The page turner: Jennifer Platt interviews Harlan Coben
Prodigiously productive Harlan Coben is a phenomenon on several continents, with dozens of thrillers, TV series and movies to his name
The Match ★★★★
Harlan Coben is simply cool. He’s at ease with himself. He’s a calm, down-to-earth guy from New Jersey who is funny and charming and there’s no braggadocio. And boy, could he brag if he wanted to — he has created worlds with his words. He has sold more than 75 million books in print worldwide, has a successful multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix for 14 of his books to be adapted into series or films (so far there are quite a few of his works to stream), and now he has a deal with Amazon Prime to create a new young adult series based on his character Myron Bolitar.
Also, he looks damn fine at 60.
I am chatting to him via Zoom about his latest book, The Match. He’s in New York, and this is the third virtual book tour he will be doing since Covid-19 began. The first leg was focused on his book The Boy from the Woods in March 2020, just as the world closed down. It was also the first book to carry his new character Wilde, a little boy found living in the woods by himself.
Now, 30 years later, Wilde becomes involved in the complicated case of two missing teenagers. At the end of the book, the reader still does not know how Wilde came to be left alone in the forest.
The Match is the follow-up and finally, two years later, we get to know what happened.
Coben says he always had a sequel in mind when writing The Boy from the Woods. “The original idea for both these books started while I was taking a hike through the Ramapo Woods in New Jersey, where both these books take place. Frankly, I was bored. I’m not a hiker. For me hiking is a tree and another tree and another tree. I like walking in cities. I like seeing people’s faces. I like coffee shops. I like browsing through bookstores ... As I was getting bored, walking with my family, I see on a parallel path a boy maybe five, six years old, just walking by himself and I think what if. Suppose this kid is always in the woods, suppose he doesn’t have any parents, that he breaks into cabins to feed himself and 30 years pass and he doesn’t know how he got there.
“In The Boy from the Woods, that boy goes on to solve a crime, but I never tell you how he got to the woods in the first place. That was always my intention. The Match tells his origin story. That’s part one. Then there were a couple of other things I wanted to explore. I’ve been watching some romance reality-TV shows with my daughters to bond with them, and the world of how these people become famous instantly, become influencers, get trolled online and then bullied. I wanted to include all of that. So the question is how do I get from a story of a kid who 30 years ago was found in the woods to a story involving all of those things and then mash it all together and we have The Match.”
The Match is a quintessential Coben thriller. It has many plots, side plots, side plots to the side plots, and that’s what keeps the reader gripped. Coben explains that this is part of his writing process. “What happens is there are a lot of things I kind of want to do. Most of the time, I write things down and I end up doing one or two. In this case they were all there.”
Coben also explores the ease and unease of DNA testing. Wilde wants to know who his family is and sends in his DNA for testing. He is quickly matched with a few people. This is where the side plots come in. Wilde, after finding his father, decides to check on the other relatives he has matched up with and becomes involved in a cyber vigilante group, a couple who finds quick fame from appearing on a reality-TV show and a serial killer.
Nothing is simple and things happen fast. Writing about this science can be complicated but, like Michael Crichton, Coben makes it easy to understand as he delves into technology and how humans fail when they interact with it. He says: “I’m a lazy researcher. I don’t want to be the cutting-edge guy. It’s all already there so that makes it much scarier, right? So when you sign up for those DNA ancestral sites, you are signing up for a pandora’s box. I find that fascinating. It’s technology that is changing families in a significant way.
“I remember reading when I was younger an estimate that fathers raising between 5% and 10% of children throughout history didn’t know that they were not their own kids. Now we can know that. We can find out exactly that sort of thing. So how do I make that into some kind of clever story and use this new technology to make something gripping and compelling that is also emotionally heart-wrenching?
“I knew how Wilde ended up in the woods. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to reveal that. So I started taking that ride. I know my destination but don’t know how I’m going to get there, so I take a few twists and turns ... You’ve got to be ready to hang on; you have to pay attention but I don’t want to lose you either. I’m always looking for ways to play with expectations and sometimes I fool myself. Those are my best moments. That’s a lot of fun for me.”
Click here to buy The Match
Familiarity breeds content
There are also surprises for those readers who are familiar with his work. Favourite characters from other books pop up in The Match. Coben creates a world where all of his characters live easily with each other. Hester Crimstein is one such character — the wise and wisecracking 70-year-old defence lawyer features in a few of Coben’s novels, such as his 2002 release Tell No One, 2008’s Hold Tight and now in his Wilde books. Fans will also be pleased that he includes The Stranger, the titular character from his 2015 novel.
