Despite the comfort of his study, Harlan Coben ’84 says that for certain stages of his writing he prefers to work in the library or a coffee shop. On the desk is his latest book, The Innocent.
The Subtle Art of the Suburban Page-turner
By Karen C. Fox ’91
I wrote this article in longhand before I typed it into my computer. Harlan Coben ’84 told me to. He may not have realized he was doing this. He may not have realized that I interviewed him under false pretenses. I told him I was interviewing him for an article in Amherst, but what I really did was memorize every sentence he uttered, in an attempt to absorb his writing skill by osmosis. So when he told me in passing that he handwrites all his first drafts and later types them into his computer I wrote it down diligently in my reporter’s notebook, as if I were copying down a quote.
Harlan Coben writes mysteries. The kinds of mysteries that can suck hours out of your day. The kinds of mysteries that leave you turning the solutions’ beautiful symmetry over and over in your head years later. The kinds of mysteries that hit the New York Times best-seller list. He is one of my favorite writers, and I have read every one of his books. So the prospect of interviewing him made me a wee bit, well, nutty.
I was not conducting the interview alone. There were two people intricately connected with the venture. The first was my friend Noah, who introduced me to Coben’s writing and told me that the writer was an Amherst alum. Noah was on the phone with me moments before I walked into the Coben house and again moments after I left. Indeed, I briefly considered a trick I learned from Coben’s recurring detective, Myron Bolitar: call Noah and surreptitiously leave the cell phone turned on the entire time so he could hear our conversation.
The second person involved was the dead woman in my car.
I blew a tire on my drive to Coben’s house in northern New Jersey, and my friend Catherine came to the rescue. She picked me up off the highway, and we drove up together in her car. Consequently, we were running late for the interview, and I didn’t have time to drop her off at a coffee shop to wait me out. I was not going to have the surprise appearance of a friend mess up my meeting with Harlan Coben, so right before we got to the Coben house, Catherine folded down half of the back seat and crawled into the trunk, so that only her legs stuck out into the car. But lying in the dark of the trunk, with only her Wicked Witch of the East legs visible, Catherine looked like a corpse that I’d stashed in the car that I’d parked in the Cobens’ driveway—the driveway of a mystery writer, mind you. When Coben’s wife stepped out into the driveway to show me where to park, she came frighteningly close to the car window. I couldn’t be sure if she saw the legs.
Noah has long mocked me for saying that everything I know in life I learned from fiction. I am given to saying things like: “Well, if the psychotic-thriller genre has taught me anything about people with narcissistic personality disorder, it’s that they just can’t be trusted.” So, of course, I knew exactly what Harlan Coben was going to be like: his well-known hero, Myron. And I wasn’t completely wrong. Coben lives in New Jersey, and so does Myron. Coben is tall and played basketball, just like Myron. Coben is close to his family, like Myron. So I asked Coben the obvious question: Did he base Myron on himself? “Yes, of course,” he said. “But with wish fulfillment. I have what Myron wants, and Myron has what I want.”
One of the things that Myron has is a fantastic relationship with his parents. Coben’s parents died young. “I sometimes overwrite those scenes between Myron and his parents,” Coben said. “I get overly sentimental.” He paused. “Well, tough! That’s my own therapy.”
On the other hand, Myron yearns for but never quite achieves a wife and family, while Coben’s home is the picture of domestic bliss. Coben’s love for his wife and four kids radiates from him. I might have been lighthearted about some of the assumptions I made about Coben before meeting him— if he had turned out not to have been a basketball player, for example, I wouldn’t have batted an eye—but I knew in my bones that this was going to be a man who was married to, and madly in love with, his college sweetheart. While Coben has written about different heroes in different situations, his male characters are always smitten, to their good or detriment, with a love who entered their lives young. These women are dynamic, smart, sexy, sometimes flawed—and always dramatically independent. “I have to write about women that way,” Coben says. “It’s what I know.”
Coben and his wife, Anne Armstrong-Coben ’85, with their daughter Eve.
Coben met his wife, Anne Armstrong-Coben ’85, when he was 20 and she was 18. They were both members of Psi U (“everyone is always confused when I explain that my wife was one of my fraternity brothers,” he says), and both played basketball. “I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic,” Coben says, “and I guess just about all my characters are. Certainly Myron is very idealistic in that way.” Coben pauses for a moment, musing. “And the women I write about are strong. I could never write the dumb-woman-in-jeopardy mystery.” Indeed, Armstrong-Coben is a pediatrician who helps others in jeopardy. She works as medical director of Covenant House New Jersey, a shelter for runaway youth. Working at Covenant House requires an amazing amount of commitment and mental focus; I know all about it, because Coben wrote extensively about Covenant House in his 2002 bestseller, Gone for Good.
