BingeBooks Book Club: Live Chat with Dean Koontz
August 22, 2022
Our July Book Club was one of our most popular, with Dean Koontz joining us for a live chat about his latest release, The Big Dark Sky.
It was a fantastic conversation about his life, where he got his idea for The Big Dark Sky, his writing process, and more!
Ready to catch up on the fun? Just click below (or continue scrolling to read the transcript).
Transcript of the chat:
Alessandra: Hello everyone, and welcome to our BingeBooks Book Club chat. I am Alessandra Torre and I am joined today by Dean Koontz, who is going to be talking to us about his newest release and everything book. So welcome so much, Dean. It's fantastic to have you here.
Dean: Well, thank you for having me there.
Alessandra: We have live viewers that are joining us from Facebook and YouTube, and we already have a ton of questions coming in, but before we dive into those, do you want to, and I know this is a hard question to ask, especially with this book, but do you want to give just an elevator or if someone's joining us and they haven't read the Big Dark Sky, do you think you can describe it in a few sentences?
Dean: May take me a little more, but first I'd rather say also for all those live visitors putting questions, if any dead ones come in, let's put them to the front of the line.
Alessandra: I love that idea. We'll pop them up. Yeah.
Dean: Okay. Yeah. The Big Dark Sky, this is a book I've wanted to write for 40 years, but I couldn't figure out how to do it. It's about synchronicity, those enormous coincidences in life, which I've been collecting from all over the world for most of the last four decades. And I couldn't figure out how to write a novel about synchronicity, even though Carl Jean Young said synchronicity or incredible coincidences aren't coincidence at all; they're evidence of how the structure of the universe is. And then quantum mechanics came along and said the same thing. And finally, one day after 40 years, I'm a little slow, this story revolves around one. I've been also trying to write, which would be about a woman who was raised on an isolated ranch and it was like an Eden in Montana, until she was nine. And then some tragedy occurred and she went to live with her aunt in New Mexico.
And 25 years later, she gets a message from a secret friend or something like a secret friend that she doesn't even remember having. And the secret friend says, come back, I need you, I'm in a dark place. And she goes back, but what she's going back to isn't anything she imagined. That was another story I never could figure out where does it go? And then suddenly year and a half ago or whenever; these two stories about synchronicity and that story married, and it became this multicharacter epic sort of novel condense into hundred thousand words that is the Big Dark Sky. And it's hard to talk about it too much without giving away twists and turns because there are a lot of them, but I had great fun writing it, so I hope it translate into great fun reading it.
Alessandra: I think it absolutely does. And there is such an incredible cast of characters with this book and you, you just did a great job of giving enough without giving away everything, sSo I'm sure we're going to have a lot of questions about that. I want to jump into one from Gigi DeLuca. She's thrilled to meet you. She started reading your books in the eighties and you're her favorite author. She would like to know what comes first, the plot or the characters and why?
Dean: They are almost simultaneous. The characters probably nanosecond or two after the plot premise. I don't write outlines; so as a consequence, I start with the story idea. I have no idea where it's going. Once in a great while I know where the end has to be, but generally not. And when I get the idea, the sort of premise, then I have the very next thing because I think characters are the essence of good fiction. You have to love the characters. You don't have to want to be like them. You don't have to love them because they're admirable. The good ones you want to to love them because they're admirable, but you kind of have to have a dark sort of love also for the bad ones in the sense that you want to know what they're going to do next. You have to love wanting to read about them.
So my next step is who is the character that carries that plot the best or maybe one or two characters, and who is the antagonist, the bad guy, who's going to be the nemesis for this character throughout? Those don't necessarily come together. Usually I start with the character you want to identify with, the one you're going to admire or like. And I think about that, but I don't think too much. I don't do character traits. I don't do pages of what do they look like or what do they think or what is their past. I get a little sense of who they are as a person and what is the unique thing about their psyche and what sort of thing underlying it drives them. In the case of - and this is an unusual novel because there's a larger path, but in cases as a female lead, she's a person whose life is built on tragedy. And that really matters as we get into the story because as she finds out the tragedies she has dealt with as a child of nine are not what she thought they were. The cause of them is not what she thought they were. And those tragedies have led her to have a life as a writer and to have certain attitudes, but suddenly it's all built on sand. So, that makes that character interesting for me. And then I want to know how she works and how she thinks, and that's the sort of way I begin.
