Supernatural thriller writer Dean Koontz has written more than 50 novels, 45 of which have been on The New York Times’ best-seller list.
While his novels are often filled with darkness (Faith & Family magazine warns: “Disturbing scenes include violence, gore and frightening portrayals of great evil; some sexuality.”), he is animated by his Catholic faith — a faith which has become more evident in his books in recent years.
His most recent book is Brother Odd (Bantam), his latest in a series of books about the character Odd Thomas. Koontz spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from his home in California about faith and its impact on his writing.
Tell me about your family.
I grew up in Bedford, Pa. My dad was a very difficult man. He drank heavily and chased women. He was a gambler, and violent. He held 44 jobs in 24 years and was sometimes fired because he punched out a boss. We never knew if we would be able to keep a roof over our heads. I used his behavior as a guide: Each time I was in a quandary about a decision with moral implications, I did exactly the opposite from what I believed he would have done in the same situation.
My mother was far different from my father — a good, honest, very dear person with a lot of health problems. Considering the hell he put her through, I don’t know why she stayed with him. Sometimes at 2 a.m., we got calls from barrooms where my father was unconscious on the floor. So we walked two or three miles to load him in his car and bring him home.
My mother gave me shelter in the midst of poverty and violence. Without her inner strength, my father would have done great harm to her and me.
My cousin told me that once my mother, having found 20 cents in a pay phone return slot, agonized for a couple of days before deciding what to do with it. She put it in the church collection plate.
What was your faith background growing up?
I grew up in the United Church of Christ. My father was never a churchgoer. My mother pretty frequently was. I went to church and Sunday school regularly.
What led you to consider Catholicism?
I met Gerda, my wife, when I was a senior in high school and she was a junior. We were from the same small town. She was Catholic.
My house was a disaster zone, and a lot of people in my family were endlessly fighting with one another. When I started dating Gerda, it was amazing to me that all these people [in her family] got along. They were an Italian family. It was a different world that I was seeing. I began to associate it with Catholicism.
Ultimately, I converted because the Catholic faith started appealing to me and gave me answers for my own life. I made the decision to convert during college.
Catholicism permits a view of life that sees mystery and wonder in all things, which Protestantism does not easily allow. As a Catholic, I saw the world as being more mysterious, more organic and less mechanical than it had seemed to me previously, and I had a more direct connection with God.
I feel about Catholicism as G.K. Chesterton did — that it encourages an exuberance, a joy about the gift of life. I think my conversion was a natural growth. Even in the darkest hours of my childhood, I was an irrepressible optimist, always able to find something to fill me with amazement, wonder and delight. When I came to the Catholic faith, it explained to me why I always had — and always should have — felt exuberant and full of hope.
Do you consider yourself a practicing Catholic?
Yes. Occasionally I’ve lapsed, as I suspect most of us do, but my faith only grows stronger with time. I can’t imagine that life could throw anything at me to change that.
In what ways did your upbringing impact your art?
Everything you go through in life is meant to instruct you. Eventually you realize that your experiences are lessons to help you understand the meaning and purpose of your existence. As a boy, I yearned for a normal family life, but later I understood that the darkness of my childhood was in a strange way a gift. Because of the poverty and violence of those early years, I have a depth of experience to draw upon that enriches my work.
It was cathartic to write about some of those things. The benefit of that childhood for me was to show me that there is evil in the world and that you have to find your way to thread through it, reject it and find other ways to live, and not let it destroy you. It also brought me a recognition that life isn’t all about want and suffering. That’s not what I believe about life. My life has shown me that evil can win in the short run, but it never wins in the long run.
Your novels are filled with darkness, yet optimism prevails. Why do you write about such dark things?
I don’t shy away from having violent things happen, but I don’t dwell on it. I feel, as a Christian, writing books that have a moral purpose to them, it’s actually incumbent upon me to write about evil, because this kingdom is Satan’s and he is the prince of the world. It’s here and it’s among us.
My villains are pathetic. I never glorify a villain. I couldn’t write something like Hannibal because there’s something there that makes the villain the most glamorous person in the piece. I can’t write that. I don’t find evil glamorous. You’ll never find it that way in my books.
I need to portray the true struggle of this world, so there are bad characters in my books. We need to be honest about the violence that we face, including that which we became aware of on 9/11 — an evil that denies the legitimacy of the civilization that we know and an evil that doesn’t value human life. A lot of people want to turn away from it. We’re going to be defeated by it if we can’t recognize the depth of that evil.
Evil walks among us. We don’t always see it. Each of us, in our daily lives, encounters evil; we are tempted to evil every day of our lives. If we don’t want to read about it or think about it, I don’t think that’s a truly Christian point of view. We have to acknowledge it, face it and defeat it. That’s what each of my books is about.
For example, One Doorway Away From Heaven concerns utilitarian bioethics. Utilitarian bioethics, which would deny the life of a disabled child, has infected our whole medical system. If you don’t want to know about it, it’s going to triumph. Avoiding the recognition of evil is profoundly sinful. There is a purpose and meaning in our lives, and that purpose includes confronting evil, not succumbing to it.
Have your novels become more spiritual over time?
Spirituality has always been an element of my books. People who see it as a sudden development were just not perceiving it previously, when it was less central to the story. I write about our struggle as fallen souls, about the grace of God, but I never get on a soapbox about it. I’m first and foremost an entertainer.
If you remain alert to the lessons of life and aware of the mystery of the world, it is difficult to deny the existence of design in all things.
I can walk in the rose garden, watch the joyful capering of my dog and see the indisputable work of God. The key is beauty. If the world is merely a complex and efficient machine, beauty is not required. Beauty is in fact superfluous. Therefore beauty is a gift to us. If we were soulless machines of meat, the survival instinct would be all we needed to motivate us. The pleasures of the senses — such as taste and smell — are superfluous to machines in a godless world. Therefore, they are gifts to us, and evidence of divine grace. The older I’ve gotten, the more beauty, wonder and mystery I see in the world, which is why there are ever more of those three things in my books.
Your stories contain many Catholic truths. Is that purposeful?
Many writers are nihilists or at the least cynics. They deny that spiritual, moral and cultural truths exist. If you believe life is meaningless, what have you left to say as a writer? Nothing interesting. Nihilism is the philosophy of perpetual adolescence.
Many years ago, I stopped outlining stories. I started with a character I liked, and just plunged. With no outline, I went where the characters took me. I gave them free will, and a wonderful, mysterious thing happened. The characters made their way to truths through their actions, and these truths grew from within the work rather than being imposed by me from without.
When you create this way, you find yourself in a flow state — what athletes call “being in the zone” — and in the flow state you feel your creativity coming to you from a higher and much greater creativity. You feel the presence of God, a humbling experience. This is why I avoid publicity as much as I can. The book is more important than the author. Critical praise and celebrity are hollow rewards. Real joy comes from those moments during the writing when you feel the great beating heart of the divine.
While I was working on The Face, a line came into my head … “My name is Odd Thomas. I lead an unusual life.” It had nothing to do with The Face, but suddenly I began writing longhand — which I never do — and finished a first chapter of Odd Thomas. That book, from beginning to end, was a flow-state experience of great joy.
In the Odd Thomas series, the overriding theme is the beauty and power of humility. The first three Odd books were gifts to me, and I can’t wait to write the fourth. Alone at the keyboard, you find that writing is meditation, sometimes even prayer.
Tim Drake writes from
St. Joseph, Minnesota.