- 13 May 22
With somewhere north of 75 million books in print – in 45 languages – Harlan Coben is one of the masters of the mystery novel, and a high-profile deal with Netflix has spread his thrilling tales further still. “I want to be suspenseful; I want to keep you up all night,” he tells Pat Carty.
Harlan Coben is no stranger to a winning character. Just take basketball player, turned sports agent, turned problem solver, Myron Bolitar, and his pal Windsor Horne Lockwood III (or just Win), an arse-kicking billionaire who “helps out” law enforcement. Win is a sort of Bruce Wayne figure, if Wayne spent his downtime meditating while watching his own sex tapes. We can now add Wilde, the star of Coben’s latest, The Match, to that number. He was found living in the woods as a young boy, never claimed, and grew up to combine a soldier’s training with those hard-earned skills he picked up in the forest. I put it to Coben that coming up with a pitch like that must have been a ‘Eureka!’, punch-the-air moment?
“Yes, and no!” replies the author with a grin. “You’re always doubting yourself and second guessing, especially with a new character that you’re going to write for more than one book. I knew when I wrote the first one that I was not going to give his origin story, so there would be at least two. I was taking a hike in the woods, which I’m not a big fan of – here’s a tree, here’s another tree, it’s hot and it’s sweaty. I saw a little five-year-old boy walking on a parallel path. What if that kid came out of the woods right now and said he always lived here, always fended for himself, and didn’t remember his parents? And now, 30 years later, as The Match opens, he’s across the street from his biological father.”
Though he says he always planned at least two books, he did wrap things up fairly neatly at the end of the first Wilde adventure, 2020’s The Boy From The Woods. Were bets being hedged in case nobody bought it? Coben has a good laugh at the frankly ridiculous notion that a book with his name on the front of it wouldn’t sell.
“I think every book should stand on its own,” he reasonably asserts. “Some people are very anal and want to read a series in order, and there is a joy to that. The first book or two of the Myron Bolitar series are, however, a little creaky, so I always tell people to start with the third one. I try to make every novel and every TV series stand on its own. When I do a series with Netflix, I always make sure that the ending is finished. Now, maybe I’ll do a season two sometime, but not because I gave you a cliffhanger at the end of season one. I don’t think that’s really fair.”
There is exposition in The Match, so a reader can indeed enjoy it as a standalone novel without having to read the first one. Is it tricky to get the balance right when it comes to this sort of filling in?
“You have to give the same amount of backstory you would probably be giving even if they hadn’t read it before,” says Coben. “Now to some people, that may be a little bit repetitive, but probably most people kind of enjoy hearing a paragraph or two about something they already know. And most of them need refreshers, because it’s been over a year since they read the book anyway!”
But it’s not the Batman scenario where – nearly – every film insists on showing his parents being shot?
“It’s something that influences that character and inspires them, but we also enjoy seeing Batman’s parents die, don’t we? When I was a kid, Batman was the original jokey Adam West TV show, so it wasn’t until I dove into the comics that I realised his parents died. The TV show never mentioned it, so it all depends on how you want to tell the story.”
Coben alluded to the Myron Bolitar series – is the plan to build a similar universe around Wilde?
“I never really know,” he says. “I knew when I wrote Myron, it was gonna be an extended series. What happens now is I think of an idea and then I ask who’s going to tell the story. Sometimes the answer is Myron, sometimes the answer is Win, sometimes the answer is Wilde. For the most part, the answer is somebody I haven’t yet met. The next book I’m going to write after The Match is a standalone that has none of these characters in it. Will the next book after that have them? I won’t know until I think of what that story is going to be. I never want to force it, to do it just to please the reader, or to make a balloon mortgage payment. I don’t do it for the wrong reasons.”
There must be some brand recognition though. Not just with the Coben name, but when potential readers hear that a favourite character has returned. He doesn’t see it that way.
“That’s not important at all,” he insists. “My hope is there’s a built-in audience for my name, not the character name, because there may be those who missed The Boy From The Woods who are going to feel like they maybe shouldn’t read The Match. And what’s interesting is how many people have read it and didn’t realise there was a first book. I don’t really write a novel with the idea of how it’s going to be marketed, other than I want to be suspenseful. I want to keep you up all night. I want you to take The Match to bed at 10 o’clock at night and think you’re only going to read for 15 minutes and next thing you know, it’s four in the morning.”
Alongside the suspense, there are some pot-shots at what some might call societal ills, such as the power of social media and reality television.
“It’s really great drama, and I always do something that reflects reality,” is how Coben sees it. “Everything has to be slave to the story, and I think these issues enhance the story. Besides the idea of a DNA website, which are also new in today’s society, I was watching some of these dating reality shows with my kids and saw how manipulative they are. I wanted to write about how these people all of a sudden get huge fame for really very little and how that’s going to mess up their lives. I wanted to write about influencers. I wanted to write about online trolling and bullying, how cruel people are."
“Every day I look at Twitter, see something cruel, and wonder what went wrong with this guy’s life that he’s reduced to tweeting out something mean about a woman’s weight, or whatever it is. These things fascinate me so, in the case of The Match, all of them figured into this story when one of the people that Wilde is related to goes missing, and he’s a reality star on a Bachelor-type TV show. I don’t explore that to say, ‘Look how smart I am!’, I explore it because this is what’s going on in the world today, and it’s dramatic and suspenseful to do it.”
