Interview with Dean Koontz on “Nameless”
Interview by Suspense Magazine
When you speak of the greatest authors in the suspense/thriller genre in the past century, you’ll note that you can’t have a list without Dean Koontz being on it. Dean is one of the most recognizable names in the literary world and now he has done something completely new. Dean had just finished up his Jane Hawk series, and when he was approached by Amazon to do something very cool, “NAMELESS” was born. “NAMELESS” is a group of six, longer than short stories but not quite novellas (“In the Heart of the Fire,” “Photographing the Dead,” “The Praying Mantis Bride,” “Red Rain,” “The Mercy of Snakes” and “Memories of Tomorrow”), that all tie together into one story. This has been done before, but what’s “extra” nice is that if you are an Amazon Prime customer, you get all the books for free. Yeah, you read that right: FREE.
We were extremely honored to be asked by Dean to come to his home to interview him. To say it was probably the coolest three hours of an interview we’ve ever done, is an understatement. After Dean gave us a quick tour of his house, including seeing his library of over six thousand copies of his own books, we sat down with Dean in his office and spoke about everything. If you want to listen to the entire interview, please subscribe to Suspense Radio on iTunes or Spotify.
Let’s take a quick look inside the first book “In the Heart of the Fire” and then you can check out the interview below.
A bloodthirsty sheriff is terrorizing a small Texas town where justice has been buried with his victims. Until Nameless arrives—a vigilante whose past is a mystery and whose future is written in blood.
Anyone who crosses Sheriff Russell Soakes is dead, missing, or warned. One of them is a single mother trying to protect her children but bracing herself for the worst. Nameless fears the outcome. He’s seen it in his visions. Now it’s time to teach the depraved Soakes a lesson in fear. But in turning predators into prey, will Nameless unearth a few secrets of his own?
From #1 New York Times bestselling author Dean Koontz comes “In the Heart of the Fire,” part of “Nameless,” a riveting collection of short stories about a vigilante nomad, stripped of his memories and commissioned to kill. Follow him in each story, which can be read or listened to in a single sitting.
John Raab (J.R.): We’re sitting down with #1 New York Times bestselling author, as well as #1 international bestselling author (you can bestow any title you wish actually, and it’s all going to make sense)—none other than Dean Koontz.
Let’s jump directly into “Nameless,” a collection of six serial stories. Can you give us some information on the background of the series: Where the idea behind it came from, and why you decided to do the project?
Dean Koontz (D.K.): Actually, Amazon came to me a few years ago and wanted me to do a novel that they would illustrate. I enjoyed working with them a great deal and it sold a lot of copies. Recently they asked if I would ever think of doing a series of novelettes with the same character, which is how I came up with the idea for “Nameless.”
Amnesia is an old gambit but I was looking for something different to do with it. My thought was to have a character who was moving around, ostensibly bringing justice to people that the system never delivers it to, and having him deliver it with a vengeance. But it’s not justice; as he tells them, “I’m just serving the truth.” There is no such thing as justice. It changes with time, culture, and different people have different ideas of what it is, but the truth is only the truth. So he’s on these cases where he knows absolutely that this person did it and brings them their due. But then I thought, if he had amnesia, and can’t remember back two years ago when he first started this, that would add a level of mystery to it. But I didn’t want the amnesia to be a medical issue, so he’s pretty sure he had it engineered because there’s a past he doesn’t want to remember. That would add this whole new layer to it, and I went from there. He’s got this whole system that anytime he shows up in a town, there’s a car waiting for him. He’s got a motel booked and paid for. He often carries no ID, and everything he needs from weapons to cash is there. So…who’s behind this?
I wanted a story to stand alone yet have this overriding arc so you could go into it any place and begin, but would be more rewarding if you read them straight through. I did about a four page presentation and Amazon responded strongly to it for Amazon Prime. I proceeded to write the six, and I found myself liking the next one even better than the one before, so I knew the character was working. It was also refreshing. When you start a novel, you have a minimum of five or six months working on it in your future. But with a novelette, you’re looking at a few weeks, and that’s very appealing. I also wanted to take novelettes and have them vivid and colorful and crammed with action, like a fast-moving novel, but with a good pace.
J.R.: So you liked the change?
D.K.: I don’t know what happens in publishing careers, but it has happened to me before. A publisher is having a good run with you and then it’s like everyone gets kind of tired; the enthusiasm isn’t there. My way to fix that is simply to move. And I hate change, in fact. I stay a long time with a house, but there comes a point where you say to your agent, “Do you think this is working?” And he says, “No.”
