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Harlan Coben talks about writing crime during the pandemic, the global reach of Netflix, and the Polish-language ...
2020-06-26 09:00:00

The Best Routine Is no Routine
An Interview with Harlan Coben

“The Woods”, directed by Leszek Dawid and Bartosz Konopka, a joint project of Harlan Coben and Netflix
The Best Routine Is no Routine
The Best Routine Is no Routine

In Netflix’s latest Polish-language production The Woods, the main characters try to solve a mystery from the past involving the discovery of only two bodies after four young people went missing at a summer camp. Shortly before its premiere on 12th June, Harlan Coben, author of the source novel and one of the producers of the show, told me about how he works on his books, and how he enjoys the adaptations of his works made in various countries by various writers and directors.

Read in 14 minutes

A pandemic seems like dry season for a crime story. In Miami, for the first time since the 1950s, no homicides had been recorded in the seven weeks since the lockdown was imposed.

I didn’t know that. That’s good news. People are off the streets, it’s hard to say what has been going on among them. The pandemic was the number one story for a few months, now it has been overshadowed by the protests after George Floyd’s death. We are living in very interesting times.

But is it good news for a crime writer?

Obviously, if there’s less people out in the streets, the crime rate goes down. What does that mean for me as a writer? I don’t know. And I don’t care. I’m happy when there’s less crime. Will I ever write a book about the pandemic? I don’t know that either. We shall see how the current situation pans out. Usually, I write contemporary novels that take place in the here and now. I was finishing a novel when this pandemic first hit. So I decided on some rewrites and set that book in 2019. Otherwise, there would have been too many changes to be made to do with social distancing and stuff like that. My books and TV shows, for example The Woods, took place in a world before the coronavirus. I don’t know how the pandemic – or the recent protests – are going to affect the way we all write. My guess is they will change it somehow, but I can’t yet anticipate any specific details. I haven’t started working on anything new yet. When 9/11 happened, I thought I wouldn’t necessarily write about 9/11, but it was still there, on every page. Sometimes I need a little bit of distance to do such things.

In your books, you don’t just focus on the events or the whole whodunit aspect. You also write about how the situation changes the people involved. This is also the case with The Woods.

The Woods actually dealt with the same race issues that we are facing today. It came out in 2007; I wrote it in 2004–2005. Today we have the very same conflicts. In the Polish TV adaptation, the racial inequality was replaced by class warfare, which is sometimes a very similar kind of thing.

“The Woods”, directed by Leszek Dawid and Bartosz Konopka, a joint project of Harlan Coben and Netflix
“The Woods”, directed by Leszek Dawid and Bartosz Konopka, a joint project of Harlan Coben and Netflix

I don’t know if this is a good thing, but after the first couple of episodes of The Woods I wasn’t interested in the identity of the killer but in the characters – the way the past shaped them and made them who they are.

That’s exactly what I want. And that is why this show is something much more than simply an exciting thriller. What makes a great thriller? Well, I can do an exciting plot with a lot of twists and turns. But if you don’t care about Paweł and Laura [the protagonists of The Woods – ed. note], it’s like owning a very expensive car and having no petrol. You’re not going anywhere.

I wrote The Woods as a love story. I think if the book appeals to Polish readers, so will the TV show. Is it sensible to have a love story? Yes! We want Paweł to find out what happened to his sister, we want to know what really happened at the summer camp in the woods. That’s the obvious plot engine. But at the same time, we have all lived through a summer romance. Everyone has a ‘what if?’ moment in their past. For Paweł and Laura, that question is still relevant. You get to meet them as 18-year-olds falling in love, then you get to know them as adults in relationships. But they have this connection of heartache and old love. Our task, as the creators of the TV show, was to make viewers feel strongly about those characters. The Woods was meant to be something more than just its thrilling plot.

That was also a huge task for the actors – Agnieszka Grochowska and Grzegorz Damięcki, who play the characters in the present day, as well as Wiktoria Filus and Hubert Milkowski in the flashbacks from the 1990s.

They’re fantastic. A journalist asked me yesterday about my dream cast. Well, I got my dream cast all right! The actors are terrific. After I was told about the casting, I watched a few things with them in it, but still I didn’t realize what they were capable of. Now I keep telling my friends in America and the actors I worked with on other things in the US and UK that they must watch The Woods, because of the universally terrific cast. Especially both Lauras and both Pawełs. I cannot imagine those parts being played any better than they are.

What did you know about Poland prior to the adaptation of The Woods?

I have a great relationship with my Polish readers. When you look at where my Facebook followers come from, it turns out that Warsaw is the number one city in the world. Then it’s Paris, then Kraków. I don’t think I’ve done a book signing anywhere in the world where there hasn’t been at least one person showing up with a Polish copy of one of my books. Whether in France, in England or even here in the US. It’s ridiculously flattering, and I’m super pleased about it.

