Straight Talk With Harlan Coben

We all know those stories of ordinary workers who make their way up through sheer hard work and determination—starting in the mailroom and climbing steadily until one day, they’re company president. In a corporate world of workplace politics and grossly overpaid CEOs, these are the kinds of executives that employees love to work for—not just because everyone knows firsthand how they’ve earned their success, but because they’re reminders that if the rest of us keep at it, you never know: That could be us one day.

Similarly, in an industry where the gap between breakout hits and midlist mainstays seems to be increasing, it’s not so easy to find novelists who worked their way up the old-fashioned way—but then again, Harlan Coben is all about taking the ordinary and turning it into something more, both on paper and off. In person, he proves to be as quick-witted as his narratives—and, like most of his characters, he also seems to be a pretty regular guy: husband, father of four, born and bred in his home state of New Jersey. He’s hardworking, averaging a book a year (his 20th novel, Live Wire, is due out this spring) and loyal to the signature element that got him where he is today: the plot twist. Not surprisingly, his readers love him for all of it—and fellow writers find it hard to resist, too.

Of course, like those homegrown CEOs, he’s not exactly a regular guy—not anymore, anyway. He’s the first writer to have won the trifecta of mystery awards: the Edgar, Shamus and Anthony. He’s an international bestseller with almost 50 million books in print worldwide. His last three novels, Caught, Long Lost and Hold Tight, all debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. And his earnings are sky-high.

But he hasn’t forgotten where he came from, as they say, and Coben himself sums up his trajectory best: “I’m, in hindsight, fortunate enough to look back and realize that I’ve been at every level of this business,” he says. “The first two books were with a tiny publishing house. Then I went to paperback originals with extraordinarily modest expectations. I was able to win a few awards, finally get into hardcover, finally sell a little bit, finally break onto The New York Times bestseller list, all the things that have gone on since. What that’s given me is a perspective on how lucky I am.”

Those early “modest” books included the 1995 launch of a series featuring protagonist Myron Bolitar, who happens to also be a regular guy, a sports agent with a knack for finding himself involved in events that turn out to make a hell of a good story. The series gradually found an audience—a process many (including Coben) have speculated was hindered by covers that made them look like sports books, rather than the Raymond Chandler–esque mysteries they are—and Coben’s popularity grew steadily with readers and critics alike. Then, in 2001, he skipped a few rungs on his climb up the ladder with the release of a stand-alone, Tell No One, which became the most decorated thriller of the year and sold more than his first seven books combined.

Still, there were more steps ahead—first seven-figure advance, first No. 1 debut, first film based on his work (the blockbuster French adaptation of Tell No One), etc.—and Coben climbed them all. He may be known for his accessible, suburban characters and clever voice, but it’s his frequent unexpected turns of plot that keep readers coming back for more. Today, the continuing Bolitar mysteries and his stand-alone thrillers are equally popular around the world—a testament to a prowess that’s been there all along.

“I remember the days of sitting at book signings, playing with my pen when no one would come, and still I even then thought I was living the dream, because I had a book out,” he says. “To appreciate every step of the way … I’m loving where I am now, but I would never have traded just hitting the bestseller list with the first book for the great experience that I’ve had.”

In his conversation with WD, Coben lived up to his reputation as a personable straight shooter, whether discussing writers who claim they don’t read their reviews (“It’s almost like there’s a conversation at a party going on about you, and you walk away not to overhear it. Who does that?”) or his own recent decision to rerelease some of his out-of-print work (“It’s rough around the edges, but there is an energy to [those books] that I don’t have anymore, and kind of miss.”).

Here, he shares how to survive those times when writing feels like torture (yes, it happens to him, too), what it really takes to craft the kind of satisfying suspense he’s known for, and why finding time to write should be the easy part.

