Harlan Coben has sold 80 million books and has seven series on Netflix. How does he do it?

The number one selling US author reveals the secrets of writing a hit
Harlan Coben, has written 80 million thrillers and has seven series on Netflix. His latest book is I Will Find You. Pic: Claudio Marinesco/PAHarlan Coben, has written 80 million thrillers and has seven series on Netflix. His latest book is I Will Find You. Pic: Claudio Marinesco/PA
Harlan Coben, has written 80 million thrillers and has seven series on Netflix. His latest book is I Will Find You. Pic: Claudio Marinesco/PA

Anyone who’s searched for a new TV series to binge or the shelves of an airport bookshop for a thriller to take on holiday will know Harlan Coben, the number one selling American writer who has more than eighty million books in print in 46 languages worldwide and seven series currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon, including Stay Close, The Stranger, Safe, The Five, Hold Tight and The Woods.

His latest page turning novel, I Will Find You, is already being lauded as his best yet, and starts with David Burrough five years into a sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. Shocked to learn the ‘victim’ - his son - may be alive, he sets out to escape, prove his innocence and discover the truth. Hitting the ground running from page one, this latest thriller has all the Coben hallmarks, from missing people and mystery to action-packed plot twists and cliffhangers.

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As well as scaling bestseller lists, Coben’s TV work is also riding high. Netflix has extended a 2018 multimillion deal to adapt 14 books for the screen, including his popular Myron Bolitar series, and his TV adaptation of Shelter for Amazon Studios - starring Jaden Michael and Constance Zimmer will hit Prime Video soon while, a British series, Fool Me Once, with Michelle Keegan, Adeel Akhtar, Joanna Lumley and Richard Armitage, is filming now.

I Will Find You, by Harlan Coben, is published by Century, £20 hardbackI Will Find You, by Harlan Coben, is published by Century, £20 hardback
I Will Find You, by Harlan Coben, is published by Century, £20 hardback

On a video call from his home in New Jersey, the 61-year-old award-winning author talks about how you write the perfect thriller.

“I usually start with an idea. So With I Will Find You, suppose you had been arrested and convicted of murdering your own child and you’re in prison. Who’s going to tell the story? What would that person be like? And David Burroughs comes to life in your head.

Where do your stories come from?

Oh god knows. Every place. Just random thoughts flicking in my head. I walk around always asking what if? Trying to come up with new scenarios. Two books in the Wilde Series, The Match (2022) and The Boy from the Woods (2020) came to me when I was walking in the woods and saw a young boy walking by himself. I was bored, there’s a tree and another tree, hot and sweaty and wanted to go home. So I was thinking there’s a little boy walking, what if he just came out of the woods and said he’d always lived there, then I started putting together that story. Each book is something different, but I think mostly it’s keeping my mind open and constantly trying to ask what if?

Disappearances and missing people are a common theme, why?

I like missing people because there’s more to do with the story and it stirs the heart more. What I write about really is hope and redemption and that’s more powerful. Hope can be like putting wings on your heart and letting it fly off or it can crush your heart like an eggshell so the stakes are higher. I don’t really write murder mysteries. If Agatha Christie had dead bodies, I have missing people. If somebody’s dead they're dead, if you’re solving a crime you can get justice, but what if somebody could still be alive? I think that’s really gripping and suspenseful to write.

Also part of it is probably because I started writing around the same time my parents passed away when I was fairly young so I think part of it was that wish fulfilment of wouldn’t it be great if they were still here.

So have you written your parents back alive?

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I do quite a bit, with the Myron Bolitar series especially. Myron’s parents are based off my own and the relationship they enjoy is what I imagine I would have had. Now he’s dealing with the problems of parents in their eighties and I get too sentimental in those scenes - tough if you don’t like them, though most people do - so I think that’s a little bit of therapy there.

It also works for a story because most lead character detectives have an abusive relationship with a parent or don’t have one, so I thought it would be interesting to have the opposite, again like I imagine I would have if my parents had survived. My dad never saw any book get published and my mum at least saw a book get published, but no success.

How do you write the perfect thriller?

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I don’t really know. I work really hard and am obsessed with the story. I want to really entertain and move you. It’s one thing to just write a book, to stir the pulse and mind, but if it doesn’t also stir the heart it doesn’t really work. If you don’t care about the truth it’s like having the most expensive car in the world and no petrol. I can do a lot of twists and turns and hope there are a lot of surprises and moments where you gasp, but if you don’t care about the characters and what happens to them, the book’s not going to work.

How do you write 35 books?

Well it’s all I do. Some people wake up and leave the house at six in the morning to go to a pharmacy and sell meds, whatever, all day long, so if I write a few pages a day for nine months.

I’ve become very obsessive and I’m thinking about it all the time. It may be an art form or an act of creativity, but I treat it like a job. There’s a great quote: ‘amateurs wait for the muse to arrive, the rest of us just get to work’ and I think that’s true. Every writer and artist has a kind of production method. I have to treat it like a job. A plumber can’t wake up in the morning and say, oooh, today I can’t do pipes… So I beat myself up pretty good if I’m not working hard.

Is that work-ethic from your upbringing?

Yes, my parents always worked. My mom was a school teacher then ran a travel business and my dad worked for a big laundry company in the legal department and going from restaurant to restaurant to pick up laundry and return it. They were very hard working people; that’s just how it was in our house. A love of books for sure, but also you worked.

I Will Find You gets off to a cracking start, do you always do that and end each chapter on a cliffhanger?

People are on computers all day long - DVDs, streaming services, TV - a constant onslaught, so to get them to turn off and enjoy a book I think you have to get started fast; you can’t give them reason to pick up their phone. I think this one may be my fastest paced. It really shoots out from the get go.

