Can You Imagine? Harlan Coben Never Intended to Become a Writer.

Imagine the World if He’d Become a Lawyer

Harlan Coben is one of the biggest names in crime/mystery/thriller fiction today. It wasn’t always that way. As with any writer, he struggled at the beginning and he’s never forgotten that time. He recently remembered one lonely Thanksgiving weekend sitting for hours at a Walden Books store (Remember those?) hoping to sign copies of his latest novel. No one showed up.

“I learned how to look busy,” he says.

One customer came up to him asking where the Steven King novels were. Another asked directions to the men’s room. Finally, an elderly man asked if Coben was signing his own books and hung around to talk to him.

“What’s it like?” the man asked.

“It’s my dream,” Corben replied.

“Man, you’re lucky,” the man said, and walked away without buying a copy.

Contrast that with his success these days and a book signing in France that went on for seven hours. That’s right. Seven hours. No one was asking him for directions to the men’s room that day.

Did you know Coben never took a creative writing course in his life? Ever? The closest he came to even taking an English course in college was a class in Shakespeare while studying political science at Amherst. The truth is, he never intended to become a writer.

“I’m self-taught. The best way to learn writing is to read,” he says.

He originally was going into the family travel business or become a lawyer. Think of it. He could have been on a billboard near you flogging legal services and chasing ambulances instead of sitting on every bestseller list in the world.

He made the right choice.

On the Road with the Local Rotary Club

Psychological thriller author Jenny Milchman is famous for conducting the world’s longest book tour. She loaded her family into an RV, rented out her home and toured the United States for nearly a year going from bookstore to bookstore, signing books and talking to patrons. Along the way she met with book clubs and any local organization that was looking for a speaker. Her first novel went into a second printing almost as soon as she began the tour, so she had something good to sell and a lot of friends. Milchman is an extrovert, which is unusual for a writer. So she attracts fans easily.

How did she manage her marathon trip? Her husband could hold down his job by using his laptop on the road and the couple homeschooled their two children. Her husband was also in charge of the book tour’s logistics—getting them from place to place, although Jenny shared the driving—and the kids helped pack swag bags for different events. Of course they used some of the time to see America. Imagine the education the kids got.

Since then she has repeated her famous book tour although it’s getting more difficult now that her offspring are teenagers. And of course Covid brought all in-person touring to a halt in the past year.

Tough Guys, Burglars and Lesbians

Lawrence Block is best known for mixing it up and writing about tough guys like Matthew Scudder and then more sophisticated burglars like Bernie Rhodenbarr. But he got his start writing a novel about something totally different.

Lesbians.

His first novel, Strange Are the Ways of Love, was written under the pseudonym, Lesley Evans. “It was not erotica,” he says. “It was a sensitive novel of the lesbian experience, published in 1959 by Crest, then the country’s premier publisher of lesbian fiction.”

Why begin your writing career with sex scenes instead of car chases and bombs in midair?

“It was the writing equivalent of Manhattan real estate,” he told an audience at Otto Penzer’s Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan years ago. “You really couldn’t screw up.”

Coben, Milchman, Block and many other authors will be part of an upcoming anthology I’m writing about how famous authors got their start. CrimeReads.com began serializing my interviews with authors in a monthly column last year.

I’ve also been busy completing my fourth novel. I hope to be done soon. As in real soon.

Please excuse any typos. The editor, like the author, has been in solitary.

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IDOL TALK: Having Two Novels Already Published Wasn’t A Prerequisite  

New York Times bestselling author Michael Koryta got the call from the records office at Indiana University shortly before he was scheduled to graduate. Looking back, it’s easy to understand why he overlooked a single core prerequisite.

Koryta was busy writing part-time for the Bloomington Herald-Times, he worked occasionally for a private detective and in what little spare time he had left, he was writing novels. He did all of this while studying for a degree in criminal justice because he never lost sight of his goal to become a crime fiction writer.

A precocious kid, he can’t recall when the lightbulb flipped on. “I don’t remember a time I wasn’t reading and not wanting to write. That goes back to the earliest part of my childhood,” he says.

Koryta was a college sophomore when he sold his first novel. While shopping his first manuscript, the 19-year-old didn’t tell anyone he was a student for fear they wouldn’t take him seriously. Tonight I said Goodbye, was published the next year. He’d just turned 20, too young to walk up to the bar or rent a car, but old enough to be nominated for an Edgar that year.

