Master of suspense Dean Koontz has done it again. Written a new series, that is, a techno-thriller from the darker corners of his imagination.
Meet his latest character, Jane Hawk, introduced in The Silent Corner in June and continuing now in The Whispering Room and in next year’s The Crooked Staircase (May).
Jane, 27, is a resourceful, street-savvy FBI agent who takes a leave of absence to investigate the apparent suicide of her husband. What she discovers is a conspiracy at the highest levels of government and the tech industry—an insidious scheme involving nano brain implants that rob people of their will, turning them into virtual slaves or maneuvering them to kill themselves in the most horrific ways.
The action is fast, emotions and tension run high, and there are casualties. Soon the resolute Jane is declared a rogue FBI agent, then becomes the nation’s most wanted fugitive. Readers are right there with her as she ingeniously survives a series of close encounters in her quest to unveil the truth one piece at a time.
At this stage in his 50-year career, Koontz, 72, is writing at his most expressive and compelling as he follows Jane on her calculated yet obsessive journey. As Koontz once told me, “I give my characters free will and see where things will go.” Clearly, there is no stopping Jane Hawk.
Koontz, a former high school English teacher, is the New York Times best-selling author of more than 100 novels (16 made into movies) with 450 million copies in print in 38 languages.
That’s superstar status, yet he chooses to live under the radar (he no longer tours, for instance) in Newport Beach with his wife of 50 years, high-school sweetheart Gerda Ann Cerra, their golden retriever, Anna, and “the enduring spirit” of their late golden, Trixie.
Q: Unlike the ghostly goings-on in, say, your eight-title “Odd Thomas” series, Jane Hawk must confront what you call “a scientific premise in the Michael Crichton tradition.” That premise doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
A: Biological nanotech is here now. There are many potential beneficial applications, such as brain implants to control neurological disorders like Parkinson’s.
But Elon Musk and others wax rapturously about the fast-approaching day when “neural laces” will overlay our brains to enhance our intelligence and allow us to interface with computers, as if our understanding of the brain is complete, when in fact it is akin to a kindergartner’s understanding of quantum mechanics.
Everything in the Jane Hawk series is exhaustively researched, and the world she moves through is in no way futuristic, but entirely—scarily—our own.
Q: Jane Hawk is an unstoppable force. Where did she come from?
A: Everyone’s telling me she’s the best character I’ve ever created, which is a little embarrassing because I don’t know where she came from.
I’ve known a lot of strong women in my life, not least of all my wife. Maybe a third of Jane is pieced together from all of them, but the rest is mysterious to me. I was five chapters into the first book when Jane began to surprise me with her boldness, her attitude and her steely courage, combined with a tender heart. And book by book, she grows.
Q: Underlying the surface action, what is the new series about?
A: It’s about free will in all its permutations, and what life would be like if in fact we were creatures without free will. It’s about the eternal lure of power over others, those who want it and those who don’t, and about the role that dysfunctional families can play in producing those who seek power at any cost. However, Jane comes from a dysfunctional family and triumphs over it.
These books are also about friendship, the power of love and the ways we make new families when our blood families have disintegrated or failed us.
Q: There’s a very tense scene in The Whispering Room in which Jane eludes an attack by three rampaging chimpanzees. Most readers think of chimps as cute and cuddly.
A: Most people are thinking of pygmy chimps, little 30-pound guys. A few years ago, the news carried the story about a woman’s pet chimpanzee that attacked a neighbor, bit off her fingers, gouged out her eyes and tore off her face, all in less than a minute. That was a 120-pound chimp, which because of its musculature and lithe anatomy is twice as strong as a 200-pound man and maybe three times faster.
When the scene you refer to occurred to me, I wondered if in writing it I would be jumping the shark. But although the book has just been published, I have already received hundreds of responses from readers who find that scene among the most terrifying they’ve ever read. I was chilled just writing it!
Q: You bring a lot of observational description to the series, much of it rather poetic. As one review wrote, “In this era of stingy text-message prose, Koontz is practically Shakespeare.” It seems like you’ve turned another corner.
