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He’s Serving Life for Murdering His Son…

But What If the Boy Is Alive?

By Millie Naylor Hast

David Burroughs has it all—a loving wife, an adored son—until he discovers Matthew brutally murdered in his bed and is convicted in his killing. His wife divorces him, and he goes to prison for life. He hardly cares whether he lives or dies because his family is gone.

That is, until one day five years later, his ex-sister in-law Rachel becomes his first visitor in prison and shows him a recent photograph she’s found of Matthew at an amusement park. David can hardly believe his eyes.

He plans a harrowing escape from prison to do what he must—find his son, clear his name, and find out what really happened at his home on that devastating night.

Coben’s 36th thriller, I WILL FIND YOU, probes the destructive power of secrets and the enduring strength of family bonds. With 80 million books—yes, you read that right—in print worldwide, including the breathtaking Myron Bolitar series, Coben is one of the most successful, prolific, and admired thriller writers at work today. In addition to his novels, he has seven original drama series currently streaming on Netflix, three more in active development, and others, including I WILL FIND YOU, in the planning stages.

Even with all these demands, Coben graciously took some time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for The Big Thrill about his life, his career, and his latest thriller.

Harlan Coben
Credit: JR Inside Out Project

You grew up in Livingston, New Jersey, and went to school with former Governor Chris Christie, before attending Amherst College. How did your early life shape you?

When I grew up in what appeared to be a normal, sleepy middle-class American suburb, there were two weird rumors about my hometown. One was that behind Riker Hill Elementary School, beyond the No Trespassing signs and barbed-wire fence, there was a secret missile base with nuclear capabilities. The other rumor was that on the largest estate in the town, past the stone gates, lived a legendary mob boss who got rid of bodies in a furnace on his property.

When I got older, I learned that both rumors were true. So maybe there’s something in that—the idea that secrets are hidden in plain sight, that nothing is exactly as it seems.

Your novels are consistent New York Times #1 bestsellers, you have won the Edgar, the Macavity, and the Shamus Awards, as well as other awards, and you have multi-year, multimillion-dollar TV series deals with Netflix, Amazon, and other streaming services. How in the world do you manage it all, as well as continuing to write amazing stories? When you were first starting out, what did you envision for your career? Did you ever imagine reaching this level of success? What does it feel like?

Harlan Coben
Credit: Claudio Marinesco

I never imagined I would reach this level. Not even close. It’s a dream come true. Simple as that. My ambitions have always been incremental, and I recommend that. For example:

“Wouldn’t it be great if I could have one novel published? Just one.”

Then: “Well, two. Wouldn’t that be great? Just to show it wasn’t a fluke.”

Then: “Okay, what if I could just scratch out a living as a writer?”

Then: “Wouldn’t it be great to one day skim the bottom of the New York Times bestseller list?”

Then: “Wouldn’t it be great if I could maybe just once hit number one…?”

Like that. It’s been fantastic. I’m very lucky.

Clearly, your stories strike a chord with readers. What do you think is the key to their enduring popularity the world over?

I’m not the one to answer this. I try to write thrillers you can’t put down, that you become completely immersed in. I think that’s a combination of stirring the pulse, stirring the brain—and mostly, stirring the heart. If you don’t care about the characters, you won’t care about the twists.

Themes of loss, redemption, and a missing person who may still be alive appear in some of your other books and are central to I WILL FIND YOU. What is it about these themes that invites you to explore them in various ways?

I think they are universal. We all experience them. We all get it. They also fascinate me.

Harlan Coben

What sparked the idea for I WILL FIND YOU?

Here’s a first: I don’t remember! I usually can pinpoint how or when I came up with an idea. I don’t remember for I WILL FIND YOU. I had the initial idea a long time ago, but it never rose to the front of my subconscious enough to want to write an entire novel about it. Finally it did. But I don’t remember where or how I planted that first seed. Sorry!

It has been said that you write “thrillers with heart.” How does heart play a role in I WILL FIND YOU?

You are a father serving a life sentence for murdering your own son. Now you find out that your son may still be alive. If that doesn’t get the heart pumping, I’m in trouble.

David Burroughs isn’t exactly the picture-perfect vision of a hero. He’s a convict, who like many prisoners, believes he has been wrongfully convicted. He has shunned contact with the outside world and turned away from those who cared about him. That is, until his former sister-in-law Rachel visits him with a photograph. How did you create David, with all his contradictions? Did you plan him out ahead of time, or did he manifest himself on the page as you wrote?

It’s always a blend of those two. I know some things about a character before I begin, but until I start to write the actual novel, I don’t really know how he will react to what happens. The best part is when a character like David doesn’t respond in a way that would be “easiest” for the plot, when they do the unexpected. That’s when they really come to life for me.

You’re known for the awesome twists you work into your stories. For example, in I WILL FIND YOU, the prison warden, Philip Mackenzie does something astonishing. Where on earth did that idea come from? What makes us readers believe it could happen?

That’s very kind, so thank you. I could give a cute answer, but I don’t really know. It’s like any skill, I guess—innate yet honed, practiced yet genetic, all that. I become obsessed. I think about it all the time. I’m not saying it’s super arduous or any of that. But I really care about the work. I don’t settle. I don’t ease up. It lives with me all the time.

Tell us about what’s next for you.

The new novel I WILL FIND YOU comes out in March. We just finished filming here in New Jersey an Amazon Prime TV series called SHELTER, based on my young adult series featuring Mickey Bolitar. That’ll be streaming soon.

Millie Naylor Hast