The fact that Coben matched my Myron-based expectations helped tone down my hero worship just enough that I could sit on his living room couch and appear quasi-normal as I conducted the interview, never giving a clue to the three things racing around my head:
a. What was his writing process? Where did he get his ideas? How did he get over writer’s block? Did he have the magic spell that would make me a great writer?
b. How had he dreamt up the story about what happened to Myron’s knee, the event that destroyed his basketball career? (I won’t ruin it for you, but I actually screamed out loud when I found out who’d caused the injury.) A reasonable question, but I didn’t want to ask it because Coben has not written about Myron in four years—I feared it would be like asking a band to play only their old music.
c. Oh, God, the police are going to burst in any second, because there’s a dead woman in my car.
I forced myself to stop listening for sirens and asked Coben whether he bases characters besides Myron on real people. He said there’s only one other character based on a real person: Win.
Win, aka Windsor Horne Lockwood III, is a psycho in the body of a model-beautiful blue blood. A stockbroker who is equally obsessed with improving his golf game and delivering mortal karate chops to the neck, Win expresses his emotions in vigilante killings and in watching secretly filmed movies of his peccadilloes. Win, mind you, is one of the good guys. He’s Myron’s best friend.
“Win is based on Jim Bradbeer ’84,my best friend from Amherst,” Coben said.
I must have looked aghast.
“Oh, but Brad is not psychotic,” he said quickly. “I mean, he couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag.”
If the friendship had an unlikely result, it also had an unlikely beginning. Before arriving at Amherst, Coben had pointed to a picture in his first-year facebook and told his father that the preppy-faced kid in the picture would surely never speak to him in their four years at college. As it happened, Harlan met the boy in question on the first day, and they became friends instantly. It was a lesson in not trusting appearances. “I am intrigued by people who don’t turn out to be what you’d expect,” he says. Myron’s best friend got his outward appearances from Coben’s best friend.
The last Myron Bolitar mystery, Darkest Fear, came out in 2000, and Coben has since moved on to other characters. Coben said he’d eventually write about Myron again, but he found that the intensity of the character’s trials in the last few books was getting to be a bit much. (Have I mentioned that knee thing? I screamed, I tell you.) “Myron looked at me and told me he needed a break,” Coben said. “And I wanted to do something different. I had an idea.”
The idea was this: Coben envisioned a man who saw a current video of his wife on a computer years after he believed her to be dead. “The idea wasn’t a whole story yet,” he said, but since Myron wasn’t married, this was a tale that would require a new hero. Of course, Coben said, he also wanted to prove he could do something else: “Part of it was pure ego.”
And so was born the book Tell No One. His publishers didn’t balk at Coben’s abandoning his tried-and-true detective, and good thing for them. Tell No One was his first book to make it to the New York Times best-seller list. It has been translated into a dizzying number of languages, 30 at last count—the Romanian edition had just come out when I visited. Coben showed me a vast array of foreign editions stacked in three-foot-high piles around his den, all with covers bearing the kinds of colorful, realistically drawn fantasy images most often seen in the U.S. on cheap romance novels. The Japanese version shows a hard-boiled detective in a trench coat; a Russian version sports a sort of Fabio-meets-Leonardo-DiCaprio scene that Coben says doesn’t mirror any actual event in the book.
Coben has published four more books since Tell No One. His most recent one, The Innocent, came out in April 2005. (I interviewed him when he was in the final stage of his writing process, a stage in which he spends his days in a private room in the library reading the entire manuscript aloud to himself, measuring and perfecting each sentence. Another writing tip—I nodded and wrote it down.) Each of his five newest books is a stand-alone creation, without recurring characters. Nevertheless, certain themes prevail: Characters living typical lives suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them by the mysterious disappearance or return of a loved one. “I like to write about the suburbs and the American family,” said Coben, who himself lives in a quaint, tree-lined town. “I don’t do serial killers. I want to write about people who are just doing their best behind a white picket fence, and then I throw a loop into their lives.”
The theme obviously strikes a chord, and not just in the U.S. Coben’s books are wildly popular in the U.K. as well. The four that preceded The Innocent have spent as much time on the London Times best-seller list as they have on the lists at home. And No Second Chance, published in 2003, was the first-ever International Book of the Month Club pick—a single book considered to have enough appeal for 15 markets.
