As one of the most popular fiction writers today, Dean Koontz captivates his readers with his creative plotlines and unique characters, often incorporating a spiritual element into the story. According to a recent Beliefnet interview, Koontz says these elements are both partially woven into his writing consciously and partially come second nature as he's writing. This may have a lot to do with his own faith life. Although Koontz was born into the United Church of Christ, he converted to Catholicism after marrying his wife, Gerda.
Koontz—whose upcoming book, "Your Heart Belongs to Me" is set for release November 25th--spoke to Beliefnet about the amazing supernatural experience he had after his beloved dog died, how his father's attempt at murdering him affected his life and faith, and why he gives his characters free will.
Why did you convert to Catholicism from the United Church of Christ in which you were brought up?
I was from a dysfunctional family. And although my mother made sure I went to church, the family didn't reflect the values of the church. There wasn't a lot of closeness among relatives in our family.
When I started dating Gerda, we didn't have much money. We would go on Sundays to neighboring Jonestown, where she had aunts and uncles. I was so impressed with the sense of family among them and the fun they had being together and the easiness with which they interacted that I, either rightly or wrongly, identified that in my mind as being a consequence of Catholicism, which was so strong for all of them. So, it got me interested in it. When I was in college, I expanded my reading about things and ended up thinking about halfway through college that this was for me.
What's your favorite thing about being a Catholic?
It gives me a sense that the world has shape and form and function and meaning. I suppose that's my favorite thing about it, because I don't wander aimlessly seeking for some meaning in things. I have a sense of what those meanings are. It opened my eyes to a deeper, more complex world, and that leaves you a lifetime of exploring to follow.
What's your least favorite thing about being a Catholic?
How Vatican II threw away so much tradition. It's only beginning to come back. The Latin Mass and all of that was a great loss, something that is embraced and promoted for hundreds upon hundreds of years and then disappears overnight in an attempt to satisfy an urge toward trendiness. It was a great loss to the church, and I think it still is.
Has a situation in your life ever tested your faith to the point where you wanted to let it go?
There was a time in my life after losing my mother, who had a very difficult life, [where] she was ill. She was married to a man who later in life was diagnosed as sociopathic. I was in my 20s when she died.
That seemed to me so unfair [and then I began to] question whether things had meaning. But, it was a sophomoric kind of questioning. It wasn't anything that was intellectual in its nature. And time passed, and that doubt passed.
Your father tried to kill you a few years before he died. How has that incident affected your life and your faith?
The attempt came before he was in the home. When [my wife and I] moved west, one of the benefits of it was [we were] 3,000 miles from my father. I thought, "At last, I've got some distance here. The phone calls won't come at 2:00 in the morning that he's in some kind of trouble or he's too drunk [and] they won't let him leave a bar and get in his car and somebody has to come get him.
However, his health took a turn for the worse, and we had to bring him west and support him for 14 years. It was really toward the end of that [time]—I guess he must have been about 80 [with] the first attempt. He pulled a knife on me on two different occasions. The second time was in a retirement home. The first time made it necessary for him to go on anti-psychotics. He didn't need to be in a nursing home, but he needed to be under some supervision where we could be assured he was taking the anti-psychotics, that somebody was monitoring this. He was taking them in that retirement home. He couldn't drive anymore, but he could walk to the shopping center across the street. It was not a facility to which he was restricted. What nobody knew was that he was developing an immunity to the drug, or it was having the opposite effect, as sometimes these things do.
The second attempt was in front of a lot of witnesses, and that ended up—after he was committed to a psychiatric ward— requiring that then he spend time thereafter in a restricted facility.
It certainly affects your life. What more affected the life was his presence in it up until that moment. In my childhood he—especially when he was very drunk—would threaten to kill us all, my mother, me and himself. As a kid I assumed sooner or later that would happen. Then, I grew up and it hadn't happened, and I felt guilty about that. I felt like, as awful as he is and all the terrible things he's done, I was putting upon him a heavier weight of evil perhaps than he actually carried.
