Interview: Best-Selling American Author, Harlan Coben

Critically acclaimed, international best-selling and wise-cracking New Jersey crime-writer, Harlan Coben, takes a moment out of his busy schedule to tell Victoria K. Walker about his new novel The Woods, and the effect he likes to have on his readers…

“I want to entertain and move you.”

“I want to keep you up all night and have you curse me in the morning.”

Coben, the 44-year old author of eight crime novels and six stand-alone thrillers, consistently achieves all of the above. He has also been the proud recipient of the US Edgar Award, Shamus Award, and Anthony Award, and is the first ever writer to win all three. 

If that’s not enough, his recent novels Promise Me, The Innocent, Just One Look, No Second Chance, Tell No-One, and Gone for Good have all been top of the major bestseller lists from the New York to the London Times.

He lives with wife Anne Armstrong-Coben MD, who he has been with since the age of twenty, his four children, ages five to twelve, dog, parakeet, and fish. So I feel very fortunate to catch him in one of his rare free moments.

Coben was born, raised, and lives in New Jersey, where his stand-alone thrillers are also set. 

“New Jersey for me is about the suburbs. It is the great bastion of the American Dream. It’s what I know, where I live, and what I write about.”

It all started in 1995 with Deal Breaker, the first of his crime series featuring 6ft 4” sports-agent slash reluctant hero Myron Bolitar. Is the obvious resemblance with 6ft 4” Coben coincidental?

“Most of us writers base our heroes on ourselves. We just don’t like to admit it. Of course, we base our villains on ourselves too…”

Then came six more, all well received by the critics but not massive bestsellers. But, when his first stand-alone Tell No-One hit the stands, Coben’s career went stratospheric. 

“Something about that book connected with people. I don’t know what, but I’m very grateful. It also had a catchy premise, man and a woman married happily, wife is murdered, eight years pass, man can’t get over her death, man gets an email, clicks a hyperlink, a webcam pops up… and he sees his dead wife walk by. Cue the scary tinkling music.” 

What is striking about these stand-alone novels is the hero, the regular guy-next-door. In Tell No-One David Beck is a paediatrician. In Gone For Good, Will Klein helps the homeless. In new novel The Woods Paul Copeland is a county prosecutor, struggling to balance family life and career. They are not heroes in the usual sense of the word. 

“I want them to be real. Real is better than heroic.”

Coben also wants the settings to be real. In the leafy picket-fenced suburbs shocking revelations can have a much bigger impact. 

And impact they do. In the suburbia of Coben’s imagination, relatives or friends disappear, loved ones turn out to be killers, killers turn out to be innocent, and the dead can come back to life. Till that final page has been turned, nothing should ever be taken for granted.  

Coben’s latest book is no different. The Woods is a haunting story of loss, abandonment, and family secrets. Four teenagers from a summer camp walk into the woods one night. Two are found brutally murdered and the others are never seen again. Twenty-years later a homicide victim is found with evidence linking him to protagonist, and brother of one of the missing teenagers, Paul Copeland. Is this body one of the campers who disappeared with his sister? Could his sister be alive? 

As with all of his other novels, this is a page turner you will find impossible to put down, which is exactly what Coben wants.

"I want you to take this book on vacation, but not leave the hotel because you HAVE to know what happened to Paul and Lucy, and to all the other characters.”

“It is one thing to stir the mind and even the pulse, but I also want to stir the heart.” 

And he certainly does this. He writes with his characteristic mix of tension and suspense. The story is entertaining, his characters likeable, the twists unexpected. And this is all blended together with his usual snappy dialogue and ‘wise-ass’ humour.   

Coben usually knows the end before he writes the beginning, but not this time.   

“I had no idea what the ending was going to be. I started with the first line of the book: ‘I see my father with that shovel.’ I realised that something terrible happened in those woods twenty years ago, but it took a while before I knew what.”

Coben generally believes his last book is his best book, can he say the same for The Woods?

“Yes. It is a richer, deeper, darker, less violent, and more atmospheric novel. But hey, that’s not for me to decide. That’s up to the reader.” 

'The Woods' is released in the UK in hardback on 16th May 2007, priced £17.99