Harlan Coben in St. Louis: Part I

If you ever get a chance to see Harlan Coben in person, go for it. He was in St. Louis last weekend for Boucheron 2011.  As part of the book tour promoting his new book, Shelter, the introductory volume for his YA series featuring Mickey Bolitar, Coben spoke at St. Louis County Library.

He began by saying that the first question people always ask when they see him is, “How tall are you?” Answer: 6’ 4”.

With that issue out of the way, Coben turned to discussing his writing. He calls the kind of books he writes novels of immersion: the book you take on vacation, then stay in your hotel room to read; the book that you cannot put down. He doesn’t outline, but when he begins writing a book he knows the beginning and the end. He has two favorite quotations about writing:

  1. Elmore Leonard: I try to cut out all the parts you’d normally skip.
  2. E. L. Doctorow: Writing is like driving at night in the fog with your headlights on. You can only see a little bit ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way.

His writing process involves a lot of rewriting. “I don’t know any writer who gets it right the first time,” he said. When he sits down to write, he goes over everything he wrote the day before and polishes it. Then, when he has about 50 pages done, he prints out those pages and revises them. He estimates that, by the time he’s finished the first draft of the whole book, he’s probably rewritten the first chapter 10 times. During his revisions he focuses on Elmore Leonard’s notion of cutting out all the parts a reader might skip. “Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word, I ask myself, ‘Is this compelling? Is this gripping? Is this moving the story forward?’ And if it’s not, I have to get rid of it. I write as if there’s a knife at my throat and, if I bore you, I’m dead.”

Asked what writers he admires, he hesitated to answer for fear of leaving somebody’s name off the list. But he said that, on the Today show, he was recently asked to name four books or authors he likes that most people wouldn’t know about. He named these four:

  • Jeff Abbott’s Adrenaline
  • Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight series
  • Tana French, especially Faithful Place
  • Ann Packer, whose new book [Swim Back to Me] is a series of inter-connected stories and novellas

Coben concluded his talk with his philosophy of writing. Writing is about communication. A writer without a reader is like a man who claps with one hand. “Shelter was not  a book when I finished it. It’s a book when you read it. When one of you reads this book, a whole new universe comes to life—different from everybody else’s.”

I was pleased to hear him articulate reader-response theory like this. (He’s such a down-to-earth guy that he’d probably laugh off the word theory, but that’s what it is.) And this philosophy about his work isn’t just something he says. He also acted on it in the book signing session that followed his talk. He greeted each person who presented a book for signing, shook hands, and then came out from behind his table to pose for a quick photo with everyone who had a camera. You gotta love a writer who genuinely appreciates his readers like this.

Stay tuned for Part II on more of his writing process.