An Interview with Dean Koontz
Killer Nashville sits down with Dean Koontz to discuss his writing process.
KN: You have created some of the best bad-guys: Edgler Vess, Junior Kane, Ticktock, and the newest one, Lee Shacket – these are characters that still haunt me. How do you do it? How do you build the perfect bad-guy?
DK: Maybe I am one. If I were, I might not know, because really bad guys are superb at self-justification. I’m sure the Cookie Monster thinks of himself as the Cookie Connoisseur, and the Hamburglar believes he’s just redistributing sandwiches in the interest of culinary justice.
Anyway, ordinary criminals are of little interest to me. I’m more intrigued by sociopaths who lack any normal human feelings but convincingly imitate them. Sociopaths exist in every race, every age group, and every economic class; more are men, but there are women among them as well. Scary stories like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS or John Carpenter’s version of THE THING, in which evil extraterrestrials hide among us in human form, put the hair up on the back of my neck, but human sociopaths are in fact real and therefore far scarier. They are an immensely destructive force in society because not all of them become serial killers like Ted Bundy or predatory Hollywood moguls; others rise to positions of authority in government, business, churches, the arts, everywhere. They’re just a slice of humanity, but they are often so charismatic that they can lead numerous others into darkness.
The difficult challenge is to imagine how such a person thinks. They’re narcissistic almost to the extent of being solipsists, creatures of unrestrained desires, driven not by greed or hatred, but by a lust for absolute power over others, by arrogance and contempt, and by the particular kind of envy that is covetousness. This kind of character is capable of anything other than humility.
At the same time, choosing evil is a choice of fools, because though evil can win in the short term, it never wins in the long term. And because I never want to glamorize evil, I use that foolishness to make my antagonists objects of dark amusement, though they never realize that they’re unintentionally funny.
I think the scariest elements of your stories are those that are rooted in truth. The nanobots from the Jane Hawk series or the microscopic archæa from your upcoming release, Devoted, for example. How do you develop truly terrifying purposes from the seemingly benign?
I read a lot of science and technology, not with an eye for story ideas, just out of a general interest in everything from quantum mechanics to molecular biology. My head is a stew pot——or maybe a witch’s cauldron——in which everything cooks 24/7 until some irresistible story idea rises to the top. Whereas a lot of people are charmed by new technology or exciting theories of new social structures, I tend to see the dark side almost at a glace. Elon Musk said, “Creating a neural [brain] lace is the thing that really matters for humanity to achieve symbiosis with machines.” When I heard that, I immediately thought, “Yeah, well if you do that and achieve symbiosis with computers, then your brain can be hacked, and you can be controlled.” And so the Jane Hawk series was born. It’s strange, really, that I see the dark possibilities so easily and quickly, considering that I’m the biggest optimist I know.
KN: For over 50 years you have published multiple books every year. I thought I had read them all, but after checking your webpage I see I have some catching up to do! How do you sustain such a pace?
DK: How do I sustain that pace? A passion for storytelling, a profound love for the beauty and potential of the English language, and a need to eat well. Besides, having grown up in poverty and on the bottom rung of the social ladder in every way, I was somewhat surprised to discover this talent and amazed that it opened a world of possibilities for me. Talent is a grace; I did nothing to earn it, therefore I feel obliged to explore it and grow it, work on the craft and art, until one day I fall dead into the keyboard. It’s hard work, but it’s also joyful, and it gives my life purpose that, as a child and adolescent, I never expected to find.
KN: There are certain elements I have come to expect from a Dean Koontz novel. It will be scary; I will have to stop reading at least once to catch my breath; there will be at least one scene that breaks my heart – and there will be an awesome dog. I know where the dog inspiration comes from – you have been blessed to have so many special dogs in your life. But what about the terrifying parts and the tragic parts? Where does that inspiration come from?
DK:I write suspenseful fiction because suspense is arguably the fundamental quality of our lives. Suspense and an irresistible urge to search for cute kitten photos on the internet. I also include comedy in my work, because it’s how we deal with stress and terror and the realization that we’re baton twirlers in a parade of fools. Suspense. . . Well, we never know what’s going to happen to us tomorrow, later today, a minute from now. The best literary novels are also suspense novels woven through with quiet humor.
As far back as I can remember, I feared my own death a lot less than I feared the deaths of those I love. Tragic events are significant threads in the fabric of life; losing someone you love inevitably inspires a terror of eventually being alone in a world that can be hostile in the extreme. Young writers are always counseled to write what they know, and too many of them interpret this to mean they should write navel-gazing novels about the tedium of youthful desire. However, what they know, what we all know, is that the world is strange, the universe is a mystery, evil is real, love is our only hope, and we all die——which is pretty much all the material you need for an infinite number of novels.
KN: Series versus stand-alone books: Which do you prefer writing? Do you plan for a series or does the potential develop as you write? Will Devoted become a series?
DK: I prefer standalones. But sometimes a character seizes your imagination and won’t let go. Odd Thomas and Jane Hawk became as real to me as the people next door——though I’ve never known a neighbor as amusing as Odd or as kick-ass as Jane——and I just had to know more about them. I could never write 20 or 30 novels with the same character. Once I know everything about them, once they have allowed me to peel back the last layer of their hearts and minds, staying with them for more books would be all about finances, not art.
Many thanks to Dean Koontz for answering our quetsions and to Beth Parker for co-ordinating this effort.