Award-winning and best-selling mystery and thriller author Harlan Coben shares his twist ending tips and more in this interview with Jessica Strawser.
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 the two?
I don’t have a clue. I guess to the public, the mystery has more of an 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.
You’ve said you know where you’re going when you start a book, but not how you’ll get there. How do you 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 should be wasted.
Readers often can’t be sure if your characters are good or 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. 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 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 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, are 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 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 giving readers an ending they didn’t see coming, while making sure they don’t feel cheated?
It has to make sense in line with the story. Sometimes it’s a little bit of a sleight 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 thrillers “puzzles.” I never 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 and go, “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. 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: play with your perceptions while showing you everything in plain sight.
How much do you worry about tying up loose ends?
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 that you’re not sure things like plot development can be taught, but that it’s an inherent strength of yours. What advice could you offer to writers in identifying and maximizing their own strengths?
I think most people know what their strengths and weaknesses are. One of the reasons 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, really you’re in trouble, and nobody else is 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 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.
Are there differences in how you approach one of your series books versus how you approach a stand-alone thriller?
To compare it to painting, when I do a stand-alone, I have an entirely blank canvas. When I do a series, some of the pieces are already 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.
What do you like about her so much?
I don’t know—I don’t necessarily think she’s the typical likable protagonist. 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 likable. Likable 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 the heroine is naive to the point of a brain trauma, 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.
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.
You’ve acknowledged that as writers, we all have moments when 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 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 here. There are just times that the self-loathing goes on, and it does paralyze me the way it will paralyze other writers.
The secret is to just push through it. There comes a time when you 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 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 be tortured by guilt.
So you really use the “self-hatred.”
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.
How do you think you’ve grown as a writer?
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 theme.
Every book I try to do something different. … 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. I just don’t want to ever write a book that you can put down. 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.
You’ve said you used to make fun of “write what you know,” but that you’ve actually made it work for you. Are there other adages you find to be bad advice?
The one 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. 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. People writing only for themselves, it’s probably therapy.
You’ve written essays focusing on your family. How important is it for a writer to have the support of a partner or family as they work toward their dream?
I can only say for myself that I don’t know if I’d be a successful writer without the wife I [have], 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 can writers find ways to do that?
If you can’t find the time to write, that’s just nonsense. My friend Mary Higgins Clark had five kids and was widowed—that’s a woman who had no time to write. And she still used to wake up and 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.
And even at times when you really don’t, you can be thinking about your writing.
Oh, all the time. I’m a rude guest, I drift off a lot, I 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.
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.
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