‘Each book is its own unique hell’

Harlan Coben is as generous in his interview as he is with his readers – having offered them over 80 million copies of over 30 books

Hero image

“If I knew the secret of writing a real page-turner, sure I’d tell you,” laughs Harlan Coben. “But I’m not sure even I understand.”

But Coben is doing something right when it comes to penning thrillers, despite being unable to pin down the precise secret of that global success. Since 1990 debut Play Dead, Newark, New Jersey-born Coben has frequently punctuated bestseller charts with a series of fast-paced, high-tension, complexly-plotted suspense novels. Now 61 and with well over 30 novels – and 80 million sales – under his belt, the author has recently moved into executive producing adaptations of his work for Netflix. The Midas touch he possesses has transferred intact from the written page to the small screen.

“There always have to be twists and turns and surprises but it’s really about heart and you have to care what happens to the characters to care about the answers,” he says. “One of my favourite pieces of writing advice comes from Elmore Leonard who said: ‘I try to cut out all the parts you’d normally skip.’ I try to tell a story that twists and turns and entertains, that tugs at the heartstrings and that emotion combines with the speeding pulse and the speeding mind.”

Coben’s long-term love for the thriller can be traced back to William Goldman’s Marathon Man, which he first picked up around the age of 14.

“Man, you could have put a gun to my head and I wouldn’t have put that book down. That got me subconsciously thinking to myself: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to write like that for a living?’”

Putting pen to paper came a number of years later following a college break in Spain.

“My family had a travel agency and I spent a summer on the Costa del Sol taking care of Americans on vacation, which was a very, let’s say, strange experience,” Coben recalls. “Then I came home thinking I’d love to write a book about it and I did. It wasn’t a very good novel and was all the things a first novel usually is, like incredibly self-absorbed, but that gave me what I call the writing virus.”

Each subsequent work has been, Coben says, “a novel of immersion, the kind of book you take on vacation but you’d rather stay in your hotel room to find out what happens. I started to write what I love and that’s how it all began.”

His latest, I Will Find You, provides the usual, high-octane, multi-layered thrills. The novel begins with a bang – the opening two lines revealing a father five years into a sentence for murdering his own son, plus the fact he didn’t actually commit said murder – and rarely lets up. Granted, there’s very much a formula to Coben’s work but when he consistently pulls it off with such aplomb, why change?

Throughout his career Coben has also retained an admirable singularity, an almost total dedication to writing. “One thing that helps me is I don’t really have any interests or hobbies. Some writers start having success and then start doing things like collecting paintings or antiques and thus get distracted. I don’t. I have family and my work and I’m pretty one-dimensional after that.”

The physical act of writing has remained largely unchanged for Coben too. “Because of Covid I had to switch things up when I worked on I Will Find You, which was, for the most part, written in various rooms in my house, but sometimes I need white noise when I write. The problem at home is you’ll find any excuse not to write so getting out eliminates those excuses,” he explains. “Around ten years ago I was working on a book called The Stranger* and took an Uber into New York City. I felt guilty about spending that money on the cab so took a pad with me, stared to write and found I wrote really well in there so for the next three weeks took Ubers everywhere and worked in the back. For a time I worked at a certain table in the coffee bar in my supermarket. I change it up and live my life thinking that if this helps me write, good, but if it doesn’t, bad.”

A dozen of Coben’s bestsellers have featured Myron Bolitar, a blond, handsome, statuesque ex-basketball player turned sports agent. With Bolitar due to return in the as yet untitled follow-up to I Will Find You, it’s blatant the author has developed something of a relationship with his all-action protagonist. But does a long-running authorial voice, one familiar to his readers, make Bolitar books simpler to write?

“It’s not easier than writing standalone novels – it’s different. A standalone book is like starting a painting with an entirely blank canvas. If I’m ‘doing a Myron’ it’s a larger canvas with some already painted on, me loving what’s there but wanting to add to that.”

Although recent changes in technology have affected plot lines of contemporary thrillers – “Modern communication methods giveth and taketh away for the writer. My novels just reflect reality but technology has removed the chance to get away with some things” – those age-old doubts that plague writers remain relevant for Coben.

“I have doubts every single day,” he laughs, a little nervously. “But I don’t know any writer who doesn’t. Only bad writers think they’re good while the rest of us have imposter syndrome, insecurities and worry, which all help to fuel your work and make it better.

“If an author begins to be over-confident that’s when they start phoning it in or they’re just not that good. Each book is its own unique hell and that never goes away.”

Conversely, the thrills offered by a complex plot line suddenly falling into place remain for Coben, the author also describing the excitement sensed when his novels are positively received. He’s generous and animated when talking about the recent Netflix adaptations of his work too.

An initial contract with the broadcasting giant was sealed during 2018 for 14 of his books to be developed into series or movies. That deal was recently renewed for a further four years. While over in the UK last month for his first post-Covid book tour, he visited the set of Fool Me Once – a 2016 novel – in Manchester. He appears to be continually amazed by his success.

“There are all these talented people bringing your vision to life and you just think: ‘Wow, I had this little idea in my house in New Jersey!’ It’s a tremendous thrill and it’s a very heady feeling.

“So while all us writers do live with doubt there is also a hubris there that makes you think: ‘I’m going to write 400 pages and you’re going to want to read it or film it and pay me for the pleasure.’”

Following a thoughtful pause, Coben concludes: “That dichotomy is what writers live with.”

* Read our interview with Kadiff Kirwan, the Preston-born star of The Stranger, in the Features section of bigissuenorth.com

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to ‘Each book is its own unique hell’

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.