Before we went “shopping,” the agent said we wanted to include Amazon. And I was wondering about that. I mean, you won’t end up in Barnes & Noble, and certain independents won’t carry it, because they don’t do that. But I did have a great experience with them. So we went out, got eight offers, and Amazon was financially the best. But that didn’t really make the difference. It was the marketing proposals they did. There was literally no comparison. I looked at what they were talking about, and I had never had marketing to this degree. I thought this seemed outside-the-box, and it was time to try it. I have to say I love everyone I work with. Efficient, personable, everything moves like clockwork. They’re really committed to what they’re doing and I’m energized by it. It has revitalized me creatively.
Shannon Raab (S.R.): I think they’re going to open you up to a whole new generation of readers. You own the rights to several titles, of course, from years ago. Would you ever consider—with this new excitement and energy—taking another look at them and perhaps bringing them back?
D.K.: I did buy back a lot of books from my early years, but there are so many new ideas that are more interesting to me now, so I’d like to move forward. The creative ideas are coming, the juices are flowing, and I want to seize on that immediately.
J.R.: Is that why you’re not thinking about a new long series in the near future?
D.K.: Yes. I always knew that Odd Thomas would be long; he was a character on a journey to complete humility, so I didn’t know how long it would take to write that. But I loved the character and I loved the journey. It wasn’t until I figured out how I could write the last book that I wrote it and was able to move on. When it came to Jane Hawk, people would ask me why I wrote five instead of one, or three. But I knew, what she was up against was the most powerful conspiracy I had ever imagined and it wasn’t realistic that she could beat it in one book or even three. I get mail from readers talking about a scene where she was so clever and that they were amazed she’d handled a situation so quickly. I laugh because, for me, it takes like three days here trying to figure out what on earth she would do, but that was the fun part. Those came along because I was reading novels where people were supposedly “off the grid,” but I could see all kinds of ways you could find them. So I thought, “What if I created a character who truly knew how to get off and stay off the grid, but what if the entire government and law enforcement knows and is looking? That would be fun because it would be so difficult. You have to do things you haven’t done before to make it worth doing. I come into this office for all these hours and I want to be entertained.
My brother-in-law, Vito, who passed away a year ago, was just the best. After running companies with over 2,000 employees, he retired and they came here to work with us. He worked in the office and he was so meticulous, I could give him any research. (I’m not online in this office because I don’t trust myself. I know what an obsessive personality I am, so I never go online.) Vito would go on Google Street (which is the greatest thing for a writer.)
S.R.: Yes. And “Nameless” is everywhere. . .
D.K.: Jane Hawk was the same way. She’s in those neighborhoods and on those streets. I said to him, I need to know the Austin airport. Not sure how long the scene was going to be, but I needed to see everything. I remember walking into his office while he was downloading the images and the screen of the computer went grey. Suddenly, a silhouette of him came up.
J.R.: The camera took a picture of him, right? Terrorism and stuff?
D.K.: Yup. (LOL) I said, “Oh, crap, guess you’re not flying anymore.” Then, I was talking to this P.I. friend and he said something like this is a new generation, and that the camera eye is not the only one; there’s another one in the screen itself. I used that premise in “Devoted.” Scary world we’re headed into.
J.R.: It makes for a lot of different paths to take as an author. I mean, now there’s convenient technology everywhere. How do you balance that to make sure your characters don’t just pull out Google, but actually have to talk to people and hunt down clues?
D.K.: Because in the real world, technology doesn’t solve every problem. Jane Hawk, of course, is highly sympathetic because of the child she has to hide away, and losing her husband. But I wanted her to be tough. She has to interrogate people. In the first book, where she has a guy strapped to a chair, she has to do just that. I was terrified writing it, but I realized the techniques of how she had to go after the information. She couldn’t use technology and just “see” what was in his head. But she’s a rogue, and even though I didn’t want her to break anyone physically, she breaks them psychologically. And I think she turned out to be pretty good at it. (LOL)
S.R.: In “Nameless” (and many other books), you add a lot of quips. As violent or as dark as it gets, I had some serious laugh-out-loud moments. I mean…how do you add levity to these situations?
D.K.: I learned long ago that even in the darkest moments of life, when you get past them, you can look back and see the humorous moments. I mean, human beings are an unconsciously absurd species, so there’s really humor in everything. I also wanted to make sure that I never romanticized evil. When I have a bad guy, I want him to scare you. But I want him to be absurd to some degree, because that’s what evil is. It works in the short run but it never works in the long run. So if you can laugh at that character a bit, even while being scared of him, that’s great, but I never risk romanticizing it. Although “Nameless” never goes too far with that, I’ve been known to write some that do. To me, the humor is important to the flavor of certain projects.
S.R.: Has Amazon looked at “Nameless” for an episodic series? It’s certainly the whole package.
D.K.: Well, “Nameless” just came out, so I don’t know exactly where it will go. I’ve been around so long, I’ve seen a lot. When I speak to others, I tell the story of the screenplay “Midnight.” It was greenlighted, they had the budget for it, it went out to 26 directors and something like 11 wanted to do it. But for some reason, the most unlikely one was chosen. It got so odd I had to get out of the project, and it all spiraled into oblivion.
