'If I'm not writing, I hate myself'
Harlan Coben’s novels all deal with the dark side but in his latest book Stay Close, focusing on a ’soccer mom’ and her desire for the past, he brings the reader even deeper than usual
‘THRILLERS BY nature are supposed to be black and white,” says Harlan Coben, “but I’ve always preferred the grey.” You use the phrase “shades of grey” at your peril these days when talking about books in polite company, but the award-winning, bestselling Coben has built a career in the shadowy nooks and crannies where certainty goes to die.
“I hope that at the end of all of my books people realise that, y’know, this wasn’t just a case of a monster doing evil deeds, or whatever. And that’s the grey. No character in Stay Close, including the leads, are black and white. I want them to be grey. I think that makes for a much more interesting reading experience, something that will stay with you a little bit longer.”
Stay Close is Coben’s 23rd novel in a career that has spanned 22 years. He first published the thriller Play Dead in 1990, but it was the Myron Bolitar series of novels that established him as a genre superstar, with the first, Deal Breaker (1995), winning the prestigious Anthony Award.
For the last decade or so he has alternated between series books and standalones in order to keep his writing fresh.
“I wrote seven Myron Bolitar novels in a row,” he says, “and I never want to write a Myron book where he just solves a crime. Every one of them I want to be personal, and I want him to grow and change.
“The problem with that is, it makes the series limited, you can’t write a series where a guy is always going through some kind of crisis.” In Stay Close, Coben builds his thriller around Megan Pierce, a “suburban soccer mom” who has grown dissatisfied with her picture-perfect life and craves some of the excitement she experienced while working as a stripper in Atlantic City. It sounds implausible that any woman would abandon a balanced, happy existence for the sleazy uncertainties of Atlantic City’s mean streets, but Coben is trenchant in defending Megan’s decisions.
“Some people have criticised that,” he concedes, “saying, ‘Why would any woman who had a happy life go back?’ But we all have those instincts. Why does someone with a happy life start drinking, or start taking drugs, or start an affair? That’s the whole point, the human condition is not perfect. And I think her doing that makes her one of the most realistic characters I’ve ever written.
“I’ve written a number of novels in which we start with a happy suburbanite, a happy mother and father and home life, but undercurrents cause problems for them. Something small threatens that happy life they’ve tried to create for themselves. But in this case, it’s a woman who has that happy life, and tries to blow it up on her own. She has an instinct to go somewhere darker, more sinister. And I guess the ‘What if’ scenario here is, ‘What if the regular life bores a person? What if it makes them hunger for a dark past?’”
Stay Close isn’t all tawdry settings and dark nights of the soul, however. It opens in a blackly comic fashion, with former professional photographer Ray reduced to working as a fake paparazzo.
“When I first read that that was a real occupation – and it is real, by the way, there are several websites that describe all those packages I describe in the book – I laughed out loud. I said to myself, ‘What could be lower
than this job?’ And that was a fun way to start the story, because there’s a little comic relief in that job too, and a fun way to show how far he has fallen.”
He’s an affable soul, Harlan Coben. Concise and professional when speaking of his own work, he is considerably more relaxed when talking about his peers and heroes.
“The book I always say that influenced me, subconsciously, because at the time I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer, was William Goldman’s Marathon Man. That was the first adult thriller that I loved. I read it when I was 15 or so, when my father gave it to me. I had never known suspense like it. You could have literally put a gun against my head and I probably would not have put that book down. And I think subconsciously I said to myself, ‘I would love to be able to make somebody feel the way I am feeling right now.’
“I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with William Goldman, and to be able to tell him this story, and he gets such a kick out of it. He’s a really fine guy, and he’s become a dear friend.”
That passion for writing thrillers found a kindred spirit when Coben went to college and befriended a certain Dan Brown. It’s a friendship that has endured and prospered rather than suffering from jealousies and competition.
“I’m just friends with Dan,” he says, “there isn’t much of a rivalry there. In fact, I think it’s kind of cool that we have each other to talk to. I’m someone he can talk to about things without him being accused of having champagne problems.
“I don’t find any real rivalries with crime and thriller writers anyway. That might sound a little Pollyanna, but for the most part the writers I compete with, if you want to use that word, it’s a pretty friendly rivalry. I think we all realise that the boat rises and sinks together. If you read a Lee Child book or a John Connolly book or a Laura Lippman book and you like it, that’s just going to make you want to buy more books.”
More books for Harlan Coben fans means a standalone next year called Six Years, after which he might write another Mickey Bolitar novel, the latest in the young adult spin-off from the Myron Bolitar series.
It’s a pretty impressive work ethic for a man who recently tweeted, “I hate writing, and nothing makes me happier than writing.” “Frankly, the job does not get easier,” he says. “Sometimes it even gets a little bit harder. But even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about it. My cure has always been self-hatred. If I’m not writing, I hate myself. I beat myself up, and nothing else in my life kind of goes well. And recognising that will always help me get back to the drawing board.”
Is it simply a job? Or is it more than a job could ever be? “Y’know, it’s such an honour and a dream come true. If somebody had told me 15 or 20 years ago that I would be where I am now, it’s still so much better than I ever would have imagined. I feel really blessed, and I feel lucky too. It’s always been to me about reaching readers. The guy who writes a book and no one reads it, he doesn’t exist as a writer. And that honour, that people feel that way about my books, is still the thing that gets me to the desk every day.”
Stay Close by Harlan Coben is published by Orion Books.