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Writer Knows His Place--at the Typewriter

March 12, 1986|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

For someone who has had 49 novels published in 19 years--books that together have sold upward of 37 million copies worldwide--he remains possibly the least-known best-selling author in America.

But that hasn't bothered Dean R. Koontz of Orange, whose latest novel, a suspense thriller called "Strangers" (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $17.95), will reach bookstores in late March.

According to the normally publicity-shy Koontz, who received a $275,000 advance for "Strangers," there are two basic types of literary careers.

"There's a big flashy career where somebody comes in like Peter Benchley with 'Jaws' and-- boom --it's a household name," Koontz said. "Then there's the other type of career that starts slow, and the writer tries to do better work each time and struggles with it and gradually builds up a large body of work and more readers. And usually it's the kind of writer who gets reviewed--and I've been well reviewed--but doesn't get off-the-book-page coverage, or doesn't get book-page interviews or that sort of thing. Just a nice review and that's it, and nobody pays a lot of attention. But then it builds."

Koontz, who has had nine of his suspense-thriller novels--including "Whispers," "Phantoms" and "Darkfall"--reach the best-seller lists, says he hopes he falls into the latter category.

And "Strangers," which Putnam's is backing with a 75,000-copy first printing and a $75,000 advertising campaign, just may be the breakthrough novel that will give Koontz recognition beyond his loyal core of readers and book reviewers. (His previous work has been praised by the London Times as "emotionally and intellectually stimulating" and by the New York Times as "real suspense . . . tension upon tension.")

Terrorized by Fear

"Strangers," which will be a main selection of the Literary Guild in April, is a suspenseful, psychological horror story about six people--all strangers to one another--whose lives are being terrorized by a mysterious fear that is, as the book jacket teases, "only a mask for a deadly secret--a secret they cannot fathom."

In light of his publisher's enthusiasm for "Strangers," Koontz plans to raise his normally low profile--at least to a degree.

"I'm trying to strike a balance," said Koontz, who at 40 is an articulate, mild-mannered man, trim and neat down to his carefully pressed designer blue jeans.

With a grin, he added, "I always like to point out to my publishers that Mario Puzo refused to do anything for 'The Godfather,' and it didn't hurt the book. On the other hand, I can see their point of view. You at least want to do a little. But I've never really done it. I felt my place was at the typewriter."

Indeed, for Koontz that means working at least 10 hours a day--no less than six, and often seven, days a week.

"There's something about plunging into a book and becoming totally immersed in it so that it becomes your entire world," Koontz said. "That brings me deeper into the story and, I think, works better for me. I get more empathetic with the characters, and they seem more like real people to me. And when something is going real good, I'm just loathe to get up from this thing."

The slightly built author, with dark, thinning hair and a drooping mustache, was seated in a padded leather desk chair next to the word processor in his office--a stylishly appointed spare bedroom in the large, two-story house he shares with his wife, Gerda, in a "private equestrian community" in the hills east of Orange.

Koontz, however, does not belong to the horsy set. "The idea of a horse," he said, "is almost as horrifying as some of the things I write about." Koontz is more the indoorsman type, with a penchant for collecting art glass, paintings--and books. About 25,000 volumes are encased throughout the house--in every room, Koontz joked, but the kitchen and bathroom.

"Books are more or less the center of my life," he said.

It's been that way since he was a boy growing up during the '50s in Bedford, a tiny town in rural Pennsylvania.

It was, he said, "an exceedingly unpleasant childhood, and I escaped into reading. And I was always reprimanded for that. I was told by my parents that books are a waste of time. It's almost a cliche, but it's true: I used to read in bed with a flashlight under the covers after I was supposed to be asleep.

"Anyway, I fell into a love of books, and what I wanted to do more than anything else was to create books that would give other people the kind of experiences I had with books."

Koontz started writing science-fiction stories in his early teens because, he said, "that's what I read." While he was majoring in English in college and "struggling along on not very much money," a professor entered one of his short stories in Atlantic Monthly's yearly college writing competition. The story won a prize for fiction.

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