You’ve won both mystery and thriller awards, and have written books classified in both genres. What do you see as the difference between mystery and thriller?
I don’t have a clue. I guess to the public, the mystery has more of a Agatha Christie, locked door, solving the case connotation, while a thriller is more action-packed. In both cases, and really in the case of any writing, I think, it should more be about suspense, about making people want to read the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph and the next page, and I think probably thriller is the purest form of that.

In 2001, your first stand-alone, Tell No One, became the most decorated thriller of the year. Do you see that now as a turning point in your career?
It was my breakout book, no question about it. The seven previous books had all been with the Myron Bolitar series, and I think many people were turned off to the series because they thought they were sports books [because of the cover designs]. Tell No One just grabbed an audience. I think Tell No One sold more than those first seven books combined.

But then the first seven started selling.
Yes, which is really nice. Now Myron’s just as popular as the stand-alones, if not more so.

You’ve said you know where you’re going when you start a book, but you don’t know how you’ll get there. How do you manage to weave so many plots and twists as you go?
I want it to be compulsive reading. So on every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word, I ask myself, “Is this compelling? Is this gripping? Is this moving the story forward?” And if it’s not, I have to find a way to change it. It doesn’t mean you can’t have the larger issues, or setting or descriptions, but even those have to be done in a way that is compelling. No word really should be wasted.

When it comes to your characters, your readers often can’t be sure who is good and who is bad until the very end. How much more do you know about your characters as you’re writing?
Sometimes even when the book is over I don’t know who’s good and who’s bad. It’s really more interesting, I think, to write about gray characters than it is to write about black and white. And at the end of almost all of my books, with a few notable exceptions, even the so-called villain: How bad was he or she? I prefer it to be the kind of evil you could almost see yourself doing if you were put in that circumstance.

I like to see the difference between good and evil as kind of like the foul line at a baseball game. It’s very thin, it’s made of something very flimsy like lime, and if you cross it, it really starts to blur where fair becomes foul and foul becomes fair. And that’s where I want to play. I don’t write books of great evil or great violence, I don’t write about serial killers who hack up people for no reason, I don’t write about the big political conspiracy that reaches the White House. I try to write about people like you and me, people who are doing their best, but wrong still seems to find them.

So do your characters ever surprise you—do they ever become real to you in that way?
Oh, they surprise me all the time. They don’t become real—I find that to be a little trite, [when people] say they become real. We know that they’re not. At the same time, some of the best scenes I’ve ever written, or any writer’s ever written, is when you want a character to go into a room to get Information A, but when they get there, they don’t do what you want them to do—not because they’ve taken on life of their own, but because that would not keep in character, or you’ve now as a writer learned something about their character that you maybe didn’t know before.

I don’t like when people in general make it seem more magical. It’s not. It’s work. It can be wonderful, and it can be thrilling, but it’s not really magical.

You’re the master of the twist. How do you walk that fine line of trying to present readers with an ending they didn’t see coming, while making sure they don’t feel cheated that there’s no way they could have seen it coming?
It has to make sense in line with the story. Sometimes it’s a little bit of a slight of hand, where I’m showing you one thing, and then all of a sudden something else will be there.

You know, people call mystery novels or crime novels or thrillers puzzles. I never really understood that, because when I buy a puzzle, I already know what it is. It’s on the box. And even if I don’t, if it’s a 5,000-piece puzzle of the Mona Lisa, it’s not like I put the last piece in all of a sudden and go, “Oh my God, I had no idea it’s the Mona Lisa!”

I look at it more like a camera coming into focus, where the first shot is kind of blurry: You see someone kind of tall with long, dark hair, and you think, “Oh, it’s Cindy Crawford.” And then it gets a little bit more in focus, and you see the nose is a little off, and you go, “Oh, it’s Cher.” And the final turn, when it becomes all clear, you see it’s Howard Stern—and you should have known it was Howard Stern right from the beginning. That’s what a good crime novelist—any good novelist—should do with you. It can play with your perceptions while showing you everything in plain sight.

