Dean Koontz

The literary establishment may dismiss his page-turners, but Dean Koontz is not to be ignored. With 300 million copies of his novels sold and a permanent home on bestseller lists, he's the Stephen King you may not have heard of. Just don't call him a horror writer, says Murray Waldren

 

"NEVER," Stephen King admitted when asked if he'd read Jane Austen or Tolstoy, "but I have read most of what Dean Koontz has written." The book world's Tsar of Terror may have been tongue-in-cheek about his reading habits but his nod of recognition towards his fellow American best-selling author was genuine: the two share the same literary 'hood and have been bookended for much of their careers, moving titles by the libraryful while being dismissed by the highbrow as horror hacks catering to page-turners.

There's a lot of snobbery and no little hypocrisy at play here, akin to the "penny dreadful" panning that Charles Dickens received from some critics or the mauling that Somerset Maugham received for his voluminous popularity before respectability set in. Certainly, the Koontz count is statistically impressive: more than 70 titles (even he's not sure exactly, but it could be more than 90 if you count some early books he has long withdrawn from sale), written under 11 or so aliases in a variety of genres from science fiction to gothic romance to erotica, and selling about 300 million copies. Give or take a million or so. In 39 languages, hitting No.1 on The New York Times bestseller lists 10 times, and with a dozen of them made into "absolutely dreadful pictures -- Hollywood just doesn't get what I do", Koontz says. The reading public does, though, and the annual release by Koontz is a guaranteed gilt-edged seller, whether thriller or supernatural fantasy or suspense horror.

His just-released Life Expectancy is no different, in that it has lodged immediately in the bestseller charts. But it is significantly different in other ways. Because Koontz has written a thriller with a literary edge about an eccentric family of bakers beset by murderous clowns; it's heavy -- sometimes too heavy -- on one-liners and humour and it has earned glowing reviews from rare (for him) quarters, although not all were as enthused as Publishers Weekly, which gave his novel its highest rating, declaring that "of all bestselling authors, he may be the most underestimated by the literary establishment". Calling him "a true original", the trade bible suggested that "if the literary establishment would only catch on to him, it might be an award-winner too".

Of medium height and unobtrusive mien, Koontz appears reassuringly normal for a man who lives by the imaginative sword. And the imaginative knife, plague, demonic possession ... But to meet him is to meet a man with a generous enough endowment of personal eccentricities to qualify him for a role in his own fiction. In fact he has personal tics enough to run a Swiss clock shop. A self-confessed obsessive compulsive, he is an immaculately polite workaholic with a fetish about order and "a pack-rat mentality about collecting". You're unlikely to see him in Australia, however, because he doesn't do author tours. And since a bad experience on an aircraft in the early 1980s, he doesn't fly. Ever.

As he has aged his appearance has changed, but not in the way you'd expect. In his 40s, he bore a surly expression beneath a Burt Reynolds moustache and advanced male pattern baldness; now six months shy of 60, he's jovial and clean-shaven, with a thatch of hair bushy enough to challenge Donald Trump's toupee in the best-bouffant stakes. The midlife makeover owes everything, he says, to his obsessiveness. Losing the moustache after 28 years was a snip once his childhood sweetheart and wife Gerda suggested it, but the head hair resurrection came only after he'd survived 18 months of "extremely painful oral surgery".

He smiles at my bemusement: in keeping with his compulsions, he explains, he'd brushed his teeth too hard for too long, severely eroding his gums; to repair them, surgeons had to "cut tissue off the roof of my mouth and stitch it over the bottom of my teeth". The pain was "indescribable" but "it made me realise that hair transplants, which I'd decided against because I'd been told they would be `painful for a period of time', would be as nothing. And I was almost right."

His explanation reinforced in my mind how right I'd been earlier that afternoon when, in waiting for him to collect me from my own hotel California, I'd decided that horror was personal. Personally, my horror was right outside, with its panoramic Los Angeles sweep across three packed parking lots and one humungous car sales yard towards an Escher-ish snarl of elevated freeways. Then there were the sirens, the helicopters, the passing parade of planes servicing the nearby John Wayne airport ...

When Koontz delivered us via his "unobtrusive" gold Mercedes-Benz to his gated community high in the hills above Newport Beach's toney excesses, I realised that horror pays. Hugely, if his modest mansion is any indication. A 2300sqm art deco work of art that has been four years in the making, it has views to the ocean, a 22-seat movie theatre, several libraries, an infinity-edge lap pool that disappears into the valley and gallery-quality paintings and artefacts. Simply put, it is an astonishing example of the highest design and craftsmanship and will surely end up with heritage value.

His office is as large as a modest house, spotlessly tidy and immaculately appointed a la mode, with special displays of his deco radio collection. Trixie, the nine-year-old golden retriever and the "only child" centre of the household (Koontz and Gerda walk her each morning for an hour, brush her for another 45 minutes), gives the royal assent for us to get down to business by settling to sleep, whereupon the doting Koontz settles into interview mode. Now at the greybeard end of his career, he's tetchy about terminology. One thing he's not, he says with gracious emphasis, is a horror writer, no matter that he was the first president of Horror Writers of America in 1987.

