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HARLAN COBEN speaks to Ali Karim

Written by Ali Karim

Harlan CobenSo you think you know Harlan Coben?

I think you should take Just One Look, because the man who makes your head spin with his fast paced thrillers is back this year with his most gripping novel to date - Just One Look.

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

Harlan first came over to the UK when his former publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, released the Myron Series. 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 expected.

Harlan's Myron Bolitar books are amazing feats of plotting and also feature an eclectic array of supporting characters. What makes them special is the humour. 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 he never really hit the top ten. This all changed in 2001 when he moved over to Orion Publishing, unleashing the standalone Tell No One. This thriller concerned Dr David Beck's hunt for his murdered wife Elizabeth, who mysteriously appears as an .mpg on his pc years later. Tell No One stormed the charts both in the US as well as the UK, reaching number four in The Times.

Since then his tales of dark deeds in suburbia have been a permanent fixture of the UK bestseller charts. In 2002 we had Gone For Good, and last year we had his novel No Second Chance, and in 2004 we have his most twisted tale, Just One Look.

Shots decided to ask the multi-award winning writer about his work and why he wrote Just One Look.

And if you’ve never read any of his Myron Bolitar series, Orion have thankfully re-released them all in paperback. I must tell you that they are now key features of the crime / mystery genre because once you’ve read one, you’re hooked.

********

Ali:

Welcome back to Shots, Harlan

Harlan:

Always a pleasure, Ali. Nice tie, by the way.

I check my tie for a gravy-stain……..

Ali:

So, after three standalone thrillers (Tell No One, Gone for Good and No Second Chance) we’ve just read Just One Look. What attracts you to peer under the veneer of suburban life and peel out a mystery?

No Second Chance Book Jacket

Harlan:

I was tired of novels about serial killers or big conspiracies. I prefer the placid pool of suburbia. This is where people go to raise their kids, do right, be happy. Where dreams die, well, that’s a ripe arena for drama and devastation.

Ali:

Were you surprised when you did the first standalone Tell No One that it would be such a critical and commercial success?

Harlan:

I’m continually shocked and grateful. It’s sort of how I go about life - with that slightly stunned look on my face.

Ali:

What’s it like to no longer be a ‘cult-writer’?

Harlan:

I never really knew I was one. I sell more books now. That’s the biggest difference, I guess, and it’s pretty great.

Ali:

Tell us about Just One Look? What spark gave you the basis of the story?

Harlan:

I have four young children. One day I picked a roll of film and as I was going through the photographs there was one that, for just a brief second, I didn’t recognize. It got me thinking: Suppose there was a picture in here I didn’t take. Suppose that picture changed my life.

Ali:

In terms of sheer page turning power you are second to none. How do you hone the writing to work at such a mental pace?

Harlan:

Most of all I remember the advice of Elmore Leonard: I try to cut out all the parts you’d normally skip.

Ali:

How harsh are you as an editor?

Harlan:

Oh very. Harsher than any editor I’ve ever known.

Ali:

Who gets to have the first read?

Harlan:

My wife Anne and my buddy (and owner of Partners & Crime in NYC), Maggie Griffin.

Ali:

Just One Look has your most twisted plot so far, and one that is really, really complex with nothing appearing as it first seems. How difficult is it to hold the plot in your head?

Gone For Good Book Jacket

Harlan:

Here’s the thing. Most thrillers/mysteries I read I know whodunit and why by page 30. I see where it’s going. I know the paths. So I work hard, VERY hard, in making sure that doesn’t happen with my books. Like the posters in the London Underground say, I want to throw one twist at you, then another and then, just when you think it’s all over, whammo - one more. Uh, or something like that.

Ali:

Do you need medication or hospital treatment when you finish one of these mind-bending thrillers?

Harlan:

I have four young kids. They’re medication enough.

Ali:

I heard that last year No Second Chance missed the No1 spot in the UK by a handful. What is it about your last four books that appeal to the readers? And more importantly make them come back for more?

Harlan:

I try to tell a gripping, compelling story. I want my protagonists to be people like you and me, not superhuman. I prefer the grays to black and white. I have a poor attention span and thus I’m constantly trying to keep you intrigued. Maybe it’s that combination, I don’t know.

Ali:

What demographic profile are your readers?

Harlan:

I’ve met readers and gotten emails across all lines. I don’t think there is a specific profile.

Ali:

Characters are really crucial in your books even if they have multi-facets to their natures. How complex is it to write about people with hidden secrets being the writer, and not wanting to drop too many clues?

Harlan:

Character for me is easier than plot. Notice I said “easier” not “less important.” Developing character is a more organic process. It is how they react to the stimuli that defines them and fuels the story.

Ali:

Grace Lawson is a complex character that discovers skeletons from the past that affect the present. This theme about deeds done in the past reverberating into the future is one that you seem fascinated by. In a word, why?

Harlan:

Isn’t all great fiction about chickens come home to roost? I love the fact that the past doesn’t stay buried. I love the small ripples that never quite fade away.

Ali:

As for villains, your imagination is so vivid and graphic. What are your main thoughts in how to sketch out a convincing baddie such as Eric Wu? Is there a line in terms of violence that you wouldn’t cross?

Harlan:

Well, read the Eric Wu scenes closely. There is no spurting blood, no guns, no knives, no slicing or dicing or any of that. Most of the violence is implied. The most terrifying thing he does in this book does not break skin and uses the word “pluck.” That’s what makes it seem visceral and terrifying - because most of it is what you conjure up in your own mind.

