William Kotzwinkle: Mastery in Disguise

William Kotzwinkle
William Kotzwinkle, Master of the Mysterious
The first novel I ever read from cover to cover was the tie-in of a movie starring Chevy Chase and Benji called Oh, Heavenly Dog. Believe it or not, that was actually a mystery, a thriller, even—about a private detective who is killed on the job, then gets sent back to earth to solve his own murder as a cute little four-legged friend. I hadn’t actually seen the film before I read the book, so it was just like “the real thing.” Which is to say, I had graduated that afternoon from comics and storybooks, into the realm of printed literature with no pretty pictures—much less an entire movie to illustrate the story. I was eight years old, and I remember the feeling of accomplishment that came with getting to the last page of that sucker, thinking that I was suddenly an adult now. I’d read a whole novel all by myself! Never mind that it was some cute li’l book-for-kids—that part wasn’t important.

It’s still isn’t.

To this day, I tend to find art and inspiration the damndest places.

For example, in my living room today, you will find an entire wall completely devoted to paperback novelizations of motion pictures—which I believe to be the strangest, tackiest, and most unlikely forms of printed literature still made available to the public. Weird stuff fascinates me on general principle, as does any sort of lurid pulp fiction, whether it be in print or on film. Movie tie-ins combine both print and film into one bizarrely bastardized, brazenly commercialized and artistically indefensible package. The way it usually works is that the studio will hire a novelist, and that novelist will adapt the film’s screenplay into a book-length manuscript, and that book-length manuscript will then become a trashy paperback and that paperback will then be made available at drug stores and supermarkets and Walmarts everywhere, in order to promote the existence of said motion picture.

When you think about it, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. At least not these days. And I love that it doesn’t make sense. It makes me want to own every damn one of these books. I obsess over the paradoxical nature of the movie tie-in and sometimes fork over ridiculous amounts of money for a certain out-of-print title. Other times, I’ll find a rare gem in some out-of-the-way book nook for a quarter. (Nobody in the real world much cares about these paperbacks anymore—but those high-end collectors always see you coming a mile away, the jerks.)

Snakes on a Plane by Christa FaustAll this is by way of saying that the movie novel is a bit of a rarified dinosaur from ages past, before video existed. Up until the mid-1980s, it was next to impossible for the average working Joe to get his grubby mitts on an actual motion picture for home viewing. In the awesome techno-future we all now inhabit, if you want that sumbitch you can bloody well own it at the click of a mouse—and screw the verstunken novelization, right? These days, a book based on a movie tends to be more special. There aren’t as many of them, and they’re very often written by prestige authors, like the one they recently did for Cabin in the Woods by Tim Lebbon or The Wolfman by Jonathan Maberry. Christa Faust continues to sharpen her fangs on tie-ins, too. I think she even won some kind of an award for her Snakes on a Plane book.

There’s something kind of amazing about classy dames like Christa writing this cheap throwaway stuff. It harkens back to a trashier age.

Back in the early 1980s, almost every movie had a tie-in paperback. They were pumped into bookstores wholesale, right alongside the “respectable” pocket book fodder by guys like Stephen King. Films like Escape from New York and Halloween had novels based on them. Videodrome and Alien and Buckaroo Bonzai were immortalized in print. I collected these books ravenously. Most of them were at least competently written, if not particularly stylish, but occasionally you’d get a real winner in the bunch.

Like I said—inspiration in the damndest places.

In 1982, the novelization of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial hit drugstore paperback shelves all over America, about three months ahead of the film’s release. It later became a best-seller, after the film made history, and was even followed by a fine sequel novel, E.T.: Book of the Green Planet, which was based on a story sketch Spielberg had thrown out one day as a possible follow-up to his legendary megahit. The sequel film never happened obviously. The book is still around and it’s really very good. So is the tie-in novelization.

Both books were written by a man named William Kotzwinkle, who later became my favorite author in the entire world.

He’s one of those guys who can do anything, and has literally done it all.

