Harlan Coben, interviewed by Laura Lippman
Over the years, the NorCal East Bay chapter of Mystery Readers International has had many "At Homes" -- intimate evenings with favorite mystery writers. We've hosted Anne Perry, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Janet LaPierre, Sharan Newman, Laurie King, Rochelle Krich, Carolyn Hart, James Ellroy, Steven Saylor, Janet Evanovich, Eddie Muller, Taffy Cannon, and many others.
These events are held in private homes, and they're similar to Literary Salons. Since so many of our cyber members and friends aren't able to attend these intimate evenings, I thought it would be fun to have a "visiting" author each month interviewed by another "visiting" author. This month we feature Harlan Coben interviewed by Laura Lippman.
Harlan Coben is the author of seven Myron Bolitar novels, including the Anthony Award-winning Deal Breaker and the Edgar and Shamus Award-winning Fade Away. Coben is a native of New Jersey and worked in the travel industry before the Bolitar series debuted in 1995.
In 2001, Coben's first stand-alone suspense novel, Tell No One, was published, and became an immediate hit, appearing on numerous best-seller lists and garnering nominations for the Edgar, Macavity, Anthony and Barry Awards. Tell No One is currently being made into a film by director Michael Apted. Coben followed Tell No One with two other suspense novels, Gone For Good and No Second Chance. Publishers Weekly wrote that No Second Chance "will carry readers like a tidal wave... few browsers or dippers will put this down."
Laura Lippman: What were you like as a kid, growing up in New Jersey?
Harlan Coben: I'd say my upbringing was fairly unremarkable. I grew up in a suburb of Newark, two brothers (I'm in the middle), great parents, a basketball hoop in the driveway. That's not to say it was pure joy or anything close, but I've come to the conclusion that growing up is always a battle, that none of us get out unscathed.
LL: Why crime fiction?
HC: In two words: narrative drive. Crime fiction to me is a form. It's like saying sonata or haiku. Within the form, you can do pretty much anything you want. No Second Chance is really a novel about how far a father will go to protect his daughter. But what I love about the form is that it forces you to tell a story, to keep it riveting and moving, to not get lost in the beauty of your own words and immense intellect. I also think that's why the form is so popular today and inhabited by so many fine writers. We are still telling stories. That's first and foremost.
LL: Just to refresh our memories -- would you talk about what it was like a mere seven, eight years ago when your first Myron Bolitar came out? Did you walk into Partners & Crime in New York, a copy of your book in hand and say something like, "I know there's a bleeding football on the cover, but it's really not a bad book?" Do you ever think about those days?
HC: I did walk into Partners and Crime and do just that, except I was more, uh, pitiful. Sort of like a poster child for the new author -- you can turn the page or you can help. Maggie Griffin, whom I still thank in every book, was one of the first I arm-twisted (read: begged) to give me ten pages.
I'm answering this question while on book tour and I think about those "bleeding balls" days constantly. I'm glad now that I was so naive. I would have gone nuts had I been savvier or understood the odds. To the new writers, I tell them to just enjoy themselves. I cherish those days. It gives me a great appreciation for what's happening now.
LL: With the Myron Bolitar series, you carved out a reputation as one of the genre's wittiest writers. But with your stand-alones, you're now also known for your amazing plots. Was this a conscious choice in your development as a writer? Is it something a writer can learn, or is it one of those gotta-be-born-with-it talents? (And if you have any surefire hints, could you please just send those to me in a private e-mail?)
HC: When I started writing the Myron series, my goal was to take the wisecracking PI-type novel and add a faster-paced, more serpentine and thriller-like plot. The one criticism I had of the form was that many were so character driven that the story suffered. I came in
with a bit of a thriller background. I wanted to keep that. When I moved back to stand-alones with Tell No One, I did just the opposite: I wanted to take what I saw as the stand-alone strengths -- pace and plotting -- and add what I learned writing the series -- three dimensional characters.
As for the nature vs. nurture question, it's clearly both. As a kid I was always very good at math and word problems. I think that helps. I can see and develop plots and twists. I'm not sure that can be taught.
LL: Since Tell No One, I've felt you've been finding ways to reinvent North by Northwest. Am I onto something, or just projecting wildly?
