The 'Undisciplined' Ambition of Harlan Coben

Posted by Cybil on February 28, 2019
Harlan Coben describes himself as "not a particularly disciplined person."

That's probably not the self-description you'd expect from someone who's written more than a book a year over the past quarter-century—including such bestsellers as Tell No One, Hold Tight, and Fool Me Once—and created the TV series The Five and Safe. But Coben, 57, confesses that he's only human.

"I'm forgetful, I'm disorganized, if you want me to serve on a board I'm the guy who forgets to show up," he says in an interview from his home in northern New Jersey.

Writing, however, is different.

"I love to tell the story. I love to have that communication with the reader. And the only way I can have that is to actually do the work," he says.

Coben's latest work, Run Away, is a prime example of his craft. The book features a wealthy Manhattanite named Simon Greene whose daughter tumbles into a world of drugs. One day he spots her in Central Park, she flees, and the battle is joined, with Simon exploring some of the darkest corners of modern life in an effort to bring her back. Along the way, he discovers that there are secrets about his family he never suspected.

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For Coben, the book's release is the best part.

"I love this moment. Run Away, to me, is not a book yet. Run Away, to me, is a book now, when people start to read it, when [its characters] Simon and Ash and Dee Dee and Elena come to life in people's heads, and we have that one-on-one communication. That's when I become a writer."

Coben spoke with Goodreads contributor Todd Leopold about the origins of Run Away, his TV projects, and his ability to write in the back of an Uber. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Goodreads: Where did the idea for Run Away come from?

Harlan Coben: This was three or four different ideas I ended up putting together into one book. I wanted to do something involving these popular ancestry/DNA websites, I wanted to do something with a cult, and I wanted to do something with drugs.

But where it all came together was, I often sit in Central Park on that very bench where [the book] opens. I was listening to a street musician mangle John Lennon, and I did what I do for all my books: I keep asking "What if?" What if that street musician was my child? What if I hadn't seen her in a while, and when I approach everything goes wrong? That was really what started it all.

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GR: I've read that you know the beginning and the ending of your books, but not the middle. Was the same true with Run Away?

HC: I knew the final twist. The hard part in this one is there are three or four major revelations.

While I hope this ending is a surprise, I wanted to make it linger and haunt a little bit. It's one of my favorite books. I'm loving the early reaction.

GR: How much research do you do?

HC: I'm not a big researcher, because I think for a book that's written in the modern era, sometimes research is a danger. You get caught up in doing the research and not writing the book. So most of the stuff pops up in my daily life. I have a lot of characters who are doctors in my books, perhaps because my wife is a physician. I walk through Central Park all the time. And sometimes I stumble across information that I just save, and sometimes it's just talking to someone in the actual industry who does what I'm writing about.

Most of my research comes from speaking to people. One, it's faster; two, sometimes it's more accurate; but three, it gives you a bit of color. Whenever I speak to someone directly, they always give me some kind of factoid that gives me a bit of insight.

GR: Run Away and your other books have an amazing energy. It reminds me of Elmore Leonard's famous advice to not use frilly words, just "he said, she said," and drive things with dialogue. Do you have similar rules?

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HC: I loved Dutch—he was the coolest guy in every room. And there's not a time, whenever I think I'm going to use something besides "said" or an adverb, I don't hear his voice in my head and reminds me "uh, uh, uh." I still break some of those rules. But the favorite I often quote is I try to cut all the parts you'd normally skip, which in my opinion is the single greatest piece of writing advice.

GR: Not only are you writing books, you're doing TV series now. How do you juggle all that?

HC: The first time I did TV was maybe two or three years ago. I had two shows out—The Five in England and No Second Chance in France. My publisher was a little bit nervous, so to prove them wrong, I wrote two books that year instead of one.

I think I'm what you would call a socially adept introvert. So I really love [getting out] for a little while, and after I've done it for a while, all I want to do is go back in my room and write. So right now they're feeding each other rather than taking away from each other.

I'll be doing a lot with Netflix. They own the next five books, including Run Away. We did a five-year deal where they pretty much own all of my non-series books. The plan is to make them in various languages.

GR: Who were some of your favorite writers growing up?

HC: My favorite writer is Philip Roth. His life and framework is around where I grew up. I just reread American Pastoral. I'm not sure there's a better novel I've ever read.

Growing up, I was really into C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, [Madeleine L'Engle's] A Wrinkle in Time, [Roald Dahl's] Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Then when I was 15 or 16, Marathon Man by William Goldman was a major influence.

My parents were big readers, and books were revered in my house. Though we didn't necessarily have money to buy every toy we wanted, we could always get any book we wanted. My mom's side of the bed was always overflowing with books.

GR: What are you reading now?

HC: I'm reading Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan now. And I usually have something else going. I'm a big short story fan.

GR: In an interview several years ago, when your kids were younger, you said that you don't write at home. Is it still true?

HC: I can write anyplace if you give me some quiet. I write on airplanes, trains, in the back of cars, wherever I can. A few books ago, I took an Uber into Manhattan one day, and I felt guilty about spending the money on an Uber. So when I was sitting in the back I wrote, and I wrote really, really well, so for the next three weeks, I took Ubers every day. Whatever works. When it stops working, I move.