ET, the Extra-TerrestrialI was a bit of a stranger to The Kotz when his E.T. book first surfaced at the local Walgreens. My father, a hippie musician in Houston, was quite hip to the man, having read Bill’s fantastic early work, three very bizarre novels called Hermes 3000, Nightbook, and The Fan Man. My dad—whose name is Rock, which is what I still call him instead of “dad” most of the time—was more than a little shocked to discover Kotzwinkle’s name on the cover of that E.T. book. After all, The Kotz was a folk hero to weirdoes and long-hair counterculture types the world over, quite along the lines of Tom Robbins or Robert Crumb; what the hell was this guy doing in the camp of Steven fucking Spielberg, for Pete’s sake? Rock actually read the E.T. book and quite liked it, saying that it gelled well with the other stuff Kotzwinkle had written, and he insisted that I read The Fan Man next, a book that had floated around our weird bohemian crashpad for years, but I had never actually read. “You have to check this out, Stevie, it will change your whole life. And then read Nightbook. It made me piss myself laughing.”

He was right about all those things. I did read The Fan Man and it did change my life. And while Nightbook didn’t exactly make me piss myself, it still remains one of the most magical, terrifying, and hilarious books I’ve ever read in a single sitting.

The Fan Man is my favorite thing in print, even now.

I was twelve years old when I pored through those books for the first time. The work was spiritual, hallucinatory, childlike in a way. It dealt with loaded themes and taboo issues relating to sex, drugs, madness, obsession, and human cruelty. But you never got the impression that this guy was ever talking down to his characters. They just were. It all just existed, for better or for worse. The Kotz’s world was the real world, but through the eyes of a very sensitive, loving, idiosyncratic artist—sort of a fairytale lens on humanity at large. There wasn’t a hero or a villain in sight.

When I was done having my mind blown, I returned to Kotzwinkle’s adaptation of E.T., and was stunned to discover that it made absolute sense, within the same exact literary universe. Rock was right about that, too: Kotzwinkle’s style gelled well with the scenario, because he’d decided to write more than half the book from the alien’s perspective, making it a very different story experience than the film had been. There were no bad guys, no good guys. Just a strange world, seen through the eyes of a strange visitor. This is a theme that also runs through The Fan Man, and much of Bill’s best original work.

What I didn’t realize in 1982—I was still only a kid and not a professional—was that every writer has lean periods, and during those lean periods you gotta pay the rent. Kotzwinkle was chosen to novelize E.T. over many other writers, and I’m sure he did it for the money at the time—but it also changed his career in a major way, bringing attention to his work from Hollywood and making him a best-seller. He later adapted his own brilliant coming-of-age novel Jack in the Box for the screen (it was released as a very uninteresting film called Book of Love) and co-wrote the most financially successful of the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. (Part 4, also called The Dreammaster, which is also the most stylishly silly film in the lot.)

NightbookHe’s written straight comedy, dark fantasy, science fiction, bracing historical romance, personal melodrama, and at least one incredibly bracing mystery thriller, The Game of Thirty, which was shamefully ignored by the mainstream, though highly praised by such luminaires as Stephen King. Like much of Bill’s work, it is a textbook example of How To Do This Shit.

Oh yes . . . and not long ago, he attained best-seller status again, with a series of pre-school storybooks about a farting dog.

My effing hero, right?

Yeah, this guy is the quintessential American success story alright, and a true original in the bargain. Even though most people I run into have never heard of him. (Just today, I had a meeting with my agent and told him I was writing this article, to which he replied “Kotzwinkle who?”) Those people always become fans after reading just one of Bill’s remarkable books. He’s got something for everybody, so I tend to recommend it all. Nobody ever comes back disappointed.

Hermes 3000 was Kotzwinkle’s first “adult” novel (not surprisingly, he’d written children’s books before that) and is a kind of acid trip experiment, dissecting a half dozen individual and unrelated story trajectories, and then sort of splicing them back together so that we experience a series of themes, rather than a proper plot, bouncing from one narrative thread to another. The stories range from the mordantly mundane—an aging appreciator of art wandering a gallery—to the patently epic and surreal—a rich English lord hires a homeless man to inhabit his estate grounds as an “ornamental hermit” and the hermit ends up crafting his own subterranean lair beneath the mansion, eventually becoming a great war hero during the blitz of WWII. The overall message of the book is somewhat muted and the voice here is not quite as astonishing as in his later Nightbook, which also experiments with multiple narrative threads, but in a far more audacious, fluid and challenging way.