"It used to drive me crazy that my novels were always put on the horror shelf -- I've never, ever written about a vampire or a werewolf. I understand why booksellers had that perception of me but that was driven by a publisher's desire to package. Now I do mix genres, and sometimes there is a horror element in a book, but most often there's not. I'm happier now because booksellers seem to file me under general fiction."

 Besides which, as a horror honcho he's an abject failure. He's squeamish in the extreme. "I could never be a doctor," he confesses, "because I faint at the first drop of blood. And I can't watch bloody movies -- if the blood is flowing on screen, I have no interest in it." The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? "Never going to happen. Never. I love suspense but I can't stand gore -- I think it's a failure of imagination. Those effects gross you out but they lose their ability to shock very quickly. Real horror, that happens in the mind."

And his tales pan out in positive values: his novels may be concerned with evil, but they come down most often to friendship and family prevailing over power and greed. They're also fascinated with outsiders and survivors: how much of that, I ask, is personal identification? "I'm sure a lot," he says. "There was nobody poorer than we were when I was growing up." His family lived on the outskirts of a well-to-do town in rural Pennsylvania in the 1940s, he says, "and we felt like outsiders economically. And my father was a riotous drunk who frequently had to be dragged out of bar-rooms at two in the morning, and we had to go do it, and there's humiliation and mortification in that ... and I never had any interest in sport. We lived in an area where until I was 13 I had no one my age around to play with, and as a kid I was very shy - - still am in some ways."

Books saved his sanity as a child, he says, and possibly "saved me from turning to alcohol the way my father did to try to escape". He found diversion in reading, particularly horror and sci-fi paperbacks. At eight he'd begun to write stories, which he sold to relatives for US10c; at 20 he'd married Gerda; by 23 he'd published his first novel, written as part of their five-year plan of Gerda supporting him to see if he could cut it as a writer. "Our goal was to make $US25,000 a year from writing," he says, "so when it grew into something so much larger, it was cause for astonishment."

But super sales didn't happen overnight: Koontz wrote about 40 books of varying success before scoring his first bestseller under the name Leigh Nichols in 1979 with The Key to Midnight. Because reading changed his life, he says, "a part of you thinks, `OK, if books had that effect on me, maybe there's some other person sitting in a room somewhere, not a good life, who will see something in your books that will illuminate a little bit about life for them, or simply transport them for a couple of evenings'." It's a philosophy that's working if the 20,000 letters readers send each year is any indication.

"The point is," he iterates, "that that is the whole point of it - - it doesn't matter whether critics like my books or not, you do it for that reaching out." And then there's that other element: all of his books, an editor once told him, "are about people who have lost their family or never had a family and through the course of the books put together a version of a family". Even though he disagreed with her, he says, "when I went back and looked she was right; it might not have been to the forefront but it's always there".

That might have something to do with knowing "so little about my roots", he thinks. "And what I do know is hardly reassuring. Three of my father's brothers killed themselves and none of them could work at anything. That whole family was so dysfunctional, not just my father but everyone related to him ... well, they were all problematical." His mother's side "were argumentative people with a couple of aunts who might now be diagnosed as bipolar" but "my mother was just as sweet and as nice a human being as you could hope to find -- that's the only reason that I lived, I think".

There's so much black irony in his family tale, he says quietly, "it's funny at the same time as it is tragic, which is part of the impulse behind Life Expectancy -- comedy is such a part of life, yet at the same time it is inextricably entwined with tragedy". It's a rare spirit who can find humour in Koontz's background. An only child, he had a terrifying youth and adolescence because his father was an impractical dreamer prone to depression and alcoholic rages. He used to provoke fights in bars, fly into frenzies at home and continually threaten to kill his wife and son. Diagnosed late in life as borderline schizophrenic, he died in 1991 aged 81 in an Orange County nursing home where his son had arranged for him to be looked after. "I didn't do that because I loved him," Koontz says, "I did it because I didn't want to be like him." His thanks was another paternal attempt on his life, this time with a knife. His legacy was an unresolved mystery.

On her deathbed in 1969, his mother had whispered to him, "There's a secret you should know about your father." She was interrupted and died before she could tell him. From other evidence, Koontz suspects his biological father might have been a much gentler uncle but he refuses to test this via DNA -- "if I found out that my father was my father, the fantasy that he wasn't would be over". When his father died, he and Gerda organised a funeral but nobody came. That night they tried for seven hours to recall "one pleasant moment we'd had with him - and we couldn't".

Let's talk about your obsessive compulsiveness, I suggest by way of light relief. Is it touching on disorder or really another way of saying you're a perfectionist? "Probably a perfectionist," he allows, "although there's something about perfectionism that sounds too egotistical for me. I'm very tolerant of imperfection in people. I guess if there's one thing ..." The phone interrupts and he leaps up, apologising that "there's just one call I might have to take". "Good of you to call, Governor," he says soon after, as I pretend not to eavesdrop too obviously on his chat with Big Arnie. Only the cynical would think it was a set-up. Koontz is post-conversationally bashful, mentioning "a heritage money-raising thing" he has been approached about and "I never thought I'd be sitting down with the Governor to discuss something" -- something, it turns out, he's not at liberty to discuss with me but suffice it to say the Governator has a broad series of interests that seem to cross his and Gerda's.

