Photo by Claudio Marinesco
Bestselling Mystery/Suspense Author Talks With PCC About His New Novel, “Missing You,”
Plus the Myron Bolitar series, Film Adaptations
and The Pain of Writing

By Paul Freeman [March 2014 Interview]

Marketing fiction can be a challenging task. For bestselling author Harlan Coben, master of the thriller and mystery genres, it’s easy. All he has to do is get readers to visit his website, www.harlancoben.com. There they’ll find the first two chapters of his new book, “MIssing You.” Once you’ve read those pages, you’ll be hooked.

Coben tells Pop Culture Classics, just days before the March 18th release of his latest page-turner, “Elmore Leonard says, ‘I try to cut out all the parts you’d normally skip.’ That may be the best piece of writing advice given by anybody ever. I don’t write that way just the first pages. I try writing that way the whole time. I really try to grab you on the first sentence and hold your attention all the way through. It doesn’t slow down after those first pages. It may even pick up steam. Especially towards the end, you’re just whipping through the pages. That’s what I hope to do.

“I hope it’s what I call ‘the novel of immersion,’” Coben says, “the book you take on vacation, but you’d rather stay in your hotel room, because you have to know what’s going to happen to Kat and Stacy and Jeff and everybody else in this book.“

With every sentence he propels the action forward, further riveting the reader, revealing ever more fascinating detail about plot and character. With Coben, there is never a wasted word.

Coben explains what sparked the story of “Missing You.” “I was hearing a lot about online dating. I knew a lot of people who actually had success with it and others who had not. They talked about how people can be anything they want online.

“I thought it would be a really cool story if you signed up for an internet dating site and you saw your ex-fiance from 18 years ago, who left you. And then when she reaches out, everything goes wrong. She finds out that everything that happened 18 years ago was a lie and she uncovers a huge conspiracy. I thought that would be kind of a cool thing to explore, identities online, how easily we can be fooled and how easily we can fall in love.”

Once a novelty, online dating has become commonly accepted. Should we be wary? Coben says, ‘I think we should be leery of everything involving online. If you’re clever enough, you can have any sort of fake identity that you want. You can be fooled by pictures that seem more real than reality. The internet has a lot of valuable uses, but the whole world is a different sort of place than it was a few years ago. And my books take place in the present day, so it’s reflecting whatever’s going on. If it were a different era, I’d be writing about people going on blind dates or video dating.”

Coben, whose last six consecutive novels have debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, gets deep inside the psyche of his “Missing You” protagonist, NYPD Detective Kat Donovan. “Character-building is an organic process for me. It just sort of happens. I kind of come up with an idea and I wonder who’s going to tell it. And that character emerges.

“It’s often also a reaction to what I’ve recently done. The book before [“Six Years”], the lead character was tall and male and an amateur. He was a college professor and it takes place on campus. This book, she’s on the small side, she’s female, she’s a cop and it takes place in New York.”

Coben likes to keep things fresh for himself, as well as for the reader. “I’m always trying to do different things, tell stories in different ways.”

The book describes Kat as allowing her mind to wander, seeing the bigger picture, even if it sometimes means missing a detail in the short term. That, Coben writes, is both one of her strengths and weaknesses. He says he shares that quality with her.

“I used to think that certain characters were me and other ones weren’t. Especially males ones that looked like me, would be me. But as I’ve gone on, I’ve realized that it’s never quite that simple. I see bits of myself in almost every character, including, sometimes, the bad guys. There’s a side of me that likes the black and white, rather than some of the gray answers that you can come up with. I think it’s true of most writers. It’s either a side of you or it’s that being a writer requires a great deal of empathy. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s the other. Maybe they’re the same thing. I don’t even know.”

Readers never know quite where Coben’s next page will take them. Achieving that is no easy task. For Coben, writing is painstaking.

“Nothing about the process is much fun,” he says, chuckling. “There’s an old saying, ‘I don’t like writing... I like having written.’ I think that applies to me. I work pretty hard on the twists. I take a great deal of pride in making sure that, even in today’s world, where you’ve seen every kind of twist, you still are going to be fooled by what happened and who did it and how it all turns out for Kat and everybody else in this book.

“By now, I can sort of see and make sure I don’t go in the direction that’s expected. Or I’ll occasionally go in a direction that’s expected, because that’s unexpected. But it’s nothing you can force. Usually the characters have to take you there. And similar to the character development, it’s also an organic process. There are times I’ll think of a twist way ahead of time, but, by the time I get there, that twist just feels like a twist, it doesn’t feel like a reasonable outcome of what’s been going on. So those things then have to be changed around.”

Outlining is not usually part of Coben’s process. “E.L. Doctorow has a quote, where he says, ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way.’ The only thing I would add is that I know how it ends. I know the beginning and the end, when I start that journey.”

