Interview with Harlan Coben

Posted by Goodreads on March 4, 2013
Harlan Coben Clocking in at six foot four, crime writer Harlan Coben calls it "wishful thinking" that the intimidatingly tall men in his books are usually the good guys. No clichéd overgrown mobster goons here, but there's still plenty of danger in his best-selling works of suspense. With 50 million books in print worldwide in 41 languages, the New Jersey-based author is known for carefully plotted thrillers, including Tell No One, The Woods, and Hold Tight as well as his popular Myron Bolitar series about a sports agent and accidental detective who is, coincidentally, also six foot four!

His latest whodunit, Six Years, stars another gentle giant: Jake Fisher lives a quiet life as a professor at a small New England college, until he sees an obituary for the husband of a woman he still loves. Though she jilted him six years ago, he looks her up and finds that not only was her marriage a sham, but she's completely disappeared. Coben talked with Goodreads about Hitchcockian heroes, writing at the supermarket, and how he keeps his readers guessing.

Goodreads: Does your day job thwart your enjoyment when reading a book or watching a movie? Can you see the plot twists coming a mile away?

Harlan Coben: It is hard to turn that part of the brain off. I usually figure things out pretty fast or I come up with different twists that make [the plot] work differently, so my head is always working that way. At the same time, if it's well done, I can get as lost in it as anybody else. I'm just a little tougher audience.

GR: Your new book, Six Years, is packed with twists as embattled hero Jake Fisher searches for his missing lover, Natalie, and discovers to his peril that he's not the only one searching for her. What was the first kernel of inspiration for this story?

HC: I was thinking about heartbreak—about opening up a book with a situation that was ridiculously heartbreaking. So the first line of the book is, "I sat in the back pew and watched the only woman I would ever love marry another man." I thought, yeah, that's pretty heartbreaking! [laughs] I wanted to start with a real, true heartbreak and then find a possible way to find redemption after that. I'm big on redemption.

GR: Goodreads member Simon Scott asks, "Many of Mr. Coben's books point to initial relationships and the desire to either rekindle or reclaim the passion of a first love. Is this deliberate to make the books more about love than your typical whodunit thriller?"

HC: Well, yes. I think Six Years, for example, and Tell No One are really love stories that happen to be thrillers. They're not really thrillers that are love stories. I think that's what the French director Guillaume Canet understood: that Tell No One was a love story first and a thriller second [Canet directed the 2006 film adaptation, Ne le dis à personne]. I think he's onto something. It's one thing to stir your pulse. I can do that pretty easily, but I have to stir your heart or a book doesn't work for me. There has to be an emotional pull, something tugging at your heartstrings, or I don't feel I've done my job. If you don't really care if Jake finds Natalie, then the rest of the book doesn't really matter at all.

GR: And Jake needs a huge motivation to keep endangering himself for the cause of finding Natalie.

HC: Yes. What is more motivating than love? Love and family are my big things. I happen to be married with four kids, so that is a tie and a bond that we all get. My thrillers are set in suburbia amongst real people, real families with real hopes and dreams.

GR: One Goodreads review observes, "Harlan Coben is great at putting an average person into the most bizarre of circumstances." Was an everyman quality part of your plan for Jake?

HC: Different books do different things. Stay Close, the book before this, was not that way at all. [It has] three pretty damaged people who are going through something. But in Six Years, yes, there is something Hitchcockian—Hitchcock was something of an influence. I love putting the ordinary man in the extraordinary circumstance. Especially since this book is first person, which is rare for me, you have to really like Jake. As he starts feeling confused and lost, I hope the reader will feel the same way. I really wanted the immediacy, the paranoia.

GR: To create suspense, how do you reveal just the right amount at just the right time? Is this a skill you've perfected over time?

HC: If it gets easier, it sure doesn't feel like it. Every book is harder than the one before. Every time I think I know what I'm doing, I realize I don't. I don't have hard-or-fast rules. I tell the story the way it's going to be told, and I let the rest of it shake out how it's going to shake out. I've never found a formula that worked. It might work for one book, but it won't work for another book. I'm constantly trying to change it up and figure it out.

GR: Have you written books that you think gave up the mystery too easily or too early?

HC: I don't really read my earlier books because I am a harsh critic of my own work. I don't think, in terms of the mystery, that I ever let myself down. If some are easy to get, then it's intentional to throw some other twist at you. In this book there are four or five things. You may guess one of them, you may know something else is coming up, but you're probably not going to get them all. It's one of the things I pride myself on. Midway through this book, you're probably wondering how it could possibly work out without some kind of supernatural twist. But I will get you there, and you will be surprised.

GR: Goodreads Author Theresa Ragan says, "I want to know if he has just as much fun writing fiction as he did when he was first starting out?"

