Writing Like There’s a Knife Against Your Throat
Harlan Coben has some disappointing news for writers who might be wondering when it gets easier. Even with 75 million books in print in 43 languages, a string of New York Times bestsellers stretching back to his 2001 breakout hit Tell No One, and an exclusive, multi-year Netflix deal that has already yielded binge-worthy adaptations of The Five, Safe, and The Stranger, Coben still struggles with some of the same demons that plague first-time novelists.
“It’s always uniquely torturous,” he admits during a phone interview from his Manhattan apartment. (His full-time home is in New Jersey, where many of his thrillers are set.) “You always think it’s going to get easier with experience, and it doesn’t. The same doubts, the same insecurities—they’re still there. The only thing you learn with experience is that you can push through those voices. In talking to certain women in my life, it’s a little bit like childbirth, where you kind of forget the pain so you can do it again.”
This month marks the 32nd time (if you count his 2016 children’s book The Magical Fantastical Fridge) that Coben has done it again since his debut novel, Play Dead, hit bookstores in 1990. THE BOY FROM THE WOODS, out March 17th from Grand Central Publishing, centers on a man known as Wilde who was discovered living in the woods without any adult supervision, when he was six years old. Thirty years later, Wilde is still living in those same woods (though his high-tech, eco-friendly accommodations are a little more sophisticated), searching for clues as to where he might have come from and trying to piece together his own backstory from a few disturbing, fragmented memories. When Wilde is asked to find a teenage girl who’s gone missing, he teams up with a character who’s been showing up as a bit player in Coben’s novels for some 20 years now: celebrity lawyer Hester Crimstein, who finally gets her much-deserved turn in the spotlight.
While the book features many of Coben’s recent trademarks—light-speed pacing, a suburban setting that hides grim secrets, and a parade of expertly executed plot twists—it’s also something of a departure for a writer whose work often centers on the breakdown of the family unit. In Wilde, Coben has created a character who exists on the fraying edges of suburbia but can never really be a part of it. Coben says he didn’t necessarily create the character to dodge expectations, but welcomed the change from writing about husbands, daughters, and fathers.
“I don’t intentionally try not to be pigeonholed, but I do react to whatever I’ve done before,” he says. “So first it was, oh, he writes the Myron Bolitar series. Then it was, oh, he just does domestic suspense. Then it’s, oh, he just writes about families. So I just thought this would be a really interesting character. Most of my leads have a lot of people around them. Even Myron Bolitar never was a guy who walked those mean streets alone—he always had Win and Esperanza and Big Cyndi and his family and his mom and dad. And so I thought it would be interesting to try somebody who could not really connect with society, but still had his own interests and his own passions. And there was Wilde.”
In fact, Coben enjoyed the character so much that he’s open to bringing Wilde back for future installments, which would make THE BOY FROM THE WOODS his first series launch since Deal Breaker introduced readers to sports agent-turned-investigator Myron Bolitar back in 1995.
“Of all the things I’ve written besides Myron Bolitar, this is the first time where I’ve said to myself, this could be a series,” Coben says. “Sometimes I think I could force another book out of a guy, and I may one day go back to somebody [from a previous novel], but this is the first time I’ve said, yeah, this could be a series. Let’s see how it goes.”
If Coben does decide to bring Wilde back for another turn, he doesn’t see it as a solo venture. Should more installments follow, readers will most likely be in store for a Wilde/Hester Crimstein series—a welcome development for Coben’s longtime fans. Hester, a high-profile defense attorney and host of a popular cable television show called Crimstein on Crime, has been showing up in Coben’s books since the Myron Bolitar series, but THE BOY FROM THE WOODS is the first time she’s taken center stage. Now 70 years old, the shrewd, publicity-loving litigator is a perfect foil for Wilde, a reclusive, tight-lipped ex-military operative.
“I’ve had Hester Crimstein in I-don’t-know-how-many books now—I think it’s over 20 books, in very small parts, as comic relief—and I’ve always wanted to explore her world more,” Coben explains. “She’s almost equal partner to [Wilde] here, and it was really interesting to finally reveal her whole backstory, her past tragedy, give her a romance, which you don’t often see in a book like this with a character her age, and it was fun. I always love hanging out with Hester for the brief moments I do, and I think readers do too.”
It’s a small miracle that Coben has time to “hang out” with Hester or anyone else these days, given his grueling schedule of late. He recently signed a sweeping, 14-title development deal with streaming giant Netflix that has already borne fruit: the UK-set adaptation of The Stranger debuted in January to breathless praise from viewers who tore through the eight-episode season practically overnight, and a Polish-language adaptation of Coben’s 2007 novel The Woods will be available to stream later this year. Despite playing an active role in producing these adaptations—a job that has recently sent him to Poland, England, Spain, and Italy—Coben still manages to keep his publishing pipeline full, thanks in part to a writing process that he’s honed over the course of 32 thrillers.
“When I send in what one would call the first draft, it’s pretty close to what you read,” Coben says. “But I rewrite a lot as I write. I start my day usually by rewriting what I did the day before, and then every 75 pages or so, I go back and read from the start. So by the time my editor gets it, my first chapter has probably been rewritten at least 10 times.”
Another trick Coben often uses is to write his first draft by hand, often in 10-page increments. “There’s something freeing and childlike about hand-to-paper, so I like to do it that way,” he says. “I write about 10 pages by hand, and then I put it in my computer. What that means is my first draft is already my second draft. I don’t know too many writers who get it right the first time and don’t rewrite—there’s a couple of them, but none of us want to hang out with them.”
Coben also credits his productivity to a sterling relationship with his longtime editor, Ben Sevier. “I love him dearly and I dedicated [THE BOY FROM THE WOODS] to him,” Coben says. “He gets me, I get him. His notes are very short—literally maybe a page or two, and he knows exactly what to look for and how to move me in the right direction. Sometimes editors want to put their own stamp on a book, and then other editors are too skittish and afraid to say anything to you. Ben comes at me directly and succinctly, and that’s why he’s a great editor.”
As for whether the ability to craft a page-turner like Tell No One or THE BOY FROM THE WOODS is an innate talent or an acquired skill, Coben theorizes that it’s a bit of both. He emphasizes the folly of chasing trends or writing for a perceived market—“Write what you love to write and what you specifically know, and hope that the readers follow,” he recommends—and writes as if his life literally depends on keeping readers interested. Maybe, he thinks, his success lies in that golden combination of writing stories he genuinely wants to tell, grounding them in a world he knows intimately, and making sure his readers never have a chance to come up for air.
“I’m always fearful that you’ll be bored, and it’s part of how I write,” Coben says. “I write as though there’s a knife against my throat, and if I bore you, I’m a dead man. The quote I’ve most often used when talking about the greatest writing advice I’ve ever heard is Elmore Leonard’s, who said, ‘I try to cut out all the parts you’d normally skip,’ which is genius. But that doesn’t mean you cut out the funny line, the description, the setting. I think the Wilde book has a lot of those things—a lot about the woods, a lot about his eco-capsule, a lot about what he’s thinking and doing. But even those have to be compelling. And so I work very hard to make sure every word counts.”