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Books: Harlan Coben in Bollywood?

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Here’s news for fans of Harlan Coben dramas on Netflix. The prolific writer of crime thrillers, who has a multi-million dollar deal to adapt his novels for the streaming platform, is seriously keen to produce a show in India. “Or even a Bollywood film,” he says. He’s watched some Hindi movies, even if he cannot pronounce the titles. “I’m very bad with pronouncing foreign languages,” Coben says, speaking on a video call from his home in New Jersey. “My books have been adapted into French films, I travel to France regularly, but I struggle to even say bonjour.”

Coben’s last trip to India, which he describes as the typical tourist experience, covering Delhi, Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur and all the must-dos for the Western traveller, was 30 years ago. But his memories are vivid.

“There is so much culture and colour. Americans don’t understand the diversity; how many worlds exist within a country. I see it as a vibrant and vivacious place. I’ve told Netflix I want to do a show or a movie in India. I think our talents blend well and my stories would translate well to that setting,” he says.

With the cast of Tell No One at the premiere

One book at a time

This is an ambitious plan for a writer who set modest goals for himself when he started out 35 years ago. Coben’s first attempt at a novel was after a summer job as a tour guide for Americans in Spain. “I told myself, this is a really strange experience, and I should write a book about it,” he says. So, that’s what he did. He describes the result as terrible. So were the two novels that followed, he says.

“When I just start to play basketball would I expect to be very good at it? Then why do aspiring writers think the very first book should be a success?” he asks.

Coben ventured into writing with the dream of having one novel published by a real publisher. “Then, I wanted to see two books published, just to know it wasn’t a fluke. Later, I thought that maybe, just maybe I could make a living from it. Could I hope to make it to the top 15 on the bestseller lists, then the top 10?”

His small steps have led Coben, now being hailed as a contemporary master of mystery, to write over 30 books. His 35th, The Match, releases in March.

Harlan Coben’s latest book
Harlan Coben’s latest book

“You have to treat it [writing] like a job. A plumber cannot wake up in the morning and say ‘I’m not feeling like doing pipes today’. I treat writing the same way. It may seem remarkable, but it’s not. It’s all I do. Great writers like Philip Roth have expressed the same idea. There’s an old saying that amateurs sit around waiting for inspiration while the rest of us just get to work.”

He writes nearly every single day. ‘Two pages a day and you have 700 pages in a year. See, there’s no magic to it,” he says.

The ‘what if’ concept

Coben’s writing routine is to not have a routine. “I write in coffee shops and in delis. Once I realised I could write in an Uber, I started taking cabs a lot. I also write well on flights.” He knows the beginning and the final twist of each story when he sits down to write, he says. But the rest unfolds as he types out the chapters.

“Let’s say I’m planning a trip across America, from New Jersey where I live, to California. Route 80 would be the straightforward way, but I could also choose to travel through the Panama Canal or even make a stop in Tokyo. So, I know the beginning and the end of the story, but have no idea how to get there until I start writing,” he explains.

The core ideas of his novels come from his ‘what if’ speculations in various situations. “I was walking in the woods one time. I really don’t like it. There’s a tree here, another tree there and it’s boring. I’m a city walker. I like window-shopping, people’s faces, cafes. And there, on a parallel path is a little boy wandering all alone. I think: what if he had always lived in the woods, what if he didn’t know how he got there or who his parents were? Thirty years later there are still no answers. So, who’s going to tell the story?” That task falls to Wilde, the protagonist of Coben’s latest novel.

With director Guillaume Canet
With director Guillaume Canet

Coben’s other by-now famous story-teller is Myron Bolitar, who features in thrillers such as Deal Breaker and Drop Shot. The writer agrees that there’s a lot of him in his character. “I created Myron Bolitar as me with wish fulfillment. He’s funnier and smarter than me, plays better basketball, and he was ahead of me in life at the beginning. But as I started writing, contrasts were created. His whole dream is to be married, have kids, plus the barbecue and the basketball court at home, but he never gets any of these. I have all of it. Then again, my parents died young. But Myron’s are around and I look at his relationship with them as what might have been mine. So, that struggle, the conflict, makes the novels stronger,” he says.

His novels are entirely about secrets from the past shattering fragile places and people, murder and dark truths. How does it feel to be constantly dwelling in that space?

“It’s my therapy, I think,” he says. “I pass on the anxieties. And as Flaubert said, ‘Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work’. I’ve been married for many years, we’ve raised four kids and have two dogs. It’s a normal, suburban existence. My life is a placid pool and even a pebble can cause ripples. That, I think, allows me to be violent and original in my work.”

Priya Bala
Priya Bala

Priya Bala is a Bengaluru-based senior writer who specialises in food, travel and lifestyle writing. She has edited several major mainstream publications in the past.

From HT Brunch, April 3, 2022

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