Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Interview: Novelist Dean Koontz

Novel: What The Night Knows
By Mark Young
Release of author Dean Koontz's latest novel may create new definitions of terror, nightmare, and demonic possession. In What the Night Knows, Dean has created his own special genre. This gripping and exquisitely written tale refuses to fall within the confines of any genre definitions. What the Night Knows, scheduled for release December 28, 2010 rains upon the reader a potpourri of mystery, suspense, police procedural, romance, and flat-out terror.

This police procedural requires its lead character to go where no rational cop dares ventureinto the consideration of demonic possession and the possibility of evil surviving beyond the grave. There is also the exploration of the deep love between homicide detective John Calvino and his artist wife, Nicolette, and between them and their three children. Don't get cozy, reader. Love serves  only as a brief respite as the Calvino family struggles to keep one another alive and their would-be killers at bay. And for mystery lovers, we have who-done-it murders where the most likely suspect died years ago.

A brutal killer--Alton Turner Blackwoodmurdered four families two decades earlier and thousands of miles away from where John Calvino lives now. Back then, fourteen-year-old John killed Blackwood as the killer lingered over the bodies of the boy's freshly killed family. Now John is a 34-year-old homicide cop, haunted by his past. Recent killings identical to those twenty years earlier lead John to suspect that his own family might be the next target.

Simultaneously, strange things are happening to John's three children as they struggle to understand seemingly supernatural events that are  occurring in their home.

Rather than risk giving too much away about this captivating story, let's focus our attention on the author and creator: It is a great honor to have Dean visit us here today.

MARK: Dean, once again, you've created an unusual event, a story within a story that never lets the reader go until the final resolution. Let's start with a basic question about your writing: How do you come up with an amazing plot like What the Night Knows? Does it start with a general concept or idea? Or are you one of those lucky ones who has a good grasp of the whole story and who knows exactly where this next writing journey will take you?

DEAN: An idea never comes to me as a complete story. One of the joys of writing is the struggle to properly develop a premise after it has occurred to me and excited me. No fine novel can be intricately plotted before you start writing because that approach elevates raw mechanics above the art and craft. I sometimes know a couple of set pieces I might like to include, which are suggested by the premise itself, or I might know the essence of the ending, but by allowing the characters free will, I not only allow them to become more real, but I ensure that the story line will be more organic, more true to life in spite of the fantastic elements.

In the case of What the Night Knows, I had just started work on another novel when the idea for a ghost story slammed me. I turned to a tablet beside the keyboard, on which I make notes to myself, and I wrote down exactly this: Twenty years ago, a serial killer murdered four families. The only survivor was John, from the fourth family—and John managed to kill his family's murderer, saving himself. Now John is 34, has a much-loved wife and children of his own—and someone is murdering families exactly as they were murdered twenty years earlier. John, a man of reason, comes to suspect a supernatural entity is at work. Will his new family be the fourth target this time, too—and how does he defend against a disembodied spirit? That was the nugget, but of course the novel became far more complicated as it progressed.

Sometimes I can identify the inspiration for a novel, the chain of real-life events that seeded the idea, sometimes not. In this case, not. The idea just came from nowhere, I recognized the power of it, and realized the ghost would be a metaphor for certain real-world forces that destroy families every day, which would allow layers of texture and subtext. When I passed the idea along to my editor and publisher, they were as enthusiastic about it as I was—to such an extent that I set aside the book I had begun and instead wrote this one.

MARK: One of the most interesting exchanges in the novel occurs between John and a defrocked priest, Peter Abelard. First, the name of the priest seemed intriguing. I learned that the real Peter Abelard, born in 1079 A.D., was a well-known French philosopher-priest and theologian in his day. Is the reference intentional?

DEAN: Yes, it's intentional, but nobody needs to notice it to follow the story. The real Peter Abelard first proposed new ways of thinking about the world and sacred order that eventually led to Freud and Marx. A good argument could be made that the seeds for the death of the West were planted by Abelard and have been watered ever since, until we now live with the fruit of his ideas. To discuss this at any interesting level would require 50,000 words! It's that subtextual kind of thing that readers are better not noticing because it only distracts them—and I'm amazed that you, in the first interview I do for this book, bring it up! I'm sure no one else will. Subtext is like the concrete foundation of a house: Once it's poured and the residence is built atop it, you don't need to know exactly what mix of concrete and gravel and steel rebar went into it in order to enjoy living in the house.

In the novel, the defrocked priest, Abelard, is in such a dark place psychologically that as I wrote that scene, the hair went up on the back of my neck more than once. John Calvino's encounter with him is creepy and to some extent heartbreaking. It's one of those scenes that, when you finally get it right, you want to jump up and do a little end-zone dance and spike the ball, except you're a writer and you don't have a ball to spike, so you'd have to spike your keyboard, which would be expensive and stupid.

MARK: John also goes to his local priest, Father Bill, for counsel and reveals a tentative belief in demonic powers. But Fr. Bill  characterizes John's belief as superstitious, not faith condoned by the modern church. On the other hand, Abelardthe ousted priest, grappling with his own demonsis not dismissive as is Fr. Bill. The irony here is that the practicing priest offers John less aid and sympathy than does the defrocked priest who has too much experience with his own tendency to evil. These scenes obviously counterpoint each other. What was your intention with them?   

