Dean Koontz: The killing machine

Dean Koontz's thrillers have won him millions of fans worldwide. Tim Cooper talks to America's least-known writer of best-selling horror
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The Independent Culture

Until the age of 11, Dean Koontz had an outside toilet and was so poor that he never knew if there would be food on the table. But since selling nearly 230 million copies of his psychological thrillers, America's least-known bestseller writer has more than made up for that. At the age of 55, he now lives in a palatial art deco house near Newport Beach, an exclusive coastal enclave an hour's drive south of Los Angeles. He designed it himself, with features including its own lift, and has tastefully furnished it with original deco furniture, oriental antiquities and contemporary art. Understandably, he paid special attention to the toilet facilities. There are separate ones for male and female visitors, boasting marble floors and gold taps, each larger than his childhood bedroom.

Until the age of 11, Dean Koontz had an outside toilet and was so poor that he never knew if there would be food on the table. But since selling nearly 230 million copies of his psychological thrillers, America's least-known bestseller writer has more than made up for that. At the age of 55, he now lives in a palatial art deco house near Newport Beach, an exclusive coastal enclave an hour's drive south of Los Angeles. He designed it himself, with features including its own lift, and has tastefully furnished it with original deco furniture, oriental antiquities and contemporary art. Understandably, he paid special attention to the toilet facilities. There are separate ones for male and female visitors, boasting marble floors and gold taps, each larger than his childhood bedroom.

Indeed, his house is so huge that it almost requires a map to navigate back to his office. The rooms are so neat and tidy that there are none of the normal signs of life; you might wonder whether anyone actually lives there. A self-confessed obsessive-compulsive, Koontz allows nothing to disrupt the museum-like precision of each room; when his publisher calls unexpectedly, he deftly retrieves a phone from a drawer in his well-stocked library. "I hate telephones," he explains. "So they are all hidden."

The office where Koontz writes, reached via a long corridor of book shelves groaning with the thousand-odd editions of his own work, is equally austere. There's a desk, a computer terminal and a keyboard, and that's about it: no scraps of paper with hastily scrawled notes, no well-thumbed reference books, no sheaves of work in progress, no bin overflowing with discarded pages of manuscript. It's almost as if nothing happens in this room, with its view over the infinity pool to the California coastline below. Yet its guardian is a workaholic who has published more than 70 novels in the past 30-odd years, published in 38 different languages.

The figures alone make him a literary superstar. He ought to be a household name, a regular on the chat show circuit, inviting glossy magazines with exclamation marks after their names into his beautiful home. Yet so low is his public profile that the LA Times coined for him the phrase "America's least-known bestseller writer." British readers might not know him at all; or they may have decided from their embossed covers that his novels are of the airport variety.

Shocking and funny, they span various genres from sci-fi to comedy, but he is best known for psychological horror and suspense thrillers that ooze the macabre and sinister in nail-biting stories of malignant spirits haunting malevolent humans. In his new novel, The Taking (Harper Collins, £17.99) the inhabitants of a small Californian mountain town face an apocalyptic environmental event; in his last one, Odd Thomas, a serial killer with supernatural powers stalks the streets of a small Californian desert town. It's page-turning and would be stomach-churning were not the horror counterbalanced by a mordant wit and recurrent themes of hope and redemption. And, despite being bestsellers, his novels brim with literary allusions and burst with a love of language.

He is often compared to Stephen King. Yet unlike King, even the most loyal of Koontz's readers know little about the author. He rarely gives interviews, has never done a book tour and, because he dislikes flying, seldom travels outside the American south-west. "I've spent my whole life working and I love what I do - I just love the writing," explains Koontz, a small, neatly groomed man with big bushy hair and a boyish demeanour accentuated by an enthusiastic "golly-gee-whizz" way of speaking.

His appearance comes as a surprise after having seen older photos of a hard-boiled Burt Reynolds-like character with balding hair and a Zapata moustache; the bouffant thatch turns out to be the result of a transplant so successful that it's run out of control. Looking every inch the Californian man of leisure in a silk shirt and faded blue jeans, he turns out to be an irrepressible conversationalist with a tendency to wander off on wild tangents. He's a great talker, which makes it all the more curious that he so scrupulously avoids promoting his work. It's just that he prefers to be sitting at his desk. "I'm the only writer on the bestseller list who's never done a book tour," he announces proudly. "I just stay home and write."

It wasn't always that way. Growing up as an only child in rural Pennsylvania, he was actively discouraged from reading by his violent, alcoholic father and sick mother. "There were no books in the house. Both my parents thought them a waste of time. They never even read me a story," he says.

"My father was an absolute monster. He hit me, he beat my mother and we never had any food on the table. He held 44 jobs in 34 years and in periods he wasn't employed. He was an alcoholic and a womaniser and a gambler. He was always in trouble. He could never hold a job - usually he lost it for punching his boss out - and what he did earn he would spend on women, booze and card games, so we never had anything. But he could talk anybody into anything. He was very charming." A rueful smile crosses Koontz's lips: "A sociopath can be very charming."

