'Fool Me Once,' A Conversation with Harlan Coben


Photo: Claudio Marinesco

Harlan Coben is known to millions of readers. His books appear regularly on the New York Times bestseller list, and more than 60 million have been sold internationally. He was the first writer to receive the Edgar, Shamus and Anthony Awards.

Fool Me Once, his 28th novel, features Captain Maya Stern, a former Army special-ops helicopter pilot. While grieving the death of her sister during a home invasion, Maya witnesses her husband Joe's murder during an attempted robbery. Left to care for her daughter alone, Maya sets up a nanny cam, and though nearly impossible to believe, sees footage of her dead husband playing with her daughter. What is going on? Is Joe still alive, or is Maya losing her mind? And who is in the car following her? The novel rockets to a stunning conclusion so unpredictable, Kirkus Reviews described it as "a tale guaranteed to fool even the craftiest readers more than once."

The opening lines of your novels are often startling. The first sentence of Fool Me Once is, 'They buried Joe three days after his murder.' And, the first sentence of The Stranger is, 'The stranger didn't shatter Adam's world all at once.' Tell us your thoughts about the importance of a novel's first sentence.
I want to hook the reader as fast as possible. If I can accomplish that with the first sentence, that's what I want to do, but it's a heck of a challenge. I think the first sentence sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It's like I'm saying to the reader, 'Strap yourself in; we're going on a very fast rollercoaster ride.'

Maya Stern is a fascinating character. Tell us a bit about her.
I think she's my favorite protagonist outside of my series' character, Myron Bolitar. She's strong, stoic, independent, and very damaged. She's brave and realistic, but she's not terribly warm or cuddly. She's not classically maternal, yet you sense her love and devotion perhaps even more because of that trait.

As a former helicopter pilot in a war zone, Maya suffers from a psychological condition. Tell us about that.
Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for those who served in combat to suffer some form of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Part of being a good writer means being empathetic; the writer must get into where the character is really at emotionally. After finishing the manuscript, I sent it to several veterans I know who suffer from PTSD. Their responses told me I had nailed it. Maya's psychological condition isn't a major part of the book, but it shapes many things about her.

And, because of her condition, Maya is vulnerable to doubting her own perceptions when she sees her dead husband on the nanny cam, isn't she?
Yes, to some degree. She knows she's seen Joe on the nanny cam, but she has enough insight to recognize there's the possibility she's being played. She's savvy enough to be able to step back and think maybe things aren't quite what they seem.

You once said 'Almost all my ideas come from something that happens in my regular life.' Did that happen with Fool Me Once?
Yes, in two different ways.

One was when I went on the International Thriller Writers Organization's USO Tour. We went overseas to meet the troops, talk about books, and do book signings. While there, I met an enthusiastic reader who was a combat pilot. She was nothing like Maya, but the idea of someone with her background stuck with me.

The second was when I began noticing more and more parents using nanny cams. I thought, 'What would mess up my mind if I was looking at a nanny cam?'

So, those are two examples of how my regular life inspired elements in this novel.

Speaking of 'messing with your mind,' Fool Me Once may have the most mind-boggling twists of all your novels. What makes twists so important in thrillers?
I think we all love the 'gasp' moment in a book--that instant when we literally see everything from an entirely different perspective. If done correctly, we enjoy being fooled. But there's more to it than simply being misdirected; it must work on an emotional level. A sleight of hand is fine--it's like watching a card trick, but I hope the book emotionally blindsides you as well, so you feel something. I'm not satisfied with simply writing a fast-moving plot, if the book lacks real emotional impact.

What's the most important lesson you've learned about writing?
It's a cliché, but you have to write. You have to turn off that voice in your head telling you it's not working, or you need more time to get this novel right. You have to put words down on paper, and remember, you can always change them. You can always fix bad pages; you can't fix no pages.

Looking back, is there anything you would do differently in your career as an author?
I would do nothing differently because if I had back then, I might have ended up in an entirely different spot from where I am right now; and I'm in a really good spot.

When you're a new writer, it's good to be a little naïve.

When I was starting out, there were no Amazon rankings, so I was wonderfully naïve, even benighted. I had two books published by a very small house; then I was a Dell paperback original author. My print-runs were small as were the advances. I had had no idea I was just a tiny pimple on the publishing world's behind.

I stayed that way for four books. If Amazon sales figures were available back then, I probably would have panicked and stopped writing altogether rather than keeping at it.

It wasn't until my tenth novel that I hit the New York Times bestseller list. I'm glad I kept writing.

What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
I sleep pretty well. I have four kids, and like any parent, I worry about them all the time. But I've learned to not take it to bed. I worry about things I can control, and have stopped worrying about those I cannot.

Speaking of kids, you now write YA novels in addition to adult thrillers. Did you have to change gears to do that?
No, it's pretty much the opposite. I've kept the same gears in motion. The difference is your lead character is sixteen years old instead of being thirty or forty. I try not changing anything else. You have to be a little careful around certain themes, but if you dumb it down, you're dead. Interestingly, fans of the adult Myron Bolitar novels have liked the YA books about Mickey Bolitar as much as the kids do.

What's coming next for Harlan Coben?
For British fans, I have a TV series coming on Sky1, and I'm now writing another Myron Bolitar novel.

Congratulations on writing Fool Me Once, a novel receiving a starred review from Publishers Weekly which also said, 'Coben is like a skilled magician saving the best, most stunning trick for the very end.'

Mark Rubinstein's latest novel is The Lovers' Tango a finalist for the Benjamin Franklin Gold Award in Popular Fiction