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HARLAN COBEN speaks on GONE FOR GOOD

Written by Ali Karim

 

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When I met Harlan Coben, he looked exhausted, as he has been on the road promoting his new thriller Gone for Good for the last month. Since being nominated for an Edgar Award for Tell No One in New York at the start of the month, he has been traversing the US, and has reached the end of the twisting tour road here in Manchester. His books are likewise full of twists and turns and plotted to make you burn through the pages late into the night. The endings are always complete ambushes, with no warning, just 'wham' and surprise.

Harlan started his career with two standalone mystery novels Play Dead and Mystery Cure, now out of print. He hit his stride with his Myron Bolitar series featuring the eponymous wise-cracking sports agent P.I. and his team. The supporting characters such as Esperanza, Big Cindi and the Psycho Side-kick Windsor Horne Lockwood III (aka 'Win' for short) have become a legend among his fans.

His early books in the US had the now infamous covers featuring footballs landing in puddles of blood, tennis balls bouncing across a blood wound or the famous skeleton on the bench. He is at pains to explain that although the Myron novels use the landscape of sports, they are not based on sport; in fact Harlan is not even a sports fan. Thus the US editions were later marketed with strange sketches on them, but momentum had soon gathered and they became highly fashionable, with Myron's sidekick Win now entering modern crime fiction mythology.

The Myron series however really didn't dent the British crime scene when they first crossed the Atlantic. Harlan first came over to the UK when his former publishers Hodder & Stoughton released the Myron Series here. His award-winning book One False Move was the springboard for the re-launch with Harlan (with a shortlived 'goatee' beard) being included in the W H Smith 'Fresh Talent' awards. The covers made no reference to sports and were endorsed by heavy hitters like Michael Connelly and Val McDermid across some strikingly enigmatic cover designs. They sold well, but not to the level that many crime fans like myself expected.

Harlan's Myron Bolitar series are amazing feats of plotting. They have more twists and turns than the M62 around Leeds. They also feature an amazing array of characters, and probe the darkness in the souls of us all, but they do so with a wise-cracking and really (and I mean really) funny style. Comedy and crime can rarely work, unless the writer is a master of both genres. Harlan's books are 'laugh-out-loud' funny. They are also very moving, and he traverses that tight rope extremely well, just keeping the right balance, and not falling off into broad farce, which can easily happen.

So despite Harlan having a slow growing core of cult fans ('cult' can also mean 'very small') he never really hit the charts in the UK. This all changed last year, when Harlan unleashed the standalone thriller Tell No One, concerning Dr David Beck's hunt for his murdered wife Elizabeth, who mysteriously appears as an .mpg on his PC years later. The story was what Hollywood would describe as 'high concept' and is currently in development at Columbia Sony. Tell No One stormed the charts both in the US as well as the UK, reaching #4 in The Times. The paperback was also a huge success, just flying off the shelves as word of mouth spread - perhaps it should have been re-titled 'Tell Everyone'.

He now returns to the UK to promote Gone For Good, another standalone which has even more twists and turns than I have seen in any other thriller. The plot zings like a bullet ricochet and concerns the hunt for a vanished brother, a dead girlfriend, a missing woman and child, and some pretty menacing folk who creep out of the past and make Will Klein's life a nightmare. Will's sidekick Squares is a masterful creation, and almost to the level of Win in confused contradictions. There is one stand out sequence when Will and Squares visit an ex-Pimp held hostage by one of his former girls. This scene is masterfully played and stills hangs in my mind as crafted from a surreal nightmare. The book has also the trademark humour that one would expect from Harlan, but he keeps it in check, using it as a way of diffusing the tension, which is as taut as I've seen in contemporary mystery fiction.

Harlan Coben is now published by Orion in the UK, and they have used rather melancholic and moody cover art for these last two books which conveys the themes of both books admirably. Orion have also re-released the Myron novels with new artwork, and I feel readers of Tell No One and Gone for Good are in for a rather pleasant surprise when they investigate the back catalogue. Although I enjoyed the two recent standalones thoroughly, my heart remains with Myron, Win, Esperanza and Big Cindi.

