Harlan Coben Shares Hometown Stories at Heritage

What’s the secret to his success? The best-selling author tells students he's really good at making things up.

Harlan Coben last stood on the stage at Heritage 35 years ago when he made a speech seeking votes on student council. He was running for treasurer, already tall, playing basketball for the Eagles, and best friends with Chris Christie, the kid seated next to him in homeroom.

Coben reflected on that friendship bonded in Room 202. Christie grew up to become New Jersey’s governor, while Coben has made a career out of lying on his sofa wondering, “What if?"

As the best-selling author of 23 mysteries, he asks that question a lot. It’s the secret to writing fiction, Coben told a new generation of students at Heritage Middle School on September 25.

His second book for young adults was recently published, Seconds Away, a new Mickey Bolitar novel, that takes place in a town very much like Livingston. In fact, Coben said, he often incorporates Livingston landmarks and childhood memories in his stories.

Seconds Away is no different. “I recognized Hobart Gap Road,” said Stephanie Tam, an eighth grader who’s started the new mystery.

Indeed Seconds Away begins with a flashback to Hobart Gap, where the "Bat Lady" beckons Mickey Bolitar from a decrepit house.

“Even if you don’t know this Bat Lady, you know a Bat Lady,” Coben writes in the opening chapter. “She’s the creepy old lady who lives in the creepy old house down the block. Every town has one. You hear tales in the school yard about all the horrible things she’ll do to you if she ever catches you …”

There’s a kernel of truth in that passage of fiction, Coben said at Heritage. There really was a woman kids stayed clear of, he said. Her house was at the end of the street where Coben and Christie played baseball -- a creepy old house (fixed up now decades later, Coben noticed on the ride to the school). “Everyone said the Bat Lady lived there.”

The idea resurfaced when Coben sat down to write for teens. “I never saw her, but that’s the beauty of writing: You make things up.”

Coben provided such insights into the creative process and shared tips to help students improve their own stories, including: “show and not tell” and rewrite. “I don’t like writing,” he said, “I like having written."

The author answered a variety of questions, anticipating some (yes, he’s tall: 6 foot 4), moving comfortably on the Heritage stage sporting black Converse sneakers, and chatting with the students lined up for autographs.

“My mom went to school with you,” Josh Feinberg, a seventh grader told Coben. “Will you tell her I said, Hi?” the author asked.

Eighth grader Rohan Bendre told him he'd gone to Riker Hill for elementary school. “I was a Burnet Hill guy way back when,” Coben said.

When asked his favorite subject, Coben deadpanned: “I was really good at lunch,” adding seriously, “my best subject by far was math.”

At Heritage, Coben hadn’t started writing yet. That didn’t happen until he was about 20. But he’s been a prolific writer over the years, with numerous books that have appeared at the top of all the major bestseller lists, including the New York Times, London Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and USA TODAY. He’s won a host of honors, including Edgar Award, Shamus Award and Anthony Award, and was inducted into the Livingston High School Alumni Hall of Fame.

His teachers remember him well, including his former Language Arts teacher, Ken Ronkowitz, who spent 25 years teaching at Heritage.

“I gave Harlan a B … or so he says.”


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