Best-Selling Novelist Dean Koontz May Be a Titan of Terror but He's a Timid Type at Heart

updated 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Novelist Dean Koontz has a problem most of his literary brethren would sell their firstborn for, not to mention sacrifice paperback rights as well as forsake all future movie deals. His problem is writer's block, or to be more specific, lack of writer's block. "I don't want to sound like Shirley MacLaine," he says, "but it's almost as if story ideas are beamed to me. I can sit down for 15 minutes and come up with a dozen ideas. A lot of writers fall into this the-muse-has-left-me thinking and walk away from their work. I find that the muse never leaves me. I have to shove her out."

Even with such an inhospitable side to his personality, this 41-year-old author of suspense thrillers in the Stephen King/Peter Straub tradition has managed to publish 51 novels in 20 years. Ten of those, including his latest, Watchers (Putnam, $17.95), have become best-sellers. Still, Koontz is perhaps the least-known, biggest-selling author in America, a fact that doesn't particularly bother him. "One thing that gives me the chills is to lose anonymity," explains Koontz, who has written 19 books under pseudonyms. He also has a policy of shunning interviews.

Now that he commands advances of more than $400,000 per book, Koontz has been persuaded by his publisher to be more loquacious. Finally agreeing to be interviewed in his Tudor-style house in Orange, Calif., this shy man explains that despite the chills, thrills and psychopathic killers in his books, he isn't a horror writer. "Horror is depicting some awful, disgusting thing to get an emotional reaction, done mainly for shock value. I don't care for that," says Koontz. "The more refined emotion is terror because it is not based on shock but on expectation—on what the reader is afraid is going to happen." Hence, Koontz rarely writes about the supernatural but focuses instead on possible aberrations and mutations in nature. (In Watchers, two creatures, one evil and the other benign, escape from a government laboratory specializing in genetic engineering).

Another Koontz quirk is an element of romance in his writing. "There will always be a love story in my books because the most interesting way to bring out human relationships is through love," he says. "My characters reveal more of themselves because people do that when they're in love." As tuned in as Koontz is to the subtleties of his craft, it took a reader to point out to him that many of his characters have dismal childhoods. "It's unnerving to realize that you reveal more of yourself in writing than you think you do," he says. "I had a very, very bad childhood, and I see now that it comes through."

The memories that subconsciously plague Koontz are of his father, who couldn't hold a job and who brutalized Dean and his mother. "I was always in physical fear of my father," recalls Koontz, "because he would get drunk, smash furniture and carry on terribly. My childhood was almost unrelenting terror." Dean's mother, a Bedford, Pa. salesclerk, loved and supported her only child, but when Dean began writing stories at age 8, she discouraged him. "My mother feared I would go away and become a Bohemian," he explains.

Instead, Koontz attended nearby Shippensburg State College. After graduation in 1966, he took a $4,000-a-year position as a teacher in the Appalachian Poverty Program. That same year he married his high school sweetheart, Gerda Cerra. Three years later Gerda, who handled accounts in a credit bureau, told her husband she would support him for five years while he tried to make it as a writer. By 1974 Koontz had sold 18 novels. Fed up with cold weather, Gerda and Dean moved to California in 1976.

With all his success, Koontz still doesn't think of himself as a big-time novelist. The Koontzes, who are childless, just took their first vacation in nine years. "I find it difficult to spend large amounts of money," he says. "Someone once said to me, 'Once poor, you can never be rich,' and I know what that means. You have this uneasy feeling that the floor could open up and drop out from under you, and that feeling never goes away."

It is this perennial insecurity that motivates Koontz to spend as many as 75 hours a week writing in his upstairs study. He hopes to spin out a novel a year and plans to have a new thriller out by January 1988. For research, Koontz relies on the 25,000 or so books in his home library or calls experts in a given field. Needing some information on the surgical procedure for an aortal graft for his 1986 best-seller, Strangers, he called his family doctor and was invited to come watch the procedure. But Koontz, it seems, has another surprising side for a maestro of terror. "I thought, 'Oh, please, God, no! I hope that's not necessary.' In spite of what I write," he says a little sheepishly, "I'm somewhat squeamish."

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