Harlan was tired at the close of his month long tour, but he remained as funny, charming and quick-witted as ever and he contrasted well with the classical background of newcomer David Benioff who he was teamed with.

With the long and twisting road of the tour coming to a close, Harlan has finally reached the height of his powers and popularity in the UK - and deservedly so. The journey has had plenty of twists, just like the thrillers he writes.

If you've not read Harlan Coben's Tell No One - where have you been? A word of advice if you intend to read it, or Gone for Good - start early in the evening, as you will have a long night ahead of you.

If you've not met Myron and Win…….Win is Myron's dark side, and Myron is a little like all of us, except that in Win, he has a partner unique in the Mystery Genre, one that will be remembered long after the book finishes.

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Welcome to Deansgate Manchester and thanks for taking time out to talk to SHOTS Magazine.

Gee, thanks Ali, it's great to see you again, and thank you for asking me.

Firstly were you surprised at the success of Tell No One in the UK as it stormed the charts last year? What do you put the success down to?

Well, every time you write a book you hope it's something that people will like, and it's always fun when anything good happens to me. Quite frankly I'm stunned that people are here to see me tonight. I'm stunned that people want my autograph. I'm stunned that people want to send me emails.

Is it true that Tell No One was originally titled Big Tears Must Fall and if so why was it changed?

The original title was actually Big Tears Fall and I changed the title at the suggestion of my publisher. I haven't used a title that I came up with since Fade Away and the reason I changed it was simply that Tell No One was a better title. Gone for Good wasn't my title either. Malcolm Edwards Editor-in-Chief at Orion (my British Publisher) came up with that title. You have to know your strengths and weakness, so if someone comes up with a better title - more power to them. My American publisher thought Big Tears Fall sounded too much like a Native American Indian Name, like 'Me - Big Tears Fall'.

We see that Orion are re-launching the Myron/Win series in the UK - do you have any details? Will they feature footballs covered in blood?

{Laughs} The books are out already and the covers are on my website (www.harlancoben.com). The first four have been released and there's an omnibus to go with the series, and the remaining Myron books (with a second omnibus) will be out by the end of the year. I believe Darkest Fear, the last of the series, will be out in hardcover also.

Would you care to tell some of our readers a little about the Myron Bolitar series and why non-sports fans should explore them?

Well, sports are almost irrelevant, as it's just a setting. I don’t like sports myself and I don't follow any teams, but I find it a great setting for murder and mayhem. Myron Bolitar is a sports agent but he really could be an agent for a dancer, or a writer or anything else. The Myron Series - he's a Private Eye, he's a wise-cracking guy and I would also add that for the series I've always tried to concentrate more on the plotting than on the character, but the character ends up being more important. I have always worked very hard to bring what I know about suspense and thrillers to the books like Tell No One and Gone for Good but I also brought it to the Myron series.

I feel, having met you a couple of times, that Myron Bolitar is very much like you as a person - and I read that Win is based loosely on an old college roommate. Would you care to comment on how these two characters appeared in your mind?

Well, authors very rarely like to admit this, but Myron is basically me with a lot of wish-fulfilment. He is however a far better basketball player, a better friend, more loyal, he's funnier, but I have him beat in two areas - firstly I'm a better dancer (I'll show you later if you want!) and secondly I'm wiser in the way of women. This is not a great rave, it's sort of like saying 'gonorrhoea is better than syphilis'. I've been with the same woman since I was 20 years old, while Myron falters in the ways of love.

{short description of image}As you find out in the series….

Right.

What about Big Cindi and Esperanza? Were they also room-mates? And if so have you their current addresses?

{Laughs}…..No. Writers sometimes give complicated ways that they came upon their characters, but sometimes the character is just there. When I wrote Deal Breaker, Myron walked into his office, and in the very first scene Big Cindi was just there. I didn't work on creating her, I didn't think about her, she was just there. However an early reader - an agent, who incidentally was female, said 'No, no, no, you need a babe in the office, somebody more attractive', so I got rid of Big Cindi and I created Esperanza. Then, two books later when they needed somebody else in the office, Big Cindi said 'Hey I've been sitting here patiently, now gimme my turn.' So I just brought her back out.

