and I see how it all worked out. In fact, I'm writing a book, I don't know when I'll finish it, called Too Happy for My Own Good, which was something a neighbor of mine, who knew my father, used to say all the time about my mother or about me. I'd be a 7-year old boy, lazing around on the summer lawn, and this neighbor would see me and come out and say, “You're too happy for your own good!” Which I never quite understood. I think what she meant, maybe, was, given everything, I probably couldn’t be as happy as I was. Maybe I should’ve been angrier or making a lot of trouble. As far as my writing goes, if I’m going to do an honest job, if I’m going to portray life realistically, I have to go to the darkness as much as I go to the light.
You’ve sold nearly half a billion books. You could probably slow down a little bit, if you wanted to. But you don’t. Tell me about that.
I’ve always been driven, probably for a lot of reasons, and one of those is, unquestionably: I've always loved the English language. When I started writing, I didn't have the control of it I would have liked to have had, and my sense of narrative and character were not where I wanted them to be, and when I was young and naïve, I thought after you write 10, 12, 15 books, you'll learn all the tricks and then everything will be perfect. The reality is, the longer you write, the more you learn, the more the language you feel you can command, and you’re still wanting to write a better book. There’s no set number of tricks for an author to learn. There’s always something new to learn. That’s what drives me now. This would be very, very hard work if I didn’t take so much pleasure in the challenges.
In our previous conversation, years ago, you hinted at your drive possibly having something to do with your childhood.
Sure. I grew up in that very, very toxic environment in a small town of about 4,000 people. Most of the people knew who my father was. They knew his reputation. They knew what he was capable of. They knew he ran around with other women. They knew he’d pass out drunk in bars and my mother and I would have to go get him and carry him home at two in the morning. Once I was an adult and could look at these things a little more clearly, I realized that my childhood was almost constant humiliation. I think one of the things that drives me when writing the books is just to be able to do something for my own satisfaction. I can look behind at what I’ve created and I can say, “I've done that the best I possibly could.” And there’s a small part of me that whispers, “Nobody else could have done it quite the same way.”