Nightbook reads like a fever dream, with ladies of Ancient Athens gathering in a temple of love to tell erotic tales to one another—tales that magically reach across time and space. At the drop of a comma, we’re in modern-day New York with a pair of dysfunctional flaming homosexuals, and then we’re off to battle with a Greek warlord, whose fate on the high seas is determined by the passion of Mias, the great whore of Athens. While the unconventional structure takes risks, the sexual content is brazen and unhinged throughout, fully exposing the depths of human depravity, and mining those chasms with such efficiency and drop-dead hilarious commentary that you find yourself laughing out loud while you marvel at the magic act. (The scene which made my dad piss himself, for example, was the bit where Kotzwinkle describes an advertising executive’s painful struggle with his malfunctioning bowels as he ascends flights of stairs, on the way to his first date with a beautiful secretary; this is somehow impossibly—and gracefully—juxtaposed with a parable about a homely woman of ancient Greece who becomes beautiful through the power of love and devotion.) Kotzwinkle is far more comfortable with his multi-narrative trick here, never condescending to explain it, instead inviting you to experience it, using the form to create a solid theme that suggests that stories are immortal and timeless, reincarnating themselves through the centuries. There is no other rush in the world quite like reading Nightbook. It’s one of those things that’s sort of guaranteed to blow your mind.

The Fan Man by William KotzwinkleThe Fan Man is The Kotz’s undisputed early masterpiece, applauded by everyone from The New Yorker to Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote a glowing foreword for the more recent edition. And it is a masterpiece indeed: a free flowing first-person narrative describing the bizarre exploits of Horse Badorties, a hippie relic of the 1960s thrown dead in the center of the swinging 70s, with all the madness, drugs, music, and counter-culture obsession such a scenario implies. There is that epic, disconnected sense of a stranger in a strange land, as Horse bounds from one bizarre, impossible objective to the next—he spends one entire chapter in a payphone obsessively dialing numbers to everyone on the planet, while elsewhere we find him waking up in his junk-filled apartment and muttering the word “DORKY” over and over in some cosmic attempt to “clean out his consciousness” (and since we’re talking about an urgent first person narrative, Horse’s obsession amounts to quite a number of pages filled with nothing but the word “DORKY” over and over)—while his ultimate aim of getting 16-year-old chicks together in a church to sing his “love chorus” music to the tune of a hundred hand-held electric fans is slowly realized, fueled by some kind of mad super-intelligence that allows him to exist in his own invincible bubble. By the time the bittersweet finale winds up, with Horse’s ambitions drowned in the rain, even as they come to a sort of strange fruition on all on their own—proof perhaps that greatness is unstoppable, even by its own creators—Horse finds the inner peace and resolution he’s been searching for all his life, in a world that can be taught the value of magic, in spite of itself.

In other words, you can find inspiration—and maybe even ultimate truth—in the damndest places.

The Bear Went Over The Mountain is another of The Kotz’s most celebrated works, a “fairytale for adults” in which an actual brown mountain bear steals a struggling author’s breakthrough novel (when he foolishly hides the typewritten manuscript under a tree) and sets off to New York to seek his fortune as the new darling of the snobbish literary inner circle. The bear takes the name Hal Jam, gets a good agent, publishes his stolen book with a six-figure deal and moves into a classy apartment, and while Hal learns to fake humanity with varying and hilarious levels of success and failure—the humans around him simply buy into it at face value because he’s the “next big thing”—the plagiarized human author slips into a self-imposed hibernation, becoming more and more bear-like as a strange and magical osmosis takes place. Of course, that doesn’t stop the fella from eventually suing the bear for copyright infringement . . . and so it goes.