With “Frankenstein,” the network wanted the first episode to be expanded into two hours. I started, and right at that time the agent brought in a young director and told me the guy was fabulous. Unbeknownst to them, this had also been given to Martin Scorsese. He was looking for his first fiction piece for T.V., and he wanted to do this. But, by that time, the other agent had offered it to this young director. Marty became a co-producer on the project, and I thought we truly had an 800-pound gorilla; I mean, we had Scorsese, so it couldn’t go wrong. But when I finished the expansion, I got this feeling that something was going very wrong and found out that there was another writer writing behind me. They had taken out the humor, the love story, and went for the grunge/gore instead. All the texture had been pulled out.
I had a “Created By” and an “Executive Producer” credit and I insisted that all of my credits come off. I could see the mess. I got this letter from Marty that said he was stunned when this happened; that he would have shot the script as it was. Apparently, when he’d discovered changes, he called the producer and asked things like, “Why would you change that?” He told me it was wonderful working with me, but he backed out of the project, too. That’s the last time I wrote a screenplay. I was stunned that people of substantially less talent than Scorsese decided they knew better than he did. So, I decided not to waste time on screenplays.
J.R.: 500-plus million books sold. That’s a heck of a built-in audience to go in and change it.
D.K.: There have been various issues. When it came to Odd Thomas, there was a beautiful script written, and they were halfway done shooting the movie when half the budget disappeared. Stephen Sommers, the director, was told there was no more money but he knew there was. He had a crew and cast sitting in Santa Fe and he asked these people if they would stay there, on their own dime, while he went back to C.A. and found the money. Every single one of them stayed there for a month, but he could never raise as much cash as he’d had in the first place. I think it turned out okay, but it’s heartbreaking that so much of the original script was squashed. I think if he’d been able to make his script, it would have been a giant hit. As it was, there was so much contention it ended up on DirectTV and/or Netflix.
J.R.: When you look back on “Watchers,” “Phantoms,” “Shattered,” the books from the 80’s, do you think they’d have the same amazing effect on people today as they did back then?
D.K.: That’s an interesting question, actually, but I don’t know how to answer it. I know I couldn’t write “Phantoms” today because I’ve since moved a different way. I’m glad I wrote it when I did. My publisher at the time wouldn’t buy “straight thrillers,” she needed horror in them. When I delivered it, she said there was too much horror, so she printed 5,000 copies in paperback—but it took off. It was always at that point when the paperback people saw the potential. And now audio has grown significantly.
J.R.: I’m listening to “Darkfall” now. I just rediscovered it and I think it takes on a new life in audio. Do you listen to your audio books; are you involved in the creation of them at all?
D.K.: I trust the people I work with, so I don’t listen to them. It somehow feels egomaniacal to do that, actually. I remember people loved the narrator for “Odd Thomas,” and he came back to do “Watchers” and he’s great. Audiobooks have exploded. The number of downloads are amazing. Of course, if you’re living in C.A. where you spend half the day in your car, you need something to listen to.
J.R.: That’s what I’ll do on the train. It’s a nice hour; put the headphones on and get away from real life while I’m working.
D.K.: If I had them on while working, I couldn’t write. I even have the blinds down because I’ll start staring out at a beautiful day and not work.
S.R.: So…“Devoted.” Tell us about it.
D.K.: Well, it’s got a golden retriever (LOL), but it’s not like a prequel or a sequel to “Watchers.” The idea came to me on a day when I was reading about a type of bacteria that was classified as some kind of ‘kingdom’ many years ago. They discovered that it could transfer genes from various species into other species. Not all genetics come down through generations, because this can move genes from plants and animals into humans. While I was reading that, I thought it was cool. I thought, “What if someone was doing an experiment with this, a person like Elon Musk who thinks they’re going to live forever?” Of course, technology is not going to let that happen. But what if they were experimenting and trying to put stuff in themselves that would expand their life span? I came up with these characters—a widowed woman and her autistic son—who were going to be my main people.
In “Watchers,” genetic engineering and labs were responsible for ‘creating’ a dog. With this I thought, “What if we have these dogs lying among us that are much smarter than we realize?” They’ve found each other in little communities in this book and they communicate through something called “The Wire.” Not created in a lab, but created from over 100,000 years of dogs and people living together, evolving. There are just a few of them, but they speak to each other telepathically. They don’t know where they came from, and they start to buy in to the premise that they must have been engineered in a laboratory, but that isn’t it. I definitely wanted to keep the original story of the lifeform that moves genes, because I knew it was going to be good for the villain. At one point, this man is coming at the woman and her son, this autistic boy is 11 but he knows something is wrong. He’s never spoken, but he is a savant; he doesn’t believe his father died in an accident and has been doing research for a couple of years, bringing him to the attention of some pretty bad people. When they’re at their most desperate, and terrified of this guy coming towards them, this one dog hears him. The dog has never heard the boy talk before, so the boy is now on “the wire” but he doesn’t know it. So, a little bit of “Watchers” but totally different. I had the best time doing it. It was emotional, but one of the fastest paced books I’ve ever written because there are so many elements moving at once.
