A snapshot depicts his boyhood home. Built of clapboard and tarpaper, the two-story house looks cramped and dark. It may be wintertime: the tree near the house is free of leaves. The outhouse isn't visible. Neither is his bedroom at the back of the house. But we can imagine him there, an eight-year-old beneath the covers, seeking escape from the cold. We can imagine him writing in his tablet or reading, seeking escape from the shouts of his father, drunk again, raging at his mother.
Perhaps 40 years later, the boy, now an author read around the world, walks with his wife on a warmer hillside, 3000 miles away. He studies the land, envisioning the home he and Gerda will build. Over there will be the bedrooms, the terraces, the gardens. There will be the movie theater, the game arcade, the swimming pools. We can picture him flashing on that mean house of so long ago, and wondering at the roads he has traveled from there to here.
"Dean Koontz became a bestselling author the old-fashioned way," says Irwyn Applebaum, president and publisher of Bantam Books. "It was word of mouth that sold him for years, first in paperback, then in hardcover. Who knew? Who knew that he would become one of the five or six most popular authors in the world? He just kept at it, and kept at it."
"He's not a
going to get
dressed up in
Applebaum isn't kidding. Koontz published his first book, Star Quest, a science fiction novel released as half of an Ace Double paperback, in 1968. It took another 18 years and 54 novels, plus four nonfiction books, before he hit hardcover bestseller lists with the suspense novel Strangers. Since then nearly every Koontz title released, including reissues of older work, has reached #1 on hardcover or softcover lists, with total sales of over 200 million and translations into 33 languages.
PW is in Applebaum's office to talk about Koontz and his new novel, Seize the Night, which Bantam lays down on December 29. Books are everywhere -- tumbling out of shelves, heaped on tables, towered on the floor. In his pink shirt, flowered tie and pinstripe trousers, Applebaum looks like the archetypal book man, a good match for the author he calls "the consummate professional writer."
The writer's history with Bantam harks back to the early 1970s, when the house published two of his paperback SF novels, the now-obscure The Flesh in the Furnace and a prescient tale about artificial intelligence, Demon Seed, that became a hit film with Julie Christie. For both, Bantam paid Koontz less than one-thousandth of the advance he now gets per book -- a figure reported to be near $6 million for North American and book club rights. When Koontz moved to Bantam in late 1996 on a three-book contract, he immediately became the house's top-selling author.
"A monkey could be sitting in my chair and oversee the successful publication of Dean Koontz," Applebaum points out. The real challenge, he explains, is "to set up our booksellers and the readership for a greater degree of excitement, a greater degree of acceptance of Dean."
Applebaum speaks quickly but with the care of a master chef selecting cuts of meat for dinner. His choice of the word "acceptance" is critical. So is his comment that "there's a lot of bias in our snob-driven world of New York book publishing against popular authors" -- a bias, Applebaum says, that has contributed to Koontz being "taken for granted" by the publishing establishment. The neglect, he charges, extends to the press: "He's seldom been written about. For many millions of his copies, he has labored as an active writer, just writing, writing, and even when he became more popular, still writing a kind of book that a lot of our mainstream book journalists didn't find all that interesting."
How curious this is. Koontz's rise from small-town poverty to surfside splendor recapitulates the American dream, while his progression from paperback pseudonymity (writing under 10 pen names, male and female) to top-of-the-charts fame maps the history of the publishing industry over the past three decades. Even so, Dean Koontz may be the least-known bestselling author in America -- and in part by his own hand. No one outside California has seen him in person for the past two decades, at least for promotional purposes, because he d sn't fly. Unlike most other major writers, he has never appeared on the Today show or Good Morning America, because those programs broadcast from New York City. He granted his first extensive interview to a national consumer magazine -- Rolling Stone -- only this past summer. He spends no time online. And he's recently changed his appearance so dramatically that rumors have floated in Net chat rooms that someone else is writing the new books coming out under his name.
"He's not a glory seeker," says Applebaum. "He's not going to get dressed up in a three-piece white suit. He just wants to write his books. It's a very dull, old-fashioned idea. And yet somewhere in there is a great purity. Dean is a very unique individual."