Harlan Coben' novel Run Away will be available in the U.S. on March 19. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-50 of 51 (51 new)

message 1: by Sandi (new)

Sandi I am going to keep reading your books because they are great and got my first suggestion to read one from when my son was in the army someone sent it to him thanks for reading pleasures

message 2: by Cathy (new)

Cathy Sias You have to write more! Hahaha...I am sad when I finish one of your books, because you keep me the twists. You are my favorite author...thank you!

message 3: by Linda (new)

Linda Can't wait to read this new book!
I saw you when you spoke at the Skokie Public Library in Illinois.
Love all of your books.

message 4: by Karen (new)

Karen Korab I read one-two books per week and Myron Bolitar and his friends are some of my most favorite characters. More Yoohoo please!

message 5: by Joel (new)

Joel Hornbostel Whenever I try to explain to someone what Coben's books are like I say they're like some of Hitchcock's films, it's the everyman caught up in extraordinary circumstances. I love that.

message 6: by Mary (new)

Mary I am forever a Harlan Coben fan. Myron and company first grabbed me and since then I have read any/all of your books that I get ahold of.

message 7: by Mary (new)

Mary Martinez I have this new one on pre- order so that it shows up immediately! I never miss your books- great stories every time!

message 8: by Veronica (new)

Veronica Thomas Great interview. Tell No One is one of my all time favorite books.

message 9: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Borsey A great interview with a great writer. I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Run Away through Netgalley today and I can’t wait to dive right in!

message 10: by Tonya (new)

Tonya Lucas Great interview. I have loved every one of your books. Can’t wait for this new one. I have gotten several of my friends hooked on your book’s.

message 11: by Melanie (new)

Melanie Hodges This is a really interesting insight on where Harlan gets his inspiration from. So far I’ve read and loved each and every one of his books and enjoyed the tv programmes too, especially The Five. Really looking forward to reading Run Away next week.
Great interview!

message 12: by Sally (new)

Sally I've been a fan of yours since your fist book!
I enjoyed this interview a lot!

message 13: by Iris (new)

Iris Great interview! I'm a mega fan. I have read all the books translated into Spanish. The entire Myron Bolitar series (please, I need more of Myron and Win!!! ) and the independent books, but these are only translated until to The Stranger, which was published in Spanish in November 2018. I hope you can translate the rest. Have a little bit of mercy with those readers who speak Spanish and who enjoyed your stories so much.

message 14: by Pota Tammaro (last edited Mar 11, 2019 01:05PM) (new)

Pota Tammaro I love your books and have seen both of your Netflix shows. Enjoyed both of them too. You have a writing style that lets me disappear into your books as if I am really there and know the characters as if they are real. Not an easy task. I'm looking forward to reading Run Away. I have been waiting for it to come out. Finally, next week. Look forward to seeing your upcoming stories on Netflix. Pota

message 15: by Reneta (new)

Reneta I really enjoy reading your books and I am excited about your deal with Netflix on some future shows from your books. Keep writing so we can all continue to be entertained by your books.

message 16: by Dorothy (new)

Dorothy Greaves I have read everyone of your books and very thrilled to have a signed First Edition .... I can’t wait to buy this new one, coming to Australia in April, I’m sure it will be well worth the wait. I’ve Enjoyed reading this interview

message 17: by Ann (new)

Ann I have loved all your books and particularly fell for Win and Myron!! hope there will be more of them in the future.
thank you and keep up the great work!!

message 18: by Donné (new)

Donné Black Thank you Harlan. Love your books and wait for the new one in anticpation.

RM(Alwaysdaddygirl) Mahalo! Your interview proves you do not write for money. A heartwarming interview! I will be reading your new book.

Be well

message 20: by Annette (new)

Annette I love all your books. When a new book comes out, I just know I want to read it regardless of what the story line is.

message 21: by Jack (new)

Jack Zhong A small reading pleasure always gets the days much enjoyable, so as reading the interview.

message 22: by Connie (new)

Connie Caudill I am such a fan! Love your books! Can’t wait to read Run Away.

message 23: by Peggy (new)

Peggy I was driving to work and I found my self reading at every stoplight because I wanted to know what happened. Only time I have ever done that was with one of your books. I am an avid reader, and love sharing books I love. I bought several to share. I also have read every book you have written and anxiously await every new one. I even enjoy your young adult books!

message 24: by Donna (new)

Donna MacRae Great interview and can't wait to read your next novel (although admittedly, I still have to read the last one). But guess what book is on my list to start tonight!

message 25: by Arzu (new)

Arzu I enjoy your books and have seen the Netflix shows. I can't wait for the releases.

message 26: by Lynda (new)

Lynda Love Harlan’s books; and this was a great interview!

message 27: by Roberta (new)

Roberta Wonderful interview. I enjoyed hearing how u create your storyline. Your characters in the book actually come alive when u read the book. I can’t wait to read Run Away. Thank you Harlan

message 28: by Sharon (new)