Coben’s books often revolve as much around romance, as suspense. “In certain books I’ve written, including “Missing You,” they are at least half love story, half thriller. ‘Six Years’ and ‘Tell No One’ and this new one, some people would actually classify more as love stories than thriller. I like that combination. A writer can make your pulse pound with a fast-moving plot, but if you don’t really care about the characters, if you aren’t really interested in what’s at stake for them, it’s not going to work. And what’s a greater sort of thing than a possible lost love?”

Several themes recur in Coben’s work. “I’m very big on loss, very big on redemption. I’m big on missing people. Big on friendship. I’m big on family. This one is also about identity and our identity of ourselves, what secrets and lies we all keep, from ourselves and from others. But every book is different. I don’t really think, ‘Oh, I really want to explore this theme now and I’m going to write a book around that theme.’ The theme usually comes out of whatever story I’m telling. It’s more of a subconscious process.”

Photo by Claudio Marinesco
Coben says there’s little difference in writing a series, like his popular books featuring Myron Bolitar, sports agent/detective, or a stand-alone like “Missing You.” “The only difference - it’s like painting - in one case, you’re start with a completely blank canvas. In the other case, some of the things are already filled in for you, which may limit you... or make it more challenging, depending how you look at it. But the actually process is pretty much the same. I’m in Myron Bolitar’s head instead of Kat’s head.”

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 Myron’s 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 that’s 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 hadn’t 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 it’d be fun. So I gave it a try.”

Encouraged by his parents, Coben, now 52, became a book lover in childhood. “Kids don’t 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 you’d 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 Jersey’s governor. “I’ve 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 Goldman’s “Marathon Man.” It had a profound effect.

“You could put a gun to my head and I wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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 that’s what happened.”

He didn’t 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. It’s like saying you want to be an actor or saying you want to be an athlete. There’s very few spots for a lot of people who want them.”

People want Coben’s 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 they’re just stories that people find compelling. I’m doing what I mentioned before - trying to keep you up at night, glued to the page. It’s not really my job to figure out why it’s working, as long as it’s working,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ll let the media figure out why.”

Coben has set the bar high, but doesn’t feel pressured in terms of meeting expectations... other than his own. “The pressure really is when you can’t get a book deal, no one wants to buy your book, no one cares about your book. That’s really pressure.

“My pressure has always come from within. It’s 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 he’s got everything right? “At this stage of the game, I’m pretty good at knowing. But a writer without a reader is a man who doesn’t really exist. So after it [“Missing You”] comes out, then I’ll find out if it worked or not. I’m one hand. There’s the other hand. You can’t 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 I’m excited, but we’ll see when it comes out.”

Coben’s books seem like naturals for movie adaptations. “Tell No One” became an acclaimed 2006 French thriller, courtesy of director Guillaume Canet.

“It’s a strange business. But I’ve got three now at three major studios. I’m 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 can’t control them. They’ve 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 one’s 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 don’t know. That’s just how it is in the Hollywood business. I’m just glad I don’t have to make a living doing it. It is annoying, but that’s Hollywood.”

Though Coben’s writing peeks over the edge, into the dark side, he doesn’t 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 don’t 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 it’s a compelling way of testing people and having characters go through their paces, keeping readers interested and exploring different themes.”

Photo Credit: Miriam Berkley
Coben’s imagination seems boundless. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t concerned that the well of ideas might dry up. “I worry about it pretty much every day,” he says, laughing. “That never goes away. Every time I finish a book, which I did recently, and go to start another one, I never have an idea. I’ve thrown everything into the book before. So it always feels like it’ll never happen again. I always feel like I’ll never have any more ideas. It’s just a part of the process.

“A big part of being a writer is being insecure and fearful that that stuff’s going to happen. I think the day I get confident about that is the day that I’m starting to phone it in. So I’m always worrying about getting my ideas.”

So the process doesn’t become less painful after many years of writing. “Never. It does not get any easier whatsoever. Whatever trick works once, won’t 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, ‘Here’s my phone number. I don’t care what time it is, I don’t care what you’re doing, promise me you won’t get in a car with someone who’s 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 friend’s house and the next day she’s gone? No one knows where she is. And no one at the house even knows who she is. Well, that’s a pretty interesting way to start a book. That’s an example of how something might come to me.”

Writing requires inner strength. “It’s hard to come up with new stories and new ways to engage people,” Coben says. “Writing is a lonely profession. It’s hard. It’s not hard like ditch-digging is hard. But it’s hard in terms of looking at a blank page, which can be pretty scary. It’s 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. That’s 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, that’s pretty cool. And it’s something I never take for granted.”

All the changes in technology don’t change Coben’s basic approach. “For me, it doesn’t affect anything at all. I don’t care if you read me on e-book, stone tablet, audio, handwriting. I don’t care how you read me. If my book is good enough, you’re 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.”