Harlan Coben on why even bestselling authors get those self-loathing writer blues

Salon talks to the prolific novelist about why he likes writing about missing people and the specific appeal of NJ

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 25, 2019 4:00PM (EDT)

Harlan Coben (Matthew Smith "Salon Talks")
Harlan Coben (Matthew Smith "Salon Talks")

What happens after you've seen 70 million copies of your books go to print, been translated to 43 languages and had your works adapted into film and television productions around the world? If you're Harlan Coben, you keep waking up in the morning and wondering how to keep doing it. The author of the new novel "Run Away," about a father searching for his daughter caught up in a world of intrigue and murder, talked with Salon recently about self loathing, why he loves stories of missing persons and how New Jersey made him who he is.

People wonder where novelists get their inspiration, especially you. You've written 31 novels. The opening of the book is a moment that actually happened to you.

I had a bunch of great ideas; I just couldn't think of a way into the story. One day I'm sitting in Central Park in Strawberry Fields. The John Lennon mosaic is there and there's always a street musician mangling Beatles tunes. Absolutely horrible. I'm sitting there and I'm looking across at the guy and I thought, "What if that was my lead character's daughter? What if she was strung out and he hadn't seen her in six months and he finally found her? And if I open the book, that when he tries to rescue her, everything goes wrong?" That's the opening paragraph of "Run Away."

And of course one of the first things that happens is what happens when you have a confrontation in public: You go viral.

Everybody videos it. My lead character's a Wall Street guy. He's wearing a suit and the guy he fights with looks homeless. When people film it, even though it's not his fault, it's [framed as] "Wall Street Exec Beats Up Homeless Guy," "Rich Guy Beats Up Poor Guy." That is exactly how I think those things go viral, when we don't really know all the facts.

One of my favorite lines in the whole book is "Don't read the comments." It's one of the best pieces of advice. Do you do that? Do you read the comments?

I do not anymore. I don't read reviews. I don't read the comments. I'm actually really happy that I get enough Amazon reviews, so I don't look at them anymore. I get the desire. When I started out, Amazon wasn't really around, so I didn't know how badly I was doing or my rankings or any of that. Now there are too many things to follow online. It's a bad thing. You should just write your book.

You are a hugely successful, prolific author. You are coming up on 30 years of being a published author. Yet you did not have a bestseller right out of the gate. You were not an overnight success.

My first Myron Bolitar book, I made a $5,000 advance. I don't want to brag, but the fourth Myron Bolitar book I was making $6,000.

It was my tenth book, "Tell No One," that changed my life overnight. Not to sound like an old man, but that was really good for me in hindsight. I have such an appreciation for what I have now and what it took to get there. And you also can really work on your craft. So, it's OK. Just relax and enjoy the ride.

You worked for this. This was a job, and it did not come overnight. You got your first book deal when you were what 26, but it's not like you were then an enfant terrible.

I was hardly an overnight sensation, but I wouldn't change anything. Those lean years really make these years that much better.

Let's talk about the characters in this book. It feels like this is a moment where a lost woman is a presence in literature now, whether it's in a book like "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" or in "Gone Girl." There is this figure of the enigmatic, elusive female who had disappeared. Do you feel like that is saying something about where we are right now?

Well, I've been doing it since 1995. I had a woman disappear in my first book. I'm big on disappearance. I don't write murder mysteries, despite whatever my reputation is. When someone disappears, there's hope. You can really have full redemption. You can find them. You could be made whole. If somebody is dead or murdered, that's it. You can solve the crime, you can get justice, but you can never have that. Hope is a wonderful thing to write about. Hope can fill your heart with love or it can crush your heart like it's an eggshell. That's why I love to do it. If somebody's dead, OK. But if somebody maybe can be found, maybe can be rescued, then we really have full redemption. That's an intriguing thing for me.

It's obviously very intriguing to us as readers. And this book, you will be guessing until the last page.

I knew from the very beginning. I start with the beginning and the end. Up to that last paragraph, I wasn't exactly sure how I would pull that last trigger, but I knew it right when I started the whole book that I was going to go there.

You're not going to figure it out. But you know what's good? When it is revealed, it is satisfying. Sometimes you read something and the author didn't set it up along the way. Then there's a final reveal and it just feels like, "OK. Well, I couldn't have seen that." But with this, you get to that endpoint and it's, "You were leading me here all along."

All the clues are there. It was interesting when I did TV for Netflix, "The Five" and "Safe," I could do something I can't do in books. After we give away the ending, the twist, I then went back in those last episodes and I would show you what you had seen before from a slightly different perspective. In "Safe" and "The Five," we show you and you go, "Oh, right. It was right there." I love that feeling.

Especially the ending of "Run Away," I really wanted to be a little more haunting and lingering. I want you to ask yourself a few questions. You want to call your best friend to talk about it. I don't want to say it's dark or light, but it's gray. And I really enjoyed that where it's not just a gasp, but hopefully it's a gasp that'll make you think.

One of the elements in this book is also DNA testing. You actually did it.

The whole world is doing it. So I did one of those genealogy tests, because I wanted to do research on it. When I got the test back, I said, "Wow. You have a first cousin." I was so excited. I looked and it was my first cousin, so it really wasn't so exciting. I had nothing in my past. I was very, very boring.

For a novelist, the modern world, all this stuff is so cool. "Run Away'" is a contemporary novel. It's taking place now. There are viral videos. There's genealogy DNA. There's some of the new cult stuff that we've been dealing with. Adoption scams. College, even. I don't write about the past. I hope people will find things in it that relates to their lives.