To many of your fans, Win is a very, very intriguing character. Have you ever considered writing a novel from either Win’s perspective or a story with Win as the central character?

Considered it - yes. Will do it…….probably no. I felt that Backspin contains a lot about Win's background. It was the first time I had seen that one of those dark sidekicks could become more of a human being. I think however that with a good sidekick - 'less is more'. If an entire book came from Win's perspective I think it would end up being a bit like the short-lived TV show 'A Man Called Hawk' which was just about the character of Hawk from Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. It was just terrible.

So although I never say never, I have no plans to do a 'Win' solo adventure at the moment.

Continuing the theme of sidekicks, in the standalones Tell No One and most recently Gone For Good the main characters at the heart of the mystery – Will Klein and David Beck - call on the resources of their tough sidekicks Squares and Tyrese the Drug Dealer respectively. Both these characters mirror Win, in so far as they are (now) decent(-ish) men, but have had some Bad Stuff going on. Would you care to comment on the role of the tough sidekick?

I love the idea of the sidekick, as it goes way back to Holmes and Watson, Captain America and Bucky, Batman and Robin, and to the present day 'buddy/buddy' movies. I love the idea of these types of friendships that I don't think really exist too often in real life. That's the aspect I like, you get the friendship angle as well as the strain. Some people criticise the psychotic side-kick and list Walter Mosely, Dennis Lehane, Robert Parker as the main proponents of the 'Psychotic Sidekick' - and these are really great authors, and so if I've hooked up with them, then that's fine by me.

Even Lawrence Block gave Matt Scudder a bottle of Bourbon as his side kick….

{Laughs}…yes I guess.

Can you tell us a little about some of your short stories and where we can pick them up like the Anthony Nominated A Simple Philosophy? and if you plan to release a collection of short stories any time soon?

I don’t plan on releasing a collection of short stories because I've only written three. The first one was The Imposter published in Mary Higgins Clark Magazine, and it has just been reprinted in Opening Shots II by Lawrence Block, which is a collection of people's first published short stories. The second one A Simple Philosophy which you mentioned, was published in the Malice Domestic series, number 6, I think. It was edited by Sharon McCrumb, and I did that because she's a friend of mine and she asked me to. The third short story features Myron and Win in an Otto Penzler anthology.

Hey……when's that out?

I'm not sure, I'll have to contact Otto. It's called The Life and Death of Bobby D and Myron and Win are both in it.

Excellent news for Myron and Win fans.

I read that your parents were an inspiration, especially your mother being the book-ish one. One False Move was dedicated to them, and I feel one of your most moving books. Would you care to talk about you parents and also the writing of One False Move?

Sure. My parents both died at a fairly young age, and I still miss them a great deal. So when I started the Myron series, I realised that practically every detective either had no parents, or a terrible relationship, or had even suffered some form of abuse or something similar. I thought that in reality many people actually loved their parents, so when I started the Myron series, I created his parents to be similar to my own, had mine lived. I sort of live through them, and sometimes I know as I'm writing about them I get a little too corny. But I say 'tough', as it's what I want to do. It's surprising how many readers relate to that, and how many readers have the same kind of relationship with their own parents. This is especially true for people who have lost their parents, or are watching them age - they really appreciate that angle.

I also like the way that Myron's parents bicker with each other and we see Myron sat in the middle, which mirrors reality I guess.

Exactly, and that was just how my parents were.

Would you care to talk about your first two novels (now out of print) and how you emerged as a writer?

I wrote Play Dead and Miracle Cure in my early/mid twenties. In my mind they are not great novels. It's sort of like….have you ever re-read that old college paper that you wrote and thought at the time was brilliant?

Yes...

You find it now and you think it's atrocious, and that's not really fair to your college paper, but that’s how you kinda feel about {short description of image}older novels. When I reach a stage that I am more comfortable and more secure in my career, I'll probably re-release them. It's not that I haven't had offers to have them reprinted, and some readers feel that Play Dead is the best novel I ever wrote. Even in Deal Breaker, even in Drop Shot (the first two Myron novels) I can see the themes and the scenes in my older novels that perhaps I would do differently now, so perhaps I will go back and re-write Play Dead and Miracle Cure - Who knows?

