To celebrate the release of his twenty-eighth book, New York Times Best Seller Harlan Coben was center-stage at a meet-and-greet at [words] Bookstore in Maplewood. The turnout was impressive, especially considering it was the middle of a workday. Dedicated fans gathered on the first floor of [words] as Coben spoke briefly and humorously about his career, his family, and, of course, his brand new mystery novel “Fool Me Once,” which was released on March 22.
“Fool Me Once” tells the story of a former military helicopter pilot, Maya Stern, whose husband was recently killed. Shortly after his funeral, Maya is given a nanny-cam from her close friend, and days later, Maya sees her dead husband in the nanny-cam’s footage. The story begins to unravel quickly, taking readers on an intense journey. Between the vivid characters and the captivating twists, Coben has once again crafted a novel where readers will be calling out of work until they finish Maya’s tale.
After speaking to his fans and answering questions last Wednesday, Coben took pictures with and signed books for the numerous people who traveled from all over the state to meet New Jersey’s most renowned mystery author. The long line of patient fans zig-zagged throughout [words], moving gradually as Coben engaged in personable conversations with each patron who approached him. After over an hour of signing autographs and taking countless photos, Coben still had the same friendly smile on his face that he had when he arrived.
[words] Bookstore on Maplewood’s cultured Main Street often welcomes a number of writers and media personalities throughout the year, and Harlan Coben’s fourth visit to this independent shop last Wednesday was another exciting event. BestofNJ caught up with the author to talk about his latest novel, how he comes up with his rich, dynamic characters, the role New Jersey plays in his novels, and more.
BestofNJ: You’re a New Jersey native, correct?
Harlan Coben: Yes, I was born in Newark, and I grew up in Livingston and graduated from Livingston High School. And now I live in Bergen County.
BestofNJ: When did you realize that you wanted to become an author?
HC: When I was in college, I sort of had an idea for a book I wanted to write, and I started to write that book, and it wasn’t very good; it was what a lot of first novels are: pompous and pretentious and self-absorbed. But then I sort of got the “writing virus” from that, and I started to write what I loved, which I call “novels of immersion” — the novel you write where you go on vacation and you want to go out, but what you really want to do is stay in your hotel room because you have to know what happens to Maya and Joe and everybody in “Fool Me Once.” That’s the sort of novels that I try to write.
BestofNJ: Tell us what it’s like to be an accomplished fiction writer.
HC: Being a writer is the single greatest job in the world. It’s sort of a dream come true every day that I get to do this. That’s how I feel about the job, and I love it. I still love it. “Fool Me Once” is my 28th novel, and it never gets old. It’s hard work sometimes — I’m trying to do other things at the same time, like TV and movies and things like that. But this is my passion.
BestofNJ: We have a ton of aspiring writers in this state. Do you have any advice for them?
HC: One is simple, and that is you have to write. You can’t just talk about writing; you can’t just outline; you can’t just create characters and story ideas; you have to actually write. And you have to write every day, if you can. Writers write — that’s what they do. And then they write again. And that’s the number one piece of advice that I give people, is to write. And the second piece of advice I give people is to try to ignore everything else. Don’t worry about sales; don’t worry about how it’s doing; don’t worry about what people are saying. Just start writing the next one. Anything I can do that frees me up to write is good, and everything that stops me from writing is bad.
BestofNJ: You published your first novel, “Play Dead,” in 1990. Now, “Fool Me Once” is your 28th novel. Tell us a little bit about this novel. How would you describe “Fool Me Once” to someone who hasn’t read any of your previous novels before?
HC: It starts off with a nanny-cam. A lot of people nowadays, they leave for work and they’re a little nervous about what’s going on with the babysitter. So, Maya [the main character] sets up a secret nanny-cam in a digital frame. She was mostly nervous because several weeks earlier, her husband had been murdered. So one day she comes home and she looks at the pictures on the nanny-cam, and all of a sudden, she’s shocked to see that her husband is playing with her child in one of the pictures. How could that be? He’s dead, he was murdered. And the story goes from there. And she tries to uncover the truth about is he alive, is he dead? That’s sort of when the novel explodes in a hundred different directions.
BestofNJ: What was the inspiration behind the novel?
HC: There were several. One was just my imagination. I’m seeing my friends with nanny-cams, and I’m always asking, ‘What would be really weird to see on it? What if you came home and saw something that would change your life on it?’ That’s often how these things sort of start. And then in this case… I had gone on a USO tour to the Middle East and elsewhere to visit soldiers serving overseas. We talked about books, and I signed some books for them and just tried to raise morale. And while I was on that tour, I met a woman who was a combat pilot, and I thought that was a really interesting profession and wondered if I could do something with that. And that became the [profession of] the lead character in this novel.
BestofNJ: Did you base a lot of her character on Maya?
HC: Almost none of her character — nothing other than that. The real person was a reader of mine who was out-going and a lot of fun, and Maya is not [laughs]. Maya’s a lot quieter, a lot more introspective, a lot more withdrawn. So just the idea of that profession came from her.
BestofNJ: Now, obviously you’re a male, and the main character, Maya Stern, is a female. You’ve written female characters before, but Maya is such a dynamic, complicated, and even mysterious character. Was she more of a challenge for you to write than a lot of your other protagonists?
