Dean Koontz exorcising demons, finding happiness
(CNN) -- Dean Koontz is one of the best-selling authors of all time, with more than 200 million books in print. America's most popular suspense novelist, his 32 New York Times best-sellers rank him up there with Agatha Christie and Barbara Cartland. And his latest release, "Seize the Night," topped the Wall Street Journal's January 15 best-seller list.
Koontz's unique blend of suspense, shivery gore, science fiction, the supernatural and a touch of horror has made him a wealthy man. His latest contract with Bantam Books pays him more than $18 million for three books.
"I can't go on to page two until I can get page one as perfect as I can make it," Koontz reveals. "That might mean I will rewrite and rewrite page one 20, 30, 50, 100 times. I build a book the way coral reefs are formed, on all these little dead bodies of marine polyps, you know?"
On the surface, everything looks just rosy for Dean Koontz. Like his heroes, Koontz himself is mild mannered, tidy, polite, charming and funny -- just a normal guy next door playing with Trixie, his golden retriever.
Koontz cheerfully admits to being a compulsive neatnik. He keeps his black 12 cylinder Mercedes in a garage so clean you could eat off the floor. But, like a Dean Koontz novel, below the surface boils a maelstrom.
"There are so many demons in me I could write for another 100 years," he says.
'He always threatened to kill us'
Like his heroes, Koontz's life has been a wrestling match with powerful, evil demons.
Dean Koontz's story begins in a small tar paper shanty in Bedford, Pennsylvania. His father Ray was the town drunk. Ray Koontz averaged a fifth of whiskey per day. In 34 years, he held 44 jobs.
"He always threatened to kill us when I was a child, and I always thought he would do it; and I grew up, and he had," says Koontz. "I mean there's was lots of violence, but it never came to the ultimate thing. And then you developed a certain guilt because you always thought your father was going to try to kill you and he never did and then you feel sort of guilty about it. Well, no matter what he is, no matter all the despicable things he's done, why would I have thought that way about him? He is my father."
Koontz vividly remembers when his father came home drunk.
"We lived in a very small house," he says. "It was the next thing to a shack. It was a tar paper roof and it was very small and there were four small rooms. (My mother) would always send me to my room when he would come home drunk and then she would try to keep him from coming into the room. And for the longest time I think she thought I was unaware of how bad it was because she had convinced herself somehow that, if I was just in that other room... But of course hearing it sometimes was worse than seeing it, and I saw plenty."
He would hear the screaming, the things breaking, the fighting, through the thin walls. When his father finally passed out, Koontz always followed an unvarying self-defense ritual before going to bed himself. First, he slid the window up and down precisely twice. Then he untucked his bed sheets and slipped his chair under the desk.
Finally, he went to the closet and balanced a jar of pennies on top of a stack of books. He was convinced that his father was going to come after him through the closet and he needed an easy escape route.
Falling in love
Koontz realized that his family life was not the norm. After that tough childhood he graduated from high school in 1963. He went to work as a grocery store clerk and enrolled in college, where he got a degree in English in 1966. That same year he married Jerda, his high school sweetheart.
"When I approached her for a class dance she said, 'Oh, I can't go out that night,' and I said, 'But you have to, you're president of your class, it's your class dance, you have to go out.' And she said, 'Well, I'm going to the dance, but I have to sell tickets at the door, then I have to sell refreshments and I run the record player for a while and then I clean up.' And I said, 'Well, then let's do it together.' So that was our first date."
Now the couple can't believe the have reached this plateau of success.
"I didn't even think we'd make it out of Pennsylvania," Jerda says. "California was a dream place."
Brush with death
But before the dream came the nightmares. When Koontz's father was 75 years old, he did try to kill his son, with a knife. Koontz says he hasn't forgiven his father.
"You don't have to forgive; you have to understand," he says. "I can never forgive him for what he did to my mother, but I ended up supporting my father for 14 years. Life is not necessarily fair and it was a very, very strange period in my life to have to bring him back into it because he became destitute."
Koontz says his father was in a retirement home when he pulled the knife.
"He'd gone out to a sporting goods store and he'd bought a long-bladed fish-gutting knife and he had strapped it and when he pulled that knife on me, that was a very close thing because the struggle for the knife spilled over into the hall," Koontz says. "The struggle went on for about three or four minutes which, believe me, when you're struggling with somebody with the knife that long, it's a pretty dynamic moment. And I got the knife away from him."
Koontz is convinced that his father would have killed him.
"He had the knife through my clothing ... it went through my shirt," he says. "He was making a strenuous and considerable effort and I got the knife away from him and I hadn't been aware they'd called the police and at just that moment the police rounded the corner of the hallway, two police officers. And they see me holding a knife. Now, they've had a call for somebody with a knife in this residential home. Well, I write about police procedure and all this stuff and I know exactly what they do and yet in real life I responded as stupidly as you could. And they looked at me and said drop the knife.
