Odd Thomas, Elvis, and character development
By Karen Jones
Best-selling author Dean Koontz has claimed the #1 spot on The New York Times bestseller list fourteen times—one of only a handful of writers to do so. Though his suspense thrillers immerse readers deep within the struggle between good and evil, the beauty of all life and the power of love are essential parts of his stories.
Koontz’s most popular character, Odd Thomas, returns in Odd Apocalypse, (Bantam) the fifth in a series of seven books about a humble fry cook who communes with the spirit world while aiding those in need. There is also a new eBook series titled Odd Interlude and fans can also look forward to an Odd Thomas movie coming soon from director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy).
Dean Koontz lives in southern California with his wife Gerda and their cherished golden retriever Anna. They are active supporters of Canine Companions for Independence, (www.cci.org) a service dog organization for people with disabilities.
Karen Jones: What central themes are important for you to include in your stories?
Dean Koontz: Each novel has its own theme, going in, and then the theme evolves and twines about itself associated threads of meaning that form the spine of the story. Odd Thomas, for instance, started out being about how we cope with loss and about the absolute necessity of embracing loss–even tragic losses–as one of the central elements of the human experience. Odd has lost his beloved grandmother to death, his father to obsession, and his mother to madness. Because of his paranormal abilities, he has lost any hope of leading an ordinary life, and by the end of the book he will suffer his most profound loss of all–and yet he is immune to despair because he holds fast to his faith that life has meaning and to his conviction that the promise made to him regarding his love, Stormy Llewellyn–“You are destined to be together forever”–will in time be kept.
As the book progressed, other themes arose: the power of friendship to bring form to the chaos of life, the beauty of humility and the strength to endure that comes with a humble heart, etcetera. One of those evolving themes grew so interesting to me, it became the core of the second Odd novel, Forever Odd, and it is best expressed by a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Unearned suffering is redemptive.”
I might better answer your question by telling you what themes you will neversee in a Koontz novel. I will never write a story that is nihilistic, that says life is bleak or meaningless. I will never write a story that is misanthropic, that paints humanity or even the majority of humanity as a plague on the planet or as a species beyond redemption. I’ll never write from an atheistic perspective. Now and then I get a letter from a reader who wants me to write a novel that ends with everyone dead or at least with evil triumphant –a very noire story about the hopelessness of the human condition. I always respond by saying, “You can get that from countless other writers, so you don’t need it from me. Besides, if I wrote such a story, it would be hollow because I would be faking a philosophy with which I passionately disagree.
KJ: Odd Thomas is your most popular character and this is his fifth adventure. What do readers have to look forward to in ‘Odd Apocalypse’ and the upcoming movie?
DK: Odd Apocalypse is probably the darkest story thus far in the series, but Odd keeps his sense of humor, as he always will. This is also in some ways the most over-the-top Odd story, stretching the element of the fantastic about as far as I could without breaking my compact with the reader. The next in the series, Deeply Odd is more down to earth, a road story with a pace like that of Odd Hours. The seventh (and final) volume, Saint Odd, which answers all questions, is going to be hard for me to write because I love Oddie as if he were a real person. But I know something that readers will not be expecting, something that will delight them, and that something makes me eager to tell the seventh tale.
I posted a review of the Odd Thomas movie on my web site at the Dean Koontz official page on Facebook. I liked it enormously. Anton Yelchin is just brilliant as Odd, and Addison Timlin is no less wonderful as Stormy. Stephen Sommers, the director, has crafted a tight, thrilling, and affecting film, which is maybe 30% of the book and yet is fundamentally faithful to it in every way that matters. If the movie is a hit, Steve has said he wants to write and direct two more. I’ve previously not had much luck with Hollywood, but it seems to me that this should be a solid success when it’s released. (I typed that last sentence with one hand, while knocking hard on my head with the other, for luck.)
KJ: The Odd books include spirits of some famous celebrities such as Elvis, Frank Sinatra and now Alfred Hitchcock. I would guess it is fun to create scenarios for these cultural icons?
DK: It’s something I can do in a novel that can’t be done in film because of heirs’ rights to the images of those celebrities. And, yes, it’s a hoot. After three books, I didn’t want to let Elvis’s spirit move on, but there wasn’t anything more that I could do with him, and I didn’t want to get repetitive. I received a lot of reader mail that said the Sinatra-as-poltergeist sequence in Odd Hours was the funniest thing they’d ever read, and I almost wished I hadn’t let him go to the Other Side, so I could bring him back in Odd Apocalypse. But I’m well into Deeply Odd now, and I’m having so much fun with Mr. Hitchcock, who has a much more major role in it than he did in Odd Apocalypse, that I’m just as happy that Frank crossed the Jordan in one book.