Ever since his first attempts – “I wrote two or three novels that will hopefully never see the light of day, unless my kids find them when I’m gone” – Coben has kept up a prodigious work rate. Is he like a comedian coming up with the punchline first and then constructing the joke around it, or does he take a different approach?
“I know the beginning and the end and then it’s a journey, but that journey will never go as I planned. I’m going to take the direct route from New Jersey to LA but I’ll stop in Tokyo, or go via the Suez Canal, and that’s part of the joy of writing. I don’t work backwards, but I know the destination. E.L. Doctorow said writing is like driving in the fog with your headlights on – you can only see a little bit ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way. The thing I would add is that I know where the journey’s going to end, and that helps me.”
Even if you haven’t read one of Coben’s books, chances are you’ll have streamed one of his TV shows. He signed a big-money deal with Netflix in 2018 to develop several of his novels for the service.
“I’d done shows in France, for TF1, and The Five for Sky and, at the time, Netflix were looking to do more international stuff,” he explains. “My books actually sell better in other countries, overall, than they do in the US, so they were looking to do one in France and in England and I think it was them – maybe it was me – who came up with the idea of doing an overall deal. I was open to it, I’m not a writer who thinks adaptations should be slavishly devoted to the texts, so I was great with moving the stories to Northern England or Barcelona or Warsaw, or wherever else. I think it enriches the story, and I found it creatively compelling.”
Coben is frequently listed as ‘Executive Producer’, a role that is unclear to some people, including me.
“It depends on the show. I don’t actually write the episodes, but I’ll rewrite them, I’ll confer a lot. I’ll speak to actors like James Nesbitt and Eddie Izzard before they take the role, I’m involved with the whole process, literally everything.”
The question then is, does he prefer the control of writing alone or the collaboration of working with a team?
“What I’ve found is that they have been feeding off each other,” he reckons. “I’ve spent most of my life alone in a room. I’m a socially adept introvert, but I’m an introvert, so on the TV stuff I am super willing to collaborate because I’m such a dictator with my books. That’s part of the joy for me. When I have a book do really well, it’s like winning Wimbledon; you stand on your own to pick up that trophy. With the TV show, it’s more like I’m the captain of a World Cup winning team celebrating together, which is such fun. I don’t care who scores the goals, I just want to win. I’m lucky to have experienced both and I love them both. For me, Netflix has been a wonderful creative partner.”
I notice that Coben’s t-shirt says Asbury Park. He corrects me by pointing out that it actually says Asbury Park Brewery, which is, of course, even better. This prompts me to enquire if that other New Jersey million-seller, Mr Bruce Springsteen, is an influence on his work.
“Everybody’s influenced, in some way or another,” he says. “I’m influenced by Ed Hopper’s painting, by Hitchcock’s movies. Some writers still pretend that they’re only influenced by other writers, but you should be influenced by everything in culture, including movies and TV. Everything in life should be something of an influence. When I finish a book, I’m empty. I’m a boxer who’s gone 12 rounds, I can’t even lift my arms anymore. When I finish a book, I need to replenish. I might go to the Museum of Modern Art and just walk around and look at art for a while. I walk around New York City, things to fill you up anew so you can then start writing again.”
“But Springsteen? Sure!” Coben’s enthusiasm is evident. “I wrote an essay a number of years ago for a book on the top albums of all time [VH1: 100 Greatest Albums]. Born To Run was the one they asked me to write about. One of my arguments is it’s really one of the great short story collections of all time. Just the line, ‘Screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves’, that could be a prompt for a whole bunch of wonderful short stories. Listen to ‘Meeting Across The River’. You hear he and Eddie are going to try to make things right, but you know they’re going to end up on the losing side of life.”
I always thought Western Stars was a sort of continuation from Born To Run. We’re checking back in on some of the same characters decades later to see how life treated them.
“Western Stars is Springsteen’s most under-rated album,” Coben nods. “It’s utterly fantastic. It’s definitely his best, in my view, since The Rising. It’s just an incredible album. What you should do is sit with the lyrics in front of you, old school. Remember when we used to, in the old days, get a vinyl album? We would look at it and follow the stories. The song ‘Western Stars’, especially, and ‘Moonlight Motel’ has an incredible, heartbreaking story at the end. When he lifts that bottle up to his mouth? It’s just an incredible album.”
Obviously a man of good taste, Coben has said elsewhere that reading William Goldman’s 1974 edge-of-the-seat page-turner Marathon Man as a youngster was what set him off.
“That was one of the first adult thrillers I remember, by the great William Goldman, who became a friend later in life. I got that book from my Dad when I was, I think, 14 or 15. I remember reading it and thinking, ‘You could put a gun to my head but I’m not putting this book down’. Even though at the time I don’t think I knew I wanted to be a writer, subconsciously, I thought, ‘How cool would it be to give other people this feeling?’ It’s something I keep in mind every day.”
• The Match is published by Century/Penguin Random House, and is reviewed here by Pat Carty.
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