- Posted by Action Catalyst
- On January 31, 2023
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- author, Business, overcome adversity, publishing, success
Dean Koontz, best-selling author with over 100 novels published and more than 500 million copies sold, talks about the way his alcoholic father shaped his childhood as well as his writing, has a personal realization about his first major character, shares the real life experience that led to creating the character of Odd Thomas, addresses how to deal with naysayers, gives his best advice that translates from the literary world to the business world, tells a cautionary career tale about zombie novels, and reveals more than a few spoilers from his latest book.
When he was a senior in college, Dean Koontz won an Atlantic Monthly fiction competition and has been writing ever since. His books are published in 38 languages and he has sold over 500 million copies to date.
Fourteen of his novels have risen to number one on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list (One Door Away From Heaven, From the Corner of His Eye, Midnight, Cold Fire, The Bad Place, Hideaway, Dragon Tears, Intensity, Sole Survivor, The Husband, Odd Hours, Relentless, What the Night Knows, and 77 Shadow Street), making him one of only a dozen writers ever to have achieved that milestone. Sixteen of his books have risen to the number one position in paperback. His books have also been major bestsellers in countries as diverse as Japan and Sweden.
The New York Times has called his writing “psychologically complex, masterly and satisfying.” The New Orleans Times-Picayune said Koontz is, “at times lyrical without ever being naive or romantic. [He creates] a grotesque world, much like that of Flannery O’Conner or Walker Percy … scary, worthwhile reading.” Rolling Stone has hailed him as “America’s most popular suspense novelist.”
Dean Koontz was born and raised in Pennsylvania. He graduated from Shippensburg State College (now Shippensburg University), and his first job after graduation was with the Appalachian Poverty Program, where he was expected to counsel and tutor underprivileged children on a one-to-one basis. His first day on the job, he discovered that the previous occupier of his position had been beaten up by the very kids he had been trying to help and had landed in the hospital for several weeks. The following year was filled with challenge but also tension, and Koontz was more highly motivated than ever to build a career as a writer. He wrote nights and weekends, which he continued to do after leaving the poverty program and going to work as an English teacher in a suburban school district outside Harrisburg. After a year and a half in that position, his wife, Gerda, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: “I’ll support you for five years,” she said, “and if you can’t make it as a writer in that time, you’ll never make it.” By the end of those five years, Gerda had quit her job to run the business end of her husband’s writing career.
Dean Koontz lives in Southern California with his wife, Gerda, their golden retriever, Elsa, and the enduring spirit of their goldens, Trixie and Anna.
Learn more at DeanKoontz.com.
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(Transcribed using A.I. / May include errors):
Adam Outland: Welcome Action Catalyst listeners. Today we have an extraordinary guest with Dean Koontz. He is a bestselling author, having published over 105 novels. Over 500 million copies have now been sold. He has 14 hard covers and 16 paperbacks reaching the number one position and has had a number of those books made into movies as well, starring the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Alicia Silverstone, and Ben Affleck. So we’re really pleased to have Dean Koontz on today. When I heard you were coming on, in my early days I started with an eagerness to author and write books, and so always any opportunity to meet someone who has written even close to as many books as you have, there’s always a litany of questions. But before we dive into to some thoughts on writing, I wanted to dig in a little bit more to, to your story and how it started. Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, where geographically is Shippensburg?
Dean Koontz: It’s sort of, I guess you would say it’s South Central. It’s a small town in Amish country, not terribly far from Lancaster. And it was a, uh, state college, uh, mainly it. There to turn out teachers for high school, elementary school. Uh, and I went there to be a teacher, uh, which, uh, I had no idea what I was going to be. I was a kid who came from such a poor family. I never imagined I would go to college, and yet there I was.
Adam Outland: If you don’t mind, I’d love take a flashback even further. I mean, did you just grow up thinking, Hey, I’m gonna be an author. I just love writing.