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I’ve compared it to a roller coaster. In the old days most roller coasters were those ones that slowly get up the hill and drop down, but nowadays, like the Aerosmith Rollercoaster, you’re just sitting there quietly and it shoots out like a canon. I think this is the shoot out like a canon right on page one where it says: ‘I am serving the fifth year of a life sentence for murdering my own child. Spoiler alert: I didn’t do it.’ You’re in the story. That’s what I hope happens anyway.

You seem to know a lot about rollercoasters…

I do. I was always the adult that took all the kids, including my four, on the coasters. I love them. We don’t live far from Six Flags Great Adventure New Jersey, which is maybe the greatest coaster park anywhere. We used to have the tallest, the fastest, always around the cutting edge, and I was the one who took the kids but the last time or two I’ve been a little dizzy when I got off, so my days of ‘coastering may be coming to an end. I also still have a house in Asbury Park right between the Wunderbar and The Stone Pony, where Bruce [Springsteen] and everybody used to play.

Have you ever met Bruce Springsteen? What’s he like?

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Yeah. He’s great. Very kind, very smart, very thoughtful. I know a lot of the guys in the band quite well - I’ve been to over 50 Springsteen shows - I’m a New Jersey guy and these guys are all from my neck of the woods. I know Nils Lofgren very well, Stevie [Van Zandt], Max Weinberg, John Landau. Have you read Stevie’s autobiography? It’s very Stevie.

In I Will Find You there are vivid scenes from a small town Massachusetts immigrant community in the 1950s, where did that come from?

My dad grew up in Revere Beach, Massachusetts, in a row house, three families in each. When we used to visit my grandmom was on the first floor, cousin Sadie was on the second, Aunt Evelyn on the third and they’d be all hanging out the windows and yelling and screaming, and all the backyards were connected. So I won’t say it’s autobiographical, because it’s more my dad’s childhood than mine, but that’s a real place, going back 55 years, and based on my experiences visiting as a child.

Have you got plans to visit Scotland again soon?

I’d love to. I usually have dinner with Ian Rankin when I’m over and there are a lot of fun people to see, but I haven’t been because of Covid. This is the first tour I’ve done since 2019 and I’ll be in Manchester, London and Dublin, literally over three days, then home. But I’d love to come to Scotland soon.

Netflix have extended the TV adaptation deal, why does TV appeal to you?

Because it’s fun. I love telling stories, and Netflix has tremendous reach. To me it’s taking a novel and putting it on screen and I’m enjoying the experience. I love telling stories in different ways and it’s fun to have new challenges.

Also I’m naturally what you call a socially adept introvert. Most of my life I’ve spent in rooms by myself coming up with stories so it’s nice to get out in the world and see other people and collaborate. But if I do that for a while I lose my mind and have to come back here alone and write. I’m able right now - we’ll see how long it can last - to enjoy doing both. I look at the books as my day job but I have really enjoyed the chance to put things on a screen.

Which books work best on TV?

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I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in that I’ve had remarkable casts, but I am not an adaptation purist. I like to change things. Some of these books need updated, and also I move them - most of the books take place in New York or New Jersey, but I’ve set four of them in the UK, others in France, Poland, Spain, and in Second Chance, in France, we changed the lead character from a man to a woman.

Has TV made you change the way you write?

No. To say I'm going to write a book that can be made into a movie is the kiss of death. Because they are two very different mediums. The two caveats are, one, I'm willing to make tons of changes so I don't have to worry about it, the other is we all grew up with TV and movies. It drives me nuts when writers are pretentious about inspiration, Proust, Yates… I grew up with Batman and Robin. We're the first generation of writers that grew up with tons of visual media and of course it's an influence. I think I write pretty visually because I grew up with that.

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All of your thrillers are set in the US, so is it easy to adapt them to other countries?

I think it makes them stronger. It becomes something slightly different. If you go to Netflix today, I think there are seven series and if they were all set in the same place that would be boring. The Polish do it very, very differently than the British, the French, the Spanish. I think it helps me try different things and collaborate in various ways. Some people only like the British ones and some only the Polish, some all of them. You have a nice mix.

I think Netflix has opened up the whole world to content. The biggest show they've ever had was Squid Game, a Korean show. And my Spanish show, El Inocente (The Innocent), ranked high in the UK and the USA. How often before did we get exposed to other cultures’ TV and movies? I think it makes us all stronger.

Which of your thrillers will be next on TV?

Even though I work mostly with Netflix, the next series that will be out in the summer is Shelter with Amazon Prime, based off my Mickey Bolitar novels. After that is another British series, Fool Me Once, filming now in Manchester with Michelle Keegan, Richard Armitage, Joanna Lumley, Adeel Akhtar, Emmett John Scanlan. It’s maybe something about the northern part of England where we’re working, but everyone is just so damn kind and generous and no one puts on diva airs. None of the British casts I've worked with - Jimmy Nesbitt, Sarah Parish, Eddie Izzard, Jennifer Saunders, Siobhan Finneran, Amanda Abbington - have been anything but delights, it's really weird.

Are the American actors more difficult?

Ha ha. No way I’m telling you any tales out of school.

Are you writing another book?

Yes, the next book is going to be returning to my Myron Bolitar which I haven’t done in a long time.

Do you ever sit down to watch telly at night and scroll through Netflix and think oh, it's all me?

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Ha ha. Sometimes I'm looking for suggestions and come across one of my shows and I’ll smile and go, oh I’ve seen that.

Will Find You, by Harlan Coben, is published by Century, £20 hardback

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