HC: Do I have as much fun? It's a different kind of fun. Up until a year or two ago I was still playing basketball, but it was a different type of fun than when I was playing as a college player. But it's still something that I am compelled to do, that I'm inspired to do, and that I love to do. The thing I really love the most is when the book is done and the readers read it. There is an old saying, "I don't like writing. I like having written." I think that very much applies to me. It's not a book until you read it. When I finished Six Years, it [was] not really a book. When it now comes out, and Goodreads people read it, and Jake, Natalie, and the rest of these [characters] come to life in their heads—different from everybody else's...that part still jazzes me: When I get that one-to-one connection with the reader. It's just me and them.

GR: Many of your fans on Goodreads have asked if there is any news regarding movie adaptations of your books.

HC: There's always something in the works, but I don't count on anything until I'm in the cinema sitting down. Tell No One, a French movie, was the highest-grossing foreign film in the U.S. the year it came out [2006]. It was nominated for nine French Oscars and won four of them. I highly recommend it; you'll forget the subtitles are there after two minutes. That's supposedly being remade as an American film. Chris Terrio, who is up for an Oscar for writing Argo, wrote the screenplay. [Editor's note: He won!] Warner Bros. and Universal are supposed to make it together with Kennedy/Marshall, one of the biggest producers in Hollywood. But that's all I know right now.

For Stay Close, Lawrence Kasdan—who was the great director behind The Big Chill, Body Heat, and wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, among a million other films—and I cowrote a screenplay for it. That just finished, so we'll see what happens.

GR: Is that your first foray into screenwriting?

HC: I've written some TV pilots before, but I've never adapted my own books, which was very strange. I may have some news on Six Years in the next few weeks, but I can't reveal to you now, unfortunately. Others are in various stages; there are finished scripts for a bunch of them. There is also a possible TV series in the works for Myron Bolitar. We'll see. In a year or two I could be talking with you about two movies and a TV series, or I could be talking with you about zero. That's just the way that business works.

GR: Your home state of New Jersey plays an important role in your writing. Goodreads member Jerry Pierson asks, "Can readers expect a future book to include elements of Hurricane Sandy intermixed in the plot?"

HC: I'm not big on putting what happens directly into a book. But it has to be there anyway. If you write a book in the early 1970s, you don't have to mention the Vietnam War, but it's probably on every page anyway. I know after 9/11 it's there on a lot of pages, though I don't necessarily spell it out or directly confront it. So, yes, especially the shore areas of New Jersey are just different, and that's going to be reflected. My book Stay Close, which came out just before Sandy, was about Atlantic City. Really that book is a historical novel now even though the book is brand-new, because what happened there really did change that place.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

HC: Well, I have four kids, so my first job is to get them off to school. One of them I have to drive, so my best workday lately is dropping him off at 8 a.m. and then hiding out in a coffee shop that is inside of a supermarket, which is a little weird. It's a Starbucks near a deli counter. I've been writing there. I usually will write from 8 until noon. Some days I'll catch another hour or two in the afternoon. The morning is my best time.

I can write anyplace, and I change up my places a lot. It's almost like riding a horse. Whatever seems to be working, I'll do that until the horse collapses in exhaustion, and then I'll find a new horse. Weirdly enough I was in New York, and I was writing in subways, and I was taking subway rides with a notebook and a pencil for a while. Sometimes I'll write well while on an airplane, and I'll start doing that as much as I can. Whatever works I will do. I don't have that one office or that one corner room or a certain pair of socks. I'm mixing it up as much as I can.

GR: What writers, books, or ideas have most influenced you?

HC: The best book I've ever read is Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. It's a writing guide, it's a life guide. It's wonderfully written, and it's hysterical. Even if you don't have any interest in writing, I always recommend [it]; I've given it as a gift a million times over. She captures the insecurity of being a writer. Only bad writers think they are good. All of us have doubts. I've written 23 or 24 novels, and those stories play over in my head every day. New writers need to know that that is part of a process you have to live with. I was wonderfully naive when I started. I had no idea how small time I was. I thought I was the cat's ass. Nowadays you can check your reviews and what everyone is saying about you, and it will drive you nuts. It's like going to a cocktail party and everyone is whispering about you. Sometimes you don't want to know what they are saying. Just do your thing.

GR: Any favorite writers?

HC: I have a lot of favorite writers. Anything that is great inspires me and has made me experience that euphoric high I want to give back to my readers. When I look at an Edward Hopper painting or hear a Bruce Springsteen song or see old Woody Allen movies or read a Philip Roth novel... they don't so much influence me as much as they inspire me to want to give that feeling to my readers.

GR: What are you reading now?

HC: I'm reading Jonathan Tropper's new book, One Last Thing Before I Go.


