American crime writer Harlan Coben, author of thirteen novels and winner of countless awards – including being the first to win The Edgar, The Shamus and The Anthony Awards – has after six years brought back his most popular character, Myron Bolitar, in his new novel, Promise Me (Orion).
‘I’d written seven Myron Bolitar books in five years and I did not want a character like Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poirot who solves the crimes but doesn’t really change,’ Myron explained prior to his event at Waterstones in Manchester recently as a part of the Dead on Deansgate season. ‘There was also the problem of how many crises can one person go through without either becoming insane or unrealistic? If I’m being honest there might also have been a little bit of ego involved because I wanted to see if I could write successfully away from Myron. A third reason is that I always write from an idea and not a character. The ideas I had between the last Myron Bolitar novel, Darkest Fear, and Promise Me simply did not fit his character. For example, the scenario for Tell No One is based around a man who sees his murdered wife on a city Webcam. Myron doesn’t have a wife who has been murdered, so the idea didn’t fit the scenario. So why bring him back now? Because the idea for Promise Me fitted Myron perfectly and it’s something that I said to a group of people after overhearing a particular conversation: don’t ever get into a car with a driver who’s drunk. If the need arises, here’s my card and promise me you’ll phone and I’ll come collect you, no questions asked, and take you home. Then I thought “what if”, and the lights went on. The real challenge, though, was to avoid writing just another Myron Bolitar novel as though he’d never been away. Myron has aged six years and now does different things. He’s no longer a sports agent, for example, but has become a movie actor agent and has left the sports stars to Esperanza. Win and Big Cyndie have moved on too and if this is your first Myron novel, I think its a great place to start because it does have a freshness to it because doesn’t follow on in the way a lot of serial novels tend to.’
Harlan almost accidentally fell for the lure of writing. Having written out in novel form some of his experiences as a holiday tour guide to Americans in Spain, he became hooked. So why choose Crime as a genre?
‘I don’t see crime as a genre but more as a form. Everything that is any other writing can and is covered in crime fiction – romance, horror, teenage substance abuse, homelessness, friendship, loneliness, the daily pressures of getting your kids to the right schools – everything. What I truly love about writing crime novels is that its form compels you tell a story. That’s why I think it’s so popular and why I truly believe we are currently living in a golden age of crime fiction. Another reason is that I defy anybody to name any of the truly great authors who have not, in some way, touched on crime. Look at Dickens, Shakespeare and Wilde as just three examples. Suspense is what I love and being able to get my readers to stay up all night turning pages is what drives me.’
Harlan Coben is a big guy. Six-feet four inches tall and weighing in at a solid virtually fat-free fifteen stones, he is difficult to ignore. When speaking with him, however, the first thing to strike home is the wit and charm he carries as naturally as an extra skin and this, clearly, shines through in his characters and especially in Myron Bolitar. Promise Me, as with all of Harlan’s novels, has a relentless pace that is in no small part attributable to the dialogue that is, at times, filled with unsuppressed humour and guile, which is a technique Harlan has developed over time.
‘I love dialogue because you can do so much with it in terms of propelling the plot, characterisations, settings and giving sheer entertainment and humour when necessary. It is something that’s developed along with Myron as any writing develops the more you do it. In the early Myron Bolitar books, I think the humour element comes across as a little more forced, but with practice the edges get knocked off and so it becomes, hopefully, smoother and more natural.’
The scenarios around Harlan’s novels are always disconcertingly normal. In Promise Me, two adult girls go missing and are presumed runaways by the police. Injecting so much tension and drama into the everyday events that surround us all is the challenge he is more than willing to meet.
‘That’s my thing and its what I’m known for. I don’t have serial killers cutting people up for no reason or political conspiracies that reach Downing Street. I prefer ordinary people who want ordinary lives. They look such placid pools on the surface until one little splash reverberates and changes them into something quite different. It’s also the world in which I live. I don’t know much about serial killers or political conspiracies. I know about my world so I write about that. Its also why I think people relate to the stories so well, because of their normality.’
The evening in Manchester was close to the end of an extensive promotional tour that has seen the author go across America and Europe over a period that some authors might term gruelling to say the least. Not Harlan Coben it seems. ‘For my first Myron Bolitar novel I received a $5,000 advance and, in American terms, a measly 15,000 print run in mass-market paperback only. Nobody toured me. Nobody came to my signings. Nobody cared. Now I’m on the other side of the fence, I appreciate everybody who has taken the time to come out to see me because they deserve that. What I also like about touring is that, now, Promise Me is finally a book that people can buy, take away and read and no matter who picks it up, it will be a different Myron, a different Win, a different Aimee to everybody else’s. A book is always a whole different universe to everybody who reads it and that’s still a heady thing to me. As a writer I’ve never chased the dollar I’ve always chased the reader and to see those people out front still gives me an enormous thrill. Of course there are downsides. I have four young children and I don’t like being away from them. I also can’t write as much as I’d like to. That said though, I am still grateful and thrilled to be in this position. Who wouldn’t be? I do what I do because I love it. I love seeing my books on a shelf. I still love to see posters advertising them. Everything. If I didn’t what would be the point?’