How unique is Dean Koontz? Unique enough to have published 76 novels in a variety of genres, including SF, horror, romance, romantic suspense, adventure, crime, thriller, juvenile and a cross-genre combination that can only be called Koontzian. Unique enough to have revised, years later, several of these books, including an SF novel 55,000 words long that he rewrote so extensively that the revision ran 135,000 words and retained not one sentence of the original. Unique enough, in an industry where calumnies collect to the celebrated like dust to a mirror, to enjoy a spotless reputation as a decent man, albeit one driven to perfectionism. And unique enough, in an era marked by handlers and go-betweens, to himself answer the phone when we call to arrange our visit, and to offer to pick us up at our hotel and drive us to his house.
It's the sort of California day that can fade the tan off a tour director: cool, even clammy, with gray clouds staining the sky. Still, we're curious whether Koontz is quite the perfectionist we've heard, so we brave the chill and sit in front of our Newport Beach hotel to see how close to the 10 a.m. meeting time the writer will come.
Seconds after the hour a black Mercedes S600 sedan rolls up. Scrambling inside, we are enveloped by black leather and polished wood and a cockpit's worth of instrument panels. A hand stretches toward us. We look up into sunglasses topped by sprays of eyebrows. The eyebrows are set in a handsome face formed of small features that, despite 53 years of wear, looks almost pixielike. Gone is the mustache that hyphenated his face for decades. Gone too are the quotation marks of scalp that lengthened over the years, now replaced by a swoop of hair, dark with a hint of silver. Koontz's grip is strong, his smile friendly, his style casual in a sportcoat, open-neck shirt, blue jeans and black kickaround sh s.
"You were exactly on time," we note.
"You know I'm obsessive-compulsive," he rejoins.
Several roads bring us to a gated community. We curve along some blocks to a modest white neo-Victorian that will be dwarfed by the palatial home Koontz is building nearby. Koontz parks in the garage next to another Mercedes and a four-wheel drive. He exits the car and we follow, trying to keep up. He moves quickly, like a boy, and from the back he looks like one, not tall, his figure slight and thin. He leads us to a kitchen that gleams like a display room in a model home. We indicate that we'd enjoy a diet cola and he hands us a can and a glass along with a square black napkin to place under the glass.
quite a few
to be the
In the living room we settle into an armchair across a coffee table from Koontz, who camps on a sofa. Behind him looms a huge copper-relief wall depicting a scene from ancient China. The furnishings are tasteful and spare. Nothing looks out of place. The room is so quiet we can hear the whish of the tape revolving in our recorder.
"Why did you begin writing?"
"When I was a kid," says Koontz, "writers were my her s because they took me out of that awful house." Koontz speaks in a soft tenor that carries some California but also a hint of the Alleghenies. "Books were an escape from the violence of the household and the poverty. They showed me different worlds. A writer was the greatest thing you could be."
Koontz recalls that he wrote his first stories at age eight. "I'd write them, draw little covers and staple the edge, and I'd put tape over the staples so nobody hurt their fingers, and sell them for a nickel to relatives.
"Of course, they were bought under duress," he adds, giving us a glint of his wry sense of humor. He is perched on the sofa now, his arms and legs crossed as if to say that he's willing to talk about his private life -- in fact he never dodges a question -- but he d sn't have to enjoy it. We're wishing he would relax when a flurry of golden fur bounds into the room. The writer unfolds into a welcoming embrace and a big grin, Koontz pets Trixie, his golden retriever of six weeks, like a security blanket. We sense another presence and swivel to see a slim woman with soulful eyes. She is Gerda Koontz, the author's wife of 32 years, whom he first dated back at Bedford (Pa.) High School. Gerda offers a quick hello, then retreats, as if she sensed that Koontz could use a moment's reassurance.
Indeed, like Koontz's mother, Florence, who died young but lived long enough to protect her growing son from the worst furies of his father (whom Koontz calls a "sociopath"), Gerda has nurtured Koontz and his talent from the get-go. It was she who allowed him to jump-start his career by offering, after the publication of Star Quest, to support him for five years as he wrote.
