Caught Up In Writing: Harlan Coben explains to Chris High his ins-and-outs of successful Crime Writing.
With in excess of 50 million books in print, one highly successful movie adaptation of his work to his name, an ever growing catalogue that’s been translated into over 40 languages and the first author to win all three of the coveted Edgar, Anthony and Shamus Awards in the USA, Harlan Coben can rightly say he is at the forefront of Crime Fiction. Now, with his latest novel, Caught (Orion), already receiving rave reviews and gaining an instant Number 1 spot in the New York Times Best Seller List, Coben weaves a story that concerns the world in which we live today and, in particular, the Facebook / Reality TV generation. ‘Like most books it started with a What-If,’ the author explained recently. ‘I was watching a TV news show where they catch sexual predators seducing young girls and I thought “What If” someone I knew was on the show right now? What if it was someone I knew, trusted and even loved? That’s how the book opens. If I have an outright opinion about such shows then it’s in the book and I don’t really want readers to come to the novel thinking I have an agenda. I did zero research. If you’re alive and breathing in today’s world, you know what reality TV and what social network Websites are. This is just our world. To write a modern book without them, well, you might as well have your characters using 8 tracks.’
Coben is an author who can accentuate the everyday and still induce it with tension and not for him are the gore fests that some authors rely on, or the magical, mystical jiggery- pokery – the “killer with a reason to kill” approach – that’s so obscure you’d need to be a Philadelphia Lawyer to work it out, even after its been explained. At the forefront of Caught, is television news reporter Wendy Tynes. Combining what might be seen by many as “everyday” crimes with the fact that the main protagonist is a woman, and therefore needing a woman’s voice to relate what’s going on, is an art in itself, given that Harlan is a big guy of around six-feet four and approximately fifteen fat-free stone in weight. ‘I think it’s easier to create tension in the everyday. You care about your family in a way you’d never care about a stranger. That’s true tension. I don’t go in for writing conspiracies in Downing Street or The White House or for people who cut people up for no other reason than the fact they’re disturbed beyond repair. That’s not my style. My thing, what I’m known for and what my readers seem to enjoy, are people who live ordinary lives in ordinary ways, until something out of the ordinary happens to them. That’s the story in essence, how those families and individuals deal with a situation. It’s set the world in which I live and I like to think I understand my place in it well enough to know how I might react to those situations I create for my characters. Its the old adage, isn’t it, “write what you know”, but for me it works. As for Wendy and writing from the female perspective, I don’t find it any harder to get into the female persona than I do the male. I’m not sure why, but sometimes I think it’s easier. Maybe a little distance is good.’
With many authors, routine is important. Some write in a garden shed, others in bed and yet more to a rigid nine-to-five timetable. ‘My routines change all the time. I do whatever until it works. When it stops working, I try something else. I tend to see writing as a cruel mistress in some ways because if I’m not writing, I feel guilty. Even if I’m reading – I don’t know any musician who doesn’t listen to a lot of music, by the way, and I don’t know any writers who don’t read a lot. The last book I really enjoyed was City of Thieves, by David Benioff, by the way, but even then I had this small voice in my head that kept saying “you should be writing”. That can be difficult sometimes, especially when you have a family, so time management is important. Another vital aspect to being a writer is, to paraphrase Elmore Leonard, “cut out all the parts you’d normally skip as a reader.” Finally, actually complete the thing you’re working on and write from the heart, don’t follow a trend. I don’t know any successful authors who set out to write something that he or she thinks will sell well but instead will write what they believe to be a good book – the best book they can possibly produce – regardless of any trend that’s in vogue at any particular time.’
Coben is well known for his serial character Myron Bolitar, but insists that his criteria for continuing the series depends on one aspect. ‘It depends on the story I have in mind. As I said earlier, I write from an idea – the “What if” this or that were to happen – not for a specific character. If the idea doesn’t fit Myron’s persona then what’s the point in trying to force it on him? It is always plot first with me and I don’t outline anything. There is no “why” I don’t – you just do what works for you as a writer.’
So what’s the best and worst part of the job and what’s next for Harlan Coben? ‘ The best part is that I get to write books for a living. The worst part… I’ll have to get back to you on that. It’s all pretty great. I’ve just completed a 17 date tour of the US and I often quote Dan Fogelberg when it comes to touring: “The audience is heavenly, but the travelling is hell,” but I loved meeting everyone and am so grateful everybody came out and I hope to get back to the UK next year. As to what’s next, a new book. I have four kids. That’s it. I write and raise my kids. I write one book and then I write another. Dull, aren’t I?’
Interview with Harlan Coben 2008