A talk with Harlan Coben
Harlan Coben
Harlan Coben portrait
by Kelly Campbell.

Click on it
to see fuller version.

Harlan Coben's web site.

Coben will be at Book Passage in Corte Madera at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 2, 2004.

Book Passage

51 Tamal Vista Boulevard
Corte Madera, California 94925
(415) 927-0960
(800) 999-7909
Fax: (415) 924-3838

Coben will be at M is for Mystery at 6 p.m. on Sunday May 2, 2004.

M is for Mystery

86 East Third Avenue
San Mateo, CA 94401
Phone: (650) 401-8077
Toll free outside the Bay Area: (888) 405-8077
Fax: (650) 401-8079

For Coben's appearances elsewhere, including on television, see this page at his website.

We like this guy.
His thrillers start in the heart of love and shake family trees to their roots

By John Orr
April 27, 2004

Author Harlan Coben took my call on his cell phone while standing on a field in New Jersey and watching his daughter Charlotte, 10, play lacrosse.

Nearby was his friend John Conheeney, whose granddaughter was also playing lacrosse. Conheeney's wife, writer Mary Higgins Clark, was across the nation in San Mateo, speaking at M is for Mystery, where Coben himself will be on May 2, 2004. (Following an appearance at Book Passage in Corte Madera that same day.)

"A beautiful day in Richwood, New Jersey, a beautiful, wonderful, suburban town. The same parents [around him on the field] I've know for a long time. If I wrote this scene in a book, people would think it was corny.''

But, that's part of the charm of Coben's excellent thriller mysteries -- they feature loving families living good lives.

Until the bad thing happens.

In "Tell No One," the narrator, Dr. David Beck, tells us about the love of his life, his wife:

"We met two weeks later in Miss Sobel's second-grade class, and from that moment on -- please don't gag when I say this -- we were soul mates. Adults found our relationship both cute and unhealthy -- our inseparable tomboy-kickball friendship morphing into puppy love and adolescent preoccupation and hormonal high school dating. Everyone kept waiting for us to outgrow each other. Even us. We were both bright kids, especially Elizabeth, top students, rational even in the face of irrational love. We understood the odds.

"But here we were, 25-year-olds, married seven months now, back at the spot when at the age of 12 we'd shared our first real kiss."

But ... then they are attacked, she is killed, and he goes on with his life, trying to be a better man, in her memory.

Years later, he gets email from her. Then he sees her on a street, via a webcam. And we're off to the races in one of the best, most thrilling and surprising mysteries I've ever read.

In "Gone for Good," Coben writes about Will, whose beloved brother Ken has been missing for 11 years, and is suspected of having killed the Will's lover, Sheila. Then a chance arises for Will to find the truth about Ken and Sheila. Maybe one or both may still be alive.

In "No Second Chance," a wife is killed, a daughter kidnapped, and the grieving husband and father gets a ransom note: "If you contact the authorities, we disappear. You will never know what happened to her. We will be watching. We will know. We have a man on the inside. Your calls are being monitored. ... Deviate from what we ask, and you will never see your daughter again. There will be no second chance."

In Coben's latest, and one of his best, "Just One Look," Grace Lawson, a painter and mother, picks up some photographs at Photomat. Most of the snapshots, taken by her loving husband Jack, are of their children, Emma and Max, on an apple-picking outing. But one photograph stands out. It is older, on the wrong kind of paper. And Grace doesn't recognize anybody in the image, until she suddenly realizes that one of the "strangers" is Jack, many years before, when he was about college age.

Later that night, after Jack gets the children ready for bed, the perfect, loving dad, she shows him the odd photograph. No, that's not him, he says. No, he doesn't know who the other people are, how could he?

Grace gets ready for bed when Jack gets a phone call. A little later, she hears his minivan drive off, and when she looks in the pile of snapshots again, the mystery photo is missing.

And before long, Jack is also missing, and Grace becomes Coben's first female protagonist, as she must dig into Jack's unknown past to try to fine out where he's gone, and why.

The overall story is very complicated, but so well written and such a compelling read that the complexities don't slow anything down; they're just part of the mystery. It's only when page 374 turns that the reader has a chance to breathe, say "Wow!'' and marvel at the impressively interconnected structure.

Coben is a great writer. Nobody else I've seen writes such compelling thrillers that are centered in family life.

Family life

He began his family theme with the Myron Bolitar series, Bolitar being a sports agent who has to solve various mysteries, but who has parents he loves.