One witness to those years of struggle is science fiction writer and critic Barry Malzberg. In 1965, Malzberg tells PW by phone, Koontz submitted two novels to the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, which, for a fee, critiqued and considered for representation work by unknown writers. Malzberg, then a "fee man" at that agency, says that he read the manuscripts, "rather liked" them but "bounced" them. (Koontz's experience isn't anomalous. Malzberg adds, "And guess who bounced a story by the 19-year-old Stephen King?")
A few years later, Malzberg, by then editor of the influential SF magazine Amazing Stories, published a story by Koontz, and the two men, and their wives, became friends. So in 1975, when Malzberg ran into a jam as editor of the Harlequin Discovery Program, dedicated to publishing first novels, he turned to Koontz: "I was to commission four novels," Malzberg explains. "One of the authors decided that she couldn't or wouldn't do her novel, so I needed a novel immediately. I asked Dean if he could write one, pseudonymously. `I'd like you to do this,' I said, `you'd be saving me a mess.'
"He said he had a week open and that he could do it," Malzberg continues. "And he did it. I remember sitting with the manuscript and a pencil, intending to edit and copyedit as it went along. On page 176, I took out a comma. It was flawless, a sensational piece of work. He wrote that book in a week for $1500."
The novel, Invasion, which later gained some notoriety because of rumors that it had been written by Stephen King, was the last pure SF novel Koontz would write. "He could have been a great science fiction writer," says Malzberg. "He quit at just the time when his work was veering into true darkness and originality."
Koontz tells us that he began his career with SF because, until he was well into college, that's about all he ever read. But by 1971 he'd branched into gothics, under the pen name of Deanna Dwyer ("the wisdom," he elaborates, "was that if you were doing something different you had to use a pen name for it"). In 1972, the bell began to toll for Koontz's SF when he came across the suspense novels of John D. MacDonald.
"I read 34 of his novels in 30 days," recalls Koontz, "and then all I wanted to be was a suspense writer." He adopted the handle of K.R. Dwyer to publish his first hardcover, the suspense yarn Chase, for Random House. As the decade wore on, he donned further writing masks: Brian Coffey (crime/suspense), Anthony North (thrillers), John Hill (SF), Aaron Wolfe (his byline for Invasion), David Axton (adventure) and his most successful guise, Leigh Nichols (romantic suspense). In the 1980s, Koontz created two more monikers, Owen West for horror and Richard Paige for romantic suspense. Each of these pen names employed a distinctive writing style and was published by a different house, sometimes by more than one house-by Lancer and Random, by Bobbs-Merrill, Ace, Popular Library, Lippincott, Dial, Laser, Avon, New American Library and Jove. Between 1968 and 1975 Koontz also published 24 novels under his own name, with a variety of houses.
Koontz grows animated as he considers this productivity and what it says about publishing. "It's a very rare writer who comes full blown with a great work the very first thing he d s," he says. "It certainly wasn't true of me. It took a lot of years of learning and stretching and growing, and I was allowed to do that.
"And now that's gone," he adds. "Now it's gotten to be like the film business, nobody wants to think five or 10 years ahead. It seems to me there needs to be an obligation to building authors."
Lunchtime is nigh, so we decide to break. But before we go out to eat, Koontz shows us his office. It's upstairs, off a long hallway lined with many of his 50,000 books (arranged alphabetically by author) and next to two other offices. One of these is Gerda's, who for several years handled her husband's foreign rights. The other is for Koontz's main assistant (he employs two), who, among her other duties, writes Useless News, an occasional newsletter the author sends to his fans.
Koontz's own office speaks of pride, whimsy and success. Like the hallway, it is dominated by books, over two thousand of them, he says, every one an edition, domestic or foreign, hard or paper, of a Koontz book -- and he has
"I like writing
who are, to
or other, out-
500 left to collect. Original cover art for his books crowds the walls. Sung Dynasty porcelain is visible, but so is a ceramic cookie jar depicting bunnies hanging out around a pink Cadillac. Placed around the room, but not on his gleaming wood desk, is state-of-the-art computer equipment. The blinds are shut and, Koontz reports, never opened.