But, one of the psychiatrists who had to deal with him after his first outburst, the first attempt with the knife and he went in for observation and everything, called me in and said, "Let me tell you some things about your father. He would not go to church or be religious in any way, except periodically, when things went really bad for him. Then he would sit around all day reading the Bible and quoting it and everything." She began to list a number of personality traits as things he would do from time to time. And it became eerie, because she was telling me things that I thought nobody could know unless they had grown up in [my] house. She said to me, "I believe your father is a paranoid schizophrenic with tendencies to violence, complicated by alcoholism." Later, he got a darker diagnosis than that. But, she said, "These are the kind of people with all this complexity of problems." This was in the days before they were really finding drugs that were effective.
She [then went on to say that], "Somebody with this tendency to violence complicated by alcoholism and has a paranoid schizophrenic complex will frequently be the kind of person you do see in the news who has killed himself and his family. It was good of you as a child to come through this without more of the problems you have." I said, "Well, writing is, to some degree, therapy, and I think every writer works out some of his own problems in the course of telling his stories."
But, at that moment I realized that my guilt was not proper, my feeling that I was putting too much weight of evil on him. Actually, I wasn't. And whatever his problems, whether they were partly behavioral, partly of his own making or partly because of some condition he was born with in a mental way, I'll never know, but I think it's probably a combination of both. But, it never taxed my belief that life had meaning and purpose. In fact, seeing him live his life without meaning and purpose sort of showed me the way to live life more successfully.
Good always seems to prevail in your books. Is it because of your faith that you always believe that, ultimately, good will triumph over evil? When you write, do you want good to prevail because in your own life to some degree it didn’t?
It's actually sort of the opposite. I saw my father live a life where everything was done for himself, when he subsequently was diagnosed as sociopathic. And, of course, I've written a number of novels where a sociopath is the center of the action, even before my father was diagnosed.
When I looked at the way he lived his life, it was always about himself. It was always about his wants and desires and not about anybody else. Therefore, he broke just about every kind of rule of behavior and cultural or legal behaviors that would make a life an acceptable or an admired one.
And yet, although he had a lot of fun—he drank a lot and he ran around with a lot of women and he was gambling—all the things he wanted to do that he thought were fun, he got to do and he got away with. But, he never had a pleasant life. He was always an unhappy man, and although he would never have acknowledged it, always sort of desperate.
In the end, he ended up with nothing, with no friends and no family who cared about him. When he died and I had to make a list of people to call, there was no one to call because he had left a life without any friends. Even what few family members he had were uninterested. Nobody sent flowers, nobody thought of coming to a memorial or anything like that. In the end, that kind of behavior did not lead to a satisfying life.
I often say that in the short run, evil wins. I've seen it all my life. Bad behavior can triumph in the short run. But, in the long run I never see that it does. I think it's more realistic to say that most of the time good does triumph over evil, even in the shorter run, but certainly in the longer run. It's partly faith-based, but it's partly just practical, just looking at the way I've seen life for the past 60 years.
You've acknowledged that spirituality has always been an element in your books. Are you weaving these spiritual elements in consciously, or is it just second nature as you're writing?
It gets to be a little bit of both, but I would say it happens because of what your world view is. And it's going to happen automatically without your straining to do it. The way I sometimes begin a story is with a premise, just an odd little thing.
Then, I look at it and a character has to come into my mind, and I have to be able to play with him very quickly in the first chapter to begin to see a person I want to know a lot more about and that I find engaging. But, at the same time that's happening, premise and character, there's constant questioning going on in my mind. What is this about, really, besides the story, because, if it isn't about something more than the plot and more than the unveiling of the character, then it isn't interesting enough to write.
And for me, that often leads to issues of moral or spiritual nature, and they begin to arrive naturally from the kind of story it is. So, you look at that and say, "Okay, I now understand what this story is really about."
In the case of something like "Odd Thomas," which began with the character, not with the premise, I could see right off that the story was going to be about great loss and how you persevere through it, and how a faith and a belief in a universe of meaning and purpose will help you do that. And so, the themes rise up out of the situations, and then I just go with them. I don't generally have to impose anything. Otherwise, I think it could start to sound like somebody on a soapbox.