Sharon Lehner Thank you for all your books, you are one of my favorite authors. I have introduced you to my daughter who now loves your books as well. I had the pleasure of meeting you in Washington, DC at the book festival where speaking with you was a joy.

message 29: by Niki (new)

Niki Love your books and can't wait to read this new one. Please write more with Myron Bolitar & Win, those are my favorites.

message 30: by [deleted user] (new)

Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben I just finished reading Fool Me Once and I'll be reading more. And now a new story! Thank you, Mr. Coben for loving the adventure of telling stories! It shows!

message 31: by Ann M.Halvorson (new)

Ann M.Halvorson But the favorite I often quote is I try to cut all the parts you'd normally skip

Other than your books are stunning and I always crave the next one, this is why you are a great author.

message 32: by Lee (new)

Lee Really interesting interview, great to hear how you develop your stories, very insightful.

message 33: by Athena (new)

Athena You are coming to Dallas soon can’t wait to meet you in person

message 34: by Barbara (new)

Barbara I’m always hesitant to begin a Conan book because in a day or so—-whoosh—it will be over and I’ll have to wait a year for the next one!! I start and I can’t put it down! Stay healthy and keep writing for a looong time!!

message 35: by Jacquelyn Benson (new)

Jacquelyn Benson ,A sales person at Barnes and Noble in Tarzana (store gone now) 😞 turned me on two Tell No One and it hooked me on Harlan Coben forever. Kind of miss that character but that won't keep me from each book written by you as long as I donz,'t see a writing partner in the cover.

message 36: by Susan (new)

Susan Niedert Do your books contain profanity, vulgarity, and graphic sex scenes? I like suspenseful books, but can't tolerate that kind of writing.

message 37: by Ivy (last edited Mar 19, 2019 01:12PM) (new)

Ivy Pittman-Outen I have read every one of Harlan Coben's since meeting him at a book signing I led at the Montclair Book Store in the 1990's. Hooked ever since.

message 38: by Rita (new)

Rita I am new here and have heard so much praise about your books that I intend to read them all. Thank you Mr. Coben and I am a very long admirer of authors in every genre. I dreamed of writing a book but wouldn't have the slightest idea where to begin.

message 39: by Betsy (new)

Betsy Thanks you for this interview. It tempts me to believe that maybe I too could write some day.
But most of all I want to thankyou for your Mickey Bolitar series.Some years back, I taught a special ed resource classroom of 8th graders who were too mature for books on their reading level and too hindered by their reading abilities to read the books on their interest level. And then there were religious right parents who couldn’t abide the fact that their kids might already know the facts of life they hadn’t taught them yet. Your series solved all my problems and there was a chain of kids who read the series one book after another. Better yet I enjoyed the series and could talk to them about the characters and plot.
Thankyou again, you made my life a lot easier !

message 40: by Rhea (new)

Rhea Looking forward to seeing you Friday evening in Montgomery County, PA! Been an avid fan of your non-formulaic wonderful books for years... Even the Myron Bolitar books are each so unique !! Thank you 😊

message 41: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Garcia Thank you so much for Myron Bolitar. I've been a fan from day one.
Recently watched Safe on Netflix. Fantastic. Keep them coming. I live to read and you write some of the most fascinating.

message 42: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Koch I really enjoyed reading your interview. It’s was so interesting read the personal style you use to write. Huge fan and read your books straight thru til I’m done. Trying to discipline myself to read this one a bit at a time.Doubt if that will work. Keep writing and I will always be on the lookout for a new one.

message 43: by Sankara (new)

Sankara Narayanan You will be surprised, Mr.Coban! You have a fan (sorry, I don't know other Indians who read your stories, may be there are) in India and that's me! Your interview fascinates me for its matter of fact portrayal of yours. Hoping to read your latest thriller soon! Best Wishes.
Sankaranarayanan, India

message 44: by Pat (new)

Pat Schneider Is "No Second Chance" available on Netflix?

message 45: by Judy (new)

Judy Frey I’ve read every single word you’ve written, to my knowledge. I buy your books as gifts for others. I’m always sad to finish one because I have to wait a year for another. You’re simply one of the best. Thanks!! Don’t stop!

message 46: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth I am a hugh fan of yours. I have read so many of your books. I pass them around in my family which is large. After we have read them we turn them into a used library that is selling them for a decreased cost or give them to people who can not afford to buy them. They continue the route. I have not read all of your books but that is my goal. Thank you for all your great efforts.

{U n s o l v e d M y s t e r y} I'm reading my first Harlan Coben. I'm excited for it.
I'm really enjoying it so far. I love his descriptions.

message 48: by Christine (new)

Christine LOVE all of the novels of his I have read; and looking forward to the future work! Thank you so much for sharing this interview! It was a really fun read!

message 49: by Maryann (new)

Maryann Great interview and I loved his comment about connecting with readers: "...we have that one-on-one communication. That's when I become a writer."

So true. I often say if we don't have that as writers, we are not touching the hearts of our readers.

I'm eager to read Run Away.

message 50: by Tania (new)

Tania Michelle I 100% agree with his advice and why he’s ones of my favorite authors! I never have to skip over his writing because it never drags on and is always inticingly straight to the point!

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