The first restaurant Koontz takes us to is closed. The writer looks disconcerted but takes it in stride, as he d s the locked doors that bar the second place we try. His foot d s seem to press the accelerator a little harder as we drive to a third possible venue. As we pass low hills and palm trees we talk about promotional tours. Stopping the car near a wharfside joint, Koontz shows us his right index finger. It's knobby -- from arthritis, he explains, brought on by signing books. He says that his signings "are very long. They start around 5 o'clock, and I know I'm going to be there until one in the morning. My attitude has always been that if people stand in line we won't let them down."
Koontz d sn't seem to think this is unusual behavior, but nearly everyone we ask about him points out his generosity. Suspense novelist Richard Laymon, author most recently of The Midnight Tour, has been close friends with Koontz since 1980. From his southern California office, Laymon tells how, in 1985, he needed a new agent "and Dean put in a good word for me to Bob Tanner, Dean's agent in England. I was to send a copy of my manuscript to Bob but I was in really bad shape financially. It would have cost me 30 bucks or something. So Dean took it upon himself to mail the manuscript to Bob.
"There are quite a few writers who are his friends," adds Laymon. "Most of them consider him to be the oracle. If we need to know something about the business, he's the guy to ask."
On a terrace crammed with diners, Koontz picks at some tuna salad while we chow down on a grilled fish sandwich, glad to be talking with this world-famous author -- whom nobody recognizes. No one, we realize, has blinked at Koontz in the hour we've been sitting here. That's no doubt due to his new look, but also to his intentional low profile. Koontz seems content with his invisibility. "I've always had this feeling," he explains, "that if you bought into celebrity there was a big downside: you start to get recognized. You spend a lot of your life watching people, and virtually everything you see ends up in a book. I always worry that if you become an object of attention, you lose that ability to interact." He mentions, however, that his fame stalks him in bookstores, where he is so often recognized that he now sends an assistant to do his book shopping for him.
After lunch we drive to what Koontz calls his "beach house," though the beautiful 1936 art deco structure d sn't front a beach but a harbor. Because the sun has come out, Koontz suggests that we talk on the dock behind the house. From there, we can see pleasure boats moored off neighboring docks. Koontz d sn't own one.
And where would he find time to use one? Koontz's work habits would shame a Benedictine monk. He puts in 70-hour weeks, he tells us. "He's the closet thing I've ever seen to a workaholic," comments his friend Laymon. "He and Gerda spend most of their time at the house, doing stuff connected with the writing. It's kind of a shame. They could go away for a couple of weeks. I think he's always afraid something is going to go wrong if he travels. The plane's going to go down, the ship's going to sink. It's probably part of that same emotional makeup that helps him to write such tension into his stories."
By the mid-1970s, Koontz, through his industry and protean writing style, had taken full advantage of the paperback revolution and the diversity of genre writing it fostered. But there was a problem: write too much in one genre and you could be typecast. Because he generated so much science fiction under his own name, Koontz for years was branded as only an SF writer, even after he rose to midlist status by writing suspense for houses like Random and Atheneum. "Six, eight years after I left science fiction," he tells us, "I would get reviews that said, `Here's something different by the science fiction writer Dean Koontz.'"
That began to change when, in 1976, Koontz made what is arguably his most important professional alliance to date, with Phyllis Grann, who bought The Key to Midnight, his first Leigh Nichols novel, for Pocket Books, where she was editor-in-chief. The following year, Grann, with her acute radar for bestseller potential, bought The Vision in her new position as editor in chief of Putnam. It was the first of 12 novels Koontz was to publish with her and Putnam over a 13-year span.
"I published him for a long time," Grann confirms from her office at Putnam Penguin headquarters. "He's a wonderful writer. We had the pleasure of taking him from being a mass-market writer to a hardcover writer to a #1 bestselling hardcover and paperback writer."
Grann singles out Koontz's "development of character" as an important factor in his success. Koontz agrees, but also emphasizes another element, one that allowed him finally to shake the SF label. "I started trying to create what I call 'genre-bridgers,' " he explains. "I liked so many different kinds of fiction and wanted to blend them together. I thought, `There's no reason I can't write a suspense novel that has a science fictional element to it, or one that has a major love story in it."