Tell No One Book Jacket

Ali:

Let’s talk about your trademark endings, because just when we think it’s over, we get a head-turning plot twist and in Just One Look…..well I won’t spoil it ……but beware. When do you know the final, final, final twist? Is it during the plotting or during the writing?

Harlan:

I usually know the ending before I start. I know most of the major book ending twists. I may not know for sure if I’m going to use them all until I’m done - sometimes I have to see how it feels - but normally I’m aware that they are there and that they are possibilities.

Ali:

Do you feel constrained by the sub-genre you’ve more or less cornered - the suburban thriller?

Harlan:

Nope. If I think of a good story that takes place somewhere else, I’ll write it. I’m writing about two people right now who don’t have kids nor live in the suburbs.

Ali:

I have reviewed Just One Look and will be very surprised if it doesn’t get to no 1 in the UK, but I hear you’re not over this summer. How important is the author tour for getting the word out?

Harlan:

There is an old saying about advertising: Fifty percent is effective, but nobody knows what fifty percent. The same is sort of true about touring. I’d like to come over - my brother lives in London and the UK is one of my very favourite places - but I’m doing Australia this year instead. I have four kids so I can only go away so much. In sum, the answer is: I have no idea.

The Untitled Book Jacket

Ali:

So what’s with the Australia / New Zealand trip?

Harlan:

Orion, my UK/Australia/NZ publisher, has wanted me to go for some time now. I’ll be touring a bit with my friend Michael Connelly. That should be fun.

Ali:

How are you going to top Just One Look?

Harlan:

I wonder that after every book. You always want to get better, don’t you? I’ll just put my head down and write as hard as I can. What else can I do?

Ali:

I had a lot of fun at Bouchercon Las Vegas and loved your turn as co-auctioneer with Max Allan Collins. Can you tell us your highlights?

Harlan Coben & Max Allan Collins

Harlan:

I enjoy the heck out of Bouchercon. It’s no longer very important to me career-wise - most of the attendees already know my books and have made up their mind if they like them or not - but I go for the camaraderie with my fellow writers and to meet the great readers and booksellers who populate this business. It’s just a lot of fun.

Ali:

I see your name on a number of books with a promotional tag-line, and I know that (like most crime / mystery writers) you are an avid reader; but also you are very supportive of newer writers. Who did you really think were the top books from the newer writers in 2003/2004?

Harlan:


Well, I was early on the Dan Brown DaVinci Code bandwagon. He no longer needs my help, so I’ll mention Jeff Abbott, Charlie Huston, PJ Tracy and Chris Mooney as people who are on the newer side and should be read. I also loved Laura Lippman’s last book. Steve Hamilton’sBlood Is the Sky was one of the best private eye books - probably the best - of the year. I’m also strongly recommending Mo Hayder’s Tokyo. The ending still makes me shiver.



If you ask me the same question tomorrow, I’ll probably name seven different authors.


Ali:

I really loved Paranoia by Joe Finder and Remembering Sarah by Chris Mooney, what did you like about those two books?

Harlan:

Probably the same thing you do. In Chris’s case, the book was both compelling and heart-wrenching. That’s a winning combination. And Joe really knows how to make the pages fly.

Ali:

Which writers helped you when you were starting out?

Harlan:

There were many. Mary Higgins Clark is a great role model. Lawrence Block was supportive early on. Susan Isaacs, Peter Straub, Phillip Margolin, John Lutz, Bill Pronzini, Michael Connelly, Jeff Deaver - they all offered encouragement and more. There are plenty of others.

Ali:

I heard you did a short story for the New York Times for Fathers Day. How did this come about? And where can we read it?

Harlan:

The Key To My Father is on my web site at HarlanCoben.com. It was a strange assignment, to put it mildly, but the op-ed editor of the New York Times had read No Second Chance and wanted me to write a fiction piece for the page. They had done something similar with Paul Auster about a decade earlier. I was honoured and thrilled…and somewhat terrified. But I’m happy with how it all turned out. (the link:http://www.harlancoben.com/static/fathersday.htm)

Ali:

How did the switch from Hodder & Stoughton to Orion Publishing (in the UK) come about?

Harlan:

Who knows how these things happen? They’re both great houses. I’m thrilled and proud to be at Orion, and I still have friends at Hodder & Stoughton.

Ali:

Orion have been releasing your tremendous Myron Bolitar novels. How have they been received by the UK readers, who perhaps are more familiar with your standalone suburban thrillers?

Harlan:

It’s been an incredible surprise - not to mention incredibly gratifying - that the UK readers have so taken to Myron. I’ll let you ask Orion about specific sales numbers but my guess is Myron is bigger now in the UK, relatively speaking, than the USA.

Ali:

Harlan it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Enjoy Australia and speak to you soon!

Harlan:

Thanks, Ali. I hope to be in the UK again very soon.



You never heard of Harlan Coben? Where you been brother?

Check out his Bibliography :-

Standalone Thrillers
  • Just One Look
  • No Second Chance
  • Gone For Good
  • Tell No One
Myron Bolitar SeriesThree Great Novels Book Jacket
  • Darkest Fear
  • The Final Detail
  • One False Move
  • Back Spin
  • Fade Away
  • Drop Shot
  • Deal Breaker
Early Work
  • Play Dead
  • Miracule Cure



Check out Shots’ previous interview with Harlan in 2002 here.



 

  

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