You know, I met Dean R. Koontz for the first time in the heat of the summer of ‘89.
I had just slipped out of active duty in the US Navy and had won the position of store manager at Crown Books in Orange, California. This was Dean’s corner bookstore, and once a week this bestselling horror novelist would come in, grab 5-10 books of various subjects, and sometimes give me some pointers on the writing business itself.
I remember being facetious one day as I was checking out a woman in the register line, and Dean was behind her. She had, coincidentally, bought 4-5 of his novels and was telling me how big a fan she was of his. I had commented, knowing full well that Dean stood there, “Dean’s okay, but I’m the better writer.” Of course we all had a chuckle after I introduced the shocked woman to the author and he graciously signed her books.
The first thing he said was: “I hate literary agents.” And this was in particular of one he’d had some dealings with, I suppose, in his career. I won’t mention this agency here, because, frankly, they were one of the first agencies that displayed interest in any of my novels. Their endorsement and enthusiasm was the first glimmer for me of success in the writing world.
Dean, as I remember him, is and was highly professional and willing to discuss the art with neophytes, such as I was. We spoke at length of cover art, to tell the truth. He was angry with the current cover art for his paperbacks which he described as “puking faces.” He told me that even as a bestselling author, he had surprisingly little control over the art the publisher would commission for his work.
This, of course, was long before the Internet became mainstream, and AMAZON self-publishing was not even a twinkle in the eye of modern author vanity. I suppose that if Dean had the power of AMAZON back in the day, he might have reissued some of his earlier works with the art he would choose. I am curious what he would introduce for his own work.
Before the Internet, it was difficult to meet authors, agents, or anyone in the writing business. Nowadays it is far easier for me to hook up with them on Facebook, Twitter, or on their own personal websites. Many of them are forthcoming and will answer general questions (as so long as you don’t begin stalking them or badgering them incessantly. I generally met established authors in local writing critique groups, especially if the group was in a larger metropolitan area, such as Las Vegas. It was a good count of years before I met, face-to-face, a professional writer who had been a contemporary of R.L. Stein and had written under the pseudonym of M.T. Coffin. This was Robert Hawks whose friendship I enjoy to this day.
Now, let me tell you something, I’ve never met such a fine author as Robert Hawks. This author’s style in anything he writes is spectacular, and woefully unknown for what he does. He had Ruth Cohen as his agent for a number of years, and even though the works he is known for are essentially YA work-for-hires, he is a literary midgrade author through-and-through. Eloquent, strong in his narration, he can weave together a story that is reminiscent of such greats as Peter Straub and William Goldman. It is the latter I believe he emulates more, but Robert has a unique style that his dark, resounding, and can make you feel a lurking disquiet – especially in his unpublished work inspired by the Manson Family Murders, Witchie Crawlie. I couldn’t read that work in its entirety; it literally affected me to the core.
I met Robert in a writers group in Las Vegas in the early 90s. I admired his reserve, his professionalism, his seniority – because, you see, he’d been to the dance. He invited me to look at publishing contracts, of which I’d never seen before; he allowed me to get in on his brainstorming sessions and even offered me the ear of his agent as well as the offer of collaboration. I was not up to the task, unfortunately. I still had much growing up to do, but his nurturing, his mentoring, certainly steeled me to continue into that vast and scary abyss that is the publishing world. This man is killer as an author and mentor.
Conferences became another way to meet professionals in the writing field, but many of which are always far away, expensive, and time-consuming to attend. I was able to meet Robert Hawks’ literary agent, Ruth Cohen, and she was the very first agent I’d ever spoken to face-to-face. There was advice, of course, in the fashion of the general words you would hear at a conference. Read. Write. Submit. Be professional. Know your work. Keep going. Persevere. However, it wasn’t until 1998 when I attended the Maui Writers Conference. I met a buttload of authors, agents, celebrities, and business people. The celebrities were fun to listen to, especially Carrie Fisher (Star Wars) and Garry Marshall (Laverne & Shirley, Happy Days, etc.), but there were a few noteworthy and gracious authors who showed interest in my works. One of which is the remarkable John Saul
John took a shine to me as we sat out in the high veranda outside the conference rooms. He listened with interest about the crime/suspense novel I was trying to peddle, Lady Dragon, which was admittedly a mess of a manuscript, but he was more than happy to introduce me to Jillian Manus, of Manus and Associates. He spoke to me of collaborations and brainstorming sessions in which 2 or more authors would chuck around plot ideas, characters, settings, and other elements for a novel. There is strength in numbers, he advised me, especially when you have deadlines and need to finish off series quickly.
Much can be said about Ridley Pearson’s enthusiasm. He too sat down with me and we laughed and talked about the business. He’s one of these fellows who is so personable, you forget that you’ve just met him. He came off to me as a long lost brother, or a friend I’ve known for years. I cannot remember much of what we chatted about, but his warmth and candor was so refreshing, I almost forgot how a literary superstar he was. The same could be said about the author Mitch Albom, who too is a kind fellow much in the vein of the young actor, Robby Benson – that is, if I remember correctly. At least, that was the impression this bestselling author of Oprah Winfrey Book Club gave me. I had my reserved meeting him, being a little prejudiced against the success of Tuesdays With Morrie, but the man is gold. He gave me hope and strength and essentially the notion to keep working, even in the face of adversity.
I met, briefly, the notable Ernest J. Gaines. I was impressed with The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as well as the later work, A Lesson Before Dying. Ernest taught me much in defining character through dialogue. His works are strong in that particular element, almost as if you can hear the voice of the character, rather than just read it. It was this voice that I try to emulate whenever I create dialogue in my stories or screenplays.
Some conferences, most local to the place I lived, drummed up with many semi-professional local writers who had achieved some success in the art. Many of these authors I’d found were long in attitude than in talent. Most conferences were generally boiling down to some so-called writing “guru” who was going to charge you hundreds of dollars to participate in some yakfest that merely regurgitated the advice and methods of some other “guru” they’d known or read about. I enjoyed the participation of a writers conference, but I never felt I actually benefitted from any teachings. The expense of these events never, for me, equated to the wisdom I’d supposedly gained. It also became curious that many of the participants were idle when it came to a profession, and were not writers. They merely spent money traveling around from one medicine show to another.
(to be continued….)