He explains: “Sometimes you plan things out in the book and sometimes things just happen. I knew the beginning of The Match and I knew the end. I expected Hester and Oren’s relationship to go in another direction, but when I got there the characters sort of took over. When I needed a group of vigilantes, The Stranger seemed like a good choice. At the end of the book and the TV series you don’t really know what happens to The Stranger and I thought this is something that The Stranger might be involved in. I like the fact that the worlds of my books come together. If you’ve only read one book, you’d never notice it and it won’t affect your enjoyment in any way. And if you have, these are fun Easter eggs. I do this in the TV series as well. Sometimes the name of a place will be a reference, such as the Bolitar Hotel or The Windsor Lockwood Parking Facility, and Win and Myron Bolitar fans will get it.”
Harlan makes good TV
Coben’s TV series have become a successful Netflix staple and top streamers on the site as soon as one is released. Den of Geek describes them perfectly: “They make a binge-watch par excellence. Nothing nails you to your sofa quite like a ludicrously unlikely drama about people with big houses and dark pasts.”
A Coben book turned into a TV series or film is something to behold. Originally set mostly in New Jersey, the shows are then adapted in different countries. Each book is carefully chosen.
There are the French ones: Tell No One was the first of Coben’s books to be adapted and turned into a film directed by Guillaume Canet. No Second Chance and Just One Look have both been made into mini-series, and Gone for Good is now a five-episode feature on Netflix. There are the ones made into British serials — Safe, The Stranger and Hold Tight are available for streaming on Netflix. And then there are the Polish dramas — The Woods and the recently released Hold Tight. The Innocent is the only one set in Spain so far.
Coben explains that it’s not as hard as one would think to relocate his American tales. “There’s a universality to these stories. The way I look at it is I wrote a hit song and now someone in Germany or France or South Africa is going to remake that song. I don’t want them to sound exactly the same. What’s the point in that? I want them to bring in their own sound, their own cultures, their own mystery, their own instruments or whatever it is and reproduce the song in a different way. So for me that’s what happens and I think this hybrid gives it another layer.
“I think all of these shows are different. For me as a creator there are big differences. I call the British shows bonkers fun. There’s lots of laughs, the characters are crazy, it’s entertaining. The Polish ones have no humour; they’re grim but compelling in a slow way. The Innocent is grittier, more violent, graphic, not much humour either but it has these bright colours which give it an interesting texture. So in this way I get to make different kinds of series.”
Netflix is not the only production company that is enamoured with Coben’s novels. Amazon Studios has announced a young adult action-thriller pilot called Shelter, an adaptation of his Mickey Bolitar novels which will star Jaden Michael (the young Colin Kaepernick in Colin in Black and White) as Bolitar. The Shelter pilot was written by Coben and his daughter Charlotte Coben and is directed by Patricia Cardoso. This is one of the few thrillers being made into an American series, shot in his home state of New Jersey.
TV shows are not like the books
“Some people want their TV adaptations slavishly devoted to the novel. I am clearly not that guy. I move destinations, change everything about the character (gender, sexual preference, race) or change endings. I find that exhilarating. Lots of people thought they had figured it all out because they’ve read the book, but in the case of The Stranger or Stay Close, there’s another twist in the last few minutes.
“We’re making another one — not sure which book yet, but it will be the same team who did Safe, The Stranger and Stay Close. We are starting to get together and write that.”
How Covid-19 affected the TV shows
“Three shows were really affected,” says Coben. “We had almost finished filming The Innocent and had to close down with only three weeks to go. We were able to get it done in July 2020 with very strict protocols. Gone for Good was filmed in France and we basically took over an entire hotel. It was really strict but we managed to get through it. In Stay Close some scenes had to be changed around at the last minute.
“I’ll give you some insider information. A lot of the murder scenes were taking place at these ruins that were big and gorgeous and pagan. Two days before we were set to film there, they told us we couldn’t because of Covid-19. So we were scrambling and found a small ruin and tried to make it look bigger. There were a lot of these last-minute changes. Some of the police station scenes in episode 6 and 7 had to be cut short and changed. While we were filming the wedding scene at the end, we discovered one of the actors had Covid-19 and had to stop and figure things out. I couldn’t be there for the filming of these shows so that was difficult for me. However, I am so pleased and happy with how they turned out despite all the challenges. Everybody who made these shows felt an obligation. We all know how important entertainment is when you are holed up in your home.”
Coben was born on January 12 1962.
He lives in New Jersey, where most of his stories take place, with his wife, Anne Armstrong-Coben, a paediatrician, and their four children.
His family are his first readers and they love his books and adaptations.
His daughter Charlotte, who is also a writer, penned the first two episodes of Stay Close.
He is 1,9304m (6ft 4ins) tall and a former college basketball player.
He's the author of more than 36 novels.
He published his first novel, Play Dead, at the age of 28.