Koontz's first major genre-bridger, edited by Grann, was Whispers (1980), which combined suspense, police procedural, romance and horror in an electric tale of a male cop and female screenwriter on the trail of a serial killer. The gambit worked: in its paperback edition, Whispers hit bestseller lists. During the next six years, Koontz published several increasingly successful hardcovers with Putnam, plus other books. Yet even as his career was taking off, in 1987, the year he published his last pseudonymous novel (Shadowfires, by Leigh Nichols), he made a serious misstep. He agreed to be named the first president of the nascent Horror Writers of America.
"Some things you do haunt you forever," Koontz declares with a rueful laugh. In less than two years, Koontz resigned his office because of excessive political infighting in the organization, particularly over awards. But the damage was done. Though Koontz had by this time written only a scattering of horror novels, his support of HWA branded him a horror writer to many in the industry. Despite words of admiration for Grann, he contends that the situation was exacerbated by Putnam's presentation of his books. "I didn't like the general way the books were packaged. There were some beautiful covers done but -- I've written some horror but I don't like horror. I was frustrated, feeling that I was writing something different than it was being packaged and sold as."
Even today, the demon of horror plagues Koontz. Despite their variety of theme, style and content, his novels are invariably placed in the horror section of bookstores, where few mainstream critics -- or other publishing professionals -- deign to tread.
By 1992, Koontz wanted to leave Putnam. And he wanted some professional guidance in doing so. During his long career, he had hired only three literary agents, beginning in 1970 with the Scott Meredith Agency, for a brief stint. In 1972 he switched to a Meredith alumnus, Henry Morrison, who worked with him until 1975, when Claire Smith at Harold Ober took over. Koontz speaks well of Morrison and Smith, but it was a relative stranger he turned to at this critical point.
Robert Gottlieb was then a powerhouse agent, known especially for his creative representation of Tom Clancy. Koontz had been impressed with Gottlieb's handling, a short while back, of The Dean Koontz Companion, by Martin Greenberg, one of Gottlieb's clients. So when Koontz reached the breaking point with both Putnam and Claire Smith, he telephoned the William Morris executive vice-president.
To learn about the Gottlieb-Koontz dynamic, PW calls the agent at his office. We're patched through to his home, where Gottlieb is packing for a flight to Russia. Despite the time pressure, he answers our questions with care. About the situation with Putnam, he comments, "I had to immediately step into an ongoing, long-term relationship between Dean and Putnam. And unfortunately that relationship wasn't as healthy as it should have been."
As Koontz tells it, Gottlieb flew out to California and talked with the writer for two days about his career and its potential. That meeting sealed not only Koontz's decision to sign with Gottlieb but also to jump to one particular publisher.
"Before he left," Koontz remembers, "he said, `I want you to write down the name of a publisher you think is your ideal one, and I'll write the name of a publisher I think is your ideal one, and we'll reveal this to each other.' He wrote Knopf, and I wrote Knopf. So he called Sonny Mehta [Knopf's president and editor-in-chief] and there was a deal in place in about 48 hours."
Koontz's jump from Putnam to Knopf made headlines. According to published reports, Knopf paid the writer $18.9 million for three original novels and another $10 million for Ballantine to reissue six of his backlist titles. At the time, Phyllis Grann expressed regret at Koontz's leaving Putnam. Today, she still describes the departure as "sad, really sad." Asked if she'd like Koontz to return to Putnam, she replies with a resounding "Yes!"
Koontz was not a happy camper at Knopf. "I didn't see much difference," he says with a shrug, "between where I was and where I had gone. I was in the same box. The books were being packaged differently but when it came to editorial -- there was a lot of consternation when I delivered Intensity. Sonny told me, `It's so avant-garde."
Did we hear that right?
"Avant-garde," Koontz repeats. His eyes are dark, shining. "Sonny wasn't always clear to me about why he felt this way or that." Intensity, which Koontz admits is "an uncompromising book" -- and which he counts among his personal favorites, along with Watchers and Seize the Night -- is a fierce, emotionally potent thriller about a woman's heroic battle with a maniac.
"I never felt that at Knopf there was an understanding of what I was doing," he remarks. "It became clear to me by the time I was ready to deliver the third book [Sole Survivor] that this was not going to turn around. It's a terrible thing to have been so many years in one place, then go in such a public move to a place like Knopf and then decide it isn't going to work."