S.R.: You’ve always written in multiple genres and not kept in a “box.” With this new opportunity at Amazon, is it comfortable in this new world; or was it a hard transition because you were used to the other direction?
D.K.: “Devoted” has a sort of far out idea with these dogs, but it had no problem elsewhere. It deals with a concept that’s much like a Michael Crichton idea, mixing elements in a different way. I didn’t pull back at all, so it is a cross-genre novel, and has had very good strong reactions. So they aren’t putting shackles on me. And I’ve had those before. I worked with one a long time ago that said they couldn’t publish “Midnight” because the character was a child. So I couldn’t publish it for seven years, because it would be YA and I was still growing an audience. Now, the character is a child, but she grows up. They said that it was YA and couldn’t work. Oddly enough, it didn’t set my career back, it enhanced it. I was told that “Midnight” was going to come out as #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Of course, she also said to me not to get too excited because that would never happen again.
J.R.: She was wrong.
D.K.: We had four more and she always said that after each one. The reason was, she said, that mixing elements didn’t succeed. I thought we were seeing them succeed and one day we’d have to admit it to ourselves. I’ve had some interesting notes, to say the least, from editors in the past.
J.R.: My wife loves to edit. (LOL) One of our authors teaches writing to a class and he read her edits to the students one day, and said, “See? Even I get yelled at.” Of course, sometimes the edits make you look at things in a different light. You rewrote a couple of the older ones, didn’t you?
D.K.: Oh yes. I am an obsessive, so I write twenty to thirty drafts. A lot of editors will send me notes about how it’s so clean, but I don’t want to have weaknesses. When you have things where you convince yourself, “No, that’s okay. I don’t need to work on it more,” then that will be the one edit they come back with.
On the book I just delivered, I went back (because of an editorial note) and added a chapter to put the reader more on edge in regards to a total sociopath. He misses from the book for ninety pages before returning, and they wanted me to add something so that the reader could see the craziness in the guy and be tense until he reappears. Then my British publisher wrote me a four page letter; she loved the book and wanted almost no changes made. In the last chapter, she just thought I could add a paragraph embedded in my ending that would be a bit dramatic. When I did it, the final sentence was so wonderful it brought tears to my eyes. If that recommendation hadn’t been there, it would have been okay the way it was, but the other ending didn’t make me as emotional. I love the characters and it made me love them even more. That’s what I want editing to be—an honest give-and-take. Because, as we know, when the book is published it doesn’t read: “By Dean Koontz with Incredible Suggestions By….”
J.R.: A lot of American authors are phenomenal in Europe, but not so much in the U.S. Are there places you’re popular and didn’t even realize it?
D.K.: You kind of learn it’s happening when they buy one and publish it, then another one, and then come back and buy twelve others. The books are very popular in Japan, Norway and Sweden. Sometimes it slides down. I had a point where I became fed up with agents, and for 14 years made my own deals. My attorney friend said that the business was changing, and it was time to have agents again. So I told him that our thirty year relationship was on the line, because he was going to pick the agent out. He recommended Richard Pine and Kate Witherspoon, partners at Inkwell. They are completely different and it has been really good. So…I only had to reach age 71 to find them.
I often laugh because people look at this career from the outside and see this amazingly smooth arc, but it was a bumpy road. Things that you can’t believe happened, did. I say to young writers, persistence is an important talent, because in my experience there are a million people saying we just can’t wait to publish you the ‘right way.’ But everyone has their own opinions as to what that way is, so I’ve had books not published in the past by a publisher who wants something “different.”
J.R.: That happens again, just send me an email. (LOL) Well, this has been fabulous. So, “Nameless” is coming out and “Devoted” in March of 2020?
D.K.: Yes, and working on another Amazon book, but we don’t have an actual date on that yet. I don’t think anyone will publish in a major way in October because of the presidential election, so I would guess, December.
J.R.: And people can go to www.deankoontz.com to find out, or is Amazon doing a little something, too?
D.K.: Amazon is running all of it. I don’t want to run it but I do write some tweet-sized things for them that they post; I don’t really go on and look at my website or Facebook.
S.R.: Completely offline.
D.K.: Exactly. It’s the only way I could have written this much for this long.
We would like to thank Dean for taking the time to sit down with us. For more information on Dean and his works, visit his website at www.deankoontz.com. If you’re looking for “NAMELESS,” head to Amazon. \
Interview with Dean Koontz
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