Alessandra: Fantastic. And talking about characters and storytelling and with this story, you paint such vivid scenes and you for a thriller writer, I guess, and I'd like to go into genre in a minute, but for the genre that you write in, you do use more descriptions than a lot, but you're also packing so much action and so many different things happening in those scenes. Do you think a lot about, do you have to trim description or add description in or does it just naturally flow out of you in the amount that we're seeing as the finished product?
Dean: I have this sort of philosophy of fiction that good fiction gives you multiple things. It gives you good characters, gives you a story that plunges forward. I always think that the pace has to be in for me, just keep you on the edge of your seat, sort of pace. At the same time, that doesn't mean that you don't need to portray the scene properly. I really believe that it's our obligation to show the culture the character lives in, to show the natural world, the character lives in. And you know, one of the biggest things I get from readers over all these years is your books are like movies to me. I can see everything that happens. Well, that grows because I don't short change description of scenes and stuff. Now, you have to be careful you don't go on for a page about something. It's about finding that metaphor, that simile, that figure of speech that really conveys something very vividly.
Once in a great while I get a letter from somebody who said, why do you have to tell me what the weather is? Why do you have to tell me what the scenery is? Well, because that's part of what forms us all. We're formed by the natural world we live in. We're formed by the culture we live in. And if it's not in there, I don't feel personally as a reader that I'm getting the whole story. Yeah, I could trim it way down to just what happens, but then I don't think it matters so much. I think it matters because... I have this little rule not to go - on the great length. If I'm going to tell you two lines about the sky or about the background in which the character is standing, then that has to serve at minimum three functions. It has to create a mood that fits the scene, it has to say something about the character or the theme of the novel, and it also has to do something to further the plot. And that might seem impossible, but it isn't, if you really love the English language and you make the effort to do those things, if you do, then everything flows in a way.
You know, I get a lot of mail also that always surprised me. I've gotten literally thousands of letters from dyslexic people - who have said, I've never been able to read for pleasure because it's so hard for me to track the language until I found your novels and I could read them without effort. And after reading 20 or 30 of them, I can read other people without much effort. And I've always found that fascinating. And I think it's because of what I do. It's the struggle with the language to make it as smooth and sleek as you can possibly make it. And that does not make me making it short and brief. It means polishing all of those descriptions until they're as easy to read as you can make them. And then someone dyslexic can suddenly make sense of the language. I find that fascinating and something I've been trying to understand in some kind of philosophical level, but I'm not that philosophical, so I haven't understood it.
Alessandra: Well, we have a lot of comments in the box, a lot of which say that they discovered you with Odd Thomas or, you know a lot of just love for Odd Thomas that's showing up here. And I know at one point you said like, oh, I'll never write a sequel, but then obviously you have written a few series. Did you know with Odd Thomas that that was going to be a series from the beginning, and did you realize that that was going to be such a special book that would connect with so many readers? Was there a time where you thought, hey, like I really have something with this, I'm not ready to lead this world?
Dean: Yeah. For Odd Thomas, I had always said publicly over and over again, which shows what idiot I am, you never make these declarations in public - that I would never write a series. And then this character overwhelmed me. I said a few minutes ago, character for me is everything in fiction. And this character just came alive so quickly and so endearingly that I was about halfway through the book and I thought, well, this is going to be a series. And I also very quickly understood what the series in essence was about. It was about a character who as humble as he is, and as sweet as he is, was on the way to a story that would carry him over a number of volumes into a condition of absolute humility, which I've never experienced personally. So I didn't know how I'd write about that, but I was so intrigued about how I would do that.