So how much do you worry about tying up every loose end?
I worry a lot about it. I need to make sure things are tied up and understood and explained. You may now wonder where they’re going to go from here, and that’s fair, but I don’t think in a book it’s really fair to not answer [the biggest] questions, so I’m a little bit anal about that.

And I love the twist. I love to fool you once, I love to fool you twice, and on the very last page, quite often—very last paragraph sometimes—I like to just play with your perception one more time in a way that makes everything that came before just a little bit different. I love when that happens to me as a reader, so I love to do it as a writer.

You’ve said before that you’re not sure things like plot development can be taught, but it’s an inherent strength of yours. What advice could you offer to writers in trying to maximize their own strengths the way you have?
I think most people know what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are. One of the reasons why I don’t love, for example, writing groups: Writing groups are great if they make you write. But if you don’t know if your stuff is working or not, really you’re in trouble, and nobody else is really going to be able to help you. Yes, there are certain stages that you want to give it to a trusted friend and have them read it and give you feedback, but not all the time. I am always my harshest critic. And I think you have to have that ability to see what you’re good at and what you’re bad at as a writer.

Writing is one of the few activities where quantity will inevitably make quality. The more you write, the better you’re going to get at it. That’s for sure.

Are there differences in how you approach one of your series books versus how you approach a standalone thriller?
To compare it to painting, when I do a standalone, I have an entirely blank canvas. When I do a series, some of the pieces are already kind of filled in for me, which may make it easier for me to start, but ultimately is going to make it harder, because I’m also restricted by that. They’re just two different muscles—the voice is somewhat different, but the actual process, the day-to-day suffering, the day-to-day self-doubt, the day-to-day self-hatred, that’s pretty much always the same.

Do you find writing from the point of view of a female protagonist to be more of a challenge?
I thought I would. I’ve done two books now where the lead character has been female, and I went in with trepidation. And then I realized the trepidation was not really about how well I would do it, but how well it would be received.

Aside from Myron Bolitar, [Wendy in Caught] may be my favorite protagonist—I don’t plan on writing another one, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she came back in my life, because I think there’s more to tell about her.

What did you like about her so much?
I don’t know. I don’t necessarily think she’s the typical likeable protagonist you’ll find in thrillers. In fact in the beginning, I think most people question if they will like her at all, and by the end, even though she really hasn’t changed she’s won you over, because it’s much more important that the character’s real than likeable. Likeable is not really as important as real.

The other thing is I wanted to stand the cliché of the women-in-jeopardy novel on its head. I really hate the woman-in-jeopardy novel where, you know, the heroine is naïve to the point of a brain trauma, where she’s always like, “Gee, there’s a serial killer loose in the woods. I think I’ll rent this little secluded cabin, not tell anybody where I’m going, not hook up a phone line and hang out in my bra and panties all night.” Any of that kind of stuff. And the truth is, female writers are at least as guilty of this as male writers, but it happens more with female leads than male leads—where they do these kind of dumb things to get themselves in sometimes sadomasochistic trouble.

I wanted to write a woman that I thought would be real, who would not get herself in danger in ways that would be unrealistic. And I hope that’s what I did with Wendy in Caught.

You also gave her a sympathetic backstory.
Yep. Which is really—it’s not really a thriller. Caught is a novel of forgiveness, and the past and the present—who should be and who shouldn’t be forgiven. None of my books are ever just about thrills, or it won’t work. You can have the most expensive car in the world, but if there’s no gasoline, it’s not going to go anyplace. So there is usually a theme, and you do need that character that people care about, that’s real to them. Otherwise, I could give you the greatest twist in the world, but if you don’t care about the characters, you’re not going to follow it.

So to get into the mindset of a woman, there’s nothing you really did differently?
Other than cross-dress, no [laughs]. I actually didn’t. I thought I would have to, but Wendy came to me easier than most. I got her. I hope the readers feel that way.

You’ve acknowledged many times that as writers, we all have those neurotic moments where we think what we’re working on is crap.
Always. Every writer has that, if they’re worth anything.