Dean Koontz: In fact, there were no books in our house because they were considered a waste of time. My dad was a violent alcoholic and, uh, we lived in, uh, what was basically a two-story dark paper roof shack. We never knew if we’d be there next week or we’d still have a roof over our heads.
So I never thought too much about what I would do or what I would. It seems strange. I was a relatively happy kid, especially when my father wasn’t around and I could find ways to, uh, to entertain myself. And by the time I was able to read when I was about three or four, my mother got r she was most of her life.
So I was sent to a friend of my mother’s, and this funeral was much older and her children had graduated high school and I moved in with her for six months. And her house was the opposite of ours. She and her husband drink. There was a grandfather clock ticking in the hallway and in the cas on all the art chairs, a very, very orderly place.
And every night she put me to bed with an ice cream soda and read a story to me. It took me twice in my thirties when it suddenly dawned. That was where I began to identify storytelling with peace, quiet, and orderliness. Hmm. I’m pretty sure that woman put me on the path. So when I was eight years old, I was actually writing stories, uh, stapling the edge, drawing the cover, and selling to relatives for a nickel.
So I was author, agent, publish. Bookseller all in one. But I never saw myself as a writer until I was a senior at college and a teacher there had submitted a story I wrote for class to an Atlantic monthly competition for college writing, and it won. Wow. And it was in the history hundred and so years. History of this contest in this college. No one in this college had ever replaced in this contest. So overnight I went from being a student who just got by to somebody who started to. Maybe there’s this other thing I can do. And when I saw that I no longer had to work or even tried or an agree, the reputation that followed having won this prize got me straight A and I said, Hey, this is good stuff. And that I think is where I decided I gotta try. This is the way I turned around and was bold enough to send that story off to magazine called Readers and Writers, which isn’t with us anymore. But they paid me $50 for the story. Uh, and I thought, ah, you know, that awakened me further to the idea you might be an able parent living with this.
Adam Outland: Was that also a moment of realization of how to take. Inferences from the real world and pack them into a fictional story. I mean, this is a personal feeling that I have, that a lot of great writers have this ability to synthesize personal experience and inject it into fiction. Was that your methodology at that early stage of writing?
Dean Koontz: I would say I was too young and foolish to think that deeply in those days. Although now that you’ve raised that, It is interesting to think that the story that won the prize and sold for $50 was a little piece called The Kittens and the essence of that story.
Is the lead character is this little girl. Uh, and the essence of that story is she has a father who lies to her and he tells her what turns out for her to be a catastrophic lie, and she acts upon it and does something that destroys the whole family. And when I think about that, my father, Was her father in that, so I was drawing at that time.
Now I’ve never actually stopped. Think about that. Then as when I started selling, I, I started selling science fiction novels and short stories because that was the kind of thing as a kid I most read and it took me, uh, took me. Number of years and almost 20 novels before I decided I’m never gonna be top, uh, top class as a science fiction writer.
I just don’t have that extra thing about foreseeing the future where foreseeing certain trends that is part of that. And I didn’t wanna be there if I couldn’t be doing better work than I was. And that’s when I started moving off. I wrote a comic novel. I wrote suspense novels. Hmm.
Adam Outland: I actually read your books as a, as a young person. And I was reflecting ahead of this interview on certain stories that really gravitated to me personally. Even in fiction. I felt what rooted me was the character study. Like if, if you really nailed a character that was believable and a fictional story.
Dean Koontz: For quite a few years now, I’ve said plot is fine. The plot of the story can be compelling. You can be thrown through the novel cuz you’re so excited about what might happen next. But in the end, fiction is about character and if the characters don’t really grip you, then story will not stay with you for 10 years or 20 years as one will that the character stays with you.
I had a friend in college who was an absolute stone fan of John D. McDonald, the suspense novelist, and I was an English maker, and this friend of mine was a history major, so my attitude, of course was I knew better than he did. And then when I was outta college, I thought, well, let me see what Harry was talking about.
And I picked up the John D. McDonald level and he’s a master of character. And one thing about McDonald that fascinated me, I, he was so good at story too, that. You would get so caught up in the story. And then McDonald, he would introduce the characters and sometimes he would just stop and tell you that character’s passed and it would go on for six, seven pages.
