The fragile American dream

Crime writer Harlan Coben tells Greg Fleming why he prefers to call his genre 'immersion fiction' and why using taxis is an incentive to work harder.
Harlan Coben.
Harlan Coben.

When it comes to crime fiction, New Jersey-based writer Harlan Coben is Big Business.

His last eight novels all debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and his new one, Fool Me Once, also spent two weeks in the top spot.

"It got the best pre-release reviews of any book I've ever written - which is great at this stage of the game," says Coben on the phone from New York.

His 28th novel involves a former special ops pilot Maya Burkett who, home from the battlefield, sees something very unexpected on her nanny cam. It's the sort of book you gulp down in one sitting with enough twists, turns and blind alleys to fool even the most resourceful crime fan. Julia Roberts loved it so much she signed on for the movie version.

"People call it crime fiction, but I call it the novel of immersion," says Coben. "I want you to be completely immersed in the story. I want to write the kind of book you take to bed and plan to read for 15 minutes and then you look up and it's four in the morning. If it takes you three weeks, well, I've done something wrong."

Although he's not good with titles - "I think I've only named five of my books; usually it's friends, family, publishers or fellow authors who come through with the title" - Coben's a master at the art of the surprise plot twist.

That and his skill at writing real, relatable characters has earned him a global following.

His Myron Bolitar series is hugely popular - Myron's a sports agent (and former college basketball star) who solves crime on the side - but Fool Me Once and other recent novels, like 2012's excellent Stay Close, have featured a suburban setting with female characters up front.

"I keep thinking they're going to be difficult to write, but often they end up being easier than a male character," says Coben. "Aside from my Myron Bolitar series, Maya may be my favourite protagonist ever. She's more damaged than some of my other characters, but she's strong and independent and, I hope, comes across as real.

"She surprised me a number of times too. One of my favourite scenes is when Maya's at a soccer carnival with her daughter and the child goes off playing, goes on rides. I was planning for her to participate - but Maya couldn't - she was still the soldier, still had to watch and guard. She always feels removed from the more pleasurable acts of life."

I read Coben a recent quote from an English critic which says that he "specialises in rousing the snake that lurks in the perfectly cut grass of American suburbia".

"I like that," he says. "It's true when the American dream comes true it can often darken, it can be fragile and not what you're expecting."

If his characters struggle with their lot in life, Coben's success hasn't changed his own relentless, blue-collar work ethic.

He writes a novel a year. They usually take him nine months; sometimes he manages a young adult book too, and seems puzzled when I ask him if he ever takes a year off.

"No, I haven't. Writing is all I do. I don't garden, I don't have hobbies and I don't collect. I have my family and my books. I have taken up golf - I should've taken up smashing glass and throwing it in my eye - but I don't know what else I could do."

He sells more than two million books a year and, in 2010, Live Wire won him the world's most lucrative crime fiction award, the RBA International Prize for Crime Writing, worth more than $250,000.

What keeps him motivated?

"I'm ambitious," says Coben. "I want to sell more books, not for financial reasons, but because I like to entertain and tell stories. I drive myself to write a better book each time. With writing you're trying to reach a state of nirvana, which you never reach, but you keep trying."

However, he has managed time-out to see fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen in concert more than 50 times (guitarist Nils Lofgren's a big fan of the Myron Bolitar series) and he's also found time to start his own film production company called - of course - Final Twist Productions.

Its first series, a drama called The Five, is screening on British TV. "It's one long complete story like a novel taken from an original story of mine. I hope it follows in the tradition of great TV shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter, True Detective and Broadchurch."

That doesn't mean he's not busy writing his next novel, which is a return to the Myron Bolitar series. And much of it may be written while Coben's being ferried around in an Uber car.

"One day I had to get to New York City and I didn't want to drive and have to find a park so I took an Uber," he says. "I felt guilty about spending the money on the Uber so I got in the back seat and really worked hard.

"I wrote really well, so then I started taking Ubers everywhere. When that doesn't work anymore I'll switch to something else. Sometimes if an aeroplane is working well I'll take extra flights - anything to get the book done."

- Weekend magazine

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