A: I’ve always been in love with our beautiful language. Yet when I spend a few lines describing a storm or anything else, I’ll do it only if those lines fulfill at least three functions in addition to establishing place and time, usually these three: (1) sets the mood of the scene; (2) sets the psychological state of the character, since every scene is from one character’s point of view; (3) echoes one or another of the book’s themes in subtle fashion. In that way, the pace isn’t compromised.
Q: You said in an interview that “all writers have quirks, and I have more than most.” Which two would be the most dominant?
A: Allen, you have distressed me greatly with this question. I am in love with my quirks, every last fuzzy little one of them, and you ask me to pick just two? Well, no one said life would be easy.
One: Early in my career, I killed off a dog in a novel. I couldn’t sleep well for days thereafter, and the thought of having done that so disturbed me for a year or more that I have never again allowed a dog (or a cat!) to be killed in one of my stories, though a couple have died of old age and related diseases.
Two: I keep an up-to-date printout of (my working manuscript) on my desk, so that it’s not just on the computer, and I put it all on an HP Personal Media Drive as well, and I also back it up on a thumb drive. Although I have those four copies, I daily feel compelled to place another printout in the refrigerator. You know, in case of fire or nuclear war.
I love what I do so much—the process of writing, not so much what comes after having written a piece. Though it’s a kind of play, it’s also hard work. I never want to lose a manuscript and have to start over.
Q: Two indicators of your massive fan base are your Facebook page, with more than 1.3 million followers, and your fan clubs. Why do readers love your stories so much?
A: Judging by reader mail, their enthusiasm has a lot to do with characters they love. I’ve always believed that characters are the heart of a good story. And many readers mention that they are swept away into the story, so that they visualize it almost like a movie, which I think harks back to your question about observational detail.
Someone in my publishing life once said to me, “I’ve known hundreds of writers who write to live, but you’re the only one I’ve known who lives to write.” This might be just a nice person being nice, but there is truth in the part of it about me living to write, and I think readers identify with that passion.
Q: How much of your electronic mail and snail mail does your staff bring to your attention? What is your policy about such?
A: I quickly learned that the volume of reader email could overwhelm, so I don’t deal with it. But we receive in excess of 10,000 snail-mail letters a year these days, and I read maybe 60 percent of them.
If a teacher assigns to a class a book of mine to read and then requires each student to send me a letter, I figure that correspondence written under duress does not require me to read 30 letters. An assistant will tell me the most-asked question or two, and I’ll answer the entire class with a response to those items.
But I reply to about 4,000 reader letters each year, often with a short paragraph but sometimes, when the letters are especially insightful, at much greater length. I became a writer in part to affect other lives in a positive way, as my life was so profoundly affected by writers when I was young, and it’s never a chore to hear from them or to respond.
Q: There is much confusion over your “Moonlight Bay” trilogy. Is it finished or not? Where does Ride the Storm fit in? Please clarify.
A: My publisher at that time so disliked the second “Moonlight Bay” novel, Seize the Night (1998) that I stopped part way through Ride the Storm. I had been with Bantam for only two books and did not want to get into an argument that would require moving to another publishing house. I thought that if I wrote two or three other novels before finishing the “Moonlight Bay” trilogy, the publisher would receive the third book with more enthusiasm.
Numerous books—plus ups and downs in business relationships—ensued, new publishers came and went, and I never got back to Ride the Storm. It is my intention to finish the book for Bantam after I complete the 7th book in the Jane Hawk series.
Q: You once told me that growing up in poverty in a dysfunctional home, books gave you life lessons. Your mantra through all those years was, “I will get somewhere.” Obviously, you did. What was the main life lesson you learned in achieving that?
A: Put the injustices and pain and humiliations of the past behind you. Don’t dwell on them or you will be forever shackled by them. Look ahead, ignore naysayers, and move forward with determination even at those times when you lack full confidence. Your chances of success and happiness will depend on your inertia or your momentum. Make it momentum.
Q: Any parting words of advice?
A: If you can bring a dog into your home—not let it outside, as dogs are pack animals that need to be with you—and if you can see a dog for the marvelous, complex creature it is, make one part of your life. You will live longer, be happier and realize in spite of yourself that the world does not, after all, revolve around you—though the dog will shrewdly pretend that it does.