And you’re never supposed to do something like that. You’re supposed to find other ways to do it. And the first time I encountered this, I got a pager. So I went, wait a minute. We’ve stopped the whole story here. What’s he doing? And I paged forward to see when does this stop and get back to the story. And I saw how far it was and I, well, I guess I gotta read this.
And by the time I read those seven pages and the story picked up again, I said, no, wait a minute. I wanna know more about this character’s background. And that was an illuminating moment and that that was the way to write character.
Adam Outland: I love that. If we just kind of go back to timeline. When you graduated Shippensburg, you, you didn’t go right into authoring, uh, prolifically. You actually had kind of an interim job that you did for a while. If you don’t mind, maybe share a little bit on that, that experience.
Dean Koontz: I had two teaching positions. Uh, the first one was there was a school in the Appalachian poverty zone. I was looking for somebody in a specialty position who would be given students from, by other teachers who would pick students in their class.
Who came from a very poverty stricken families, but had high aptitude and could benefit from very small classes where you had like six students in in that class and you would tutor them in English and I’d have a few of those classes a day, but never many people in it. The teachers in these other. Did not live by the rules of this federal program.
They didn’t give me the kids in their class at the highest aptitude they gave, gave me the kids in their class who were the most troubled kids who had police records with a violence in their records, and it was a rough rest of that year. It was fascinating. But I did discover that even in these kids who were being thrown, By the system when they found out somebody actually cared about them and was going to say, you’re not gonna screw around in this class, you’re gonna get something out of it.
And so I didn’t get killed that year, but I did find out that the teacher before me had been run off the road on his way home from school by his own students and they had beaten him up and put him in the hospital while they remained for a month. And that year was a very instructive. I wouldn’t have wanted to do a second year, but it wasn’t a waste video. It taught me quite a lot.
Adam Outland: So it just reflecting on some of the hard teaching moments of teaching and dealing with some of those rough and tumble situations and some of the, the characters in the individuals that you met doing that, I mean, do you ever go back into some of your past relationships or people to draw as reference for plots or characters?
Dean Koontz: Yeah, everything. You go through in life ends up in the current book or the next one. Wow. It’s conversations we hear in a restaurant that I kind of fold into the story because I think they’re amusing. You end up using an awful lot of what you see here and go through in life. Whether you’re looking at life as a resource for what you’re gonna write or not, your subconscious is, and the strangest things ends up being material in a novel.
Adam Outland: It’s so interesting hearing you say that. I remember listening to an interview with a comedian who, because of his career in comedy, it colors how you take in information in the real world. You know, uh, and this is maybe a little screwed up, but a comedian has this immediate filter where I, I can’t remember who’s, Said this, but uh, tragedy plus time equals comedy and they can compress that time to minutes.
Where most of us it takes years. And what I hear you say is, is kind of the author’s equivalent where, and I’m curious, you know, if, if I’m saying that correctly, when did that really begin for you, where you would take events or you’d listen and hear something and make a mental note or bookmark something to come back and revisit?
Dean Koontz: You know, I don’t actually make a mental note or a bookmark or write it down. I’m often asked if a character is particularly popular with readers. Is that based on somebody who knew? And it never is. But parts of that character are definitely, are. There’s elements of the character. Sometimes it’s elements of different people, and then things you.
I would say that the character of odd Thomas that I, uh, wrote eight books about that. If I look at odd Thomas, there’s a lot that odd learned about bias that I learned about. Life through that year when I was teaching those kids who had criminal records. And odd is this relaxed sort of guy who deals with a lot of terrible things in it, but he, he’s not the kind of male lead that carries a gun.
He sees the humor in life and those books have a lot, and I’ve always seen the humor in life. But when I was in that situation, in that school district, It became a survival instinct. And when I had to write about, uh, Thomas, how did you cope with these stressful moments of that? And it was with finding humor in it.
