Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The LongPen Is Mightier Than ...

Many of you probably remember what a huge charge I got last year out of meeting Stephen King, after I’d read so much of his work as a teenager. Well, another American author I thought I’d never encounter was suspense novelist Dean Koontz, who is notorious for hating air travel, seldom leaves his abode in Newport Beach, California, south of Los Angeles, and has never--not one time--visited my homeland, England. The popularity of Koontz’s books is so huge these days, that a conventional signing would probably be impractical, anyway.

But my grudging acceptance of what seemed the inevitable--that I would never come face to face with Koontz--was thrown over completely yesterday, during the annual London Book Fair (LBF). How did this happen, you ask? By what means was I finally able to chat with Koontz, short of packing my bags and flying all the way to California? Well, it was thanks to Canadian writer Margaret Atwood and her mighty LongPen.

A few brief notes, though, before we proceed, just by way of recapping my love affair with Koontz’s writing. I’ve read his work ever since he started out publishing science-fiction yarns, such as Time Thieves (1977), and moved on from there to compose suspense fiction tinged with surreal, horror, and SF elements. I have always admired his workman-like writing ethic and his consistent ability to turn out readable, addictive fiction that provokes thought and fires the imagination. My early favorites from Koontz’s oeuvre were Twilight Eyes, Strangers, Lightning, and then his big breakthrough book, 1987’s Watchers. I was enamored, too, of the melodramatic stories he originally published under the pseudonym “Leigh Nichols” (Shadow Fires, etc.), and I have since collected those books and others he had published under a variety of noms de plume, in addition to his more recent bestsellers.

Koontz is often dismissed as a genre author. But in my opinion, he’s the sort of professional that other authors wish they could be, churning out addictive thrillers one right after the next.

So, anyway, back to the London Book Fair.

After a hard day spent networking stand by stand, meeting colleagues, chatting and listening to publishers’ reps and book reviewers in hopes of figuring out which forthcoming titles might be worth reading, and which to give a pass, I finally retired for lunch at a nearby bar. A cold beer and a hot salt beef sandwich went down easy, and they refreshed me enough to take a short walk. During which I quite literally bumped into Margaret Atwood.

This is one of the wonderful aspects of attending the LBF--that everyone who is anyone in Britain’s book-publishing community, or who can swing the necessary travel expenses from their North American publishers to make the trip across “the pond,” attends this three-day celebration of modern literature’s commercial side. You never know who you’re going to run across on any given day. Even someone of Atwood’s caliber.

As you might expect, I promptly launched into praise of her many books, especially her dystopian science-fiction novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), which captured the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award. She must have found me passably interesting, because she told me to follow her, that she had a real treat to share with me. Who was I to argue with one of our greatest living writers? I tagged along to the LongPen stand.

On a board placed to one side of the stand I read the following: “Dean Koontz Signs from Newport Beach, L.A.” at 1530 hours. And central to that display was a giant video monitor, an essential part of what has been described as “the world’s first long-distance, real-time, real pen and ink autographing device operated over the Internet.” Atwood told me that she had come up with the LongPen to assist authors, publishers, and readers in getting books publicized and signed, without generating all the carbon dioxide that’s created by global travel. (We do live in pretty environmentally conscious times, after all.) She estimated that Koontz signing remotely would prevent the creation of 2.52 tons of carbon dioxide, and added that LongPen is especially attractive in places such as Australia, New Zealand, and India. However, she conceded that it would likely not replace book signings altogether; it’s just an alternative.

Having seen Koontz’s name on the board (along with those of Andrew Gross and Marilyn French, who’d both be signing from New York, and Mark Haddon in Toronto), I naturally mentioned to her my longstanding fondness for his prose. So, as her LongPen assistants were gearing up for Koontz’s virtual appearance at this fair, they thrust a copy of his latest novel, The Husband, into my hands and nudged me toward their stand. Atwood just smiled mischievously at me, like a magician showing a caveman fire.

Suddenly, there I was in London, talking in real time with Dean Koontz, who was seated comfortably in his home in Southern California! After a moment’s hesitation (it’s not every day you get to meet somebody you so admire), I asked him why he has never ventured over to the UK. He said that the sheer volume of writing he has on never allows him much time to travel away from his desk. When I told him that I have been reading his work ever since I was a teenager, he said that made him feel old; so I quickly reassured him that, even at age 61, he looks younger than I do (thanks, in part, to hair transplantation survey he underwent in the early 1990s). I went on to inquire why he has employed so many pseudonyms over his lengthy writing career, including Leigh Nichols. He said that it was a consequence of his being so prolific: too many books published under only his own name would likely have glutted the market. He went on to say that at one time, Nichols was actually outselling Koontz; but when Koontz finally outsold Nichols, he decided to come clean and republish those early novels under his own name. I mentioned to him my having met Stephen King, and noted that King had often produced work under the byline “Richard Bachman.” How funny, I mused, that these two worldwide bestsellers should both have published behind false identities.

Koontz was very gracious. I marveled when he asked me to whom he should sign my copy of The Husband, which had been placed in the LongPen device, beneath a mechanical pen that in turn sat just under the TV monitor. I told him to sign it to “Ali,” and just as I was about to spell that out for him, I saw Koontz look at my name badge through the video camera placed above the screen (it reminded me of the eye of HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), and then the pen device swiggled out his words. Exactly as he was writing them in Newport Beach. Astounding technology! Once more glancing at my name badge, he asked me about The Rap Sheet, January Magazine, and the e-zine Shots, and then said he’d look them all up on the Web. It was an odd experience talking with Dean Koontz, with no time delay on the screen. We went on to chat a bit more, including about his 2005 novel, Velocity, which I so enjoyed--to the point where I’d made sure it was among the short list of contenders for the International Thriller Writers’ Best Novel Award in 2006. (It ultimately lost, though, to The Patriots Club, by Christopher Reich.)

By this time, an impatient line of people had started to form behind me. So I said my good-byes, and Koontz waved back, and I went off to thank Margaret Atwood for making my day. She smiled again and handed me more information about LongPen.

I must admit, the experience of meeting Dean Koontz and having 15 minutes of face time with him was fantastic. Atwood’s assistant was kind enough to take a few photographs of me with the author, and the booth operators laughed when I left, for all I could say was “That was mental, totally bloody mental, talking with Dean Koontz!”

I’ll have more to say about the London Book Fair later this week, as I have much to report about listening to authors John Banville and Christopher Priest discuss “Noir and the Nature of Evil”; meeting renowned U.S. critic-editor-bookseller Otto Penzler for the first time; and enjoying the Harrogate Crime Festival Cocktail Party. To get an impression of LBF for yourself, click here for an overview video.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Ali, that was cool! If only there were "LongEyes" so people like me could go to London Book Fair too. Loved the report--neat tech, neat authors, neat tale.

--Kat Richardson

Anonymous said...

Wow, Ali, that was cool! Thanks for the nifty report. I'm all agog about the LongPen project. What a neat idea. And it seems to work so nicely.

Lourdes said...

Very neat concept! Glad you got to talk to him, too.