With double-digit trade bestsellers and an armful of major awards for writing mystery, Harlan Coben has become synonymous with the page-ripping thriller. Why then has this master of suspense who keeps millions of adults up past their bedtimes with his Myron Bolitar novels, including this year's Live Wire, set his sights on a slightly younger crowd?
Turns out Coben's young protagonist, 15-year-old Mickey Bolitar, not only happens to be Myron's nephew, but has a few hair-raising issues of his own to work out: a new school, a missing girlfriend, his mother in rehab and a chance encounter with a creepy Miss Havisham-type who tells him that his father, whose death Mickey thought he witnessed, is still alive. We caught up with the author, eager to unravel the mystery behind his idea to pen Shelter, the first installment of this promising teen series.
Find more books by adult authors who have successfully jumped to writing for teens.
What inspired you to turn to the YA audience?
I have four kids of my own. I always wanted to write something for them, and I also got the idea when I started writing the book before this, Live Wire [released in March]. I realized Myron Bolitar had a 15-year-old nephew who had more stories to tell. I always kind of wanted to tell Myron’s story at his age, but I didn’t want to go back in time, so it all naturally just sort of came together. Actually, Live Wire and Shelter overlap; there are similar scenes in both, but one is told from Mickey’s standpoint and the other from Myron’s.
Are your children at the age where you can bounce this off of them?
Not only do I bounce it off of them, a lot of the stories are ones that they’ve told me about their lives. The character Spoon, for example, is drawn from what happened to my son on his second day at a new school—a student walked up to him and said exactly what Spoon says to Mickey. A lot of these things are the products of just listening to my kids.
Shelter has one helluva hook ending.
Did you know at the outset how the novel would end?
Yeah, I pretty much knew the ending when I started. One of the other things I did to prepare for writing this was read a lot of great young adult novels, ones about dystopia, vampires or wizards. But I hadn’t seen anybody doing a keep-you-up-all-night, page-turning thriller; it might be out there, but I haven’t seen it in a series like this that’s also grounded in reality. So I thought it would be fun to do what I do with an adult audience for teenagers.
One of Shelter’s dominant themes is acceptance and openness toward friendship—the handsome new kid simultaneously allies himself with the fat goth outcast, the nerdy janitor’s kid and two of the hottest girls in school. How did developing this theme rank in forming a cohesive, page-turning plot?
These aren’t things I consciously think about. Mickey goes to school, and I’m like, “What’s going to happen to him next?” And that’s how he finds people. It’s not like I think he needs this guy or that to represent the whole world—that’s not how it works.
I’m telling the most compelling story I can with the most interesting characters and what narrative elements I can find—variety, tension, conflict—these sorts of things, but I don’t actually think that way. I don’t say, “OK, I need a nerdy guy.” It just happens. In my adult novels, Myron has his sidekicks, and now Mickey has his. I love the idea.
I love loner novels, too, but they’re not for me to write. Raymond Chandler used to say that his lead character walked the streets alone. My characters never really go anywhere alone. They may be out by themselves, but they always have backup. I love friendship. I love buddy-buddy—Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Batman and Robin—I like the buddy aspect of having things work, so that’s why I have Mickey have such a rich crew.
What do you hope your audience takes from this?
My job is to keep you up all night. I like to write novels of what I call immersion, which you take on vacation or go to bed with at night, read 10 pages and the next thing you know, it’s five in the morning and you’re bleary eyed and deliriously happy. I hope to give teenagers that experience.
I’m also hoping that, especially for my adult Bolitar fans, this will be a book they can actually talk to their teens about and just enjoy the fact that they’re reading the same book together. I know when I was younger, when my dad and I would share a book, it was kind of special, and even now at readings, when a mother and daughter or father and son show up together, it always moves me. I do think, even though this is a young adult novel, that adults will enjoy this, too—especially the Myron Bolitar people who want to read all the Myron Bolitar works. If you’re a Myron Bolitar completist, you’ll want to read it. And I think it’s one of my best books, even for adults.
Having written so much for adults, did your publisher ask you to edit this manuscript much?
Their basic response was “We love this.” They requested very few changes. There was absolutely no controversy. I told them from the beginning: “I’m not writing a normal young adult book. I’m not writing one that will be a nice-selling, normal series. I’m going to do something absolutely different, and if you don’t really like that, then I’m not your guy. If you want something safer, I’m not your guy.” And they understood that. I’ve had a New York Times No. 1 bestseller the last four or five books, and I’m not here for any reason other than I want to do this.