The Unlikely Hero: Best Selling Author Harlan Coben On How He Feels Insecure Every Day

It’s a few days before Harlan Coben’s latest book, Win, is due to be released and the other authors on the New York Times bestseller list can probably sense they are all about to move down one notch. Coben’s last six books have debuted at number one. He is a publishing phenomenon who has sold 60 million books and been translated in 41 languages.

His twisty thrillers, mostly set in the sleepy New Jersey suburbs he calls home, are airport bookshop staples and have lent themselves to blockbuster adaptation; The Stranger became a wildly popular Netflix mini-series last year and he’s entered into a five-year deal with the streaming giant which will develop 14 of his books into movies and TV series.

In time his new book, Win, will doubtless get the small screen treatment too. It takes one of the supporting characters from his Myron Bolitar series, Windsor Horne Lockwood, aka Win, and places him centre stage in a story about an heiress and an art heist. Elevating a sidekick, particularly one who is an unlikeable billionaire with borderline sociopathic tendencies, was always going to be a risk, but Coben says he felt it was one worth taking.

“He’s been one of my most popular characters and I’ve always loved this idea of the sidekick, be it Sherlock and Watson, Batman and Robin – partnerships. Until now I’ve always resisted the urge to elevate him because sometimes these sidekick characters are better in small doses. He’s kind of an anti-hero and he’ll be unsympathetic for a lot of people but I think it’s not about how likeable a character is but how compelling they are.”

Another calculation in writing the novel was Coben ignored the ongoing pandemic. All of his other books have taken place in the present day but Win was moved back to 2019. “I felt I couldn’t write about it yet because I didn’t know one way or the other how it would play out. I also had a feeling that people need to escape from it, and get away from the horrors of the real world, not necessarily read about them again.”

Coben’s novels are generally set against the backdrop of the American dream – picket fences, manicured lawns and 2.4 children – in which suburban placidity is subverted by secrets and lies.

His own life mirrors the wholesome surface. He’s married to his college sweetheart Anne, a paediatrician, and they live in a Victorian villa in suburban New Jersey, their four adult children having long since flown the nest. Coben spends his days golfing and writing an average of one book every nine months, a process he laughingly compares to pregnancy. He quotes Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

He still occasionally drives by the much more modest house where he grew up in the 1960s, the middle of three boys. His father Carl, was a lawyer, who Coben says, “always made me feel safe. I knew he would jump in front of a bullet for me.”

His mother, Corky, was a homemaker and a feminist. “She was wild. She marched with Gloria Steinem and she [his mother] was always trying to cause trouble. As a kid I had a t-shirt that said, ‘a woman’s place is in the House… and the Senate’. There was a bumper sticker on all of our cars which said, ‘women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition’.”

 

When he was in his early 20s, both his parents died within a few months of each other. Coben last saw his father alive when he drove him to the airport. “He flew down to Tampa and he called to say he wasn’t well and by the time we flew down to see him in the hospital, he was dead. We waited in the waiting room while they operated on him and when they came out, they told us that he had died on the table. My mom’s death was the opposite, it was slow and we knew it was coming.”

In his teens he won a basketball scholarship to Amherst College, which is where he met his wife Anne, a fellow basketball player. Dan Brown, of Da Vinci Code fame, was also a friend of theirs. “He was my fraternity brother, neither of us talked about one day writing books,” Coben recalls. “He was more interested in music and I was playing on the basketball team. Our conversations were never superficial, they would be about religion and politics and philosophy. We learned how to think critically, and I think that was important for both of us.”

The late, great David Foster Wallace was another college buddy. “I really loved him, he was the smartest human being I’ve met. I got into Amherst because of basketball, if it had been straight academics, I would not have gotten in. I was taking a class which was an introduction to political science and we had to do a paper and I got a B- on it. And I thought it was pretty good so I was a bit disappointed and, when I asked him what he got, and he told me he got an A, I asked to read it, just to have an idea of what the standard was like. And when he showed it to me, I thought, ‘oh my God, I’m gonna fail’. He was such a genius. He was just engaging company and very funny. He wrote me a letter after my first book was reviewed in Publishers Weekly and he said, ‘Publishers Weekly makes my ass wet.’ He wrote me another one saying, ‘are you still with Anne – my wife – and he actually crossed it out and said, ‘oh, how insensitive of me, what if you guys broke up or she broke your heart’.”