No Second Chance tells the story of a father whose estranged wife is killed and whose baby daughter is kidnapped during what appears to be a break-in gone awry. The intensity of the man’s search for his daughter, coupled with his realistic, if painful to watch, ambiguity about his wife’s murder, makes for a gripping story. Like so many of Coben’s books, you pick it up and then time stops for 24 hours; you abandon all other responsibilities until the book is finished and you can return to your regularly scheduled life. This is exactly what Coben intends. “I always wanted to write ‘novels of immersion,’” he said. “The kind of book you take on vacation, and then you can’t leave your room.” He accomplishes this partly through his conviction that mystery writing is simply a form through which one can present all sorts of other ideas. He has tackled love, family, redemption, sexism, racism.
Despite such far-reaching themes, No Second Chance did not make it to the top of the New York Times list. The problem started several months before Coben published the book, when Dan Brown—Amherst Class of ’86, two years below Coben, and also a Psi U fraternity brother—sent Coben a copy of his new manuscript, The Da Vinci Code. Brown had written several books previously but hadn’t yet made a big name for himself. Coben read the book and encouraged the younger writer, even volunteering to help promote Brown on his next book tour. Then in March 2003 Coben walked into a bookstore to check the rating of No Second Chance, which he’d released the previous week. His book was number two, and The Da Vinci Code was number one, “where it’s been ever since,” Coben said. He laughed: “I called up Dan and told him I was no longer helping to promote his book.”
Author David Foster Wallace ’85 was also at Amherst with Coben, living next door to him on the fourth floor of Stearns. Wallace, says Coben, was “shy and quiet back then.” In their first year, Coben and Wallace both took Poli Sci 11, and they walked back to the dorm together the day they got their first essays back. Coben had received a “B-” on a paper he’d spent a great deal of time on. Wallace quietly admitted he’d gotten an “A,” and Coben asked if he could look at his paper just to see what an “A” paper looked like. Wallace’s reviewers compare him to Pynchon and Joyce, which gives you a sense of the complexity and immense array of subjects tackled in any given Wallace paragraph. “I didn’t yet realize David was the smartest guy in the class,” Coben said. “I was floored by the paper. I was convinced I was going to fail out of Amherst.”
Coben did not fail, of course. Indeed, he had already been accepted into law school at the University of Chicago when he began writing fiction in the second half of his senior year. He wrote an entire novel—“a pretentious, self-absorbed, pompous novel” is the way he now describes it—and realized he had found a new passion. A favorite uncle told him he would never have time to write if he went to law school, so Coben deferred a year…and another year, until he finally realized he was never going to go.
He published his first book, Play Dead, in 1988, and then Miracle Cure after that. It wasn’t until his third book that he introduced Myron Bolitar. Coben said he’s taken those first two books off the market, so they’re no longer in print. (What? It became harder for me to concentrate. Coben had just told me that there were two books of his I hadn’t read and, worse, could not get access to. Sensing my anxiety, he actually offered to give me copies of the books.)
One of the questions I most wanted to ask him, and only partly for selfish reasons, was how he approached the writing process. “I don’t write well at home,” he said. “There are too many distractions. I need just a little white noise behind me, people talking, so I go to Starbucks or the library. I handwrite on paper, which is freeing and very childlike—I barely even use verbs at that point. Then I do some editing as I type it into the computer, and suddenly my first draft is already a second draft.”
My final question came at the request of my friend Noah: Whom would he imagine playing Myron Bolitar if one of his books were made into a movie? “Well, that’s hard to answer right now,” Coben said, “because they are making a movie. I’m not allowed to say who they’re talking to for the role. I just signed the agreement. John Calley will be producing it. He’s the same person who did Closer and is doing Da Vinci Code.” I tried a couple of suggestions—how about Ed Norton for Win? But Coben wasn’t talking.
When the interview was over I jumped into the car. The dead woman in the back seat stirred. “How did it go?” she asked from the trunk. “Really well,” I whispered through unmoving lips as I waved goodbye to the Cobens. As soon as I was out of the driveway, I called Noah and began telling stories: about Coben knowing Dan Brown and David Foster Wallace, about the movie coming out, about the two books of his we hadn’t read, about how, in college, he was nominated a Jewish All-American basketball player and…Noah interrupted me: “Did you know he was Jewish?”
“Well, of course,” I answered. “Myron’s Jewish. Everything I know in life I learned from fiction.”
—Karen C. Fox is a science writer based in Washington, D.C.
Her most recent book is Einstein: A to Z (John Wiley and Sons, 2004).
Photo: Frank Ward