HC: She wasn’t in the sense that it was interesting how fast she became real for me, and that made her have her own voice. So I would say no… She’s one of my favorite characters. I would say, aside from Myron Bolitar, she may be my very favorite. And she’s quite different from me.Most of my characters are a lot more like me or people that I know; Maya’s much more withdrawn, much more of a soldier, can be cold and damaged in some ways — she’s still suffering the scars of her experiences in combat. And so all of that combined easily.
BestofNJ: Technology played a big part in the novel—between the nanny-cam, the internet, and obviously cell phones, among other things. And technology has certainly come a long way since your first book was published over 25 years ago. As a writer, how have you adapted to these changes? Do you find it challenging now, or have you found that the new era of technology has really advanced and maybe even improved storylines?
HC: Neither. It’s just what reality is. So when I was writing over 25 years ago, if you were going on a date, you went on the date. Now, everybody would Google that person’s name. It’s just the reality — it’s not easier or harder. In one of my earliest books, I had these two characters who used to keep in touch with each other with something that was almost like a listening device — Myron and Win [of the Myron Bolitar series] would use it; Myron would call someone on his cell phone, and Win would listen in, which was cutting-edge back in 1992 or ’93. Now it’s almost passé. So it’s just the way the world works. Really, in [“Fool Me Once”], the technology isn’t really cutting-edge. Digital cameras, nanny-cams have been around for years; the Internet has been around for years now. But it’s just the reality of what we do nowadays. It would be like writing a book where the guy didn’t have a telephone. If you remember in the old days, there would always be that movie scene where the guy would call someone on the phone and that person wouldn’t be at home and you would just watch the phone ringing and no one would pick it up. Well that’s not realistic anymore. No one uses a home phone anymore. So it’s just reflecting the world we live in.
BestofNJ: One thing I’ve noticed about every single one of your novels I’ve read —whether it be “Tell No One” or “Just One Look” or “No Second Chance” and so on — is that your characters are very authentic; the dialogue is genuine and reads fluently and never feels awkward or forced. And I know some authors will even write full biographies for their characters in an attempt to accomplish what you accomplish with your characters. Do you have a specific process to achieve getting realistic dialogue on the page?
HC: No—I don’t do bios on my characters or anything like that. The dialogue is hugely important. And it has to do more than one thing. The way somebody speaks and answers a particular question should really be as unique as a fingerprint and should really tell you a lot about that character, their personality, their sense of humor, where they came from. It should tell you a lot. Dialogue should move the story forward, and it should sometimes be informative. It can’t just do one of those things; it sort of has to do it all. And I try to write in a way that’s also snappy and entertaining so that it’s not just an ‘info-dump’ — it’s not just telling you certain things, but this conversation between the two people is something you actually want to overhear. This is also a good rule of thumb: if you’re sitting at a bar and you hear two people having this conversation, would you want to listen in on it? If the answer’s no, then I probably have to change what I am writing.
BestofNJ: Another great aspect of the “Fool Me Once” is that most of the novel takes place in New Jersey, just like a lot of your books do. Aside from New Jersey being your home state and very familiar to you, do you find anything else advantageous about setting novels in this area?
HC: This is what I know, this is what I love — New Jersey. And I have found that the more specific I am, the more universal the appeal. I sell more books overseas than I sell in the U.S. If I try to make my book more “Everytown, U.S.A.” or something that may be more generic, I lose it. The more specific I am, the more universal. And that’s true of a lot of things in New Jersey — the more specific Springsteen music is, the more specifically The Sopranos was set in New Jersey, the more specific, the more universal the appeal. This is where I know, this is where
I love. This is an interesting place; we have a lot of different dynamics going on here, a lot of different people, a lot of different backgrounds. But we are mostly the suburbs of New York, up north, and the suburbs of Philadelphia, down south, which affects our cities a lot. All of those sorts of things define what you are as a character — through your setting. This is the world that we live in.
BestofNJ: I know that early on in a writer’s career, he’ll often create most of his characters based on people he has met or knows. This far into your career, do you still find yourself doing that, or are almost all of your characters basically original Harlan Coben Creations at this point?
HC: I’ll take pieces [of characteristics from] people that I know and then mess around with it… Rarely are they based solely on people. Sometimes villains are, as I get older. Everybody thinks that the good guys are based on [actual] people, but often I find that some of the creepier characters are based more on people [laughs] — more than some of the more heroic characters. But it’s sort of like I was explaining when I created Maya — where I got the idea of her profession from one person, but that person was really gregarious and outgoing, so I said [about Maya], “Let’s make her quiet. Let’s make her withdrawn.” You know, that sort of a thing… So I’ll take bits and pieces. I may take the way that person walks, that person’s profession, the way that person gets angry, the way that person laughs, that person’s sense of humor, and I start mixing it all together, and somebody comes to life.
BestofNJ: So what are you reading now?
HC: I read a tremendous amount, a tremendous variety of stuff. I read short stories; I read novels. I don’t read very much nonfiction — I read a lot of novels, a lot of short stories.
BestofNJ: Alright, let’s end it off with something fun. Who’s your favorite superhero?
HC: See, I don’t watch any of the new superhero movies, so I base it off of the comic books I grew up reading and what the characters were like when I was a kid. And when I was a kid, my favorite was Captain America, but mostly in the old ones when he had his partner, Bucky. They were like Batman & Robin, who was another one of my favorites. But if I had to choose one superhero, it would be Captain America.
Get to know New Jersey’s top celebrities, entrepreneurs and entertainers with Up Close: The Series!
Hero (Top) Feature Image: Patrick Lombardi / Best of NJ
Additional Images (in Order) Courtesy:
Penguin Random House