You have referred to your writing style in the Myron series as ‘cheating third person’, as the narrative is very close to first person. This progressed in Gone for Good as alternate first person and third person. Would you care to talk about the style in your writing perspective?

Well, in both Tell No One and Gone for Good I started in first person, then somewhere around page 50 or 60 in Tell No One I realised I wanted to leave and go into another body. One of the rules in writing is that you can't do that. You either write first person or you write in third person. But the most important rule about writing is that once you know all the rules on writing, you can break them. So I tried it, and it worked. I don’t alternate between first and third person. In Gone for Good I’d say 75% is written in first person and 25% in third person. I wrote it back and forth between first and third as I saw fit, I didn't do like 'ten pages this' and 'ten pages that' - I just told the story the best way that I could and that’s how it worked out.

I have been to some of your book launches and find you very funny. Have you ever considered doing Stand-Up or even writing a pure comedy novel?

Oh God, no….{laughing}……that's harder than writing.

Since I spoke with you last year, you now have four children. How has that affected your writing both psychologically as well as in a practical sense?

Well, in a practical sense, it means there's one more mouth to feed and send to college as well as another set of braces…{laughing} .but seriously I don’t think it has much effect on the writing, other than the fact that having another baby in the house means another distraction. Children work 'for' and 'against' me in writing. The 'against' is obvious, they take up a lot of time, they take up a lot of energy, they make me tired because I don’t sleep as well at night. The 'for', is that when I do have time, I know I have to concentrate that much harder, and I have to focus that much more, so it's a balance. They also keep me grounded, when good things happen to me in my writing career, like the success of Tell No One and Gone For Good they remind me that I'm a regular guy and that helps keep my feet firmly grounded.

Your books have translated into 22 languages. Do you have any involvement in the translation process?

Only in so far that I get questions which are regarding something that is very 'Americana' that they could never translate in a million years. My Japanese translator once sent me a copy of a book and said 'I hope you like my translation, and that if there's any problems with the translation please let me know'…..like I could read Japanese….

I read about how your community was affected deeply after 9/11, with some people close to your family being directly affected. Would you care to comment on how 9/11 affected you and your work?

{short description of image}Well I think the essay sort of speaks for itself. I don’t have much more to add other than it was the most devastating thing to happen in my lifetime, as well as for many people around the world. I live in a suburb of New York which is really a commuter town and we lost many people on that day. My daughter who is in second grade lost the fathers of two class-mates in the incident. A guy who was a character name in Tell No One, as well as his brother both died. It's now part of our lives now.

In terms of writing, which is what I think you mean, well I'm writing a new book now, and I think I am going to refer to it (9/11) for the first time. I'm not going to write a book about it or anything ; but I think it's kind of like trying to write a book set in 1975 and not to mention the Vietnam War in America - September 11th is now part of our psyche, just like the Vietnam War, The Korean War, World War II, it's part of our psyche. If you are writing in present day it has to get mentioned.

Yes I agree, Michael Connelly did the same thing in 'City of Bones' - delicately peppering references to 9/11 in it - he explained that not to do so, would have been wrong.

That's right - it's now part our world.

Any update on the Progress of Tell No One and Gone For Good on the Big Screen and TV ?

Always with the caveat that Hollywood is a funny animal and you never really know what's going to happen. Tell No One is supposed to start filming in the summer from Columbia Sony Pictures with the British director Michael Apted at the helm. Gone For Good is supposed to be a TV series to be filmed as six episodes (each one hour) - that's all I can tell you at the moment.

I must tell you that I really enjoyed Gone For Good - its speed caused friction burns on my fingers from turning the pages. I was amazed at the revelations on each chapter that changed the novels perspective continually. It felt like walking on quicksand. Can you tell us a little about the genesis of the story, and then the writing process - like how much pre-plotting was required? How many re-write stages did you do? And how long did it take to complete?