DEAN: First, I wanted to see John go to everyone he would logically approach for help in this extraordinary situation—and receive no help at all. He turns, as well, to his detective partner, with no better results. I knew he had to be isolated and desperate—before he realized that his only reliable allies were his wife and children. And then, perhaps too late, he also discovers that they have been having extraordinary experiences, as well, and that the spirit presence in their house has been using their fears and their love for one another to turn each of them inward and isolate each until it may be too late for them to share what they know and in sharing save themselves.

After that, there are several reasons for those two scenes. There's a dark kind of humor in the scene with Fr. Bill—just when I think the story needs a bit of wryness. And the Abelard scene ratchets up the creepy factor in advance of the extended third-act action sequences. It's also true of everyone in this story—except for the youngest child, Minnie, and perhaps also excepting her mother, Nicky—that he or she is in some way flawed, in some way foolish, and in need of maturing experience and/or redemption. Fr. Bill isn't actively evil, he means well, he is a big believer in positive thinking and paying it forward, but he is such an intellectual lightweight that it is possible that, by the end of his career, he might have done no less damage to his parishioners than has the more profoundly troubled, weak, and wicked Abelard.

MARK: Alton Turner Blackwood first makes his sinister appearance in a novella titled Darkness Under the Sun, just released October 25, 2010, as an eBook exclusive. In this coming-out for Blackwood, readers learn about this killer "who knew the night, its secrets and rhythms. How to hide within shadows. How to hunt." In What the Night Knows, Blackwood--or others under his influencecommits acts of great evil. How did this eBook release work to get people interested in What the Night Knows? What was the strategy behind unfolding this character's story in this manner?

DEAN: The events in the 14,000-word novella take place a year prior to the events in the novel. Darkness Under the Sun concerns an incident in Alton Turner Blackwood's life that inspired him to give up his days on the road, where he killed one victim at time, and instead to begin killing whole families. There was no way to drop this episode into the novel without destroying its structure and leading the reader too far away from the primary story. Writing an associated novella seemed the way to go, and Bantam thought the best way to use it was as an eBook, to build interest in this deformed and decidedly strange antagonist. I'm not much for strategy. I leave that to others.

MARK: As the title implies, the night in this novel almost becomes a character. However, the night does not take sides. Good and evil people struggle for position under the cover of night, for survival and supremacy. Can you tell us a little about this unique character and what it brings to the story? 

DEAN: You'll have to tell me what it brings to the story. I'm not the one to judge that it works or not. I don't actually personify the night in the story, but you're right that it serves, in some ways, as a character, not unlike the town of Pico Mundo in Odd Thomas and the great Bel Air Mansion, Palazzo Rospo, in The Face. Sometimes I like to take a key element of the setting--night, a town, a house, the flora of southern California in The Husband--and give it a heightened reality, explore it with some of the tools of magical realism, for a whole host of reasons, not least of all to weave text and subtext into a coherent fabric. Besides, when you challenge yourself to deal with one element of a setting in hyper-visual and emotional language that makes it almost a character, you find yourself unable to resort to cliche in any part of the story.

MARK: There seemed to be some confusion among your fans earlier this year about the story line of What the Night Knows. Initially it was described as a scary novel about a dog and a character named Kirby Wayland. Later it ended up being a ghost story with a main character named John Calvin. Can you clarify this confusion?

DEAN: When I put aside the Kirby Wayland story because this ghost story slammed into my head and demanded to be written, we didn't have a title for it. I sent my editor and publisher what seemed like tens of thousands of titles but was, I'm sure, more like thirty, and they sent me a bunch of titles, as well. They weren't crazy about any of mine, and I wasn't crazy about any of theirs. This was all friendly, you understand. We weren't spitting and cursing and threatening vengeance. But the title search did go on and on as I wrote the novel. Then one day I realized that the title of the Kirby Wayland story fit this story, too, and even better. I sent an email to my publisher, suggesting we take the title from the book I had set aside and use it on this one, which had so obsessed me. Just as that email was sent, one from my publisher came in, with the same suggestion. We simultaneously had the identical thought and had at the same moment acted on it. Spooky. But because the title was already associated with the Kirby Wayland story on some Web postings, there was confusion for a while. I'm a master at sewing confusion.

MARK: One of the more endearing characters in this novel is eight-year-old Minnie. She seems to possess an understanding of the whole other-world struggle that others do not grasp. Is Minnie's unique worldview because of her near-death experience earlier in her young life?

DEAN: The reader's expectation would be that if one of the three children was a mensch, it would be either 14-year-old Zach or 11-year-old Naomi, so it's better to play against expectations. But in any event, characters become who they insist on becoming, so Minnie was going to be Minnie regardless. As the youngest and also the least self-interested of the children, Minnie is also the most innocent.   Alton Turner Blackwood is absolute corruption, evil, and given his supernatural power, there is no way to defeat him unless one in the family can be said to possess the essence of innocence.  

MARK: Thanks for sharing this time with us, Dean.

DEAN: Thanks for asking questions that made me look like at least somewhat less of an idiot than usual.
Dean Koontz is the ultimate artisan of suspense. You can learn more about his prolific writing career at


  1. Great interview, loved to hear from one of the masters of the written word. Thanks! - Julia

  2. Appreciate your visit. He is a master storyteller and creator. I know you will enjoy his latest novel.

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