Comments Showing 1-36 of 36 (36 new)

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message 1: by Dylan (new)

Dylan Jones Harlan Coben is awesome. Full stop.


message 2: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen Brunnett My favorite author! Great interview.


message 3: by Omina (new)

Omina Leo Well done author. Keeping oneself on check-balance is just what I admire instead of assuming that you are good.


message 4: by Omina (new)

Omina Leo Well done author. Keeping oneself on check-balance is just what I admire instead of assuming that you are good. That can lead to improvement which is part and parcel of our growth.


message 5: by Nahsaatkamal (new)

Nahsaatkamal Nice ,crisp and informative interview.A good insight to the novel and the writer.I like the discussion and upto the novel.


message 6: by LaBookchic65 (new)

LaBookchic65 One of my favorite authors after reading "Tell No One" years ago! He doesn't write a bad book...only great ones!! =)


message 7: by Trina (new)

Trina Harlan Coben. One of the great ones!


message 8: by Jean (new)

Jean I have read Tell No One twice and seen the film three times and it is one of my all-time favorites, after 70 years of moving-going. I cannot imagine why anyone would re-make it when the French one is so outstanding; Harlan is right; you forget the subtitles two minutes into the film. After I saw it I read the book then marched right through the entire shelf in our Library, enjoying every single moment!


message 9: by Colin (new)

Colin Graham love his books,since I started with Tell no one..never got bored yet.


message 10: by Sandy (new)

Sandy I have read every single one of his books! My favorite author :)


message 11: by Janet (new)

Janet Bastiani One of my favorite authors, who created one of my favorite characters- Myron Bolitar!


message 12: by Barb (new)

Barb Sterry You forgot to mention the books about Myron Bolitar's nephew, those are good too. Hurry up and write more.


message 13: by Liz (new)

Liz I haven't read any work by this author, but I will read Six Years. Love the interview.


message 14: by Everett (new)

Everett Campbell I have read a # of Corben's books,& have not been disappointed even once!


message 15: by Jean (new)

Jean Harlan Coben and Michael Connolly are my two favourite authors of all time. I get SO excited when I hear a new book is published - I have to read it straight away. Never disappointed :-)


message 16: by Beatrice (new)

Beatrice I am a great fan of Harlan Coben. His books are full of twist ansd turns. Love them.


message 17: by Kari (new)

Kari One of my favorite authors. Have read all of his books. Was hooked from the first one. Great interview. Can't wait to read the new one


message 18: by Miki (new)

Miki Lund Loved him from the first time the Observer gave out the first few pages of his first thriller many years ago. Now addicted .... even got the fime of the book( French production) pressie from Godson. Recommended him to loads of people ..even Americans. Wonderful man


message 19: by Miki (new)

Miki Lund Sorry about grammar I meant film


message 20: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Jones one of my favorite authors...i love the twists in his stories


message 21: by Margaret (new)

Margaret Greig Love this Author as do my Daughters,and Granddaughters, cannot be many authors favoured by 3 generations, always more than 1 copy passed around, great guy too.


message 22: by Pam (new)

Pam Parsons i love this guy.have read a number of his books,enjoyed all.


message 23: by Norma (new)

Norma Powers A great writer, consistent high standard. His appeal seems widespread, too, which is so positive...


message 24: by Donnab101 (new)

Donnab101 While I love the stand alones, I miss Myron and his friends so much. Please bring him back!!!


message 25: by Bobbi (new)

Bobbi Haynes One of my favorite authors of all time. It doesn't matter who or what it's about. Just give me one of his books and I'm happy from start to finish! In fact I always hate for the ending to come because then I have to start looking for the next one.


message 26: by Francois (new)

Francois Houle I've read all of his books and will be getting this one as well. It's always a good read and lots of fun trying to figure things out, which I never do. He's great at twisting things around. Hopefully another Myron Bolitar novel is in the works too.


message 27: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Nowacki Anticipation! Looking forward to Six years!


message 28: by Carol (new)

Carol Delsignore Definitely a "go to" for me. Myron Bolitar is one of my favorite characters.


message 29: by Damisew (new)

Damisew Bekele i am happy to get this information but my work sales officer so how i can get more information


message 30: by Rafiq (new)

Rafiq Pam wrote: "i love this guy.have read a number of his books,enjoyed all."


message 31: by Bharati (new)

Bharati Joshi great....wonderful interview.


message 32: by Tammy (new)

Tammy I loved this book! Nothing too graphic, but kept me at the edge of my seat. This was a 1 night read for me, so it had to be good!


message 33: by Subrosa39 (new)

Subrosa39 Liz wrote: "I haven't read any work by this author, but I will read Six Years. Love the interview."

Please read the Myron Bolitar books first. They are lots of fun; this one not so much. The word tedious comes to mind.


message 34: by Jo Ann (new)

Jo Ann Reinhold I found Harlan Coben by accident and read his Myron Bolitar series then went on to read others by him. I love good characters and his are some of the best. I enjoyed your interview but am sorry that I missed the message asking me if I would like to submit a question. I'm sure I would have had many!


message 35: by John (new)

John Great interview with a very talented and interesting author. I've enjoyed his YA Mickey Bolitar series the most. The character development is stronger and the story lines have a neat preternatural quality.


message 36: by Asha (last edited Aug 19, 2013 05:10AM) (new)

Asha Seth Enjoyed the interview.
Amazing author. Awesome books.
His books Six Years and Tell No One are best. Period.


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