All fiction begins with walking around and asking ‘what if?’,” says Harlan Coben. The best-selling crime fiction writer, whose latest, The Boy From the Woods (Penguin Random House), released in April this year, when I call to interview him about the new book. Later, he repeats it on a video for actor Reese Witherspoon’s Instagram book club, like a mantra that he wants to drill into the head of anyone who asks that most dreaded of all questions (for writers): where do you find your inspiration?
“I was hiking through the woods one day when I happened to spot a boy, wandering around alone,” Coben says, “and I just asked myself, ‘What if this boy emerged from the woods, told everyone that he is alone and has no idea who his parents are and that he’s been looking after himself all these years? And what if, 30 years later, we still don’t know who he really is, who his parents are and where he came from, and another child has gone missing and he is called in to find that child?’”
This, in short, is the plot of the 58-year-old’s new novel. It doesn’t give much of a hint about the complications and twists that drive the narrative, but long-time readers of Coben’s books know to expect them. They are, after all, the main attraction of the books, the reason why, for over two decades, they’ve always returned for more, making the New Jersey-based writer one of the most popular crime fiction writers today. Coben, whose first book was Play Dead (1990), has over 70 million books in print worldwide, with translations in over 40 languages. A Coben release — mostly one a year since 1995’s Deal Breaker — is, not surprisingly, an event of some importance to fans of thrilling, momentum-packed crime fiction.
Momentum, in fact, is the word that best explains the appeal of a Coben book, whether in his early career series of Myron Bolitar books which fall within the PI (private investigator) sub-genre or the phase of standalone thrillers that began with 2001’s Tell No One. Coben employs the usual crime fiction stocks-in-trade — a haunting past (Fade Away, 1996), shattering secrets (The Stranger, 2015) and the seamy, sinister truths that often lurk beneath placid surfaces (Don’t Let Go, 2017) — but what hooks the reader is the pace of the narrative. Revelation follows revelation, with little space for character interiority and thematic development, but those are never the point of these books anyway — the point, as always, is to keep the reader breathlessly engaged from start to finish. In The Boy From the Woods, for example, no sooner have we been introduced to the main missing-person plot than we’re off on a narrative that careens through twists, reveals and red herrings involving cyber bullying, blackmail, reality TV, dirty politics and child neglect.
Momentum is also the word that best describes Coben’s incredible productivity and his success. “I need to work all the time. I spend most of my time alone in a room, writing. As soon as I’m done with one book, I start on the next one,” he says. He is allowing himself to loosen up a little now, but almost always finds himself back at his desk, raring to go. “I feel guilty if I’m not working,” he confesses.
It’s an athlete’s work ethic, going all the way back to when Coben played basketball for his alma mater, Amherst College (the late novelist David Foster Wallace was a classmate). In fact, he had a stellar career as a basketball player in college, being inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. Writing wasn’t on his mind until one summer, when he briefly worked as a tour guide in Spain after graduating from college.“ I told myself that it would be interesting to write about this experience,” he says. It was a slow start and the initial writing was unsatisfying. Finally, when he started writing crime fiction, something fell in place with 1990’s Play Dead. He created his most well-known character, Myron Bolitar, a sports agent-turned-private investigator, with his third book, Deal Breaker and gained a devoted, if still fairly small, readership. But it wasn’t until the instant success of Tell No One (2001) that he finally achieved international fame.
For someone who was once described by The New York Times as the “folk poet of the suburbs” (critic Marilyn Stasion, when reviewing Don’t Let Go), Coben’s incredible success outside the USA, especially via screen adaptations, is noteworthy. But probe beneath the decidedly American settings of his books, and an easy-to-translate universe of family loyalty and betrayal, love and revenge emerges. It’s no wonder, then, that the first screen adaptation of a Coben book was the César Award-winning French thriller Ne Le Dis À Personne (2006, based on Tell No One). He has a 14-book deal with Netflix of which The Five (2016), Safe (2018) and The Stranger, which released on January 30, are British productions while The Woods, which released on June 12, is a Polish Original and the upcoming The Innocent is a Spanish Original.
Coben says he’s excited by the possibilities of international adaptations of his works, especially those published a long time ago, because of the opportunity to see them in a wholly new light. “The stranger in the book (of the same name) is a man, but when we were working on the series, it gave me a chance to reimagine that character. Why couldn’t it be a woman? And (actor) Hannah John-Kamen, is so good in that role,” he says, “When people complain that an adaptation is exactly like the novel, I say that if you want the book, then read the book. A TV series is a TV series. It is a chance to see the story in a new light.”
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