{Laughs}…..I suppose I write all my books the same way, that is I come up with an idea. This process is surrounded in a series of 'What Ifs'. In this case I wanted to write a story about a family living in the suburbs, and also have the family devastated in way that I had never seen done. So rather than come from the victims' family, what about 'What if your brother was the one who committed the murder?' Then I thought about the stories you read about someone who commits a murder and then disappears. Then I thought, hey, what if that was your brother who disappeared? Suppose he murders your next door neighbour and then disappears, just runs off, and you don’t hear from him again. How's that going to affect you? Your community? How's it going to affect the victim's family? How's it going to affect your family?And of course what happens when he comes back……and then I needed someone else disappearing because I like to keep things moving along. You see when I write, I don’t like to be bored, even for a moment, because if I'm bored, I assume so is the reader, so I always try and up the ante.

You certainly did that in Gone For Good.

Thank you.

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Are you aware that both Jeff Deaver (in The Stone Monkey) and yourself (in Gone For Good) named bad guys as ‘The Ghost’. I spoke to him yesterday, and he was quite taken aback.

Yeah ! - I heard that too!

Quite a coincidence! Anyway, I loved the development and back-story to Klein’s sidekick Squares. Can you tell us how you came upon this character? I love your side-kicks and supporting characters.

Thank you. Well, many writers give very complicated answers on how they created their characters. My answers pretty simple - I just don’t know! But I suppose I was just thinking about this guy, making him grungy, and I don't plan characters. I work very very hard on my plots, I don’t work at all hard on my characters; they appear as an organic process in my writing. They may well be better than my plots, that I don’t know, but I don’t work on them. If I know how a book begins and ends, I will still have no idea how a characters personal life will begin or end. I sort of start with a core and go. I really wish I could explain it to you better, but I can't.

You have mentioned that you like William Goldman as a writer. Can you tell us what other writers you either like, read, and what writers you would cite as influential in your own development? Last year we talked at length about Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder books, and I ended up reading the series back to back, with When the Sacred Ginmill Closes being one of my favourites.

Books to me inspire, not really influence. When I read something really great, that inspires me in my own writing, but my favourite authors are Philip Roth - another New Jersey boy, and he's pretty popular over here too, right?

Yes, in fact he may be bigger here than back home.

I'm not necessarily a student of mystery, although I've read widely in the genre, Chandler, Hammett, Ross MacDonald but I would not call any of them a major influence. Robert Parker however certainly was an influence, Mary Higgins Clark was an influence, especially in plotting. When I read Where are the Children? I learned a lot about plotting. William Goldman's Marathon Man is another one. It made me realise that 'This is what I want to do - I want to make people stay up all night'. I want people to go on vacation, and not leave their room as they want to know what happens in the book.

Have you read Goldman's other books? Brothers, Edged Weapons ?

Yes I've read all of his books, in fact I've just finished Which Lie did I Tell? which is sort of the sequel to Adventures in the Screen Trade.

So with Tell No One out in paperback, the Myron series being re-issued in the UK by Orion in paperback, and now Gone For Good hitting the hardcover charts -

Actually I just got word, it's only been out a few days, but has hit #10 in the UK charts.

Hey - Congratulations!

Thanks and in the US it's in the New York Times list for the third week.

So what's next for Harlan Coben ?

Another standalone, and I don’t want to talk much about it, as it's bad-luck to do so.

I must thank you for taking time out from the end of your tour to talk with SHOTS and we wish you well with Gone For Good.

No problem and a big thanks to all my fans in Europe - you all have such great taste and are such a handsome bunch.

SHOTS Magazine wish to thank Harlan Coben, Emily Furness of Orion Publishing, Jude and John of Waterstones Deansgate for their co-operation and help in organising this interview.

Gone for Good is available from Orion in Hardcover priced £12.99

Tell No One is available from Orion in Paperback priced £5.99

The first three Myron Bolitar Novels are available as an omnibus edition from Orion at £10.99.

The first four novels Deal Breaker, Drop Shot, Fade Away, Back Spin are also reprinted separately at £5.99 each.

The last three of the series One False Move, The Final Detail and Darkest Fear will be released by Orion later in the year.

An omnibus edition of Back Spin, One False Move and The Final Detail with a hardcover release of Darkest Fear will be released in Autumn.



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Harlan Coben



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