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Dean Koontz on Using Language to Draw the Reader In

Dean Koontz has kept a lot of people turning a lot of pages. How? Most would respond that his plots, characters and storytelling all contribute, and indeed they do. But a fourth element keeps those pages turning, an element all writers can learn from. Koontz explains to interviewer Brad Crawford about the power of language itself.

If you think Dean Koontz is just a horror writer, you're wrong. He'll write what he wants, thank you-suspense, supernatural stories, thrillers, comedy-confusing bookstore shelf-stockers and deflecting publishing's dictates. His latest is False Memory (Bantam), a psychological thriller.

What can readers expect from False Memory?
False Memory has several interwoven themes, one of which is, we're living in a time when a high percentage of the population confuses fantasy and reality on a daily basis. How does a society function when people have increasing difficulty delineating between the real and the unreal, and how can it deal with real evil when people can't delineate the two? We see this crisis of perception all around us. Once these themes arise in the book, from the moment you begin, they become, I hope, as important as the story itself. When they work, metaphor, simile and all the imagery in a book should reflect the theme.

What techniques do you use?
I like prose to have hidden rhythms; I like prose to have a music beneath the surface. It's almost never recognized by the reader in a conscious way, but it is recognized unconsciously. It's why readers feel the prose flow, why it speaks to them. A poet once reviewed one of my books and recognized that entire passages were written in iambic pentameter. I didn't think anyone would ever notice that. Different poetic meters affects us emotionally in different ways. It's not anything anyone's going to see, but it's one of the great techniques to suck a reader right into the heart of the story.

I don't write a quick draft and then revise. Instead, I write 30 or 40 drafts of each page before moving to the next. When they hear this, other writers ask me how I keep my excitement about the story when I'm taking so long to move through a scene. I take tremendous joy in the use of language. That's as exciting to me as a plot development or the quirky edge a character may acquire. If all you're excited about are twists and turns of the suspense plot, you're not opening yourself to the full joy of writing. Besides, when writing a quick draft, it's the rare writer who goes back and polishes to the degree that he or she ought to do.

Several reviewers lately have complimented you on your lack of clich. How do you avoid it?
If you love the language, clichs hit the eardrum with a clank. As for clichd plots, I can't imagine writing the same book every time-though often that's what is wanted. Until my current publisher, even after I'd been No. 1, when I turned in a book that wasn't what they expected, I would get a response ranging from dismay to panic. Whatever had worked in the previous book was what they wanted in the current book.

I have to ask you about the ultimatum your wife, Gerda, gave you early in your career, when you wanted to quit teaching and write full time.
I don't see it as an ultimatum. I see it as a glorious gift. She said, "I'll give you five years to make it, and I'll support you for those five years. But if you don't make it by then, you're never going to make it." I tried to bargain her up to seven, but she's a tough negotiator. After four or four and a half years, she was able to quit her job and go to work for me. That probably wasn't justified, given what I was writing at the time. But it did give me an advantage. Most writers would never have had such a chance.

What are you working on now?
The third book in the Christopher Snow series is half finished, but I decided to put it aside to write False Memory. I had such a wonderful time with it that I'm thinking about delaying the third Christopher Snow again. I got to a point in False Memory where I realized I was writing at a higher level than I'd achieved before. When you feel one of those leaps in your technique, it's hard to back up to familiar territory. I want to do at least one more novel before I return to Chris Snow, one more that will let me expand on what I learned from False Memory.

This interview appeared in the March 2000 issue of Writer's Digest.

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