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.


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. 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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