Between the Lines Interview with Harlan Coben by Anthony J. Franze
How did you spend your last six years? If you’re Harlan Coben you had five consecutive #1 NEW YORK TIMES bestsellers, wrote two young adult books that debuted on the TIMES’ children’s bestseller list, and had one of your books made into an award-winning film.
Feeling bad about yourself yet? (I’m thinking about all the TV I’ve watched since 2007.) If so, brace yourself, because Coben’s new book, SIX YEARS, only adds to his hit list. The book is masterful storytelling that combines mystery, action, a love story, and a perfect dose of humor.
SIX YEARS begins with college professor Jake Fisher watching as the love of his life, Natalie, marries another man. At the wedding, Natalie pulls Jake aside and makes a single request: “Promise me you’ll leave us alone . . . . Promise me you won’t follow us or call or even e-mail.”
Six years go by and Jake kept that promise; six years of pining for the one that got away. But then Jake stumbles upon an obituary—for Natalie’s husband Todd. Jake soon finds himself at Todd’s funeral. And when Todd’s grieving widow appears . . . it isn’t Natalie. In fact, the eulogies reveal that Todd had been married for two decades and had a teenage son.
Where’s Natalie? And what the hell is going on? Jake embarks on a search for the woman who broke his heart. As he digs into Natalie’s past and their ill-fated romance, things he thought he knew about Natalie, their relationship, and even his own friends and colleagues, don’t add up. And he learns that someone else is looking for Natalie—someone willing to commit unspeakable acts to find her.
SIX YEARS arguably is Coben’s best book to date. Coben was kind enough to answer some questions about the book—and much more:
Your novel, TELL NO ONE, is on most best-thrillers-ever-written lists. I thought SIX YEARS was every bit as compelling. Both books, while much different, explore themes of lost love and secrets that tear people apart. Was SIX YEARS a conscious effort to continue and dig deeper into those themes?
Yes. At their core, both TELL NO ONE and SIX YEARS are as much love stories as thrillers. They are about longing and hope. What’s more compelling and thrilling than that?
The protagonist in SIX YEARS, Jake Fisher, is the type of professor we all wished we’d had in college. What (or whom) was your inspiration for him?
He is a blend. In part, Jake reminds me of two professors I had at Amherst—some of his teaching philosophies come from them—but as always, most of it comes from the imagination.
Speaking of Amherst, did you draw on that experience there to create the insular world of SIX YEARS’s Lanford College?
Yep. Sometimes in very obvious ways.
One of SIX YEARS’s greatest achievements, in my opinion, is how you included some genuinely funny moments amid a high octane story. Does the comedy come while you write the story? Or do you weave it in after the story is down?
It comes as I write it. I never go back and weave it in—it would stand out like a sore thumb if I did that. Humor in thrillers has to be organic. If you worry about balancing or making sure you have it or whatever, it won’t work.
Professor Jake Fisher is such a great character—will readers see him again? And, if so, will the plot/ending of SIX YEARS (without giving anything away) make it difficult for his return?
Don’t know. I don’t think he’ll be back but stranger things have happened.
Was there a reason you decided to write SIX YEARS entirely from Jake Fisher’s point of view, particularly given the challenges of writing from a single point of view?
Because of what Jake was going through, I wanted to stay in his head the whole time. I wanted the reader to feel his fear and confusion and paranoia rather than knowing who or what might be awaiting him around the corner.
Do you worry about tying up loose ends in your novels? And how do you know you’ve done it well?
I worry about it, sure. After 23 novels, I’ve come to learn that it will all work out. It is a bit of a leap of faith. At some point in every novel, I fear that I will never be able to pull it together. That’s part of the process. I like to give all the answers. I hate when writers cheat in that department. But you can also leave the reader wondering what Jake’s life will be like after you close the book. That’s fair.
You’ve had five consecutive #1 NEW YORK TIMES bestsellers. You’ve sold some 50 million books and have a mantel full of all the prestigious thriller and mystery awards. Does all the success add pressure to releasing each book? And do you even try to top yourself at this point?
There is very little pressure. I keep hearing that: “Now that you’re a big bestselling author, the pressure must be relentless.” Ha! You know what pressure is? Pressure is not knowing if you’re going to get another publishing deal. Pressure is worrying that no one cares you’re releasing a new book. Being a bestseller? It’s all gravy.
As for those outside goals like reaching number one etc, most of those have been reached. What motivates me now, what has always really motivated me, is writing a better book than the one before. So yes, I do try to top myself. I think SIX YEARS is my best book. I hope the next one is even better.
Does your success insulate you in any way from all the changes occurring in publishing? Do you worry about the industry?
I don’t worry about the industry because there is very little I can do about it. Here I will give out some free advice to “newbies”: Stop worrying so much about the business and spend that time WRITING. I know one thing—if I write a good enough book, readers will find it if it’s on digital or paper or stone tablets. If the book isn’t good enough, checking your Amazon rankings and tweeting how wonderful you are, isn’t going to help.
What do you enjoy more, writing a series or the standalone novels?
Same level of joy and misery.
What’s your best advice to new writers—both those who are trying to get published and those with one or two books under their belts?
See answer two questions above. Most of the social networking and whatever are worthless. Yes, some writers have benefited from them, but some writers have also won lotteries. And yes, publicists will pressure you to do it, but a few years ago, those same publicists were telling you to travel on your own dime and set up book signings at remote stores or hand out bookmarks. How many writers made a big splash doing that? Sure, you need to know the business. It is constantly changing and we are entering a new world. But in EVERY instance of a book that really broke out, that really shook up the bestseller lists . . . it was word of mouth. Never does a clever tweet or funny Facebook status or Amazon list manipulation trick have any real, lasting effect. And that’s a good thing. The story is the thing. Embrace that. Career-wise, find the authors whose careers you admire. Study how they do it.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice that you’ve heard dispensed to writers?
Anything that doesn’t end with the sentiment, “Just shut up and write.”
Given the success of the film adaptation of TELL NO ONE are any of your other books likely to be made into a movie soon?
Yes. But Hollywood isn’t worth talking about until I’m actually in my seat watching it on the big screen. Think about all your writer friends who boasted about some great movie option. Think about how many of them eventually became movies. Any questions?
What’s next? If it doesn’t involve Mr. Bolitar, your fans will revolt if I fail to ask when readers might see him again?
I don’t know. Maybe another entry in my Mickey Bolitar Young Adult series.
With 50 million books in print worldwide, Harlan Coben’s last five consecutive novels, STAY CLOSE, LIVE WIRE, CAUGHT, LONG LOST and HOLD TIGHT all debuted at #1 on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list and lists around the world. His first Young Adult novel SHELTER was just released in paperback, and the second in the Mickey Bolitar series, SECONDS AWAY, was released on September 18th. His books are published in 41 languages around the globe and have been number one bestsellers in over a dozen countries.
Winner of the Edgar Award, Shamus Award and Anthony Award – the first author to win all three – international bestselling author Harlan Coben’s critically-acclaimed novels have been called “ingenious” (NEW YORK TIMES), “poignant and insightful” (LOS ANGELES TIMES), “consistently entertaining” (HOUSTON CHRONICLE), “superb” (CHICAGO TRIBUNE) and “must reading” (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER).
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