While they were both in college, Foster Wallace took a year out. At the time, Coben explains, he presumed it was so that Foster Wallace could go travelling. “I didn’t know it was because he wasn’t well. Looking back on it, it was just that his mind was such a whirlwind was the only sign. He was moody, but everyone can be moody. I remember when we were young writers starting out and he said to me, ‘Harlan, how do you finish a book? I never know when it’s over.’ And I said, ‘for me, it’s when the crime is solved.’ He said, ‘I have no idea how to end it.’”

By the early 2000s, Foster Wallace had established himself as one of the most influential writers of his time. His depression never left him, however, and in 2008 he took his own life. His death was another huge blow to Coben.

“I’ve spoken to a couple of friends of his, including a woman who was a girlfriend of his for a while and one of the conclusions I came to was that he had a terminal illness and it hurt him for a very long time and eventually took his life. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing. I think with suicide it’s like 9/11, you don’t want to jump but you’re in the room and it’s on fire and the choice is: do I jump or do I get burned alive.”

Coben didn’t begin writing until his senior year of college and, after he graduated, worked for a number of years in the travel industry. His first novel, Play Dead, came out in 1990; the advance was just $5,000. It was not until his 10th book that he had a bestseller. “It was a while before I could really say I was making a living at it, six or seven books. I was working full time and writing in my spare time. I think what helped was the fact that just having books published was my dream and I had very modest expectations. For instance, when I started my first book, I just wanted to get published. When I finished my second, I just wanted to prove the first one wasn’t a fluke. Then I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if I scratched out a living?’ In my case, I just kept going and slowly but surely moved up the ladder.”

His first real taste of bestseller success in the late 1990s came with a series of novels revolving around Myron Bolitar, a sports agent turned detective, loosely based on Coben himself. “There is a tension between my life and the life of Myron that, I think, has made the series better. Myron’s dream in life has been to get married and move to the suburbs, kids, barbecues, all that.

“I have four kids and I’ve been married to my college sweetheart. So he would be jealous of me. But his parents are still alive so in a sense I’m always jealous of him. I’ve imagined what our parents would have been like over the years and so, when I’ve written parental themes in those books, I’ve tended to get melodramatic, but it’s my therapy.”

 

Life has improved for him since a cluster of tragedies that marked out his 20s and 30s. He points out that he had given seven eulogies by the time he was 40, but only once since. He considers himself lucky that the life of a writer has inbuilt social distancing, which has meant that the pandemic hasn’t been too difficult for him.

“Still I worry about the world. I worry about my kids. Things are back to normal here. We’re still mask wearing and not going out very much. The vaccine seems to be picking up pace. They were telling us June or July but now we’re hearing [it will be given to them in] May. I’m not sure if I’m introspective enough to understand how it’s hit me. When it first happened, there was paralysis and it was hard to write because I was worried about my kids. They are older now and one would come home and one wouldn’t come home because he was afraid he would give it to me. Then it started to go very well and I got into a writing routine and then not so well as the election fired up and I was wondering when is this all going to end.”

He’s looking forward to being able to travel again. One of his brothers lives in Fulham, London, and they are friends with presenter Richard Osman, who recently had his own bestselling literary debut, with The Thursday Murder Club. “My brother is a big Fulham supporter and I’ve been to Craven Cottage more often than I’ve been to Yankee Stadium, he has season tickets. Last year we went with Richard Osman on his 50th birthday and they won 5-0 which is unheard of so it was a great day.”

Given his incredible run of bestsellers, you might think that he would never feel insecurity about his talents but he says that it’s a constant battle.

“I feel insecure every day. Since 1990. I’ll be writing and thinking to myself ‘oh my God, this is crap. What happened to me? I was so good before.’ And then other times I think, ‘this is so good. It’s a shame that people are going to read that other piece of crap you wrote and not give this book a chance.’ And when a book is finished, I often think I’m done and that I’ll never have another good idea again and will have to go and get a real job. All those fears are what drive me to go back and keep working. So I’m grateful for them too.”

‘Win’ by Harlen Coben is published on Tuesday by Grand Central Publishing, €13.99

Online Editors

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