And when I delivered the novel, I've talked about this sometimes before, not that this reflects terribly on the publisher; he just came from a different ethos than mine and he hated the book. He couldn't understand this character. This is not the hero of a thriller. This is a guy who needs a weapon and he picks up a broom. He tries to deal with things in a less Jack Reacher kind of way, or in less of a James Bond kind of way. And he didn't like that. And he disliked it so much he wouldn't talk to me about the book. And as a consequence, I was in a problematic place, because I knew I'm wanted to write more about this character. Then what happened was the book went out in advance to reviewers and to book buyers, book sellers that people who decide what they're going to order. And they all loved it. I think we had 120 reviews and two bad ones. And so, the publisher then said to me, okay, you want to write more about this character you can do so.
Alessandra: That's fine.
Dean: Between each book you got to write a standalone, which is what I did. And then I ended up writing a couple of more series, but it all is does the character move you to that extent?
Alessandra: I love that. And this might be an easy question to answer because the answer might Odd Thomas, but Dawn from Facebook says, I know this is like asking what is your favorite child or fur baby, but do you have a favorite standout character or book?
Dean: You know, there's all kind of characters I love as if they were real people in my life. Odd Thomas is one, Jane Hawk is another. There is a wonderful girl in One Door Away From Heaven, Leilani Klonk is her last name - Leilani Klonk. And she stays in my mind like she's a real person as to a number of characters in that book. As anyone who works with us will testify, if they go by in my office, I'm sometimes sitting there alone laughing out loud. Other times I can be in tears because of what's happening in the story. And that only happens if the characters seem to me as real as real people I've known.
Alessandra: I love that. Absolutely. And talking about your process or your career, was there a point where you really felt that you had found... I mean, I know for all of us, you're very famous, but was there a moment in your career where you're like, I made it, this is it? Can you tell us about kind of your first book where you really felt like you had security in a career and you could write forever. Did that ever happen at a certain time?
Dean: It actually never happened. I've always been filled with self-doubt and I've had to change editors and publishers over the years because all of them had doubt about what I was delivering to them at some point, because publishers often want exactly what you've done before and I don't do that, and so it always that kind of problems. Also you have to know, I came from a dirt poor family with a violent alcoholic father, so self-doubt is built into me from my earliest years. And so every time I start a book it is high excitement, and then somewhere within 40 or 50 pages, it's like, what the hell am I doing? And that never goes away until the book is done and somebody else reads it, first my wife, who is my toughest and fairest critic. And if she thinks, okay, you can send this in, then I'm pretty sure I can send it in. So I wish I had been at some point very full of myself and utterly certain that everything was great, that was coming out of that typewriter. But it's only in retrospect; it usually takes me a few years to look back on a book and say, Hey, that actually kind of worked.
Alessandra: Well, you just made a lot of authors days because I think so many of us do that same moment where we hate the book and think it's horrible. So it's nice to know that even someone with as many books under their belt as you, can go through that same roller coaster. Cari said how do you come up with your character's names?
Dean: That's interesting. That's a good question, I've never been asked that before. A lot of times they have serious meaning, and so they're chosen to support what's going on under the surface of the story, and other times they just come to me. Odd Thomas just came to me. It wasn't any significant meaning to it. I wrote a novel in which it was one of the Odd Thomas novels in which every bad guy and good guys' name, other than Odd's that people Odd had dealt with in other books was actually a wording in Hebrew. And I thought no one would ever identify that until the the Israeli edition of the book came out and I started getting all these letters saying, do you know that these characters names or words in Hebrew? And I thought, wouldn't it be amazing if I had like 12 characters' names were actually Hebrew words? And that never dawned on me; that would've been quite a bit of synchronicity to go back to that. So I choose names sometimes, I've put a lot of effort into it because I want the name to stick with you no matter who it is. But sometimes it means more than that. And there's a whole, probably a whole essay on why sometimes it means more than that.
Alessandra: That's fantastic. Terezia said I loved your book A Big Little Life. Do you still have dogs? I know the answer to this, but you want to answer that?
Dean: Yes, there is a large golden retriever in the room right now, but any moment will probably parade back and forth behind us. She gets sometimes in these interviews to think what about me? And she goes past with her tail up in the air as background. But yeah, we didn't have dogs in her lives until about 30 years ago or so. And now I can't even imagine why because a dog makes life so much better and so much more amusing and so much full, more full of love, that it's almost a sin not to have a dog. So right now we have Elsa; when I was doing a snail mail newsletter was the star of it. She'd have her picture throughout out a bit, and people would write and say less of you and more of Elsa. And I totally understand that.
