‘The thing I love most about writing is not knowing where the stories come from or where they’re going,” said Dean Koontz on the phone from his compound in Newport Beach. “I give my characters free will and see where things will go.”
It’s a telling bit of insight into the mega-best-selling author of more than 100 titles (16 made into movies) that have sold over 450 million copies in 38 languages. Surprisingly, he eschews the trappings that accompany such global literary success. Within the publishing industry, “reclusive” and “enigmatic” are words often paired with his name. But so are “generous” and “sincere.”
Koontz’s latest title is “Saint Odd,” the final entry in his über-popular Odd Thomas franchise, an eight-book, 12-year project. The books are “narrated” by Odd as his “memoirs,” “published” by his friend and mentor, crime-fiction writer Ozzie Boone.
Odd Thomas is one of Koontz’s most likable and compelling characters. When we meet him, he’s a 20-year-old fry cook working in a diner in the Southern California desert town of Pico Mundo. His “soul mate” is the striking Bronwen “Stormy” Llewellyn, but their destiny will be tragic – at least in the short term.
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Odd has the ability to communicate with the spirits of the “lingering dead,” counseling them to cross over to the other side. It’s a gift – or curse – that leads him into many tight spots. As the series progresses, Odd’s travails become increasingly mysterious and violent. In “Saint Odd” (Bantam, $28, 352 pages), he returns to Pico Mundo after an adventure-filled 18-month odyssey, hoping to thwart a disaster plotted by a group of psychopathic cultists.
But there’s also humor in the novels, an element Kontz has studiously cultivated in a genre (suspense-thriller) not known for delivering laughs. For instance, Odd is variously accompanied on his journey by the testy spirits of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Alfred Hitchcock, who act out, materialize and disappear with comic timing.
Koontz, 69, was a high-school English teacher in Mechanicsburg, Pa., before turning to full-time writing. In the late 1960s and through the 1970s, he specialized in writing across genres (sci-fi, gothic, occult suspense, romantic suspense, adventure), mostly under 10 pseudonyms.
His most respected book in that period was “Chase” in 1972 (his first hardback), but real success arrived in 1980 with “Whispers,” the first of his books to reach the New York Times best-seller list. “Finally, with ‘From the Corner of His Eye’ (2000), everything shifted into a much higher gear,” he said.
Q: Underlying the surface action, what is the Odd Thomas series about?
A: Perseverance in the face of the setbacks in life. Also, Odd represents the best that people are capable of being, but in this fallen world we rarely ever get there. That doesn’t mean he isn’t driven to do terrible things, but he does them to protect the innocent or save his own life.
Q: Where did Odd come from?
A: I was working on another book and suddenly into my mind came the line, “My name is Odd Thomas, and I lead an unusual life.” I spent the rest of the day writing what became the first chapter of the first book. The only thing I knew about him then was he was a character on a journey to absolute humility. Where all that came from is a mysterious process I did nothing to earn. The only thing I could do was bring my best craftsmanship to it.
Q: What’s so saintly about Odd?
A: I always knew the last book would be called “Saint Odd” because in his humility he would have come to a certain completeness. He lives for other people, and his philosophy is to live in a simple, old-fashioned, chivalrous way, but to never back down.
Q: In the first book, Odd and Stormy visit a carnival where the Gypsy Mummy fortune-telling machine tells them, “You are destined to be together forever.” That fortune comes true in “Saint Odd.”
A: That message wasn’t just something spit out by a fortune-telling machine. It was a promise that was made to them, which I had to fulfill. I knew the last book had to bring that full circle, but how to do it was tricky because I can get sentimental. It was a risky thing to kill off the love of Odd’s life in the first book, and my hope is that readers won’t expect how (their fortune) comes to pass in this one.
Q: The 2013 movie version of “Odd Thomas” was way under the radar.
A: I had gotten so upset about how Hollywood deals with my stuff that I haven’t had an agent in 11 years. I really admired (director) Stephen Sommers’ movie, but it wasn’t property released. That’s a big and terrible story I won’t go in to because I don’t want to be sued.
Q: You have a remarkable fan base, and your Facebook page has almost 1.5 million “likes.” What’s your dynamic with your fans?
A: We get about 20,000 letters a year on average, though the first “Odd Thomas” drew 50,000 a year. We respond to all of them. Some are so moving that I respond personally, always reminding myself I got into this in the first place to communicate, never expecting to become a best-seller.
Q: Forbes magazine named you in its list of the top 10 highest-grossing authors.
A: I never imagined (my success). I grew up in poverty, never knowing if we would have a roof over our heads from week to week. (My father) was a violent alcoholic, my mother was a wonderful person in a very difficult life.
The way our family was behind (closed) doors was not the way the world was, yet I was always able to find something to make me happy. Books were one of those things. They (gave me) life lessons wrapped as entertainment. They taught me what you might get from a functional family. In the strangest way, my father gave me my career because … my guidance through all those years was, “I will not live like this, I will get somewhere.”
Q: Why do readers love your stories?
A: Mainly because their essence is that there is always hope. I’ve always been an optimist and believe life has meaning and purpose. Though I am always full of self-doubt (when writing) and have a very low boredom threshold. Odd is never sure he is doing the right thing, and that’s certainly the way I am. I’m always sure I’m screwing up one way or another.
Q: Isn’t the horror in your novels also a draw?
A: I’ve never liked the word “horror,” it’s a label I’ve struggled to peel off. There is always tension, fear, dread and suspense in my books because those are some of the fundamental things we live with as human beings. People relate to (my books) because they see the characters coping with the (bad) things in the world, and (can use) those coping mechanisms in their real lives.
Q: But you definitely have the otherworldly going on. Any first-hand encounters with that?
A: I’ve had a couple of experiences, which I won’t talk about until I write about them. They were little moments that made me pause and say, “What was that about?” The world is much more mysterious than we understand or see on the surface.
Q: What about touring?
A: I’m not comfortable with most of the publicity (required of authors), so I’m probably the only writer on the best-seller list who’s never done a national tour. I haven’t done a signing in California in quite a while. Not because I don’t enjoy them, but because they can be grueling, with a couple of thousand people showing up for 10 hours.
When someone tells me in person that my books have given them hope, that can be almost embarrassing. I’d rather people think of the books as the key thing, rather than the author. It’s not about me, it’s about the story.
Q: Is there an interview question you’ve never been asked?
A: Give me a month to think about it and I’ll call you back.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.