Koontz and Gottlieb cite disparate reasons for the subsequent leap to Bantam. Koontz's are personal. "Irwyn came out," he says, "and we had a very long lunch. I really liked him. He said, `I can tell you what's possible and what isn't possible. I'm not going to promise you the moon.' It was very different, and it was very exciting."
Gottlieb's reasons are angled more toward the bottom line, as befits an agent. He comments that he encouraged the move to Bantam "because I've always liked the way Bertelsmann publishes. I think they're innovative. They manage their business in a very intelligent way, and they keep their overhead down. I wanted to bring those business skills into Dean's professional life."
The sky is smudged with dark clouds now, and a fresh wind is blowing. "It's getting pretty chilly out here, if you want to move inside," says Koontz in a tone that's polite but decisive.
Back in the house, as Koontz disappears to turn on the heat, we sit on a sofa and look around. Despite its art deco foundations, the beach house, like Koontz's other home, has an Oriental touch in its wall hangings and statuary. But where his main house gives the impression of light abounding, this one seems shadowed, despite the expansiveness of sky and water outside. It suggests shelter.
When Koontz returns, he explains that the beach house is near "the most famous surfing point" in California, the Wedge. We ask Koontz if he surfs. He looks at us if we've slipped a gear and replies that he d sn't. "Hey, things can happen to you in the ocean," he says. "People die surfing the Wedge, they're driven into the rocks and are killed."
After he bought the house, Koontz took to walking around the Wedge, soaking up the speech patterns of the surfers -- "unlike any other lingo I've ever heard." Since 1991 or so, he recalls, he'd thought about writing a novel about a character who suffers from xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), a rare genetic disease that renders its bearers inordinately sensitive to light, which in everyday doses can give them fatal tumors. "I like writing characters," he remarks, "who are, to some degree or other, outsiders, and have special struggles.
"One day," he continues, "I realized that this was more than one book, because the character had solidified. And I started looking at the richness of the language the surfers use, and I said, `Wow!' That was the point where all this material became a series for me."
The series consists of Fear Nothing (1997), Koontz's launch book with Bantam, and Seize the Night, with a concluding novel to come. So seriously d s Koontz take this massive project that to sell it he wrote a three-page proposal, where "normally," he explains, "we sell a group of books and nobody knows what they're getting."
When he turned in the manuscript of Fear Nothing, Koontz was an overwrought wreck. Applebaum received the pages on a Sunday. That night, Koontz remembers, "I just couldn't sleep. It was a new publisher and this book was different. What were they going to think of it? I'd come off three rather rocky years, and I wanted something to work."
Applebaum loved the book, and for good reason. Fear Nothing matches in depth of character and sophistication of technique anything Koontz has written, and its suspense is high-wire. Its story -- and Seize the Night's story -- of how XP sufferer Christopher Snow and his friends face up to scientific experiments gone terribly awry refines the themes that Koontz has explored for years, particularly the importance of friends and family, and the unfathomable power of love. The series also features a super-intelligent dog and cat, satisfying the requests -- more than 20,000 according to Koontz -- that he write a sequel to Watchers, the novel that presented what may be his most popular character to date, the brilliant dog Einstein.
To find out more about Bantam's work with Koontz and the series, PW conducts a round-table discussion with the writer's editor, Beverly Lewis; Bantam's vice-president of creative marketing, Elizabeth Hulsebosch; and its director of publicity, Barb Burg. It seems appropriate that all three are women for, at least by Koontz's estimate, a full 60% of his readership is female. The three emphasize the writer's thoroughness, kindness and dedication. Lewis also mentions Koontz's sense of humor and willingness to take on a challenge. Both traits are at the fore in Seize the Night, a supernally spooky tale that moves the series in surprising directions, not least through an unexpected fusion of humor and suspense.
Seize the Night took "nearly 11 months," Koontz reports, in large measure because he wanted it to "stand totally alone" from Fear Nothing. It d s, but Koontz found the task so daunting that he was tempted "to bash holes in the drywall of my house."