Alessandra: I love that. And I saw a bunch of references to Trixie, is Trixie a dog?
Dean: Trixie was our first dog. I wrote a book about her called A Big Little Life.
Dean: And then after Trixie, came Anna and now Elsa, and the only terrible things about dogs is how short their lives are and how horrible it is to have to put one down - the hardest thing in life for me. But it's the way it is. And it's almost in a way of the way of being reminded that we don't live forever either.
Alessandra: It does. One line in this book said that some people believe that dogs have a psychic sense. Was that coming from a certain place? Do you think dogs have a psychic sense?
Dean: I do know that dogs are smarter than we give them credit for - the woman who founded the assistance dog thing, aside from the blind Bonnie Bergen who founded the first Canine Companions for Independence, which my wife and I have supported for 30 years now. She wrote a book called Teach Your Dog To Read, and she realized one day dogs were so clever that if you taught them all these things they could learn, like 50, 60 different tasks that they can learn, which you have to learn as an assistance dog, that she could also put the words for these on flashcards and teach the dog to recognize the word on a flashcard. And she did, she hold up the word sit and the dog would say, so she taught her dogs to read.
Now, that is strange in its own right, but I have had numerous experiences with our dogs that tell me there is a psychic connection that dogs see and hear things - well, we know they smell things we don't. Their sense of smell is thousands of times greater than ours, but I am sure they see things we don't, and that's where they're sort of reputation for having sort of psychic ability comes. And I've had many examples of it if I were right. I wrote about that a little bit in the book I wrote about Trixie A Big Little Life, but if I were to write another book, having had two more of these beautiful animals, I would have other examples to write about.
Alessandra: Our next question comes from Jennifer. She says it's been a pleasure to read your work. She's curious, have you ever had a moment of synchronicity in your own life that stood out or one that you'd like to share from all your research?
Dean: That is the other thing, the more I've studied synchronicity, I got intrigued of them just because it was interesting, like strange disappearances or UFOs or any of the rest of all the oddities in life. And then I began to realize, that's a number of years ago, that life is like this actually, that we kind of don't register it because we think of one coincidence is just a coincidence and we don't connect it to the chain of things that have to happen to bring that in front of us. One of my favorites is my wife and I went to a high school with 1200 students. We were in a small town of 4,000 people, but children came from all over the county to go to that high school, so it was an enormous school. And she was president of her class and I was class clown of my class. I was one year ahead of her. And I had never seen her in the hallways. I was a senior, she was a junior. And one day I was in a car with my friend whose father was the town banker, so they had two cars. My father was the town drunk, so we were lucky to have one car.
And we were in his car cruising and we came to a stop sign - stoplight, and there was this girl standing on the corner and it was my future wife. And I said to him, oh, who is that? Because in this large school, I'd never seen her. And he said, oh, you want nothing to do with her? She's the daughter of the town shoemaker. And I said to him, what does that mean? I'm the son of the town drunk, she's a giant step up for me. If we hadn't been on that corner at that moment, I had never seen her, though we had been in school all these years together; we were in just one class apart, but never our paths crossed. Then that happened, and in the subsequent of that, there were a series of coincidences that brought us together that in my mind amounts to a synchronicity. So yeah, the fundamental best thing that ever happened to me in life happened through a series of coincidences.
Alessandra: I think that's the best example that I could imagine. And speaking of your wife;; you and her work very closely together is my understanding. And I love that you're able to do that and maintain a happy environment. But can you tell me about how you all work together and what she handles in the business versus you and how she helps with your creative and business processes?
Dean: Well, her background was accounting, and I couldn't balance a checkbook with my life dependent on it, so that kind of differentiation of our talents is kind of crucial to this. So she takes care of anything, dealing with money. She oversees all of that, which frees me up to do all of this stuff I do on the creative end. And yet we have this shared interest that she was a heavy reader before she ever met me, I was a heavy reader before I met her, and we remained heavy readers afterward, so we shared that. We also shared the same sense of humor, which has a large element of absurdity in it because life is often absurd. So we share those things and I'm this person who looks at... I meet somebody and I say, wow, what an amazing, wonderful human being that is. And my wife will say, “I kind of like that person, but there's something wrong. She's always right about that.” So, that's another interesting thing.