You very much have always based a lot of your characters and situations and even canines in your books on characters in your real life.

Yet when you do these adaptations, especially internationally, you are not precious about keeping faithful to the book. You really like changing them. What happens in that translation from the page to a screen that then opens it up to different characterization, different countries, different situations?

If I ask you to name your favorite adaptations, my guess is they're not ones that kept slavishly devoted to the text. I think of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "L.A. Confidential," even "Godfather." They're two different mediums. One's visual and one can be inside the head.

The second thing is, I don't want to repeat myself. Why would I want to tell you the same exact story? Just read the book.

"The Stranger," which we're now filming in England, when I wrote it several years ago, the stranger was a white male computer nerd. Now it is a female person of color, young, and she's great. Hannah John-Kamen is going to absolutely destroy the role and just adds a new dimension.

Sometimes, also, you're working with other people. In the case of "Tell No One," moving this story from New Jersey to France gave the characters a new and different heart. Not to say I won't do [adaptations] that are right here and right where I am, but it's been really fun to work with people who really see the book very differently than I do.

It's been almost a year since the announcement of your deal with Netflix. Fourteen productions. You must be thinking now of "Run Away." Is it going to be a film or a series?

Probably an eight-part series. That seems to be what I like doing and what they like doing for me. We're doing one on Netflix Spain. One Netflix France. One Netflix Poland. And that's great. The wonderful thing about Netflix for people is they can now see the international world has wonderful television. The one I'm working on mostly right now is "The Stranger," which is filming in Manchester, England. I'm so excited for it. Every morning I watch the rushes.

As an athlete, you make the sports analogy of how writing alone is like playing a game of golf, but this is a team sport.

I'm a socially adept introvert. Here we're talking. We're fine. We're OK. I can do that for a while, but then I have to go in a room and be alone. This is my 31st book, and it's a long time sitting in rooms alone. To get out and meet people and hang with the cast and crew, like I was just over in England doing, that's so energetic. That's so much fun. Then all of a sudden after about two or three days, I'm like, "I have to get back in my room alone."

I'm not slowing down my pace in terms of writing novels by doing the TV. If anything it's energizing me. It's making me have the appreciation to go back into that room and be alone.

People think that the life of a best selling author is pretty glamorous. You write in a Starbucks or a deli or an Uber — all the most elite hotspots. And then you go into caveman mode when it's getting close to deadline.

It's not pretty. You don't want to be around me. My kids are like, "Throw daddy a banana and run."

If you ask ten writers how they do it, you'll get eleven different answers. But it breaks down to this: Does it make me write? Do it. Does it not make me write? Don't do it. In my case, being in the same room all the time does not make me write. I use up a place. I'll go to a coffee shop and I'll work pretty well there, and then after a few weeks, I won't work so well there. So, I'll move over there. Anything that works, I do it. It's like riding a horse until that horse collapses, and then I find another horse. Don't worry how good or bad it is yet, turn that voice off. Anything that makes you write and produce pages, do, and then you'll rewrite. That's really one of the main keys that people don't get. We all get paralyzed. I still get paralyzed every day when I write. You have to fight through that paralysis.

And you say, "This is work. This is a job. I don't have fans. I have readers." You just approach it in a very serious, thoughtful way that is about doing a job. As opposed to creating magic.

You never hear anyone who is producing or doing a lot of work say that. I remember reading a Philip Roth novel. He had a quote, and I don't remember where he got the quote from, but it was, "Amateurs wait for inspiration to arrive. The rest of us just get to work." That was his attitude as well and that just has to be. It may be an art, but you have to treat it like a job. The plumber can't say, "Today I'm too important to do pipes. I just can't do pipes today."

A lot of writing is a lot of self-hatred. There's a lot of self-flagellation. A lot of days I don't like myself so much. I don't feel good about myself unless I'm producing something. Most writers don't. I let myself feel that. I get mad at myself. I've written 31 novels, so, you'd think I'd be past that. No. Every book is the same. I'm insecure. I'll be sitting there and I'll be writing it going, "Oh, my God. This book stinks. I was so good before." And five minutes later, "This book is genius. No one will ever read it because they'll read that crappy book that's already out and never give this work of Shakespearian proportions a chance." That goes on every day in my head. If you don't have that, if you think most successful or best-selling writers don't have that, you're pretty wrong. You have to have that.

You have an insecurity, thinking you stink. At the same time I'm going to say, "Please stick with me while I talk to you for 400 pages straight. I have that much genius to give you." There's a hubris and an insecurity that certainly is a contradiction, a paradox, but that's how it is.

You have said that your upbringing and being born in Newark have been part of your inspiration. What is it about our special little place in the world and some of the weirdness that you've seen in your life that comes through in these little twists and turns in your work?

I think we're little and dense. I think we're angry. We're looked down upon by New York and Philadelphia, and yet we're better than both of them.

We also stick our Turnpike in the absolute worst area. It's like driving through the beginning scene of the "Terminator" movie. But we do that so you can't see the great beauty, past it, of the Garden State. It's just everything about us is kind of a chip on your shoulder. A little bit of anger. A little bit of attitude.

The more specific you are to that New Jersey experience, the more universal the appeal. I make it Every Town U.S.A., it's not going to work.

You have to be very careful about not trying to please everybody. Just give me people who don't like it and that's good. When people get angry about a bad review. I say, "You know who never gets a bad review? Authors who aren't read. They never get bad reviews."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

All Salon Authors Books Culture Editor's Picks Harlan Coben Netflix Run Away The Five Thrillers