Koontz's productivity seems endless. In addition to writing the major novels and revising the backlist books, he has in the past decade written two children's books, Oddkins and Santa's Twin, both illustrated by Phil Parks; generated a lesser novel, Ticktock, published in hardcover in London but only in paperback here; and collected assorted short fiction into a Warner hardcover, Strange Highways (1995). He has penned numerous p ms, scattered throughout his work under the guise of being drawn from The Book of Counted Sorrows, a nonexistent tome that, Koontz promises, will one day be published. For his third book under his Bantam contract, he is working on a suspense novel involving "a love story about a married couple and what you can lose," and he is also writing a book of humorous verse.
Yet it's too easy to identify Koontz as just a driven man, or simply to state that his plots and themes mirror the exigencies of his life. For in Koontz's work there is an undeniable spiritual quality, one that, as much as his mastery of suspense, defines him as a writer and helps explain his tremendous popularity.
Katherine Ramsland is the author of Dean Koontz: A Writer's Biography (HarperPrism, 1997), a definitive life (and major resource for this article). She probably knows more about Koontz and his work than anyone aside from the writer and his wife. When PW asks Ramsland how she feels Koontz's writing has evolved over the years, she mentions two changes: his concern "to make his work more literary, in a sophisticated way, without losing its accessibility"; and his recent injection of "a lot more spiritual themes" into his work.
Koontz's writings have always celebrated the resilience of humanity in the face of terrifying adversity. But more
recently, particularly with Sole Survivor, which deals directly with the possibility of life after death, he has begun to lay his beliefs on the table.
When we ask Koontz about this, he seems to grasp for the right words, as if he has never before spoken to the press about this aspect of his work. "Everywhere I look," he comments, "is evidence that there is a deeper meaning and purpose to things. There are a lot of writers who would never touch a mystic or a spiritual side because to do so is not hip. I can't write about the full breadth of human experience without saying that there's some part of it that's magical, that's mystical. But I don't explain it. I can't explain it."
In Koontz's view, spirituality is linked to optimism. "Fairly early," he notes, "it became obvious to me that you could take anything that happened to you in one of two ways: You could be depressed by it, or you could be motivated it. That's been reinforced by everything I see in life, by working with the disabled, who choose to be happy in spite of huge limitations."
What Koontz is referring to is his support of Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), a nonprofit organization that provides trained assistance dogs to the disabled. Since he contacted CCI shortly after writing Watchers, Koontz, according to the organization's Southwest regional director, Judith Pierson, has been a "local hero" -- as, she says, has Gerda. Pierson avows that Koontz has "done anything we've asked of him. He has been incredibly generous, not only with his funds but with his time."
So Pierson was elated when Koontz called her to announce, "It's time for a life-changing event. We'd like you to help us choose a dog." That dog is Trixie, trained as a CCI dog but disqualified after surgery on an elbow. The day Trixie arrived at Koontz's house, Pierson recalls, the writer "was given hours of instruction. I could see that it might seem like too much, especially the physical part, combing her, clipping her nails.
"But," Pierson continues, "he called me a few days later and said, with so much care in his voice, `I love taking care of her.'"
The day ends with dinner at Zov's Bistro, a Mediterranean-style restaurant where the Koontzes, who have no children, have eaten dinner up to five nights a week for the past several years. The food is excellent, the ambiance homelike and the service relaxed and friendly, a respite, no doubt, from the cloistered concentration that must mark much of the couple's time at home.
The next day, at John Wayne Airport for the flight home, we spot a larger-than-life bronze casting of the Duke in mythic pose, strapped in full cowboy gear and striding loose-limbed toward some noble end. Wayne looks nothing like Koontz, but in the statue's posture and gaze we see something that reminds us of the writer, a quality of self-reliance that, in a very American way, can inspire a man or woman to create their own destiny, no matter what the odds. Pondering this, we remember something Koontz said the day before: "I was born as poor as it gets, tarpaper shack sort of house and no money coming in, violence, alcoholism, everything weighted against me. But there were always people in my life who were there, to teach me something worth learning or to support me. And I met a wonderful woman and married her, and after 32 years happier than when we married. So I look around and say 'How can I not be an optimist?' And I am, I'm a raging nut-case optimist."