How do you push past that?
You just have to. I just recently took up golf, [which has] so many power laws and metaphors, and one thing is, when you have a negative swing thought, it kills you. You have to try to make yourself have positive swing thoughts. That said, I’m always having negative swing thoughts. It’s the same thing here. There are just times that the self-loathing goes on, the self-hatred. And it does paralyze me the way it will paralyze other writers.

The secret is to just kind of push through it. There comes a time when you finally have to get to work. It’s why I love this quote: Amateurs wait for the muse to arrive; the rest of us just get to work. That’s my own paraphrase of it, but I love that, because it’s so true. I remind myself sometimes that I’m a working man, and not an artist. A plumber can’t call up and say, “Oh, I can’t do pipes today.” And so when I feel that way there’s a lot of self-hatred, a lot of guilt, but eventually I would rather be tortured by writing than being tortured by guilt.

So you really use the self-hatred, rather than being paralyzed by it.
I use it. I use it as fuel. My doubts, the desperation … one of the things that makes me keep writing is the fear that one day I won’t be a writer. And then what would I be? This is what I love to do, this is my dream come true. And to not cherish the fact that I’m lucky enough to have my dream come true, if that’s not asking for bad karma, I don’t know what is. There are a lot of writers who would love to take my place. And I know that the only way that good things continue to happen for me is to write, to get your butt in the chair and to write.

You said at one point that you weren’t interested in returning your earliest novels to print—saying you’re very “hard on the early stuff” and that you’d re-release them when you were feeling “more secure.” Play Dead is finally back in print as of September—
Yep. Twenty years after it was out of print. So I was insecure about it for 20 years.

You included an author’s note sort of disclaiming the book. What influenced your decision to finally do this?
I just thought it was time. Some of this is boring, but because of the way the publishing worked in France, I was discovered with Tell No One, for example. In France I sell a lot of books—I think the number they quoted was 1.3 million last year in France alone. And so what they were doing is they would take one of my old Myron Bolitar books and a new book and have two books out every year—and they ran out of books. And they said, “Please, I think it’s time, why don’t you try it?” So I said, “OK, maybe I’ll try it with a French audience, and we’ll just do it that way.” And then as soon as the British and the Americans heard I was going to release it to the French, they wanted in on it also. So, I did it.

And I said to them, “I want it done honestly. I do not want to pretend it’s a new book; I want it to be a snapshot of where I was.” And I think the letter sort of explains my position. So, I do it with some trepidation. But you know what’s funny, the e-mail has been like, “I don’t know why you’re so hard on this book—I loved it!” Yeah, it’s rough around the edges, but there is an energy to that book that I don’t have anymore, and I kind of miss. There’s things in that book I cringe at, but I kind of wish I still had that old energy.

How do you think you’ve grown and changed as a writer over the years?
It goes back to what I said before, that writing is an activity where I do believe quantity makes quality, and I do think I’ve gotten better. I think I’ve gotten better in terms of prose, in terms of dialogue, and most of the books are a little bit shorter because I know better how to edit. I think I’m more subtle now than I used to be, that I don’t have to beat someone over the head with a certain twist or a certain theme.

Every book I try to do something different. For example, Hold Tight: It’s from a zillion different perspectives, it’s three or four or five stories that all come together, all involving this small community. So what’d I do after that? I wrote Long Lost: first person, one viewpoint, international implications. So then I had enough of that. What am I going to do next? Let’s make it a female lead.

The one thing I want to be there consistently is I want my books to be the novel of immersion, the book you cannot put down. And that will always be part of what I write. I just don’t want to ever write a book that you can put down. But outside of that, I’ve hit the full spectrum—I’ve covered a lot of different topics, I’ve done sexism, I’ve done racism, I’ve done international stuff, I’ve done local stuff, I’ve done family, I’ve done husbands, wives, love, redemption, all those things.

But what I love about the thriller form is that it makes you write a story. You can’t get lost in your own genius, which is a dangerous place for writers. … You don’t want to ever get complacent. If a book starts going too well, I usually know there’s a problem. I need to struggle. I need that self-doubt. I need to think it’s not the best thing ever.

