Until I met Harlan Coben, I was only vaguely familiar with his name. It was one of dozens I would see on the short paperbacks that line the shelves of airport news shops. I had an even fuzzier recollection that when Bill Clinton was recovering from quadruple-bypass surgery, in 2004, he was photographed holding a copy of Coben’s novel No Second Chance. My introduction to Coben occurred in October 2005, when he and I were among some 150 authors featured at a book fair in New York’s Bryant Park. I was a last-minute addition to the schedule—my publisher was able to get me a slot because another writer canceled—and was thrilled that despite my book’s small print run, about 30 people attended my reading. After I finished, however, I realized that most of them were not there for me but had come early to secure themselves seats to hear Coben, the next writer on the bill.
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Later, the two of us were assigned to share a table where we could autograph our books. The queue for Coben stretched 40 people down the concrete footpath and never seemed to let up. Men and women asked him to pose with them for photos. They presented him with stacks of his novels to sign. As for me, I signed something like eight or nine copies of my book (and that’s including one for my in-laws and multiple copies for my wife’s friend). The contrast was dispiriting.
There was no point in pretending I had something else to do, so I watched Coben work. He’s 6 foot 4 and imposingly built (he played power forward for the Amherst College basketball team), almost completely bald, and charismatic in a self-effacing, deracinated-son-of-the-Borscht-Belt manner. When a reader asked how long it takes him to write a book, he said it’s always nine months. “I compare it to childbirth,” he said. “The best part is the idea—wink-wink.”