Bear is generally the first book I will recommend to any Kotz newbie. It’s written in a straightforward style that shows Bill at the top of his form and working with ease within the simple confines of a conventional third-person narrative, but it’s also filled with sharp observation, weird interspecies sexual encounters, and savage riffs on the publishing world that can only come from a guy with so much experience in it. The hard-won wisdom and effortless, almost innocent digging seems to come as some sort of amazing offshoot of Ultimate Observational Knowledge. It’s my third favorite Kotzwinkle, behind Nightbook.

The Game of ThirtyIt actually ties for third position with The Game of Thirty, which is one of my All Time Top Five Favorite Thrillers. Number One is Shella by Andrew Vachss, in case you’re wondering—a book so diametrically opposed to Thirty as to be an almost completely different genre. Where the Vacchs novel is based on the cruel realities of actual on-the-street crimes, filled with heavy violence, dark characters, and one of the most devastating endings in all of thriller literature, Kotzwinkle’s book takes a more fanciful approach, mining the fertile fields of the private eye genre with classic noir, caustic satirical observation and even an odd love story on the side.

Thirty’s protagonist is the epitome of the tough guy ideal—even his name “Jimmy McShane” couldn’t be any more archetypically macho—but from the first page of the novel, you’re hooked into a bracing, fast-paced, uneasy riff that takes you down dark alleys you never expected to go and ends in a place that damn near brings tears to your eyes. There is an effortless cynicism-in-humor amongst the dead bodies—a sort of Zen-master deconstruction of the entire affair that rings in your ear like a long forgotten dream that suddenly (and maybe even inexplicably) makes sense. If there was ever any doubt that Kotzwinkle could tackle the mainstream and pull off something very traditional in a proven genre, this was certainly it. Too bad it sold about three or four copies. We might have seen more of Jimmy McShane.

Somehow, though, I get the impression that The Kotz wouldn’t have wanted to do that anyway. There is a close-ended nature to The Game of Thirty and all his other work that suggests a gypsy soul—a rebel that never wants to sit still for very long. His diverse body of work bears that out. What irony that the only series character he ever really stuck with was Walter the Farting Dog.

Again, my effing hero.

Oh . . . and the E.T. book was not his last novelization either. He also was hired to pen the adaptation of Superman III in 1983. Remember that one? It was the self-mocking follow-up to the impressive Richard Donner films which kind of made a joke of the whole affair . . . and The Kotz knows it all too well. It’s one of the great tacky legacies of the pulp world that such an accomplished satirist would be brought on to satirize a satire. Indeed, the novel is written in a bizarre tongue-in-cheek manner that mercilessly pokes fun, brutally breaks the fourth wall, and clearly has no interest whatsoever in taking much of anything too seriously. And yet . . . it kind of is serious. He still never talks down to us. There is an actual reverence for the material. It’s kind of like watching a master tightrope artist tell a really unfunny joke while he walks the line between imaginary genius and hardcore insanity. And that’s kind of amazing, really. It reminds me of old Horse Badorties, out there on a wing and a prayer, running his jive for all the world to admire and wonder about.

I’m never not amazed by a book written by William Kotzwinkle.

If you are a reader, read him.

If you are writer, learn from him.

And if you are a seeker of truth through the gutter of artistic underclass, this man is your new personal hero.



Stephen Romano is an award-winning author, illustrator, designer, and screenwriter. His first solo novel Resurrection Express is available from Simon and Schuster and has garnered rave reviews. His other acclaimed projects include an adaptation for Showtime’s Emmy Award-winning Masters of Horror series, the illustrated work Shock Festival (hailed by Fangoria magazine as “one of the greatest homages to B cinema ever undertaken”), and co-writing the original novel Black Light with Saw franchise screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. He lives in Austin, Texas. Catch him at StephenRomanoShockFestival.com.


  1. Jim Gavin

    Thanks for this. I discovered MIDNIGHT EXAMINER in a bargain bin and immediately loved it and told everyone about it, no one had ever heard of him (even the guy who used to own a bookstore and knew about way more authors than I did).

  2. Pansy Burke

    It’s VACHSS, not Vacchs … see: http://www.vachss.com/vachss/faq.html#spelling

  3. Clare 2e

    Fixed @Pansy–thanks!

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