Dean Koontz on Self-Doubt, Story, and Abuse

Here are some questions Dean Koontz has answered in various forums:

You had an agent in your early years tell you that you’d never be a best-selling writer. Did that discourage you or make you more determined to succeed?

Koontz: I have more self-doubt than any writer I’ve ever known. That is one reason I revise every page to the point of absurdity! The positive aspect of self-doubt – if you can channel it into useful activity instead of being paralyzed by it – is that by the time you reach the end of a novel, you know precisely why you made every decision in the narrative, the multiple purposes of every metaphor and image. Having been your own hardest critic you still have dreams but not illusions. Consequently, thoughtless criticism or advice can’t long derail you. You become disappointed in an agent, in an editor, in a publisher, but never discouraged. If anyone in your publishing life were to argue against a particular book or a career aspiration for reasons you had not already pondered and rejected after careful analysis, if they dazzled you with brilliant new considerations, then you’d have to back off and revisit your decisions. But what I was told never dazzled me. For example, I was often advised, by different people, that my work would never gain a big audience because my vocabulary was too large.

What kind of child grows up to write the scary books Dean Koontz has? And I mean that in a good way.

Koontz: A very benign child. I was raised in a very poor family. I had a violent alcoholic father. I’ve talked about that a little bit before. But I never was not an optimistic child. We never knew if we were going to have a roof over our heads. My father frequently threatened to kill us all because life was too hard, that sort of thing. And I took him seriously at the time and yet I remember being a happy child. I always sort of felt in childhood that every day mattered, maybe because I didn’t know how many there were going to be and so you always looked around for what was fun, what was beautiful and that attitude still is with me.

Though I can write “scary,” I don’t see “scary” as the essential part of the book. It’s the hopeful parts of the book. It’s the human interaction, the love stories, the friendships between the characters that interest me more.

You ever miss the older days of Science Fiction? I am reading my Heinlein again and think it is like the future we never had.

Koontz: I loved Heinlein, Sturgeon, Bradbury, and so many others in science fiction. Read hundreds of books in the genre before I was twenty-one. And I wrote some really bad ones in my youth! One of the problems with SF is that it dates in a way no other genre does. Heinlein was visionary, and is still enormously readable, but every one of his books now has to be seen as an alternate-world story because it is set in a future that can no longer be ours. As a writer, I don’t miss the genre. I’m happy here, now.

I am struggling writer who can’t ever seem to get the energy, motivation etc, to finish a long story. What did you do when you first started out and what advice to do you have for other beginning thriller writers?

Koontz: I don’t know what you’re writing, as to genre or story, but I would almost bet that your problem staying with a story to completion arises from one cause: you are writing what you think will sell or what you think the public might want — and it isn’t resonating with your mind and heart. I could be wrong. But that’s often where new writers go wrong. Ask yourself what you, as a reader, have been most passionate about, and if that kind of story or theme seems like something beyond your ability, write it anyway. Take the plunge. Challenge yourself. And then you will desperately want to finish the story because you will need to know how it turns out.

Finally, in this interview from 2008, Koontz talks about converting to Catholicism and how his father tried to kill him at least twice. He said, “It certainly affects your life. What more affected life was his presence in it up until that moment. In my childhood he—especially when he was very drunk—would threaten to kill us all, my mother, me and himself. As a kid I assumed sooner or later that would happen. Then, I grew up and it hadn’t happened, and I felt guilty about that. I felt like, as awful as he is and all the terrible things he’s done, I was putting upon him a heavier weight of evil perhaps than he actually carried.”

3 thoughts on “Dean Koontz on Self-Doubt, Story, and Abuse”

  1. It’s funny that he mentions Bradbury, because I see a lot of Bradbury whenever I read Koontz. They have the same fire for life and love of exploration to their stories that keeps drawing me back.

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