HARLAN COBEN: THRILLING READERS AROUND THE WORLD
Plus the Myron Bolitar series, Film Adaptations
and The Pain of Writing
By Paul Freeman [March 2014 Interview]
Coben designed Myron as a character who could sustain a series. In fact, when I first sold it to a publisher, way back in the early 90s, I had finished one entire novel and sent them chapter one of the second novel. So it was clear it was going to be a series, at least in my mind.
The huge success of that series led to the creation of another, this one, aimed at young adult readers, featuring Myrons nephew, Mickey.
The reasons were severalfold. One is that I have four teenagers myself and wanted to write a book that would fit their age group. Number two, when I wrote Live Wire, the Myron Bolitar book, I met his nephew Mickey and decided I could have more stories. Number three, I really liked a lot of the young adult fiction thats been going on the last decade or so, which is much more acceptable. I had seen great ones done about wizards like Harry Potter or dystopia, like Hunger Games or vampires, like Twilight. But I hadnt really seen a young adult novel that really did kind of what I do - suspense, thrillers, in this sort of way. And I just thought itd be fun. So I gave it a try.
Encouraged by his parents, Coben, now 52, became a book lover in childhood. Kids dont really listen to what you say so much, as what you do. My parents are both big readers. Our Sundays, we would go into New York City, and there was a book store where youd get a brown paper bag and you could fill it up for five bucks. And we would spend almost the whole day there.
The Newark native attended high school with Chris Christie, now New Jerseys governor. Ive known him since we played Little League together, when we were about 10 or 11, Coben says. In fact, we were both inducted into the Little League Hall of Fame last summer.
Coben admired great writers as much as he did star ballplayers. His favorite authors include Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis and Philip Roth. When he was 16, his father handed him a copy of William Goldmans Marathon Man. It had a profound effect.
You could put a gun to my head and I wouldnt put it down. That feeling, that making your pulse race feeling, that staying up all night not wanting to leave your hotel room feeling, is really what drew me to it.
And it drew him to the thriller and mystery genres. Robert B. Parker and Mary Higgins Clark became other influences.
At Amherst College, however, Coben didnt initially focus on creative writing. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, which is probably why I was a political science major, he says, laughing. I was probably going to go to law school and actually had applied and been accepted to a number of different law schools. I was going to do that. Then I decided to try to work a few years and write on the side. And thats what happened.
He didnt delude himself about his chances. It was an impossible longshot, as it would be today. Getting published in general, but actually having success as an author is a tremendous longshot, I think. Its like saying you want to be an actor or saying you want to be an athlete. Theres very few spots for a lot of people who want them.
People want Cobens books. There are more than 50 million of them in print. Coben has won an Edgar Award, a Shamus Award and an Anthony Award, the first writer to receive all three.
I guess theyre just stories that people find compelling. Im doing what I mentioned before - trying to keep you up at night, glued to the page. Its not really my job to figure out why its working, as long as its working, he says with a chuckle. Ill let the media figure out why.
Coben has set the bar high, but doesnt feel pressured in terms of meeting expectations... other than his own. The pressure really is when you cant get a book deal, no one wants to buy your book, no one cares about your book. Thats really pressure.
My pressure has always come from within. Its always been self-inflicted. And that is, I always want the next book to be better than the one before. And I want to find new ways of moving you, new ways of stirring your pulse and your heart. So I put a lot of pressure on myself to do that.
Does Coben need outside validation? Or does he know when hes got everything right? At this stage of the game, Im pretty good at knowing. But a writer without a reader is a man who doesnt really exist. So after it [Missing You] comes out, then Ill find out if it worked or not. Im one hand. Theres the other hand. You cant clap with one hand. The early word has been exceptionally good. The early reviews have been some of the best of my career. The book was sold to Warner Brothers as a movie already. So Im excited, but well see when it comes out.
Cobens books seem like naturals for movie adaptations. Tell No One became an acclaimed 2006 French thriller, courtesy of director Guillaume Canet.
Its a strange business. But Ive got three now at three major studios. Im working on a possible American TV series for USA Network [based on the Myron Bolitar books], a possible British TV series and I just got green-lit on a French TV series. So these happen and, as an author, you really cant control them. Theyve been working on Tell No One remakes since that one got made. Universal Studios has that. Six Years is at Paramount with Hugh Jackman attached to play the lead. And this ones now just gone to Warner Brothers. So a year from now, we could be talking and all three could have been filmed... or none of them. You just dont know. Thats just how it is in the Hollywood business. Im just glad I dont have to make a living doing it. It is annoying, but thats Hollywood.
Though Cobens writing peeks over the edge, into the dark side, he doesnt ignore the light. This new book certainly has some dark stuff going on. But I think my books are more of the shadow side of the light. I dont normally write crazed serial killers or whatever else. The world I write about is a more hopeful world. But dealing with the darkness is compelling storytelling. I find its a compelling way of testing people and having characters go through their paces, keeping readers interested and exploring different themes.
A big part of being a writer is being insecure and fearful that that stuffs going to happen. I think the day I get confident about that is the day that Im starting to phone it in. So Im always worrying about getting my ideas.
So the process doesnt become less painful after many years of writing. Never. It does not get any easier whatsoever. Whatever trick works once, wont work a second time. The muse is a rather cruel mistress. You just never really know what to expect next.
When it does come, inspiration can spring from anywhere. It could come from a painting, it could come from a news story. Normally, it comes from something in my real life. The one thing that fiction writing is, is asking What if? So the ideas usually come from asking, What if? When I wrote a book two years ago called, Promise Me, I had overheard a couple of teenagers talking about drinking and driving. So I told them, Heres my phone number. I dont care what time it is, I dont care what youre doing, promise me you wont get in a car with someone whos drinking and driving. And this is not an uncommon story. Adults have done it before.
But I started asking, What if? What if a teenage girl called my hero? What if he picks her up, drops her at what he thinks is a friends house and the next day shes gone? No one knows where she is. And no one at the house even knows who she is. Well, thats a pretty interesting way to start a book. Thats an example of how something might come to me.
Writing requires inner strength. Its hard to come up with new stories and new ways to engage people, Coben says. Writing is a lonely profession. Its hard. Its not hard like ditch-digging is hard. But its hard in terms of looking at a blank page, which can be pretty scary. Its pretty difficult to turn that blank page into something special.
For Coben, all the hard work is definitely worth it. The biggest reward is the fact that I get to tell stories to millions of people, in 42 languages, to people around the world. Thats a thrill unlike any other. The fact that these people decide to choose to take me into their homes and spend hours reading what I have to say, thats pretty cool. And its something I never take for granted.
All the changes in technology dont change Cobens basic approach. For me, it doesnt affect anything at all. I dont care if you read me on e-book, stone tablet, audio, handwriting. I dont care how you read me. If my book is good enough, youre going to read me. So I just need to keep getting better.
Some technologies may offer a lot of competition - streaming TV and internet and all that. But that just means I have to make my story that much better, so you choose to read it.