I’m asking about your knowledge of Poland because, as you said earlier, the race conflict in the book – so relevant today – has been replaced with class divisions in the TV adaptation. As I understand, this was a conscious choice. Did any other changes made by the Polish screenwriters surprise you?

I would have been surprised if there weren’t any changes. I expected them, of course. One of the things that influenced the book – and the reason the idea came to me in the first place – was my memories of being a chaperone (or a counsellor, as we call it in America) at a summer camp when I was 17 or 18 years old. That’s the same job that Paweł has. I always thought I was too young for this job. And I wondered: what if I really messed up and some kids went into the woods and didn’t come back? The camp in the TV series is obviously very different from my camp. But I felt like I was there, which is what art or storytelling should do. I’ve always found the more specific you are, the more universal the appeal. Every Polish media person I’ve spoken to said: “Oh, my God, I know that camp, I went to a camp just like it. I felt like it was real.” I’m an American, and even I felt like that camp was real. That’s the key to good storytelling. All the details – the outfits, the hairstyles, the music – that’s what makes a story come to life.

Do you think that the global audience will pick up the Polish musical hits from the 1990s?

The summer camp in my novel took place in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I was evoking places like Pennsylvania or New Jersey. And yet the book was still a big hit in Poland. Now the realities of the TV show can speak to viewers in France, the UK, Singapore, Arab countries, the US; Netflix is in 190 countries. A universal story is much more important than a particular song. “Two Princes” by Spin Doctors caught my ear. I didn’t know that song before. I also can’t get “Dzieci” by Elektryczne Gitary out of my head. Not only did I not know it before, I couldn’t even understand the lyrics. Still, I’ve been walking around singing that Hey, hey, la, la, la, la, hey, hey, hey. I was watching the rushes [unedited, raw footage – ed. note] from that day. The actors basically spent all day pretending they were drunk and singing. We all have that memory, only with different songs. Who cares what song it is? What you remember is that time with a cherry vodka, or maybe a gin. You were with your best friends that day. And those are the universal memories. It doesn’t matter if you went to your camp in the 1950s, 1980s or even the 2000s. There’s a universality to being that specific.

The show presents the 1990s as a time of youth and innocence. It is soaked with the aesthetics of that decade, which are now becoming more and more fashionable. By contrast, the present day is a time of darkness; of miserable adulthood. Do you think that in the last quarter of a century the world has turned worse?

I don’t necessarily think that in the show the 90s are looked upon as glamorous. Not everything looks happy or pleasing to me, especially when we leave the summer camp after the incident and go back to reality. However, I do think we are going through very tough times right now. That’s obvious. I was born in 1962, so I was a little kid during the rough 60s. But the 70s, 80s and 90s seem like relatively calm times versus now. Although, it wasn’t that way for everybody – we are learning that this very week in America, with the protests after George Floyd’s death. And we have a long, long way to go if we want everybody to get where they should be. We have a lot of work to do. Still, if you look at human history from 1945 to the present, it was a really good time. Could it have been better? Yes. Should it have been better? Yes. Was it better than most periods? Yes.

Whatever happens, your future is safe, since you’ve signed with Netflix for a number of adaptations. Are you a little afraid of what happened to George R.R. Martin? The TV series took over his life, while readers demand new books.

In the last five years, I’ve done six or seven TV series. But for me, the novel will always be king. I still write quickly. If that changes, I’ll drop the TV business. But right now I can handle both. A few years ago, I did two TV shows back to back: Juste un regard in France and Safe in England. My publishers were a little nervous. So, almost to prove them wrong, instead of writing one book that year, I wrote two. In Poland, I have two novels coming up fairly soon. Last March in America, my latest novel, The Boy from the Woods, was published. The next one is already done. It will be out next March. Right now, I’m able to keep the pace, especially because I’m working with extraordinarily talented people whom I trust and on whom I can rely. And I’m not going to collaborate with anybody who I don’t think can do justice to a story. In the case of this show, I was in really great hands. As soon as I saw that these people really understood the material, I could take my foot off the accelerator. I didn’t have to get intimately involved in the day-to-day decisions.

I’m from Wrocław. The most famous crime writer from my town is Marek Krajewski, who is well known for his meticulous approach – his workdays are set out in minute details and filled with small routines. He’s very prolific, too. You also keep up a fast pace. Are there any methods that allow you to do that?

Well, I go with the flow. First of all, if you ask 10 writers about how they work, they’ll give you 11 different answers. My routine is to have no routine at all. Some days I write on this [Coben picks up a black notebook], some days I use that [he shows me a laptop]. Or I use the computer in front of me. If I do better in the mornings, I try to keep that up. For most of my career, I was raising four children. They’re grown up now. My youngest is 18. When we were all living under one roof, it wasn’t easy to write at home, so I would drop them off at school and I would go to a coffee shop. If I wrote well at a particular coffee shop, I would come back there until it stopped working for me. Then I would find another place for a while.

