Harlan Coben: ‘I used to write in the back of Ubers’

Lifestyle

The writer, 59, on working in a disco, being an introvert and growing up Jewish
Sat 8 Jan 2022 14.00 GMT

In college I worked as a tour guide on the Costa del Sol. It was a weird scene. I saw some wild stuff; some violence I’d like to forget. I lived in one hotel room with four or five people for a while. I worked in a discotheque. But it inspired my first attempt at really writing. I needed to get it all down.

I think most writers have impostor syndrome. On the one hand you think, “I suck, I’ve got nothing to say, this isn’t working at all,” and the next moment you have the hubris to say, “I’m going to write 500 pages and people are going to pay me to read it.”

My advice for writers? Just get it out. You can fix bad pages. You can’t fix no pages.

There’s a lot of me in my stories. No writer likes to admit this, but when I started my Myron Bolitar series a lot of it was wish fulfilment. He’s smarter than me, faster, stronger. I played basketball; he was a better player than me. As the series went on, I created a tension between us. His parents are alive. Mine died young. His dream in life is to get married and have kids. I did that. We’re jealous of each other.

I used to write in the back of Ubers. I can’t write in the same place for very long. I basically finished The Stranger over three weeks of Uber rides. Then that stopped working so I tried something else. Planes were it for a while. Not that I was taking planes everywhere, but I was drawn to long flights. Generally speaking, I like being disturbed a bit. It makes me focus harder.

I don’t know any writer who doesn’t like being alone. I’m an introvert. A socially adept one, but an introvert all the same. I can be fine in company, but when I go home I’m exhausted. I need to not see anyone for a while. If you’re a person who constantly wants people around you, writing probably isn’t for you.

Only one of my kids had any interest or talent in writing. That’s Charlotte, she’s a really good scriptwriter. She’s worked with me on my Netflix adaptations. The rest are all science-based, like their mother, a physician. One of my daughters is majoring in computational biology. I don’t even know what that means. My son just got a job in flight control at Nasa. I like bragging about that. I’m really proud.

The importance of my Jewishness changes. I’m secular, but it’s the world I grew up in. It’s in my makeup. I view my Jewishness as cultural. There’s a weird deal with Jews where they will define themselves as Jewish even if they don’t buy a word. You don’t see too many Catholics or Christians or anybody Muslim saying, “Oh, I’m a Catholic, but I don’t buy a word of it!”

I can’t tell you the secret to writing a great mystery other than to say I’m always asking, “What if?” It’s a fair criticism that I twist too much. If you don’t like a twist, I’m really not your guy! But really what I’m trying to do is make every paragraph, every page, every sentence and every word more compelling. How can I make you want to turn the page even more?