"You always see these private eyes who have this problem or that, but they never have any relationship with their parents," Coben said by cell phone from that parent-and-child-filled field. "The parents set their penis on fire, or beat the hell out of them or are dead or don't exist.

"My own partents died quite young, and I had a great relationship with them and I miss them all the time. So part of it [writing Bolitar's family] is wish fulfillment. Part of it was just I hadn't seen that done, and I thought that would be an interesting dynamic to have two parents that he [Bolitar] was extremely close to.

"That's my theme.

"I don't write novels where a serial killer's just lurking in the woods for no reason. I don't write novels with a big conspiracy that reaches the president. I write novels about people like you and me ... people that are going out and trying to do their best, living the American dream ... and where dreams go to die, that's often a really ripe arena for drama and devastation.''

In "Just One Look," Grace and Jack are living their dream. The trouble starts with that one photograph.

"Most people are trying to do right," Coben said. "Things still go wrong ... minor things go wrong, and they snowball.

"Character struggle is what I prefer, to those big nasty things [in other books] people can't identify with."

While Coben is explaining his art over the phone, he occasionally takes a break to say something to Conheeney, or to his son Benjamin, who is 6. "Tell Mommy I am talking to the man from the newspaper." Mommy is Anne Armstrong-Coben, a pediatrician at Covenant House in New Jersey. She does the wonderful work mentioned by Dr. Beck in "Tell No One." The Cobens' other children are Will, 5, and Eve, who is 2 and a half. Charlotte, the lacrosse player, wrote the poetry attributed to a child in "Just One Look":

"Basketball, basketball,
Why are you so round?
So perfectly bumpy,
So amazingly brown"

Does she cut a cut of proceeds from the book? "She gets to go to college if the book does well," says Coben, with a bit of a laugh.

"I used to make fun of 'write what you know,'" said Coben, quoting ancient advice to writers. "But, updating Hitchcock, the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, what is more ordinary than the family setting?

"And, it raises the emotional bonds in a way that no other story can.

"Ask the question, 'Would you kill somebody?' You immediately answer, 'Of course not.' But would you kill somebody to save your child's life? Well, yes. But where's the line? Where do the line keep moving? Suppose it would make your child's life happier; suppose it would make your child suffer great pain if you didn't hurt or kill this person ... and that's where you sort of get the kind of drama that fascinates me."

And that fascinates readers, including me.

All of Coben's stand-alones have been optioned by Hollywood in some way or the other, except for the new one, "Just One Look." He's holding out with that one, for the right actress.

"Some great actress should really get her teeth into it," Coben said. "I'm actually waiting till the right actress is attached ... finally, a thriller where the woman character can be intelligent."

Most of the time, Coben notes, he's like many other novelists when it comes to dealing with Hollywood. He takes the money and runs.

"There's an old saying that I subscribe to with Hollywood: You drive out to the desert, where there's a barbed-wire fence. You throw the book over, and they throw the money over, and you run and they run.

"I sell them [the novels], what happens to them after that is up is sort of whatever studio owns it.

"The more involved you get, the more heartbroken you get, because you don't really have any power. It's just part of the business.

"The one time I did write something [directly for a Hollywood project] ... well, if a novelist gets a report card, it says 'does not play well with others.' Hollywood is all about that."

On the road again

Coben is hitting the road to tub-thump "Just One Look," and likes the process -- unlike some writers, who nearly have to be whipped and clubbed onto the airplanes.

"You've worked on this thing for a year," Coben explains, "You're anxious for feedback. Writing is about communication. Without readers, it's like clapping with one hand.

"I love to go out on tours, love to meet readers, love their response. If I write a book and nobody reads it, I don't exist as a writer."

He tries to make the experience for for everyone, he says.

"I always try to have fun. If people take the time to come out and see me, I try to make it for fun for them."

Readers who drop by one of his tour stops can expect "A history lesson of the disasters of my career and the 'Coben rules,'" in addition to whatever reading and signing he might do.

Some of the Coben rules:

Paraphrasing Elmore Leonard's advice: Cut out all the parts you'd normally skip.

All writers are insecure. "One moment you're saying, 'What happened to me? How did I lose it?' then five minutes later, it's 'This is genius!'"

When you're exhausted and can't really write, write anyway.

There's no excuse for not writing. He quotes Cher: "Excuses won't lift your butt."