interview Entertainment

Author-producer Harlan Coben on his Netflix shows and his new book ‘The Boy From The Woods’

The multi-hyphenate talent talks about his latest page-turner, and about the convergence of the pen with the camera

Even through the pixelated webcam over Skype, Harlan Coben’s pensive expression is clear, as he details the physiology of his latest book The Boy From The Woods. Though the book released just a few weeks ago, Harlan’s international fan following have already indulged in the storyline several times over.

The prolific crime author has sold over 70 million copies of his 31 books, which have been taken across 43 languages. And, of course, he is now the creator and executive producer of two book-to-screen adaptations with Netflix: Richard Armitage-starrer The Stranger and Michael C Hall-starrer Safe.

Coben is known for delving into themes some may feel are best left undiscussed. “Before writing The Boy From The Woods, I thought about some of the issues in modern-day society such as media manipulation and propaganda, fake news, cult-like behaviour worshipping people rather than systems, the kid who was bullied at school.”

The Boy From The Woods follows the story of former soldier Wilde who, 30 years ago, emerged from the New Jersey backwoods as a feral child with no memory of his family and former life. When a young girl goes missing in the same woods, he is recruited to help find her. What ensues is a rollercoaster of trauma and unrelenting suspense. And, of course, in typical Harlan Coben manner, there is a surprise twist.

Book cover of 2020’s ‘The Boy From The Woods’ by Harlan Coben

Book cover of 2020’s ‘The Boy From The Woods’ by Harlan Coben   | Photo Credit: Penguin India

Into the woods

City-dweller Coben recalls a hike through the woods in New Jersey (where The Boy From The Woods would end up taking place) and seeing a little boy running around the trees. Naturally, he started thinking about what he would do if he saw this boy emerge from the woods, claiming he always lived in there and had no memory of his parents. The thought process continues: What if 30 years pass and no one finds out the truth about him? And what if someone else goes missing and he is sent back into the woods and finds that person? “All of what I mentioned before come under our responsibility as citizens, and then there are other things thrown in, which propel the story,” Coben sums up.

Coben calls himself a “fairly lazy researcher,” and he prioritises empathy. “Rather than asking a psychiatrist what this boy would go through, my job as a writer is to get into his skin. Writers require empathy rather than sympathy. You have to have the ability to be all those characters, even the ‘bad guys’. For the most part, how this character grew up, his personality, the fact he has trouble attaching to people — that’s what I would imagine the character would go through. If there’s something factual such as something to do with malignant narcissistic personalities, then I would make sure I got it right.” Does Coben get emotionally invested in these complex storylines and characters? “It’s not like when I’m done, I’m physically drained; it’s not that magical.”

Still from Netflix’s ‘The Stranger’ with Adam Price (Richard Armitage) and the stranger (Hannah John-Kamen)

Still from Netflix’s ‘The Stranger’ with Adam Price (Richard Armitage) and the stranger (Hannah John-Kamen)   | Photo Credit: Netflix

Aside from Coben’s famous Myron Bolitar series, books such as The Stranger and Safe have seen Coben’s main character as a family man very much involved with the world. They then end up fighting against various odds in the name of self-preservation, love and loyalty. And funnily, readers may not agree with or like them all the way through. “It’s important to make a character authentic and interesting; it’s not about being nice or mean. Most authentic people are hypocrites,” he laughs, “and people in real life are like that. [In The Boy From The Woods], even when Wilde or Esther at times seem to be contradictory, that’s real life because real people are not consistent.”

Coben agrees that the current time of self-isolation offers an interesting parallel to the idea of isolation presented in The Boy From The Woods. The coincidence is an appealing one and he explains that he primarily wanted to centre his book on someone of a completely new profile, and the idea of loneliness and isolation materialised.

Still from Netflix’s ‘Safe’ with Dr. Tom Delaney (Michael C Hall) and Dr. Peter Mayfield (Marc Warren)

Still from Netflix’s ‘Safe’ with Dr. Tom Delaney (Michael C Hall) and Dr. Peter Mayfield (Marc Warren)   | Photo Credit: Netflix

Ask Harlan for advice on writing in isolation, and he is immediately empathetic. On April 13, Harlan posted a video to his Instagram at the request of actor-producer Reese Witherspoon for her online book club. “This is the time to give [writing a book] a try,” he says in video. Clearly, he is aware of the social media pressures people are facing, with people baking hoardes of bread, learning gardening or a new language, or playing video games.

He adds in the interview, however, “I’m finding it hard to write in isolation. You don’t have to beat yourself up; you don’t have to learn French or write a masterpiece. Just start off with a pen and paper and write the words ‘What if’ at the top of the page and just start jotting down nonsense. Eventually, that nonsense may lead to something else, as though you’re mining for something or clearing away dirt. If you get bored, you’re probably not going to be a writer and don’t worry about it.”

Going digital

The book-to-screen journey has been “a dream” and Coben, who has four more years with his Netflix deal, is excited to work with more diverse cast and crews around the globe. His next projects, El Innocente is currently in works in Spain and The Woods in Poland.

The content, so far, has only been in a series format, owing to the steady paces of his books and the level of detail in the characters’ worlds. Coben insists that adaptations “should not be slavishly devoted to text,” adding, “The worst adaptations are ones that are exactly like the book. Books are very internal but TV is so different, so I have to be in favour of changes. For example, in The Stranger, the stranger was a man. But visually, it worked to have a woman and Hannah John-Kamen played the role perfectly.”

That said, can India’s film fraternity expect a Harlan Coben adaptation? “I’ve always wanted to make a film or series with India talent,” he merely responds with a smile.

‘The Boy From The Woods’ (Penguin India) is available in Kindle edition via (₹654).

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Printable version | Jul 4, 2020 12:01:22 PM |

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