Ben Lazarus

Harlan Coben on David Foster Wallace, writing the perfect book and becoming a Netflix sensation

Harlan Coben on David Foster Wallace, writing the perfect book and becoming a Netflix sensation
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‘There are two kinds of writers,’ Harlan Coben says with a grin. ‘There are those who, one day, hope to see their books on screen, and there are those who are lying to you.’

Coben, a New York Times best-selling crime writer, knows how fortunate he is. You can’t flick through Netflix without seeing trailers for one of his shows with their short and punchy titles: The Woods, The Stranger, Safe. The stories might not win Pulitzers, but the plot twists and murders of Coben’s suburban noir are wildly popular. Netflix has signed him to an unprecedented 14-show deal; ten have already been made for British, American, Polish, French and Spanish audiences.

Yet Coben shied away from the movie business until later in his career. ‘I had moments, early on, when I could have got caught up in that world,’ the 6’4 former college basketball player says over Zoom from his sofa in New York. ‘And I was wisely told by a friendly publisher at the time, “Don’t go that route.” And I knew the history, seeing guys like Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner crushed by Hollywood. So I always kept a very long-arm distance away. And, for many years, I would only option the books: I paid no attention to it, I didn’t have any involvement whatsoever.’

The 60-year-old’s most recent miniseries, Stay Close, is set in a fictional English suburb and stars James Nesbitt as a detective and Eddie Izzard as a heroin-addicted lawyer (‘it’s really great to have them on board, playing roles that they don’t normally play’). He works as an executive producer on all his Netflix shows alongside streaming deals with Amazon and Apple. He prefers the streaming service’s ‘flexibility’ to the ‘classical TV’ format: ‘When I was first looking at doing TV, many years ago, they were saying, “Okay. So here’s how it works here on CBS: you have 22 episodes; they’re exactly 42 minutes long; you have to solve the crime…” That really wouldn’t work for what I wanted to do.’

This on-screen success (which includes a blockbuster French film based on his novel, Tell No One, being nominated for nine César Awards) is dwarfed by his commercial appeal in print. Coben has sold more than 75 million copies of his novels in 45 languages. Since 2010, he’s written a book every year, and is the first to win all three of the big mystery writing awards – the Edgar, the Shamus and the Anthony. His 35th novel, The Match, is out this month. Yet he says his work ‘is never as I want it’.

‘Part of writing or creating is that you try to reach a state of nirvana you can never quite reach,’ Coben says, leaning backwards. ‘So you’re trying to reach an area and you go, “It looks good, but it didn't quite get it”. And so you start again. It’s part of, I think, subconsciously, the reason most of us keep writing. We hope to, one day, reach a state of nirvana that’s impossible to reach.’

So will he ever achieve ‘nirvana’? ‘No,’ he fires back without a pause. ‘You never write the perfect book. All books have parameters.’

Coben’s novels are famous for their unpredictable switchbacks in which figures assumed dead turn out to be alive and vice versa. So does he plot his storylines first, or does he just follow his nose? ‘It’s both. [But] it’s more, I think, by the seat of the pants. So I know – in the case of The Match – for example, I knew the opening and I knew the ending… I knew where I was going.

‘I compare it to travelling from my home state of New Jersey across the country to LA. Route 80 is a direct route, but I probably won’t take that. I’ll go via the Panama Canal or I’ll stop in Tokyo… but I’ll end up in California. I know the ending and that helps. So I’m moving along: I can still sort of see where I’m going a little bit but I’ve no idea how I’m going to get there.’

He says he writes books because he feels ‘guilt’ if he isn’t working. ‘What else would I do? I have no other marketable skills. I’m not good at anything else. I’m disorganised; I’m forgetful; I’m lazy. So part of it – especially early on – is the fear that, if I don’t have this job, I’ll have to get a real job. None of us want to be the guy who’s waking up at four in the morning to go to a pharmacy to sell flare pants… And, because I came from a working-class environment, if I’m not working, I feel guilty. The plumber can’t wake up in the morning and say, “Oh, today I can’t do pipes.” And the same for a writer.’

There is no secret formula to how he writes, though. ‘I’m not an “I need a thousand words a day” guy. It just, naturally – after all these years – happens. I’m also a streak writer. It usually takes about nine months of writing a book… At the eight-month mark, if the book is 500 pages long, I may be on page 250 or 300. And then I’ll write the rest in the last month. The last 40 pages of The Match, I wrote in one day. You don’t want to hang with me that day… It’s the middle that’s always the hardest part of the story.’

The Match is Coben’s second novel about Wilde, a man who was found abandoned in the woods as a child. It covers a range of issues: DNA ancestry websites, reality TV, Instagram influencers, online vigilante groups, trolling, and cancel culture. ‘There were a bunch of things I wanted to tackle in the book – and I ended up doing most of them.’

Much of the world Coben writes about is rooted in his experience growing up in New Jersey. ‘It is, in many ways, the battleground of the American dream. It’s where people go and buy the house with the picket fence and have 2.4 kids and there’s one or two cars in the garage,’ Coben says. ‘And now life is sort of perfect. It’s not, of course: it’s very fragile. So it’s a great place to do all that. It’s very densely populated but there are pockets of great beauty. It’s a state with a tremendous variety: every kind of race, creed, colour, national background, all jammed together in one spot.’