Your books seem to be consistently rated very well on Amazon—mostly four stars, and they have hundreds of reviews. Do you read your reviews?
I used to read them more. I mean, writers who claim they never check their Amazon, or check their rankings are usually lying. It’s almost like there’s a conversation at a party going on about you, and you walk away not to overhear it. Who does that?

So for the most part, people do. I do it a lot less than I used to, just because it’s usually the same old thing. I will check, though. If all of a sudden one of my books had 400 reviews that were all one star, I’d like to know about it. But for the most part I find it’s more of a waste of time than it used to be, and I don’t keep score as much as I used to. I’ve hit one of The New York Times lists for a few books now, and I don’t take it for granted ever. But I don’t need to watch it all the time.

I think the reason why writers do it, to be fair to writers, is that most writers get very little information from their publishers. So it’s the only way they can kind of figure out what’s going on, by looking at their Amazon rankings like it’s a stock option. And now I get enough information from my publishers that I don’t really need to do that.

I do read all my reviews that are in newspapers or magazines if they’re mailed to me, but they don’t mean as much to me as they used to. I don’t get high off the good ones, I don’t get low off the bad ones.

You’ve said you used to make fun of “write what you know,” but you’ve actually managed to make it work for you—writing about ordinary people in the suburbs, in extraordinary circumstances. But are there other writing adages that you still find to be especially bad advice? Or especially good advice?
Writing for the market is nonsense. The one that I hate the most is when writers say, “I write only for myself. I don’t care who reads it.” That to me is like saying, “I talk only to myself. I don’t care who listens.” Writing is about communication. A writer without a reader is a man who claps with one hand. Caught is not a book when I finish writing it. It’s not a book until somebody reads it. Without the reader, it’s not a book. You can call it art and you can call it commerce, but without the other side it’s playing catch and you’re throwing the ball and no one’s there to catch it. And that’s a really important thing to remember. I don’t really believe when writers say, “I write only for myself.” People writing only for themselves, it’s probably therapy.

Your essays tends to focus on your family. How important is it to a writer to have the support of a partner or family?
I can only say for myself that I don’t know if I’d be a successful writer without the wife [I’ve] had, because she was so supportive of a lot of the chances I took, and because she gave me the confidence to keep writing even when there were times that I didn’t really believe it would ever happen. So I think that does help a lot to have somebody—you know, it could be a parent, it could be a friend—but you need people who really believe in you.

You seem to excel at making your writing time fit into the rest of your life, rather than the other way around. How do you recommend writers find ways to do this?
If you can’t find the time to write, that’s just nonsense. I don’t care how busy you are. My friend Mary Higgins Clark had five kids and was widowed—that’s a woman who had no time to write. And she still, she used to wake up and she would write and then get the kids up. There’s always time to write. You can skip the TV show you’re watching, you can wake up an hour earlier, you can write during lunch, you always have time to write. If your life is so full of other things that you don’t have time to write, then writing isn’t a priority and you’re not a writer. There’s nothing wrong with that, but face that fact. Don’t tell me you don’t have time to write. There is time to write.

And then there’s, even when you’re not writing, thinking about your writing.
Oh, all the time. I’m a rude guest, I’m rude to friends, I drift off a lot, I just ignore people because all of a sudden I get caught up in an idea. My friends are used to it—Oh, Harlan’s going off to la-la land. And they kind of let me know.

But I accept no excuses. Excuses to me are kind of like, “Oh this? It’s not weight gain—it’s water retention!” After a while, you have to face the fact that you’re just not writing. And I’m intentionally to your readers being a little ass-butt-kicking, because that’s really what you need when you’re starting to think that way, that you don’t have time. When you’re making excuses, there’s no excuse. You just have to put those excuses away. You have a choice: You can either hate yourself, or you can write.

Looking for more tips and motivation to write your novel? Check out the complete January 2011.

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