KJ: You’re a deep believer in the human/canine bond, but your dog Anna is not allowed in the office while you write. Is she too much of a critic?
DK: Well, right now, I have her in my office an hour and a quarter each weekday because one assistant is off and the other is at lunch, and we don’t want to leave Anna alone. But otherwise, she has to stay in my assistants’ office during the day if I’m to have any hope of getting work done. Trixie, our first golden retriever, was satisfied to curl up in a bed a few feet from me and either doze or watch me work, or chew on a toy. Or she was busy writing her own books. But Anna is a love sponge and wants either to sit with her head in my lap or lie on my feet, and frequently she’s insistent on getting a face rub or an ear scratch, or she wants to chase around the room and play tug until she drops. I’d finish maybe one book every four years if Anna was in my office all day. Sometimes, knowing how some other writers see themselves in competition with one another (I don’t), I wonder if perhaps she’s been trained and planted here by some nefarious novelist who wants to throw me off my game. Fortunately, so many other employees go in and out of my assistants’ office during the day that Anna gets a lot of attention. She’s a little needy, but she’s nonetheless perfect, and nothing makes me feel better than when I wake up at night to find her head resting on my chest as she lightly snores. I am a dog pillow, which isn’t a bad thing to be.
KJ: What is your advice to aspiring writers?
DK: That question brings us back to where we started–the issue of themes. First, let’s define “aspiring writers” as those who have one or more completed manuscripts that have been widely rejected by agents and/or publishers. In recent years, the thing that has most surprised me when I’m talking to aspiring writers is that when I ask them what their books are about, other than its story, they are baffled by the question. When I talk about theme, they say such things as “I’m a storyteller, I don’t write message fiction.” A theme is not necessarily–or even often–a message. A theme is an aspect of the human experience that fascinates the writer and that the writer feels compelled to explore. If you’re pushing a message, the story is concocted to sell that message. When you’re letting a theme develop, the theme–and the characters who embody it–will shape the story in ways you could never have imagined beforehand. A message story is planned and executed like a military operation. A story exploring a theme or themes is organic, moving where the unanticipated actions of the characters might take it, often to the surprise of the author.
At this point, the aspiring writer will say to me, “But not every novel has a theme, does it?” I tell them I have read many novels that seem to be about nothing other than event after event, though that doesn’t mean they should aspire only to such a low level of accomplishment. If your story is about something in addition to the events that occur therein, something that in fact has shaped those events in an organic fashion, it will have greater resonance, it will feel more substantial to the reader, and it will haunt the reader after the last page has been turned, sometimes long after. This is the quality that makes agents and editors take notice.
So now some of the aspiring writers will say, “But my favorite books don’t have any themes that I’ve noticed.” Then I explain that a reader does not have to recognize consciously a theme in order to be deeply affected by it. Indeed, an argument could be made that if a theme is so obvious that even a casual reader could put it into words with ease, then the author has been too intrusive, and the theme or themes have been crafted by someone with a soul more like that of a mathematician than like that of a poet. Theme is subtext, underlying and implicit, and not something announced in prose that is the equivalent of a bullhorn.
Finally, the aspiring writer will later complain to me that he or she is having enormous difficulty figuring out what theme fits a story and then keeping it central to events. Then I have to remind him or her that theme is organic, that it reveals itself as a seed early in the story, that it grows scene by scene and slowly twines associated themes around it as it grows. Ideally, the theme is revealed by strong characters to whom you’ve given free will, as God gave free will to us. Characters of that kind will take your story places you never saw it going, and they will embody the theme at every turn because in giving them free will, you have made it possible for your story to be about the characters ideas as well as about their actions.
At this point, the aspiring writer wants an explanation of what I mean by free will and how it can possibly be given to a character who is not real but only a fictional construct. I could produce an entire book about that aspect of writing. Suffice it to say that from what I have been able to deduce, college writing classes and writing seminars outside of college seem never to raise any of these issues anymore, though they seem to me to be fundamental to good fiction.
In this secular age, students are too often guided away from any tendency to think that life has any underlying and implicit meaning, and as a consequence, too often the fiction they write is also without subtext. Hemingway was a genius, but that doesn’t mean all writers thereafter should mimic his humorless minimalism and stoic nihilism. He was so gifted that he could conjure theme out of such unpromising material, but most of us are not geniuses. We need to open our minds to more generous ways of thinking, to embrace the idea that life has implicit meaning and that, therefore, fiction that celebrates or even just mirrors life must also have subtext.
Now I’ve got to walk the dog.
For more information on Dean Koontz and Odd Thomas visit www.deankoontz.com