One day when I was writing The Stranger (a book that also was adapted by Netflix), I took an Uber into New York City from my home, which is about a 45-minute drive. I felt guilty about spending the money. So I started writing in the back seat. It went really well, so for three weeks, I took Ubers everywhere. You can compare me to a football player who has to wear the same socks when his team is on a winning streak. Or who doesn’t shave. I’m all about those tiny things, those small superstitions. That’s why I’m constantly changing what I’m doing. If it works for a week, two weeks, a month, three months, whatever – I’ll stick with it. When it stops working, I’ll start looking around for something new.

Is there any difference between writing for TV and writing a book? Or is it the same job?

Well, writing is writing, but the job is very different. Especially when you’re doing an adaptation of your own book. You have to accept that it’s not going to be the same as it was on paper. And it shouldn’t be. The worst movie adaptations are the ones that are slavishly devoted to the book. The best adaptations are by those who understand that one is a visual medium and the other is not. That gives me a lot of freedom. You need to think in images. In a novel, you can get into somebody’s head. You can tell the reader what that character thinks. But in a TV series, you have to use camera shots and action. I look at it like this: when I wrote The Woods, I was a singer-songwriter who had a big hit song. Now a Polish band is going to cover that song. I don’t want them to sound exactly the same as me. That would be boring. What would be the point of that? I want them to bring Polish culture into it, I want them to bring in Polish sensibilities. I want them to take my song and make it into a cool hybrid. I think that’s the case with the TV adaptation of The Woods.

“The Woods”, directed by Leszek Dawid and Bartosz Konopka, a joint project of Harlan Coben and Netflix
“The Woods”, directed by Leszek Dawid and Bartosz Konopka, a joint project of Harlan Coben and Netflix

After publishing The Woods, did you manage to convince your own kids that they’d be safe at a summer camp?

No, they didn’t do much of that. But it didn’t have anything to do with my novel. They simply had other things, other activities. I myself was only at a summer camp two or three times. Once as a 15-year-old and then as a counsellor. In those days, you would go away for the whole eight weeks. But when the book came out, a number of my friends were actually calling me to say: “Oh my God, now I don’t want to send my kid to a camp!” I would reply: “It’s OK. It’s just fiction.”

What will your next TV adaptations be?

When the pandemic started, we were finishing principal photography on The Innocent in Spain. The director is Oriol Paulo, who made The Invisible Guest. It stars Mario Casas. We have two, maybe three weeks of filming left. It was originally scheduled to be out toward the end of this year. My guess is we’ll be delayed. At the same time, the team that made The Stranger, Safe and The Five is working on the adaptation of Stay Close. David Ayer, who directed End of Watch and wrote Training Day, is currently developing Six Years as a movie for Netflix. Soon we will announce some more projects in other countries.

Around the world with Harlan Coben.” People ask you about your dream cast. I want to ask about the dream country for an adaptation of one your books?

That’s a good question. I don’t know! I’ve done two shows and a movie in France. I’d love to work there again. We are also talking about making a show in Germany. And it would be great to do something in Brazil or South America. Basically, I love the idea of doing the whole world. It’s fantastic to work with talented people from different cultures that I don’t know so well. I’m curious about Asia. Maybe we’ll do a TV show for that market? It’s possible now, with all the streaming services.

When I was growing up in America – or even a few years ago – you never watched any foreign TV, ever. It just didn’t happen. You guys watched American shows, but Americans never watched foreign shows. What’s the next big thing in TV? International content, foreign markets. Maybe Poland will be one of them. I really hope that this show will open people’s eyes to a lot of the talents that are in your country. There are talents all over the world. With a platform like Netflix, you can reach people who normally wouldn’t be able to see a Polish TV series or see these wonderful actors.

The world of cinema has already started to embrace foreign films, as evidenced by Parasite’s triumph at the Academy Awards. Did you like that movie?

Yes, it was terrific. My two favourite movies of the last year were Parasite and Jojo Rabbit. I actually think the best movies I’ve seen over the last couple of decades have almost all been foreign. The Lives of Others from Germany, The Secret in Their Eyes from Argentina, the aforementioned Invisible Guest from Spain. I’m especially proud of my French adaptation Tell No One, directed by Guillaume Canet and starring François Cluzet and Kristin Scott Thomas.

American thrillers have mostly moved to TV. What’s left in cinemas is mostly blockbusters. I’m not a huge fan of Marvel movies; I’m not knocking them, but they’re just not made for me. I look for something else, and it turns out that I mostly find it in foreign films.

This interview took place thanks to Netflix. Parts of the interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Harlan Coben, source: ActuaLitté/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Harlan Coben, source: ActuaLitté/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Harlan Coben:

An American novelist, writer of (32 in all!) globally bestselling crime novels, thrillers and screenplays. His latest show, The Woods – an adaptation of his 2007 novel – premiered on Netflix on 12th June.


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