One of most wonderful things in our lives, Koontz segues with the fervour of an evangelist, "is this Canine Companions for Independence, it's just so satisfying. Isn't it, girl?" he croons, reaching out to fondle the sleeping Trixie, herself a retired companion. In the late '80s he'd read about the largely volunteer- run organisation that breeds and trains dogs to assist people with disabilities other than blindness, and he had became a devotee while doing research for a dog-assisted wheelchair-bound character for his novel Midnight. Linda Valliant, director of CCI's Southwest Regional Training Centre (itself now centred on the Koontz Campus), calls the Koontzes "our angels". And no wonder, given that they have donated close to $US3 million to the organisation so far; soon the royalties from Trixie Koontz's photos-and-philosophy book (released at Christmas, edited by Dean Koontz and called Life is Good: Lessons in Joyful Living) will start to roll in after its 25,000-copy first print run sold out. "We are so involved with them now that when we die, virtually 80 per cent of our estate will go to CCI. It's become a very deep relationship," Koontz says smiling. And we like it for lots of reasons, not the least because we meet people from all walks of life ... For a writer, it's a great resource for material."

Similarly, he says, an involvement with people with Down syndrome led him to introduce "a Down character in a book, a funny, as in witty, heroic character -- the generous response from parents of Down syndrome children was the best kind of response a writer could hope for". It made him realise "there were all kinds of people who never get written about in fiction, either literary or commercial. So I don't force it but I do have a central character in one book with a deformed leg and hand, and other characters with disabilities elsewhere, not from a sense of misplaced nobility but because these characters and their lives are wonderful and fresh material that other writers are not using. But we seem to have got off track here ..."

It's all aspects of perfectionism, I prompt. "You remember," he laughs. "I'm impressed because I just babble on and always end up lost in the tangents. "Everything always gets down to the little things in life, doesn't it? Clutter really bothers me. This house," he gestures sweepingly over its pristine order, "it's still not finished, so when I look around it irritates me because everything isn't right yet. When it's really right, then I'll be happy, then I'll be calm. "It's the same way when I'm writing, every day, page by page -- whether some critics think it's good or not doesn't matter to me but if I can see something that isn't right in it -- well that's why I go through 20 or 30 drafts per page. And that's why I can't move to page two until I've got page one exactly as good as I can get it and I can't see any way to improve it. But then I can't go to page three until I have page two exactly as good as I can."

He never makes notes, he says, "and I never work less than 50 hours a week; and when I'm just starting or finishing a book, it escalates to 80 hours or more". Most writers who have achieved his level of readership, I suggest, would probably not be quite so beholden to deadlines: is his dedication also a hermit's defence mechanism? "I don't think it's a defence," he says somewhat defensively. "I think it gets back to this, and I get criticised for it, but when you are writing books that have a philosophical underpinning, part of what you're doing is exploring your own relationship to the universe -- that's what makes it interesting. I mean, I don't set out to preach or teach because that would be as boring as hell and also because I just don't know. But my books start with a concept, an idea comes to me and I think, ooh, that would be very cool, and before I know it I've started to explore it."

Life Expectancy, he says, "was a gift from singer Paul Simon. We were in the car and Gerda put on a Simon and Garfunkel album and the song Patterns caught my ear: `My life is made of patterns/ That can scarcely be controlled.' And I thought the words had the potential for a great novel, and they got me wanting to deal with the concept metaphorically, in a rollicking kind of way ... so I went home and thought almost immediately of the beginning:

On the night that I was born my paternal grandfather, Josef Tock, made 10 predictions that shaped my life. Then he died in the very minute that my mother gave birth to me. Josef had never previously engaged in fortune-telling. He was a pastry chef. He made eclairs and lemon tarts, not predictions.

He leans forward conspiratorially. "But then the plot was so over the top that I didn't know where it would go until I was only a day or so away from wrapping it up."

In the interests of over-the-top collegiality, I mention crime writer Carl Hiaasen's observation that no matter to what absurdly lunatic levels he pushes his imagination in his books, when he reads The Miami Herald he realises he's only gone halfway. "There is in Life Expectancy an almost Hiaasenean quality," Koontz leaps in. "I like to put humour in a suspense novel, even though it is not done very often. But if you can laugh with characters or find them amusing, then when a suspense moment arrives, it is much more effective because you are connected to them." And suddenly it's interview over, game on as Koontz goes into monologue overdrive with a twist-by-twist precis of his tale and its evolution. "So then I thought of this chain-smoking clown. Don't ask me where he came from, he just appeared there at my fingertips..."

First published in The Weekend Australian. Copyright 2007 Murray Waldren

Feel free to drop a line to waldrenm@optusnet.com.au


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