Man plans, God laughs

By Stephen Jewell

Crime writer Harlan Coben still enjoys confusing his readers, writes Stephen Jewell

American writer Harlan Coben. Photo / Claudio Marinesco
American writer Harlan Coben. Photo / Claudio Marinesco

Talking to a popular crime writer like Harlan Coben is always a tricky proposition. With plenty of unexpected twists and turns in his books, you always have to tread carefully to avoid giving away too many secrets. However, with more than 20 best-selling novels to his name, the New Jersey-based author believes he can always get one over on the reader.

"It's a hard thing to do because you also don't want to play too coy because that's not fair either," he says. "Whatever questions people have I usually answer but I find that even if you know some of the answers from spoilers, I'll still fool you. The ending will still fool you - and I pride myself on doing that. But hopefully you'll also be genuinely moved, which is also my goal. It's not just to show sleight-of-hand or narrative tricks, although I will do that, it's also to make you care about what happens to the characters."

His latest effort, Six Years, is a good case in point. Centring around university professor Jake Sanders, it hinges on the promise he makes to the love of his life at her wedding to another man that he will leave her alone from that day onwards.

He keeps the pact for six years - until he reads her husband's obituary in a newspaper and it becomes apparent that the dead man's wife and Jake's former beau are not the same person. "I usually tell people that it opens with immediate heartbreak," says Coben. "It came about because I wanted to write a love story that was also a thriller. The last time that I did that was with Tell No One, which was a pure love story that happened to have some surprises."

Coben believes Six Years bears comparison with his 2001 breakthrough book, the first of his novels to appear on the New York Times best-sellers list, turned into a film by French director Guillaume Canet in 2006. "It's certainly as strong as Tell No One," he says. "Actually, if you've not read any of my stories, this one is as a good place to start as you don't need to know anything beforehand."

Although Tell No One and Six Years are both self-contained stories, Coben has also penned 10 novels featuring former basketball player-turned-sports agent Myron Bolivar. "Both types of books are equally hard to write," he says. "It's sort of like doing a painting, as with a standalone you've always got a completely blank canvas. But when I'm doing a Myron Bolivar, part of the canvas is already there for me as I'm already in his head, which makes it easier in some ways but harder in others because you have to work around all that stuff. But either way the actual writing process is pretty much the same; it doesn't really change too much of what I do."

Ranging from second to third person and even a combination of various different voices, Coben previously adopted numerous narrative perspectives. But Six Years marks one of the few occasions where he has told his tale entirely in the first person. "It was a really involved process because you're in his head all the time," he says. "His confusion is your confusion, and his answers are your answers. You're following his heart in the closest way possible."

While the accuracy, or not, of Jake's memories plays a crucial role in the unfolding plot, Coben is not a fan of the proverbial unreliable narrator. "That's a big part of the question as there's a lot of paranoid things going down in this book. It's been said that memory is one of the finest forms of fiction. It's like if I asked you to describe to me what you did yesterday, you'd probably get it wrong."

Although his novels all boast a compulsive quality that makes them hard to put down, Coben is not fond of the various sub-genre categories that books such as his are listed under. "I'm not sure myself what the difference between them all is, so I let other people worry about that," he says. "I don't know what a thriller is versus a whodunnit or a mystery. I just try to tell a story that is compelling and gripping reading all the way through and that could fall under either thriller or suspense. But there's also a whodunnit aspect to what happens, in this book at least. I'm not very good at defining what I do and if there are formulas, I don't really know what they are. Each book is different and each one feels like I'm learning the whole thing all over again."

While he is finishing his third young adult book which, like its two predecessors, also features Myron's young nephew Mickey Bolivar, Coben admits he has not yet mapped out his next adult novel. He is also unsure whether there will be another adventure for the elder Bolivar.

"My usual answer is that Myron will probably return but as the old Yiddish saying that he likes to quote goes: 'Man plans, God laughs!' as I never really know what I'm going to write until I start writing it."

Six Years (Orion $36.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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