BESTSELLING thriller writer Dean Koontz had told the anecdote dozens of times before: The author wanted his name removed from a film version of one of his books, so he sent a series of letters to the head of the Japanese company that owned the movie studio, mentioning World War II, the Bataan Death March and Godzilla.
For years, people would laugh at the story.
But after Koontz retold the anecdote on Saturday to a gathering of mystery writers and fans in Irvine -- during which he referred to the studio executive as “Mr. Teriyaki” -- and now the mystery writers group is speaking out against what it perceived as Koontz’s blatant racism, and a widespread debate has emerged on Southern California literary blogs about where humor ends and racism begins.
“What if the CEO was black?” wrote author Lee Goldberg, who was present at the event, on his blog. “Would Koontz have addressed his letters to Mr. Fried Chicken and joked about the good old days of slavery and racial discrimination? Or if the CEO was a Jew? Would he have called him Mr. Matzoball and reminded him of the Holocaust? I was astonished that people were laughing when they should have shunned him with silence.”
Others disagreed. “My writing peers need to spend more time writing and less time defending the free world from the menace of Dean Koontz,” J.A. Konrath wrote in an e-mail to The Times. “Dean didn’t blow up a nursing home -- he simply recounted a humorous anecdote.”
Koontz blames the brouhaha on “some sort of an agenda,” and writers who attended the speech were divided over whether the comments constituted racism.
He was unaware of any concerns, Koontz said, because many in the audience laughed and applauded during his speech. Bloggers started posting opinions on Sunday, and Koontz said that he and his publisher, Bantam Dell, began receiving feedback “from people who weren’t even there, people who were calling me names.”
Koontz phoned Goldberg and other writers but was dissatisfied with the conversations.
“I was a poor kid with a Jewish grandmother and a great-grandmother who was black,” Koontz said. “I grew up in a dirt-poor family. I’m used to the abuse that you take. I don’t dish it out, I never have, and this is just appalling to me. I guess I’ll be smeared with this for the rest of my life. I’m not outraged, I’m not spooked, it’s just -- my sadness is so deep.”
“I’ll stand by the letters” to the Japanese executive, he said. “They’re George Carlin-esque. There’s some political incorrectness in it, but nothing mean.”
At the event, Koontz began reciting each letter with the now controversial salutation, “Dear Mr. Teriyaki.”
“My letter of 10 November has not been answered,” one read. “As I am certain you are an honorable and courteous man, I would assume your silence results from the mistaken belief that World War II is still in progress and that the citizens of your country and mine are forbidden to communicate. Enclosed is a copy of the front page of the New York Times from 1945, with the headline, ‘Japan Surrenders.’ ”
Another suggested to the Japanese executive, “We could have a few sake and reminisce about the Bataan Death March.”
The line between racism and socially accepted parody is often easier to discern in hindsight, said Brian Lickel, a USC social psychologist.
“We all want to divide the world into good and bad, and I think we struggle with the same thing with racism. The reality is that there’s a continuum, a lot of gray. Perhaps what happened is that from his point of view, he’s giving a speech and he looks out and people in the crowd are laughing, people aren’t storming out. So he has always assumed that this anecdote is all golden, whereas the reality is that before this outcry, plenty of people were likely disturbed by it.”
Koontz’s publisher stands by the author, as does the organizer of the event.
“It was not racist,” said Joan Hansen, founder and chairwoman of the Men of Mystery event that benefits the Literary Guild of Orange County. “He first asked politely that his name be removed from the movie, and never heard back. So he wanted to do something to get their attention. His point was, the war is over, we can be friends.”