HC: Yes and no. I do want to update the concept of ordinary man/woman in an extraordinary situation, but I think my canvas is both larger and smaller. I haven't yet dealt with big conspiracies. I like playing with the American family. But yes, Laura, as always, you are onto something.
LL: I'm curious about your literary influences because I have a hunch that there are some real surprises in your list of favorite writers. In fact, didn't you once say that Philip Roth is one of your all-time favorites?
HC: Yes, Philip Roth is my favorite author. We have a fair amount in common -- Newark, Jewish, shiksas. I think anybody of our generation who writes good PI-esque novels -- Lehane, Connelly, Lippman, Hamilton, etc. -- well, ninety percent will admit that Robert B. Parker is an influence and ten percent will lie about it. Most writers served as
inspiration rather than influences. William Goldman's Marathon Man taught me what gripping meant. Mary Higgins Clark's Where Are The Children taught me about pace. I could go on and on.
LL: How do you feel about those early thrillers, which I understand have become real collectors' items? I'll admit I haven't had a chance to read them, but my memory is that both stories showed you also have a knack for hitting the zeitgeist on occasion. In fact, didn't you write a book about a professional athlete with HIV before Magic Johnson announced he had it?
HC: I did write a novel with very eerie similarities to Magic's story. Many believed that I knew something ahead of time, but of course, I didn't. Look, I'm very hard on those early books. It's why I'm not interested right now in putting them back in print. I wrote them when I was twenty-five or so. It's like finding that college essay you thought was so brilliant and now you look at it and go, "Sheesh, this is awful, what was I thinking?" When I'm more secure, I'll re-release them. Right now, they are like the novels you have in your drawer and don't want anybody to see -- except, of course, they are out there.
LL: I know people ask you all the time if Myron is coming back, so I'll ask it a little bit differently: Do you miss Myron?
HC: Some days. I also understand that Myron isn't, well, he's not a real person. I do wonder about him. And I do want to write him again. Thing is, I start with an idea, not a character. If the idea I come up with works for Myron, he'll tell it. If not, he won't. I won't force it or have him return "by popular demand."
LL: When you were writing the series, did you ever have a feeling you were the person standing between Myron and any hope of a normal life? Isn't the relationship between an author and a longtime series character a little bit like the relationship between God and Job?
HC: This is a wonderful way of putting it. Can I use it, Laura? The only thing I would add is that there was a tension between Myron and me. Yes, I had what he wanted most and I wouldn't give him: the wife, the children, the life in the suburbs. But Myron had something I wanted too: His parents were alive. He got to spend a lot of time with them. I lost my parents fairly young. So yes, I was God to his Job, but I also envied Job just a bit.
LL: For want of a better word, you're awfully... normal. No, I take that back. You're what people wish normal was -- a well-adjusted man who has managed to thrive in his career while having a family. Do you have a dark side, or at least a neurotic one?
HC: I don't know about dark -- we all have our moments of darkness and perhaps I sympathize with characters like Win and Lydia (in No Second Chance) too much -- but I'm definitely neurotic. I think most writers are. We worry. We think we're phonies and that someone is going to see through us. One moment we think the book we are working on is crap and then the next we think Shakespeare is a dog compared to us. That neurosis, I think, fuels much of what we do.
LL: You've won most of the major prizes in crime fiction. You're an international bestseller. Do you feel more pressure, less, or just a different kind these days? What motivates you?
HC: Different pressure, I guess. I can tell you that I prefer the pressure of high expectations to low. The difference is, it's not all about "you" anymore. I look at myself as a working stiff. My publisher is my boss. I want to make them look good. But the greatest pressure remains self-inflicted: I want to write a better book than the one
before. It's easy to say, "I only write for myself, I don't care who reads it." But that's crap. Writing is about communication. Telling a story with no audience is like clapping with one hand.
LL: So -- Mrs. Peel on The Avengers or 99 on Get Smart? (And I think you know what the choice implies.)
HC: I never watched The Avengers much as a child, so I'd go with 99. However, my favorites were Julie Newmar as Catwoman, Yvonne Craig as Batgirl and Barbara Eden -- not as Jeannie -- but as Jeannie's evil sister. Make of that what you will.
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