There, there’s another quote about comedy that catastrophe. After enough years go by, catastrophe can be hilarious. And uh, there’s something true in that too.
Adam Outland: Yeah. Talk to me about the emotional rollercoaster of your life since so many of these things are reflected, not, not throwing that on you, but more of a question of so many of our listeners obviously are right now going through tough times, and so as a way to relate to that, what were some of your tougher moments.
Dean Koontz: Young writers, when they ask me for advice, they always sort of say, well, I’ve got a lot of foolishness, I can tell you. But, and the, the real advice, the good advice I know from experience, almost nobody ever takes because, uh, they think that my career was this smooth, upward glide path. And it was anything but I was writing 13 or 15 years before I ever had bestseller.
And then even after I had bestsellers, I. So many naysayers in the publishing business telling me I couldn’t do what I was doing. It’s an astonishing thing to look back on, and it’s one of the most valuable things I can say is you’re gonna hit so many people telling you you’re doing it the wrong way.
It’s never gonna happen for you. The world is full of people who say it’s possible. The first book I had that was a hard cover at bestseller, it was a book called Stranger. The publisher had told me it was a very large book. Publisher told me she would support it, but I had to cut 40 some percent of it and I couldn’t just, if I cut that much of the book, it would’ve made no sense, but it nevertheless creped onto the bottom of the best artist. And then the next book was a book called Watchers, and it did even better. But the book after that was a book called like, and the publisher just just hated the book and told me, I can’t publish this.
You’re finally creeping onto the best seller list. You’re having increasing success. This book will destroy your. and I said, why? And she said, your vocabulary is too large. You have to keep a vocabulary. You have five to 600 words to be on the bestseller list. And then it was also your, your storylines are too complex.
You have to make them simpler because readers don’t go for complex things. Your unique character is. A child for the first 30% of the book growing up, and you can’t do that. You can’t have the feature character for any length of time be a child. And I thought, what about Oliver Twist? What about to kill a mopping bird?
We argued for six months. She published the book. It ended up getting to number three in the New York Times, and my next book was my first number one. Then when midnight hit number one, this publisher called me up and said, this will never happen to go because you don’t write the kind of books that can be number one.
Uh, And we did formal books together. Each one was number one, and every single time I was told, this will never happen again until you finally say, okay, I’ve gotta go somewhere where they think this could happen. And it’s the hardest thing to know when the naysayer is wrong. And taking the good advice, but not the bad advice.
It, it’s the, was the hardest thing my, in my career, and it helped me back for many years because I, I would just say, well, this person is at the top of the business. They must know what they’re talking about. And it took me a while to realize, nope, not always.
Adam Outland: That’s right. Is there anything that you’ve developed in terms of a, maybe a series of questions or a way to pause and, and reflect on someone’s opinion before deciding whether or not to receive it?
Dean Koontz: It took me a long time. I mean a few decades to get to the point. Where I would be sure of myself that I was right. I remember when I delivered Doc Thomas, it was a totally mother publisher, but when I delivered Doc Thomas, he hated it so much. He told the editor why he disliked it. I, I began to see certain things about his personality that it helped me understand that was within.
Kind of a hesitancy to admit that you could be wrong, and I could see that in certain other things that was happening in that company. It was a refusal to acknowledge that a wrong decision had been made. So I came to see you then. That whenever you work with that person, you couldn’t say, uh, you’re wrong about that.
You had to take a different tack and say, well, here’s why I think, you know, the public will like this and take other ways to get your way. And I began to see it after that many cases that it always comes outta. What people may have been through in their own life and why they deeply desire to have their way. Different people have different reasons for why they don’t have way, and it can be very hard to figure out the psychology of it, and therefore you have to be more diplomatic.
Adam Outland: It’s so interesting. So many of our listeners are business owners and, and in the business world and, and Dina, everything you’re saying does apply.