She's saved me from all kind of relationships that would've been terrible for us in terms of we've sometimes lament you'll sometimes meet a wonderful person who's married to an awful person, and you have to give up the wonderful person in order not to have a relationship with the awful person, and the way we work together is that division of things. And then, because she's been such a heavy reader all her life, I trust her to read a novel of mine in manuscript and give me very good feedback. Now, when I was younger and male pride being what it is, she would say, I think this is good, but this and this have to be changed. And I would say, no, you are wrong. You're just don't understand the deeper literary meaning of what I'm doing. And then I'd find myself in my office making the changes. It took me a while to grow up and say, you know, she tell sometimes, and quite often hits the point because she's very much a realist and she'll identify those things that she feels, okay, you need to address this, I don't think this character would do it. So, I've learned just to go away and address it and not make an issue up.
Alessandra: That's fantastic. Natalie asked, "Is E.A Poe one of your favorite authors? He's one of mine, the two of you are my favorites, and I love seeing references to Poe in your books. Your language, the vividness reminds me of him."
Dean: Well, Poe with me, I love Poe for a long time. I would say as an older adult or a vastly older adult as I am now, I love Poe's poetry. I'm big on poetry. I have a large collection of poets and there's some that just resonate endlessly with you; Poe is one of those, TS Elliot is one of those. And they already get the less fiction, but I still admire it deeply, so I'm always referencing key moments in a book.
Alessandra: Marina asks how many drafts did you go through for the Big Dark Sky? It looks so polished.
Dean: Well, it's the way I work. We talked about that self-doubt issue; I have it every page of the novel. So when I start the first page, I can't get to the second page until I've got the language in that page. There may be things in story that need changed later, but the language has to be as polished as I can get it. So that'll be 10, 20, 30 drafts before I get to page two. Then the self-doubt comes back and page two is the same number of drafts. Then at the end of a chapter, I print it out because what you see in the page is different than what you see in the screen. And I penciled it a couple of different times and enter that. And by the time I get to the end of the novel, it's had so many drafts in progress that I never go back again, except if there's an editorial suggestions that I think, Hmm, that's good, that makes sense; let me deal with that. So, I don't do wonder after and go through and go back and do another. The drafts are all done in progress.
Alessandra: And we are just about out of time, but we have a couple questions hopefully we can get to them quickly. Someone said, I love Jane Hawk and devoured all five books. Will we ever see her again?
Dean: I don't think so, but it would all depend. We have a TV series in development based on the Jane Hawk books. And I have seen the first script by the writer, showrunner producer involved, and it was fabulous. And I don't say that lightly, mostly the scripts that I get based on my stuff make me want to throw up, but this script just dazzle me. So, I'm hopeful. And if Jane went on another medium, I might think of going back there because I like Jane almost as much as I like Odd Thomas. She was so tough and yet such a huge heart that I sort of fell in love with her.
Alessandra: And then a lot of people are asking if there's a place that they can get signed copies of books. Do you have a store? Do you know if there's a retailer that does sign copies? What is their best chance of ever getting a signed copy?
Dean: Well, COVID sort of put an into signings and I tend to not go out on signings anymore, but there's a bookstore called Poison Pen in Scottsdale, and that's owned by a woman named Barbara Peters, and I always signed books for Barbara. And we've been doing this for years. So if you looked up Poison Pen in Arizona in Scottsdale, you might be able to obtain sign copies from there. And Barbara knows that if she runs out of them, I'll always sign more for them. There are some other stores, but I'm not sure I could make that claim on their behalf, so I'll stay silent.
Alessandra: Fabulous. Thank you Dean for being here, it was fantastic. And if anyone hasn't read this book yet, it's available on Amazon; hard cover is also on Amazon as well. Thank you so much, Dean. Thank you everyone.
Dean: It was wonderful. Thank you.