Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Storied Evening as Harlan Coben Brings His Latest Thriller, 'Home,' To My Hometown Library

Speaker Recap

Harlan Coben, Author
Skokie Public Library
September 21, 2016

This isn't a book review. It's a recap of a promotional speaking appearance by my favorite contemporary author, Harlan Coben, at the Skokie Public Library in my hometown and current place of residence.

But if you were to click the "Book Reviews" link atop this blog--on the web version, not mobile--and scroll through those I have written and posted, you will see Coben represented more than any other author.

I think it was back in 2002, when in downtown Chicago on my way to the Lyric Opera I stopped into a now defunct bookstore named Brentano's--I'm pretty sure that was the name; it was near the Civic Opera House and wasn't called Kroch's & Brentano's--and asked the clerk to recommend a page-turning paperback.

He pointed me to Coben's Tell No One, which was published in 2001 and at that point relatively new in paperback. I had never heard of the author or book, which revolved around a man discovering that his wife--missing for 8 years--might still be alive.

Subsequently turned into a pretty good French movie, this was Coben's first book (of those then in print) not to revolve around recurring characters. (A couple early "stand-alone" efforts have since been released.)

Finding it to be a fantastic read, I next consumed the 2002 stand-alone Gone For Good when it came out in paperback.

I've since read all of Coben's novels, except 3 that are aimed at teen readers, and I should probably check those out too.

In addition to 15 stand-alone books, he's written ten--including his first seven to be published and his newest work, Home--thrillers featuring the crime-fighting, mystery-solving duo of Myron Bolitar and Win Lockwood.

The former is an ex-Duke All-American basketball player that Coben admitted Wednesday is his own "wish fulfillment" alter ego, while the latter--a preppy multi-millionaire unsuspectingly adept in administering brutal force--is loosely based on an affluent college roommate who would admire himself in the mirror while saying, "It must suck to be ugly." (Coben's Wikipedia bio also notes that he was childhood friends with Chris Christie and a fraternity brother of The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown.)

While I don't proclaim Harlen Coben to be "the best current author"--he doesn't traipse in great literature--he is my favorite, as evidenced by my actually loving to read his books, and usually doing so in well less than a week. (I'm generally not a fast nor particularly avid reader.)

And as I first heard when the author guested on the Howard Stern Wrap-Up Show on Tuesday, and was reiterated Wednesday night, he has over 70 million books in print in 43 languages--and nine straight #1 New York Times Bestsellers.

Home was just released on Tuesday, and in an event facilitated by The Book Stall of Winnetka--which sold books at the library, one of which I got signed--Coben spoke to a packed auditorium at the Skokie Public Library on Wednesday, September 21.

Given how much I've enjoyed his work over the years, it was damn cool to see him speak in my hometown, especially as another commitment forced me to miss my other favorite suspense novelist, Lee Child, at a 2015 appearance within walking distance of my home.

Though his radio appearances reflected a genial glibness, I wasn't sure what shape Coben's SPL appearance would take. I've been to a good number of book signings, and a few library events with authors, but didn't know if he would read from Home, answer questions within an interview format or what.

But pretty terrifically, for nearly an hour, he just stood and spoke.

After being introduced as "The master of the hook" and the first author to win the three major awards for mystery writing (Edgar, Shamus and Anthony), Coben began by telling the crowd that he was born just east of Skokie.

In Newark, New Jersey.

Self-effacing throughout, he noted that upon seeing a New York Times ad for Home featuring his photo, his teenage daughter greeted him at breakfast by simply saying, "Ewwww."

The 54-year-old Coben spoke a bit about his wife and kids, and mentioned that losing his own parents before they could see their grandchildren has prompted him to creatively keep them alive in the guise of Myron Bolitar's folks.

Clearly comfortable in front of a crowd and no newcomer to giving book tour presentations, the novelist was not only engaging--a patron afterward compared him to a stand-up comedian--but quite insightful about writing and his approach to it.

He shared how the inspiration for his stories can come from anywhere--tabloid headlines, observances in a store, etc.--but that the key driving force is the question, "What if?"

Back when picking up printed photographs was much more commonplace, he was once shocked to note a picture in his packet he didn't recognize--turns out it was merely turned upside down--and then imagined a scenario around "What if a misplaced picture changed my entire life?" that begat the book Just One Look.

Giving a few similar examples, Coben conveyed that in hatching a thriller plot, he will often "know the beginning and end and nothing in between," which becomes what he works to figure out.

He emphasized this thought with his second favorite quote about writing, from E.L. Doctorow:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

...and followed it with his most cherished nugget about drafting compelling novels, which came from Elmore Leonard:

"I try to cut out all the parts readers normally skip."

While clearly proud of his success and continued ability to knock out at least one new book per year--for a total of now 30--Coben claimed that insecurity, desperation and the "inability to do anything else" are what drives him.

"Only bad writers think they're good," he offered, while also enthusing that he loves being a writer, "the single greatest profession in the world."

He didn't provide much in the way of direct advice to aspiring writers, but intimated that "only writing is writing," meaning that thinking about writing, preparing to write, getting positioned to write, etc., are negligible next to actually putting pen to paper, or words to screen.

In a similar vein, he noted that he isn't big on research--"It's called fiction for a reason"--and suggested that the time many devote to oodles of advance research could be better applied by simply writing.

Before signing a book for everyone who had bought or brought one, Coben took a few questions from the audience, including mine about how & when he decides if he'll be writing a stand-alone or Myron & Win book.

He said this is determined naturally--i.e. not prompted by the publisher's wishes or any obligatory sense of direction--as upon finding a story he wants to tell it, he then figures out the characters who need to tell it.

Hence, Home is only his third novel in the past 16 years to feature his primary pair of recurring characters.

And after getting my newly-purchased copy signed, chatting briefly with Coben about hearing him on the Wrap-up Show and asking if another New Jerseyan who has meant a lot to me, Bruce Springsteen, is often mentioned in his books--I couldn't recall, but Harlan assured me he is--and then having a photo taken (kudos to the Skokie Public Library for enlisting a staff member who could snap good pix quickly while keeping the line moving), I went home and began reading Home.

Look for that book review in just a few days.

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