There are three things you may not know about free-range thriller writer Dean Koontz, who has sold hundreds of millions of books during his rise to the publishing stratosphere:
1. His new thriller, Innocence, a paean to nonviolence, was inspired by a dream about a long-dead best-selling author;
2. His abusive alcoholic father tried to cut short his literary career with a homemade switchblade; and
3. The night before the attempt on his life, his mother called from beyond the grave.
And true to the one-man genre that is Koontz, the mild-mannered 68-year-old golden-retriever fancier manages to find wonder, humor and hope in all of it.
Few authors have managed to produce so many novels (I lost count at 120) under so many pen names (10 that I know of) across so many genres with as much success as Koontz. Since breaking in as a science fiction writer with 1968’s Star Quest, the one-time Pennsylvania English teacher has turned out as many as eight titles a year by cross-pollinating suspense, horror, romance, fantasy, space opera and even comedy. Along the way, he became one of only a handful of authors to top the New York Times bestseller list 14 times.
Genre? Koontz don’t need no steenking genre!
“I started out sneaking comedy into my suspense novels, and as I moved around genres, I realized that I have a low boredom threshold,” he says by phone from his home in Newport Beach, California. “If I’d had to write the same thing book after book, I would have quit long ago.”
Case in point: Innocence, a fantasy/thriller/love story about star-crossed outliers, has something for everybody. What sets Innocence apart from his past works is its poetic use of language and the fact that Koontz dreamed up the story—literally.
“For years, fans have asked me if I get a lot of ideas from dreams and I always said no, I’ve never had an idea from a dream,” Koontz recalls. “But early last year, I sat up in bed at 4:00 in the morning from a very odd and vivid dream. I was having lunch with [actor-turned-best-selling author] Thomas Tryon [The Other]. I never knew him but I’d read a few of his books. It was a celebratory lunch because he had a new novel coming out. Some of the moments were very vivid and in color, and I don’t dream in color ordinarily. I couldn’t wait to start putting the story on paper.”
The resulting chase-packed love story between societal outcast Addison and fugitive Gwyneth is just the sort of left-brain/right-brain head-scratcher that Koontz fans love to tackle.
Growing up in Everett, Pennsylvania (pop: 4,000), was anything but a dream for Koontz, who suffered beatings and abuse from his alcoholic father, Ray. The author credits his knack for horror and suspense, as well as the unapologetic optimism in his fiction, to his early exposure to the dark side.
“If my father hadn’t been a violent alcoholic who held 44 jobs in 34 years, I might not have the career I have,” he says. “I’m not thankful that that was my childhood, but it wasn’t a bleak one by any means because I was determined that it wouldn’t be.”
Unfortunately, Koontz’s dark past followed him west. Shortly after he and his wife, Gerda, relocated to California in 1976, circumstances brought his father into their care. The couple supported Ray in psychiatric care facilities for the remaining 14 years of his life. He was ultimately diagnosed as a sociopath.
That kind turn almost cost Koontz his life—twice in one day.
“The care center called one morning because [Ray] was down on the lobby floor shouting at people,” Koontz recalls. “I found out later he had developed a tolerance to his anti-psychotic medication and had honed his fishing knife into essentially a switchblade.”
Koontz talked his father back to his room, but Ray’s agitation worsened.
“He kept pacing the room, opening and closing a dresser drawer, until finally he pulled out his knife. We struggled into the hallway, where all these people were returning from lunch. I managed to get the knife away from him without being cut and asked staff to call 911,” Koontz recalls.
It turns out the staff had already called the police. Unfortunately, when they arrived, it was Koontz who was holding the knife.
“The police yelled, ‘Drop the knife!’ and I said, ‘No, it’s not me, it’s him; I took the knife away from him!’ They both drew their guns and yelled, ‘DROP THE KNIFE!’ I finally realized I was going to get shot and dropped the knife. They made me lay face-down on the floor until they got the situation straightened out. It was a memorable day.”
As was the day before, when Koontz encountered one of only two unexplainable experiences in his life (the second he’s saving for full novel treatment).
“The night before my father pulled a knife on me, the phone rang. I picked it up, and this woman’s voice said, ‘Be careful of your father,’ and I swear it was my [late] mother; I recognized the voice. She said that twice and was gone,” he says. “The very next day, if I had gone in there unaware instead of edgy about that call, he probably would have succeeded. I often wonder about that.”
Reconciliation was not in the cards for this father and son. “A sociopath is never going to change and they’re not going to see that any of the problems in their life have been of their own making,” Koontz says. “It’s a very sad thing to never have a relationship with your father, but there was no way to have one.”
As for happiness? Well, that’s another matter.
“Happiness is a choice,” Koontz insists. “That sounds Pollyanna-ish, but it’s not; you can make it or not. Readers over the years say what they love about my books is that they’re full of hope, and that’s the way I see life. If you always dwell on what went wrong in the past, it’s almost hopeless. So I just don’t dwell.”