A set writing routine is important and in this Harlan is no exception. ‘When things are going well, I take the kids to school then go to my local coffee shop or library and write until about one o’clock. There are far too many distractions at home. Then I take care of the business end of things in the afternoon – interviews, Emails or whatever – before writing some more. That said though, if a novel is four hundred pages long and takes nine months to write, one month out I’ll be a little more than halfway through. To give some sort of idea, the last forty pages of Promise Me were written in a day, which is nothing unusual for me. Once the light’s at the end of the tunnel, everything else gets put aside until it’s done.’
After writing thirteen published novels, Harlan chooses not to look back through his work. ‘It’s hard to be fair to the stuff that’s gone before. It’s the old college essay syndrome. The one you thought was brilliant way back when, now looks terrible because you were a kid and knew next to nothing. It’s the same with a novel, because you look back not just at the novel but also at yourself as a person when you wrote it and ask what did I know then in comparison with what I know now?’
With the current debate surrounding takeovers and mergers between book companies and the general difficulties facing aspiring authors in their efforts to get published, what does Harlan see as the biggest obstacles facing the newtalent? ‘One of the biggest obstacles facing aspiring authors is their worrying about what happens between booksellers taking each other over and current market trends. The only thing an aspiring author needs to worry about is writing the best book that they possibly can. If the book is gripping and moving, it’ll sell no matter what. Every book that breaks out has a certain quality to it that is compulsive enough for the reader to tell his friend about. Word of mouth is still, and will always remain, the best way to sell a book. Its how Michael Connelly broke out, how Dan Brown broke out, how every well-known, successful author has ever broken out and in every case. Somebody in the sales force picks up the book, reads it and says: “hey, you’ve got to read this” to somebody else. If it’s not gripping or moving enough, nobody will say anything.’
Harlan’s stand-alone novel Tell No One has recently been made into a film in France. Who does Harlan see as Myron Bolitar should Hollywood come calling?
‘Nobody really springs to mind. Hollywood is a very interesting and complex creature in terms of being a writer, but it isn’t that important to me. I write the book and that’s it. James M. Cain, who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice, summed it up perfectly when asked if he hated what Hollywood had done to his books. He said Hollywood hasn’t done anything to them. They’re there on the shelf. That’s my attitude, too.’
Touring, a young family and countless other commitments would leave anybody short of their own space. So how does the writer relax? ‘The four kids take up most of my time, but I see writing as something of a cruel mistress. If I’m not writing, I tend to feel guilty for not writing. Even if I’m reading – which is a must for a writer – I have this small voice in my head saying “you should be writing” and that voice kind of tends to spoil some moods for me. I was once asked by a magazine to write an article on my hobby and I realised I didn’t have one. If I’m not writing, I’m with my kids and if I’m not with my kids I’m thinking I should be writing. I may take up golf, just to have that something extra in my life.’
So, does Harlan have any advice for aspiring authors? ‘First and foremost finish the book and don’t try to sell it as something that’s only partially written. Also, write from the heart and don’t try to follow the current trend. Nobody is going to want to read The Da Vinci Dog simply because dog books are selling well and Da Vinci books are selling well. Besides, they won’t be by the time your book’s finished anyway. I don’t know of any successful author who writes what he or she thinks might sell well, but instead they all write what they know is a good book regardless of trends. Thirdly, my favourite quote on writing comes from Elmore Leonard who said: “I try to cut out all the parts I would normally skip”.
Reading should be to an author what music is to a musician. Without reading and reading extensively, writing becomes nigh on impossible. ‘I like to read crime fiction,’ Harlan says. ‘I know a lot of authors who don’t read in their fields of work, and especially when writing a novel, because they feel that they might somehow be influenced by what they’re reading. At this stage of my career, I feel my writing voice is my own, which may not have been the case when I started. I’ve just finished Philip Roth’s Everyman and I loved it because it so depressing, but so beautifully written, but I don’t so much get influenced by other writers as inspired. In the past a book might have touched me enough so I might have just curled up into a ball and cried. Now I find that if I’ve read something that great, I want to up my own game. It’s not just with novels either; a new Springsteen CD, a movie or a work of art might do it, too. I especially like the books of emergence. The ones you take on holiday that beg you to stay in your hotel room to finish.’
This is Myron Bolitar’s eighth outing from the thirteen novels that Harlan has had published and fifteen he’s written, with the outstanding five published being stand-alones. Each novel has its own enigmatic style. ‘A lot depends on the voice the book is written in. The technique isn’t too different with either, but there are different challenges involved between writing within a series and writing a stand-alone. For example with a series you already know the characters which in some ways makes the book easier to write, but then the characters are not blank canvasses any longer so that makes it harder.’
So what’s next for Harlan Coben and Myron Bolitar? ‘Well, the next book is not a Myron Bolitar book. At least, I don’t think it is. I’m a hundred-and-twenty pages in and he’s not shown up yet and though the guy can be sneaky, I don’t think he’s going to show up. Seriously though, I don’t want to force him into a scenario that doesn’t fit and that’s another reason I’m so thrilled that Promise Me has been embraced in the way that it has. I don’t really like to talk about the book I’m in the process of writing too much. Why? Because talking about it gives me an immense sense of satisfaction and the only satisfaction I want comes from writing the novel. I’m dying to tell you about it, but the only way to do that properly is to physically write it. Some authors like to talk beforehand about their work, but to me its a little like letting the air out of a balloon. So I strongly advise not to allow any satisfaction other than writing the book. When it’s done and out there, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to talk about it.’
For more information go to: www.harlancoben.com