Do you think you'll ever go the Anne Rice route and write an explicitly Christian novel?
I don't know. What I will say is I think I'm more interested in exploring, even though I am a Catholic. There's something for me that's more interesting than not just explicating something according to the doctrine of the church but looking at the world and applying some of your faith to analyzing things about it differently.
This is a very difficult subject to explain. I wrote a book called "From the Corner of His Eye," and it takes on the subject of how meaningful every single act that we do in life is, and how everything we do reverberates through the lives of others in ways we will never see, and why one good act can reverberate again and again through life--through different lives. One small, good act can reverberate and grow through different lives and inspire something good in someone else that keeps growing until a great goodness comes out of it at the far end, just as an evil act can inspire evil acts that are greater than the initial one because they grow as they occur through lives. That was a difficult thing in the novel to try to show rather than tell.
If I'd tried to write it with a Christian kind of overt framework, I would, first, lose some readers, which [I'd] want to keep because I want them to follow [me] on this journey. But, secondly, it would have also limited my thinking about it, because where I went in that novel was into quantum mechanics, because I'm a reader of science.
It had occurred to me several times that what we see in quantum mechanics and in modern physics is a confirmation of any spiritual description--most faith descriptions of how the universe works. The further you go into the quantum world, the more you get into the feeling that some of the things they say about this parallel perfectly with some ideas that faith teaches you about the nature of the world and that religion teaches you about the nature of the world. That's fascinated me, that out of quantum mechanics and even molecular biology, you get confirmations of a created universe if you're willing to think about them.
I wanted to write a novel in which that was dramatized. And so by the time I had finished it, it's a novel about faith and the necessity of faith and hope, but it's also a novel about quantum mechanics and how the intersection of faith and science can work and where it can illuminate and brighten our understanding of our own existence.
That kind of thing I find more intriguing than just retelling any story that comes to us from one faith or another. A friend of mine, after he read it said, "This whole book is about exploring the concept of the mystical body of Christ." And I said, "It really is, but almost nobody will ever notice that."
And that doesn't matter. It isn't that anybody needs to notice that. It's just that, in exploring quantum mechanics and seeing where it intersects with faith, you start to see that these things can support each other, that they're not mutually exclusive.
Of course, the first of all scientists --in the Western tradition, anyway—many of them were Jesuits, and the science was often supported by the church, although that isn't what most people think who don't know history as well. That's how I'd rather apply the faith thing, to say where are we, why are we here, and explore where it takes me on a subject like quantum mechanics or something else rather than to retell a story—although retelling a story and imagining the missing details, as I believe [Rice] did, is also a fascinating thing.
Do you think that there's a specific character you identify with most spiritually from one of your books?
It's very strange. I learned a number of years ago not to sit down and think about a character too much, not to make any notes about a character or lists. Sometimes young writers say to me, "I write a profile of each character before I begin a book." And I tend to say, "Well, it works differently for every writer, but I would suggest you don't do that, because you're forming the character. You're not letting the character form himself."
Instead of making notes and making character profiles, for me the best thing to do is give the character free will.
And when you know that about him, then you say, "Why is he that way and who is he, and where does that come from? I often say to young writers God gave us free will to do what we want, to go wrong or do right, and you have to do the same with your character. You hope and believe he's a person who's doing what he's doing for the right reasons, but he's going to evolve--and it's true for women characters, too--they're going to evolve on their own if you let them. They will take the story into places you never imagined it would go.
That's the exciting part of writing, because the characters just fascinate you. They're constantly a surprise. I've got a low boredom threshold. I'm a--potentially a slacker by nature, so I always have to resist that. And when I sit down at the keyboard, I've got to entertain myself, because, if I'm not, I'm not going to be able to spend all the hours it takes to get this story down right. As a consequence, when you give them free will, they amaze you. It's during those moments where they take over the story, that you really feel in communion with something higher than yourself, that you're exercising the creativity, which I sometimes think is a thing that really means we're created in God's image. We're creators as he is—[though] not on such a grand scale. But, that moment, when you're exercising your creativity, it often feels almost like a sacred moment.