"I said, 'Oh, no, it's not me. It was him in the room. I took it away from him.' They both drew their guns and said, 'Drop the knife.' And I'm still trying to discuss it with them. 'No, no, it's not me. It's him in that other room.' And finally they brought the guns up into the firing position and said, 'Drop the knife,' and I said, 'Uh-oh.' And I dropped the knife."
About that time, the retirement home manager arrived and explained the situation. Koontz must have been taking mental notes, because he ended up using that scene in the TV movie, "Mr. Murder."
Dean's father died three years later.
Dean and dogs
Dogs, cast both marvelously intelligent and insanely evil, play important roles in Dean Koontz's novels and the films made from them.
"When I was eight I remember writing one about the perfect puppy," says Koontz. "I guess I always liked dogs, too. I was always fascinated with dogs."
Koontz's parents had twice tried getting him a dog, but both attempts ended in disaster. The first dog attacked him and the second one became ill. So perhaps it's not so curious that despite his love and fascination for dogs, Koontz didn't own a dog until last year, when he was a boyish 53 years old.
Dean and Jerda adopted their beautiful and remarkably intelligent golden retriever Trixie from a national organization called Canine Companions for Independence. Trixie was being trained to help disabled people, and when she developed a medical problem that made her unfit for service, they gave her a home.
Koontz has written about Canine Companions in more than one of his books, and the group is one of the principal beneficiaries of his will. For Koontz, in fiction and fact, the breeding of dogs, humans and other animals is a vital concern.
Trixie is like the Koontz's child. The couple has deliberately avoided parenthood for reasons that remain close to Koontz's upbringing.
"My father ... had two brothers who committed suicide. There were problems, sometimes, in the family. My father (was) evaluated as borderline schizophrenic with tendencies to violence, complicated by alcoholism. And he had degenerative brain syndrome and ... a number of problems.
"And you begin to think, What if we have a child? And this thing obviously didn't hit me, but what if it jumps a generation? We were afraid of that. And so we started looking into it. Is this possibly something that could be? And yes, it could. And so we made a very conscious decision that we weren't going to do that.
Writing is therapy
Koontz lives in Newport Beach, California. Each day at precisely 7 A.M. he climbs the stairs, passes his exquisite collection of Chinese and art deco art work, and enters an obsessively tidy writing studio. Stopping only for sips of diet soda, he exorcises the devils of his past by casting them into his present work.
"You really are (in therapy) because you're putting so much of yourself into it," he says. "No matter what the story was about, your thoughts, your own problems were reinterpreted into that book. I had an editor at Putnam that said to me one day, 'All of your books are about rebuilding families.' And I said, 'No, that's not true. That isn't in every book.' And then I, to just prove it, I went back to the list of books and I couldn't find one that it didn't fit (that description).
"I realized afterward that ... there was this yearning to have what I never had as a child. I never had a stable home. I never had a real family life. And I guess on a deep level I desperately missed that."
It's cheaper than psychiatry and ultimately, despite his dark debut, it has paid Koontz handsomely. Jerda supported his writing for seven years working in a shoe factory. By 1974 he earned enough from writing so she could quit. Today he has built a one-man international conglomerate, taking personal control of his thousands of worldwide contracts and complex royalty schedules.
Hollywood, of course, has thrilled to Koontz big time. The television movies have done well, but curiously none of the feature films made from his books have had the success of the books themselves. On "Phantoms," for instance, Koontz wrote the screenplay and was a co-producer and was still displeased with the final product.
"It would have been faster paced, it would have had other things in it and I learned, as much control as I could get, it still wasn't really sufficient. But I had great moments in it. I mean, Peter O'Toole loved his dialogue and he would call me up and read me his dialogue to tell me, you know, 'this is wonderful dialogue.' ...With that wonderful voice of it he'd read the dialogue, and that's heaven."
Leaving the past
Koontz's awful family life led him to love the comforts of a real home. He has two in southern California and is building a third.
The homes in Newport both have elaborate kitchens and dining rooms, but they are seldom used. When his work day is finished at 8 P.M., Dean and Jerda get into the black Mercedes and drive to their favorite restaurant, Zovs. They've eaten dinner there every night for many years. They feel good at Zovs, surrounded by friends, and they indulge in one of their secret passions -- ballroom dancing.
It's the life of the ultra-successful, an author who has been translated in dozens of languages with multi-million dollar book deals. But Koontz keeps a level head.
"You know, it doesn't take a ton of money to change people's lives when they didn't have a lot to begin with, So you feel very rich very early. and then there's also the old Jewish expression, 'Once poor, never rich,' which is also a part that's always with you. So you always remember all this can go away, too, somehow. And so don't take it too seriously."CNN Correspondent Beverly Schuch contributed to this story.
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