His second novel, Sorrow’s Anthem, was published before he was scheduled to graduate. With so much on his plate, it’s easy to forgive him for overlooking that one required course in his curriculum. He was told he could not walk across the stage and pick up his diploma in May 2006.

“They informed me I hadn’t completed my intensive writing requirement.” That’s right. Indiana University was insisting he complete a writing course (he chose creative writing—go figure), before he could graduate. At the time, his creative writing was already published in ten languages around the world. So, he spent the summer of 2006 taking a correspondence course to graduate while still writing for the newspaper and working on his third novel.

Indiana University, after all, has its standards.

He has published seventeen crime and supernatural novels since his sophomore year. His eighteenth novel, Never Far Away, launches February 9. It is a story of a mother who is a witness to a terrible crime that forces her to fake her own death, go into hiding and give up her family. When her husband dies unexpectantly, and with her children believing she died long ago, she reemerges as their aunt and guardian. In doing so, she inadvertently leaves a trail for an assassin who failed to complete the job the first time.

Koryta, now 38, has been a published author for half his life, having written 18 novels in the past 19 years. It can all be traced back to his laser-like preoccupation with writing, which delayed his Indiana University graduation. He finally received his diploma at home in the mail at the end of the summer of 2006, which only goes to prove Michael Koryta is truly in a class of his own.

To read the entire story, visit The Big Thrill magazine.

IDOL TALK: The Bestselling New York Times Author You Never Heard Of

Suppose you had seven New York Times bestselling novels under your belt and still nobody knew your name. Can’t happen, you say?

But it did.

If you’re in the know in Hollywood, then you’ll recognize the name of Tom Straw, a veteran writer of numerous television comedies from “Night Court” to the “Cosby Show.” But I’ll bet you didn’t know about his seven New York Times bestsellers. And it’s not like he was hanging out at the bottom of the list. He actually hit number one.

So, where has Tom been all your literary life?

It just so happens that he wrote under the pseudonym of Richard Castle. Ring a familiar bell? Rick Castle (BTW, a great first name), is the fictitious novelist in the long-running television detective series “Castle.” The show ran for seven seasons and starred Nathan Fillion as Castle and Stana Katic as his romantic interest, New York City Police Detective Kate Becket.

In the series, Castle was a crime novelist seeking his muse. So he wrangled a via New York’s mayor to shadow Beckett while she investigated crimes. While working with her, he created his “Nikki Heat” character for his novel series based on his experiences with Detective Beckett. Of course, this is a television show so there is no real book series.

But then…

Then, the show’s Executive Producer Andrew W. Marlowe approached Straw about actually writing the novels as a tie-in to the television show. He wrote seven novels during seven seasons “Castle” ran on the air and every one of them became a New York Times bestseller. So there you go. Tom Straw, aka Richard Castle, the most successful bestselling author you never heard of—until now.

Lee Child Retires

Probably the most successful thriller writer in the genre, Lee Child, has retired and has passed on his Jack Reacher series to his younger brother, Andrew Grant. Want the details on the transition? Click here for my story in the Big Thrill magazine about the passing of the biggest baton in all of thrillerdom. And if you’d like to know more about Lee Child’s beginnings, click here for a story that will appear as a chapter in my anthology about successful novelists’ beginnings.

My Neighbor Randy Wayne White

Decades ago when the The New Yorker reached Floridian Randy Wayne White to pen a piece on the Everglades, he turned down the offer. The Outside magazine columnist and fishing guide was in a foul mood. It was the height of the fishing season and he had enough work on his plate. Besides, he said at the time, what else can be written about Florida’s endangered swamp land that hasn’t already been written?

He wasn’t trying to play hard to get, but it didn’t seem to hurt at all. White heard from his buddies in New York literary circles that the editor he turned down was telling others chumming for talent that Randy was a big catch. “Randy White’s pretty good, if you can get him,” she told people. When the supply is limited, the demand usually goes up.

Randy went on to write dozens of novels, many NYT bestsellers. His most famous novels are part of his “Doc Ford” series about the adventures of marine biologist Doc Ford. Keep an eye on Crimereads.com later this month for my story about Randy. We met at his restaurant, Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grill on Sanibel Island, not far from my Florida condo, and we had a long chat about his beginnings, and book and magazine publishing.

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