Demons are another common occurrence in your books. Do you believe in real-life demons?
I believe the world is deeply mysterious and it's full of wonder, and both wonder of a bright kind and wonder of a dark. As to specific demons and things like that, I don't know that I go to the extent that I would identify individual demonic spirits. But, I will tell you, I have lived long enough to believe not just what Catholicism tells me, not just because it tells me there is real evil in the world, an embodied evil, but because I have seen so many things in my life that make no sense to me. I see people do evil that harms them as much as it harms somebody else, and yet they're compelled and driven to do it for no apparent psychological reason.
So, I do wonder, and I do look around and have no problem believing that there are forces at war in the world. And there are forces for good and there are forces for evil, and they go beyond the mundane. They go into something that is a spiritual realm.
Would you say that you believe in real life angels, as well?
I would say that I've had some experiences that lead me to believe that spiritual forces work in the world. One of them I've written about recently. We had this dog that we loved so much...
Yeah. And when she passed the grief was intense. [Gerda and I] knew it would be, because she was an exceptional dog, and very intelligent and just a delight. But we didn't know it was going to be as hard as it turned out to be.
The first week after [she passed] we decided to walk around to places on the property that she particularly liked and spend that hour memorializing it, I suppose. And then three weeks to the day--actually, almost to the minute—[that she passed] we walked out of the house and we went down to one area on the property that she particularly liked. We were standing there and suddenly out of a tree came this butterfly bigger than my hand. I'd never seen a butterfly in my life this size. It was bright gold--not yellow, but very gold. I would say the color of [Trixie's] coat when the sun was hitting it.
It flew around our heads three or four times, batting our faces and our hair. Neither one of us reacted with alarm or anything, just sort of startlement. And nothing—no butterfly in my experience—had done anything like that, either. Then it flew up and was gone. Gerda and I are not people who are always seeing supernatural moments in life. I don't believe the supernatural enters the world visibly very often.
But, she looked at me and said, "Was that Trixie?" And I immediately said, "Yes, I think so."
Neither one of us said anything more to each other about it. We walked around the property. And later that night, Gerda said to me, "I can't get over thinking about the butterfly because of how impossible it looked." And I said, "I think it looked impossible, too. But, aside from the size, what do you think was impossible?" And she said, "The wings were so thick. Nothing with wings that thick--no butterfly--could fly." And I said, "Well, how do you know—why do you think the wings were thick?"
Because when I had seen it, I was impressed with the fact that the wings seemed almost like a stained glass mobile piece that might hang from the ceiling in the shape of a butterfly, with leading around the edge to hold the wings together. She said it seemed to her there was a rope of neon around the edges of the wing. So, we had a similar reaction, with a different description of the detail, which made it all seem even more real to me. I think it was a moment of the supernatural in which Trixie's spirit was saying, "I'm okay."
Only weeks before she died, we had a couple of friends here for dinner who were monks. They had not met Trixie before, but when they were here, they were so taken with her that at one point one of them looked at the other and said, "What do you think about this dog?" And the other one said, "Well, I don't know. Dean, have you ever read the Book of Tobit?" I hadn't. It's a book of the Apocrypha. But, I did go and read it, and it's a very subtlety told story about an angel who visits in human form the [main] character. Tobit had been with him previously in the form of a dog.
So, do I believe in angels present among us? I think the supernatural world interacts with our world in ways that are so subtle that we're frequently unaware of it. And then, when we are aware of it, we look for other ways to explain it.
As someone who is very logical in the way he moves about everything in life, I would say for a large part of my life those things got explained away by logic. It didn't mean that my faith meant I had to believe in all that sort of thing. But, the older I've gotten, the less the logic works for me and the more I look at the world and say, every day, how mysterious and strange it is. And it'll be fascinating one day to discover what it really all means.