The Sunday Conversation: Dean Koontz pens a new lesson in humility
“Odd Apocalypse,” bestselling suspense author Dean Koontz’s fifth novel in his Odd Thomas series about a fry cook with paranormal abilities, hits bookstores on Tuesday. The prolific 67-year-old novelist lives in Newport Beach with his wife, Gerda, and golden retriever, Anna.
I gather Odd Thomas is your most popular character. Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because he’s unique to the genre he’s in. There were people in my publishing life who were not enamored of Odd Thomas when I turned in the first novel and really didn’t want me to write another. And it was my new publisher who said, “I love this. Let’s get back to this and round out the series,” which is supposed to be seven books.
I think a number of things make him appealing. It’s the mix of suspense with humor, the supernatural with gritty realism, and also his humility. Because this is a series of seven books about somebody’s journey to perfect humility, and that’s what sets him apart from your usual action hero. Now the biggest problem will be when I get to that seventh book and he completes his journey and is a person of complete humility, how am I ever going to write that because I have no experience with complete humility?
So the ending isn’t the ending of the character’s life? It’s the end of his journey in humility?
Let’s not say whether it’s the end of his life or not. I don’t want to give away the ending of the seventh book. But in all of these books, there’s a little card which he got from a carnival fortune-telling machine with the girl he was in love with, and the machine said, “You’re destined to be together forever.” And of course he lost her in the first book. The card is telling her the truth, and how that happens is what I hope will keep readers interested.
Paraphrasing an observation of one of your characters, when did you realize you had to keep the tone light because the material was so dark?
That was really in the first book. I don’t write with an outline, so when I begin something, I begin it with a concept, a character I think I’m going to fall in love with and then I sort of give the character free will, as God gave us free will. The character will tell the story. There are some young writers who look at me strangely when I say that. But in fact, if the character really comes alive, the story goes places you never would have anticipated. Now what was your question?
You had mentioned that there was resistance to your mixing tones.
Right now I’m with a new publisher — it’s still Bantam, but there’s a new publisher in the position. And there doesn’t seem to be that resistance, but as long as I’ve been publishing, if you mix genres — now that’s pretty common, but when I started doing it many years ago, my publisher would say, “I can’t publish this book. It will ruin your career... It mixes comedy with suspense and you can never do that because it ruins the suspense.” My attitude to that was, if you can laugh with the lead character, he’s real to you and you’re more concerned about what happens to him or her. But I never could sell that point for the longest time. I had to go ahead and write the books and argue about it when I delivered them. In this case, the tonal quality that wasn’t received right was that Odd was so self-effacing. Let’s face it: James Bond and Jason Bourne and male action leads are never self-effacing. It struck a lot of people early on as too unusual and that he seemed like a wuss because of it, but he is not a wuss; he’s anything but that.
This series has a lot to do with the supernatural. Do you believe in the existence of spirits?
I believe in the existence of the afterlife. Whether I’ve ever seen a ghost, not really. But I’ve had a couple of odd experiences in my life that felt supernatural to me. In fact, the best moments of writing are when you’re sitting here at the keyboard and things come to you that just astonish you. Those moments feel like you’re either reaching into some deep layer of yourself that is beyond the subconscious or a connection to some sort of higher creativity.
Is that what you meant by “odd experiences,” or was that something else?
That was something else. This one people roll their eyes at. I’ve said my father was a violent alcoholic who held 44 jobs in 34 years and often threatened to kill us, and I always thought one day he would. But he outlived my mother, who died young; she died at 53. And later in his life we had to decide whether we would move him out here from Pennsylvania and oversee him — and believe me, he was nothing but chaos. There was a point when I went to visit him [at his retirement home] that he pulled a knife on me in front of a number of people, and we had this desperate encounter. He almost got me at that point. He’d bought a fishing knife with a seven-inch blade and honed it to razor sharpness, and he ended up in a psychiatric ward after this.
The night before this event, my phone rang and when I picked the phone up, it was silent. I said, “Who’s there?” And I was about to hang up, and a woman said to me, “Be careful of your father.” And I swear to you, it sounded like my mother. And that was all. The next day when they called me from the retirement home and said he was causing problems, they wanted me to come right away. I was extremely cautious, much more than I would have been. So I look at that phone call as something more than mere coincidence.
What’s going on with the Odd Thomas movie?
I didn’t have great luck with some [film adaptations of books] for a while, and I said to my attorney, “If somebody calls and asks if a book’s rights are available, please don’t say yes or no. Tell me who they are, and I’ll decide if I respect enough of their work to give them a chance at it.” One day he called me up and said, “Stephen Sommers is calling about this.” I said, “He’s super-visual. The first two ‘Mummy’ movies show that.” I was also aware he made a Huckleberry Finn adaptation for Disney, and it’s the only Huckleberry Finn that’s true to the book. I decided to let him do it. I’ve seen the film and it’s quite wonderful. I sat in an audience where, when they needed to jump, they jumped; when they needed to laugh, they laughed. When you see everyone moved to tears by it, you know the filmmaker’s done his job.
So that’s based on the first book?
Does it have distribution?
[Sommers is] in negotiations now for the distribution channel. I think it will [come out] sometime this winter, but these things always take longer than you think. Since it’s a suspense story and a love story, it wouldn’t be bad for Valentine’s Day.
I’ve read that in 2008 you were tied with John Grisham as the world’s sixth bestselling author. Do you have any more recent stats?
I never know how much of that is true. Publishers don’t always tell you how many books they’ve printed. So what we do is track royalty statements and what copies were sold worldwide, and we hit 450 million actual sales about a year ago.
That’s print and e-books?
Yes, e-books are a very small part of that because it’s so new, but I think it’s going to become a bigger and bigger part of that. It amazes me. When I started out, my wife said, “I’ll support you for five years, and if you can’t make it in five years, you’ll never make it.” So before I accepted the offer, we sat down and talked about what would earnings be that we felt I could achieve every year that would be good enough. And that day the number we settled on was $25,000 a year. If I could make that, then this would be a life worth having. And we never saw coming what came.
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