Books would provide the boy's escape from that childhood. Catharsis came when his mother, recuperating from one of her many operations, sent Dean to stay with a family friend for six months. It was another world to him and belatedly opened his eyes to books. "Every night she made me a cherry ice-cream soda and read to me," he recalls. "That was the first time anyone had ever read to me. Those six months were so magical: so ordered, so peaceful - no chaos. Since then I have associated books with peace, pleasure and escape."

From that point he began to spend all his spare time in the public library. He remembers discovering The Wind in the Willows and being enchanted by the enduring children's story of friendship among the creatures of the riverbank. "As a kid that book had so much resonance: I identified with the idea of friendship. Books became my escape - the idea that there was a better world out there."

Throughout his turbulent childhood, his mother tried to shelter her son from his father's violent temper and often bore the brunt of his assaults. "My father had a very violent temper and she tried to shield me from that, tried to protect me from the worst kind of physical violence. I would probably have been much more harmed if she had not stood in the way of that. She was my defender, my guardian. But I kept wondering: why does she not get me out of there?"

A fast learner, he sold his first story when he was only eight, drawing the cover illustration and binding it with electrical tape in order to sell copies to friends and relatives for a nickel each. At 12 he won a national newspaper essay writing competition and, while still at college - graduating in English - he won a fiction prize in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly journal. By 20, he had sold his first short story, "Kittens", and in 1968, he was paid $1,000 for his science-fiction story, Star Quest.

At first Koontz stuck to SF, emulating writers he admired such as Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury, but before long he began to experiment with genres, writing under a range of pseudonyms on the advice of his publishers. By the early 1970s he had found a formula that blended sci-fi fantasy with the mood of horror and the tension of suspense.

He became increasingly fascinated with the crime genre, too, and now names John D MacDonald and James M Cain, along with Dickens, as his greatest influences. His big breakthrough came in 1980 with Whispers, which defined the suspense genre for which he remains best known.

Koontz's novels are invariably set in a world filled with danger and evil, and often feature damaged children who retreat into a private world to escape from a neglectful or violent father. Yet Koontz, for all the horrors of his own childhood, does not recall it that way at all. "Somebody once wrote about what an unhappy childhood I had, and I said I didn't really have an unhappy childhood," he insists. "I've always been happy."

Despite that, he was desperate to escape his father's malign influence, taking jobs while still at high school to enable him to leave home for college, where he worked his way through his English degree. He married his childhood sweetheart Gerda, whom he had met in school when he was just 16, just before his final exam at Shippensberg State College. They are still together nearly 40 years later.

After their wedding, Dean took a job teaching English to underprivileged children in a remote mining town in the Appalachian mountains. He worked by day, wrote at night and weekends, and rose at 3am each morning to see Gerda off to work in a shoe factory: the only work she could find in the poverty-stricken region. By the time he moved to Mechanicsburg High School, he was selling short stories.

Koontz likens his writing technique to "the way that marine polyps build coral reefs," assembling his manuscripts from "millions and millions of dead little skeletons. I cannot move on to page two until I've made page one as perfect as I can get it. And it's the same all the way through the book."

He prints out each chapter, making changes in pencil: a process that involves 70-hour weeks and typically lasts anything between five months and a year. "By the time I've got to the end, every page and every chapter's had 30 or 40 drafts."

He claims not to know where a book is going until it gets there. "I start with a premise. In The Face, I knew there was going to be this guy sending odd objects to this movie star. I knew that I wanted the book to be about the values of civilisation and the value of the word."

His novels are meticulously researched, yet he does not take notes or use the internet. "I've never gone online - never even sent an e-mail," he announces proudly. Koontz prefers to do his research the old fashioned way, collecting books on all sorts of obscure subjects from genetics to medicine - and anything to do with criminology - and talking to experts in whatever field his is exploring.

The narrator of his latest chiller, the magnificently named Odd Thomas, is a short-order chef with the gift (or curse) of seeing dead people and thereby foreseeing death. You'll get an idea of how Koontz mixes suspense and humour when you learn that one of the dead people he sees regularly is Elvis Presley. To give the novel an authentic flavour, Koontz collected an impressive vocabulary of diner jargon from a local restaurateur who once ran a diner.

His previous book, The Face, concerned a plot to kidnap the young son of a Hollywood superstar from his luxurious Bel Air home. Both the home, and the character of the lonely child, effectively raised by the household staff, were based on his own experiences.

"The little boy is based on a little boy I saw in a house - I can never say whose, but a real son of a real Hollywood name. What was fascinating, I thought, was how amazing to be raised in an environment where you would receive anything you could ever possibly want, but at the same time how awful and haunting - the loneliness."

Some of Koontz's friends said, after reading it, that he would never be invited back to any Hollywood parties. He just laughed. "I said: 'Oh, if only that were the case!'"

Biography: Dean Koontz

Dean Ray Koontz was born on 9 July, 1945, in Everett, Pennsylvania, to an alcoholic, abusive father and an ailing mother. In 1966, while still at college, he married Gerda Ann Cerra and spent a year working as a teacher-counsellor with the Appalachian Poverty Program, before becoming a high school English teacher. Koontz sold his first story, "Kittens", at 20 and since 1969 he has devoted himself full time to writing, racking up sales of nearly 230 million for books including The Face, Odd Thomas and By the Light of the Moon. He lives in Orange, southern California

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