It translates so amazingly from, from authoring. Persuasion is important. Uh, being able to be willing to admit per personally when you’re wrong and leave opening for that, but also trusting your gut at times. And it’s, it’s true. It’s, I mean, it’s a universal thing. You know, just a, a couple of spitball questions that I, I wanted to throw out, you know, one, I I was just kind of curious if, if there’s a book that you’ve read recently, uh, not your own that you’ve really enjoyed, or, uh, if you’re really continuing to read a lot at the stage of your life, if there’s anything that’s been appealing to you recently.
Dean Koontz: I’d say the last several years I’ve had to so much research material for the fiction I’m writing that I’ve read, read Less for Pleasure than I used to, but, , and it’s also a fact that when my wife and I were first married, we didn’t have a television for 10 years. It was about six of those years we couldn’t afford it then we just didn’t really want one.
Every night our entertainment was reading, and for number of years we read about 200 books a year each. That was great for learning to write novels because I read in every time that fiction, every genre.
Adam Outland: Wow. And then you have a book, the House at the End of the World. If you don’t mind, maybe, uh, given a clue on this, what you said, you’ve been embroiled and researched for books.
Dean Koontz: You get to a point in this book where I had to do quite a lot of science research Oh, wow. But all kind of other things because, uh, this is a story about a woman who lives alone on a remote island at the end of the thousand Island. She is a survivor of a catastrophic tragedy, and it takes a long time for you to come to an understanding of, of why she has moved to this remote island.
It’s a, it’s a novel that really I think everybody’s gonna relate to very well because it’s a novel about how in our time and for quite a while, a great many people in the ruling class are failing. And, uh, they’re failing us in many ways and many of the highest professions, certainly in politics and governance.
And she is, uh, a victim of an epic failure and she pretty much gives up on life except for our, she’s a painter and she moves to this remote island, and once she gets to this island, she. That’s, there’s an island after it. And what she was told is there is an environmental protection agency research station on it.
Well, that turns out to be a lie. There is another research station on that island, but it’s nothing as benign as the Environmental Protection Agency. And if she thinks she can, What’s happening to this society she’s in by getting to a remote island that turns out lovely. True. But it’s also a very upbeat novel.
Uh, it’s scary as hell, I’ll say that, but, uh, in the end it’s a very positive, uh, novel.
Adam Outland: I look forward to picking it up myself. If you’d leave our listeners with one last thing, Dean. It would be the, the question would be, knowing everything that you know now, having written all the books you’ve written, if you had the chance to, to sit back down with a young 21 year old Dean Koontz, what advice, knowing what you know today, would you give that, that 21 year old Dean?
Dean Koontz: Well, so many things, but I, I have seen too often by young writers, Will scope the market, they’ll put up the periscope and look around and see what’s selling, and they’ll go write that. Don’t zombie novels. Were the biggest thing in the world for seven, eight years, but zombie novels are not gonna be the thing that gives you a 40, 50 year career.
The only thing that will do that, but in fact what’ll happen is you’ll become known as a zomi book writer. What you’ve gotta do is. What did I really love to write? Or what do I really love to paint? It’s what you love, so it sort of applies to everything and then how you approach it. , I don’t think, how do you do this and succeed based on how it’s always been done and succeeded before?
Because it’s the love of doing what you’re doing that will make it a success. The fact you love it becomes that evident in the work itself, and that makes it work that other people enjoy. And that’s, I don’t think matters to whatever. It’s running a re. Is a perfect example. If you absolutely love the food business, the food industry and the service industry, it’s gonna come through in the quality of that restaurant.
And if you don’t, it’s also gonna come through. Do what you love. That’s only one life. And then don’t get caught up in extraneous things. Don’t get caught up in politics, in ideology. It doesn’t matter which side.
Just get caught up in human journey, which is about many other things than the stuff you see on the news and, and I think about what’s important to their people in any business.
And it won’t be those things. It’ll be those things in their daily lives that they care.
Adam Outland: Brilliant advice and I know a lot of people will appreciate it, so I really appreciate you making the time for this conversation. Thanks again, Dean for, for carving out time for us.
Dean Koontz: Thanks for having me. It was great.