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16 May 2022

Harlan Coben on location filming, travel disasters and tourist tactics

Harlan Coben on location filming, travel disasters and tourist tactics

In a previous career, bestselling thriller writer Harlan Coben would set up dream travel trips for holidaymakers.

Through his eight years in the industry, he travelled the world, learned how to cope with tourist disasters and crossed many bucket destinations off his list.

“The whole world fascinates me,” says the top novelist whose books have sold over 75 million copies worldwide and been adapted into a raft of Netflix series including Stay Close, The Stranger and Safe.

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Yet many of his stories are set in New Jersey, where he was born and raised and where he still lives now.

“I can have mountain wilderness themes and then you drive 45 minutes and you’re in the heart of Manhattan. That juxtaposition is kind of cool,” he says.

Coben, 60, is hoping his latest novel, The Match, which sees the return of Wilde, a decorated former soldier who as a boy was found living alone in remote woodland in New Jersey, not knowing how he’d got there or where he’d come from, will be adapted for screen.

The Match is set the heart of the Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey. Why?

“The idea for Wilde came when I was hiking in the woods in Ramapo. People don’t really think of New Jersey as having woods, but the Appalachian Mountains come through New Jersey and the Ramapo Mountains are rather scenic and only a 15-minute ride from my house.

“But here’s the kicker: I hate hiking in the woods. I find it really boring. You see a tree and another tree and another tree. I much prefer walking the streets of New York City and seeing people’s faces and browsing bookshops and window shopping.”

Yet the TV adaptations of your books aren’t always local to you.

“When I do a TV series I have to transfer it often to England – The Stranger and Safe were set in Britain – or France or Germany or Poland or Spain, where the setting becomes completely different and fresh.

“The next Netflix series, Hold Tight, was filmed in Warsaw, Poland. I wasn’t there unfortunately because of Covid, but they found some really cool spots to film.”

How did your tourism career start?

“I spent two college summers in the Costa del Sol in Spain, where I took care of the tourists. Every week a group of 50 Americans would arrive in Fuengirola, Torremolinos or Marbella and I would be the guy who helped them check in and do the optional tours.

“The first thing some people do when they check into a hotel room, no matter where it is, is to complain to get a better one. I’ve experienced every ploy. It was quite an experience for a guy who was 19 or 20.

“When I graduated from college I worked eight years in the travel industry. My grandfather and my mother founded Club ABC Tours. They needed some help. I was on my way to law school in Chicago, but I also wanted to be a writer.

“They asked me to work with them for a couple of years and try to write while I was working, which is what I did. I travelled all over the world. I never went to law school. It’s what we call dodging a bullet.”

Did you ever have any disasters?

“Oh, tons. We booked the Americans who were on board the [cruise ship] Achille Lauro when it was hijacked [in 1985].”

And other dramas?

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“When people go on vacation and things go wrong, they lose their minds. There were constantly times when the hotel would be overbooked, the flight would be heavily delayed, a connection would be missed.”

Most memorable childhood trips?

“In around 1970, when I was eight, I did my first trip to Italy. I remember everything – the moment I looked up at the Sistine Chapel, the moment I walked into the Vatican, the moment I walked into the Academy in Florence, turned right and saw the statue of David way down the end of that corridor. I remember the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. I remember when we drove down and I saw Pompeii for the first time.”

Favourite destination?

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“I know it’s a cliché, but Paris. I have a real love affair with France in general. I go at least twice a year (although not in the last two years). I never get tired of France. Part of it is self-involved. It’s my biggest-selling country. I love the attitude, I love the people, the food, the wine and the joie de vivre. They have a great attitude. Everything is raised to the 10th power. It’s also a ridiculously beautiful country. The architecture is never short of stunning.”

Best travelling companion?

“The only person I ever travel with is my wife (Anne Armstrong-Coben, a paediatrician and dean of admissions for Columbia University Medical School). I do a boys’ golf trip once a year when we’ll go some place warm in the winter, like Vegas, Tampa, Florida, Pebble Beach in California.”

And sightseeing go-to?

“Nothing tops Egypt, on the Luxor River, seeing the temples of Luxor, the great pyramids, Abu Simbel, the Fallen Ramses, all of those sights to me are the most awe-inspiring sightseeing I’ve ever done.”

Can you switch off on holiday?

“I write on vacation. I never turn that part of my brain off. I wouldn’t be relaxed if I didn’t do some writing. It makes me a little anxious.”

Do you have a soft spot for London?

“I love London. My brother has lived there for 24 years. He’s probably the biggest Fulham football fan in the world. A few years ago my friend Richard Osman and I took my brother for his 50th birthday to a match where Fulham won 5-0. It was the greatest day of his life.”

The Match by Harlan Coben is published by Century, priced £20. Available now.

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