While Coben’s books often focus on a subversion of the American dream, he sells the bulk of his books outside the US. ‘We call it “the American dream” but I think it’s one of the world’s dreams,’ he says, throwing a tennis ball for his Havanese dog (he has two: Laszlo and Winslow). ‘Not everybody has it but, this idea of having a family and raising kids in peace and security with a little bit of lawn and things like that. This is a universal appeal all over the world: it’s not strictly New Jersey.

‘Of course, any place where dreams come true, they can also turn to nightmares – this is true of all of life. That sort of beauty and joy is fragile. And it’s easy to poke fun at it too but it’s really, also, what people are yearning for. It’s kind of a cliché, being able to satirise it and yet, also, love it. I’ve a romantic and skewed vision of suburbia and so it’s a great place to set your books because when you have something that’s valuable to you, you care about losing it… It’s a placid pool. And, in that placid pool, one little stone can make gigantic ripples. It’s not a new thing: ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. It’s what Hitchcock did. But I think the family dimension adds a lot to a story because you care about your family. Or most people do.’

Growing up reading Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle and PD Eastman, Coben didn’t aspire to be a writer until he was older. ‘It was sort of like saying, “Do you want to be a pro baseball player?” You may dream of it but it could never really happen to you… My mind always worked in terms of twists and turns. But I didn’t really think I had a chance of being a writer until I was in college.’

Coben’s favourite author is Philip Roth, who also grew up in Newark, New Jersey. ‘I’m not sure there’s a more perfect novel than American Pastoral,’ Coben says. ‘It’s like listening to a perfect Mozart concerto and there’s not one false note in it. Most books have to, just by their nature, hit some false notes. Just something about even the contradictions that the characters make: everything rang so true.’

Coben, who began reading Roth when he was 17, felt an affinity with the author because of their shared background as Jews in Newark. ‘I lived in his area. Two houses down from me when I was growing up was supposedly the woman that Goodbye, Columbus was based on. Everybody in my town grew up with parents who had grown up with him and his family in that area of Newark.’

Despite this ‘personal connection’, he was never tempted to follow Roth’s literary style. ‘You learn, as a writer, to be inspired but not necessarily influenced or envious… I always waited for the Philip Roth of my era but it hasn’t really happened.’ But there was one who could have come close, Coben says: David Foster Wallace, his old dormitory neighbour during freshman year at Amherst College (‘the smartest guy that I’ve ever known: really brilliant on every kind of level… off the chart genius’). The pair remained friends until Foster Wallace’s suicide aged 46 in 2008.

Were the pair competitive, creatively? No rivalry. I didn’t know I was going to be a writer till my senior year. So I wasn’t writing. And I don’t even know how much David knew about what he was going to write back then… Even when we were both published novelists, we always enjoyed any kind of time that we could spend together. I was really devastated by his illness and death.’

Foster Wallace even consulted his friend for advice on writing novels. ‘I remember, we came back for one of our reunions and he and I were doing a reading. And he pulled me aside. He was writing at the time. He goes, “Dude, how do you end a novel?” “What do you mean?” He goes, “I don’t know how to end the novel. It just keeps going on. How do you know when it’s the end?” He’d been writing Infinite Jest.

‘He also wrote me the very first letter I ever got when I was writing – when one of my first books was published – I have that letter someplace. And it’s hysterical. And there’s a part which mentions my current wife and he asks about if I’m still with her. And then he crosses out in pencil so I can clearly see it… It was a classic David letter.’

Coben leans forward, pulls out his iPhone, lifts his glasses and reads: ‘What he crossed out was, “Did you and Miss Armstrong…” (that’s my wife now) “… ever get married? If so, congratulations… Jesus though! If you’ve broken up, how tactless.” And he crossed this out in pencil and wrote the word “edited” on the side.’

They may have produced very different work, but Coben says Foster Wallace always read and enjoyed his novels. ‘He consumed everything. It’s usually only the failed writers who look down on someone… David was never that kind of guy.’

After so much commercial success, what’s next for Coben? ‘I think of this in terms of being an athlete: an athlete gets five years, maybe ten years, to be at their level and then they have to stop. If somebody told me that I have five or ten years of being a best-selling author and then I had to leave it, man, that’s crushing! And so we’re still lucky, as novelists, that we get to do this… I just want to keep trying to write and entertain and do it better.’

And if he ever wrote a novel as ‘perfect’ as American Pastoral, would he call it a day? ‘I don’t think so. Mostly because I don’t know what else I would do,’ says Coben. ‘I don’t have a lot in my life. I have my family and I have this. I don’t collect; I’m not one who likes to socialise or go to parties. I don’t have a lot of hobbies. I don’t have a lot of other interests… Flaubert said, “Be regular and bourgeois in your life so you can be violent and original in your work.” I think I fit that. My life is very ordinary, which is not bad: ordinary is good.’

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Written byBen Lazarus

Ben Lazarus is special projects editor of The Spectator

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