John Searles is a New York Times bestselling author of three novels who is also known for his work as a book critic on NBC's Today Show, CBS's The Early Show, NPR's Fresh Air, Live! With Regis and Kelly and CNN. His essays, articles and reviews have been published in the Washington Post, The New York Times, Redbook and The Daily Beast. His career in publishing began with a part-time position in the Books department at Cosmopolitan that eventually led to positions as the Books Editor and as the Editorial Brand Director of the magazine. In 2001, his first novel, Boy Still Missing, became a national bestseller and he was later named a "Person to Watch" by TIME magazine. Stay Thirsty Magazine was very pleased to catch-up with John Searles at his home in New York City for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: Your most recent novel, Help For The Haunted, received praise from both acclaimed writers and the public. On your website, you liken it to a combination of the eeriness of Stephen King and the quirkiness of John Irving. What is it about those two authors that attracted and influenced you?
JOHN SEARLES: Beginning in my early teens, I read lots of Stephen King and John Irving. Also, I used to tear through my mom's Sydney Sheldon collection, despite the fact that I was hardly the intended audience for those sorts of books. So I always joke that Help For The Haunted is a blend of those early influences: Stephen King's eerie atmosphere, John Irving's quirky characters and Sydney Sheldon's plot-twists. If you like the sound of those things, then you'll find something to love in Help For The Haunted too. At heart, it's a family story but also a mystery since the book opens on the night of a murder.
STAY THIRSTY: You have also said that your favorite authors are: Frank McCourt, Wally Lamb and Chris Bohjalian. What do you admire about each one and what characteristics or techniques have your borrowed from them for your novels?
JOHN SEARLES: Before I get hate mail (or hate tweets!), I want to mention some of my favorite women writers too. I love Anne Tyler and read all her books when I was in graduate school. Ann Hood was my creative writing professor at NYU, and she is such an incredible writer of both fiction and nonfiction. I'm a huge fan of Jodi Picoult, Karen Joy Fowler, Gillian Flynn, Donna Tartt, Laura Lippman, Isabel Gillies, Cheryl Tan and so many others. The books by all these writers are so varied, but the thing they all have in common is that they pull the reader into the world they create and keep you reading. And speaking of Chris Bohjalian, I just got a copy of his new book, The Guest Room, which I plan to start tonight. I'm really looking forward to it.
STAY THIRSTY: Bestselling novelist Gillian Flynn remarked about your book Help For The Haunted that it was "dazzling… a novel both frightening and beautiful." She also did an interview with you that appears on your book's Amazon page. What drew the two of you together and what bonds do you share?
JOHN SEARLES: I've been a longtime fan of Gillian's. It happens that we both come from magazine backgrounds and also we both write dark books. She is such a great storyteller and true master at creating atmosphere and character in the midst of a page-turning plot. I remember when Dark Places was about to come out, and her publicist sent me an advanced copy. I started reading that book in the bathtub and read it every chance I got over the next few days. When I was down to only a handful of pages, I took it with me on my way to a luncheon that happened to be thrown by Billy Joel's former wife at their brownstone in the village. (I don't go to lunches at the home of a music legend everyday, which is why I remember it! Ha!) Anyway, I arrived at their door before I finished the last three pages of Gillian's book, so rather than knock, I sat on the steps outside and finished the book in a mad rush. The other guests kept arriving and walking by me up the steps, but I was so transfixed I didn't budge. I swear they thought I was some crazy person hanging on the stoop. So, later, when that book was published, I raved it about it on the Today Show. It is rare that I receive I thank you email from a writer, but she sent one not long after that. We stayed in touch a bit; then a couple years later, her publicist sent me an advance of Gone Girl. Again, I could not stop reading that book either. Anyway, that's the story. The funny thing is we've never met in person, so I love and admire Gillian from afar.
STAY THIRSTY: Your background includes writing, editing and management positions at Cosmopolitan magazine. How did your days in the magazine industry help or influence you as a novelist? Did it have any affect on how you conceptualize and execute a story?
JOHN SEARLES: Writing my first two books, Boy Still Missing and Strange But True, while juggling that job was pretty manageable. But there was a long gap before I wrote Help For The Haunted, and that was largely due to the way the world and the media business changed so vastly during that time. Suddenly, the idea of putting out a monthly magazine seemed almost quaint. It became about having a "360 brand" with multiple social media platforms and a thriving website and myriad product offshoots, like a book line and a radio station and TV projects, and on and on. As a result, our jobs as editors became far more demanding, particularly mine because I was the editor who oversaw all that. Plus, once email and texting happened, suddenly it was impossible to leave work at the office in order to focus on writing fiction. So yeah, I'd say all that had an effect on my writing. Even so, I wouldn't trade all the fun of my Cosmo years for anything. I got to meet and work with so many smart and incredible people, and I have so many hilarious stories from that time. Plus, one thing that editing a huge commercial magazine taught me was the importance of keeping the reader entertained. At Cosmo, it was all we thought about. Oh, and here's another thing: that job kept me from taking myself too seriously, since I was too busy to sit around obsessing about reviews or what people were saying about my books online. It was all I could do to write my books, see my family and friends and get to the gym.
STAY THIRSTY: You have also appeared regularly on television in the role of a book critic. Does knowing that end of the publishing business influence your writing?
JOHN SEARLES: When I'm writing, I don't think all that much about the business of publishing. If I did, I think I'd shut down. Instead, each day, I focus on doing my best to tell a good story, to get good sentences on the page, to read as much as possible, to surround myself with people who inspire and encourage me, and also, to protect my time in order to write. That last means saying no to lots of social obligations. People love the idea of having a friend who is a writer, but they don't like that it means you aren't always available to hang out. Instead of meeting for lunch, I'm usually locked away at home or in the library, clacking away on my keyboard like a madman. But to circle back to the part of your question about appearing on the Today Show and other morning shows all these years to talk about books: I feel like the luckiest guy in the world to get to go on TV in front of so many people and champion reading and cheer for books I love. I'd say that Oprah has a teeny tiny bit more influence on readers than yours truly, but I've helped move quite a few copies in my time.
STAY THIRSTY: You have become an award-winning novelist and TIME magazine named you a "Person to Watch." Plus, Strange But True was named a best novel of the year by Salon. How do you personally feel about this recognition and attention?
JOHN SEARLES: It is all such a huge honor and I'm so incredibly grateful. I showed up in New York City with no money and no connections in publishing and worked hard and made my way, despite lots and lots of rejection. So now, when people take notice of my writing, even if it's just an excited note I get from a reader on my Facebook page or someone coming to my events, it always touches me and helps cheer me on. All that said, I don't think anyone should actually "watch" me writing, since I tend to look a little insane. If I'm on a real jag, I don't shave or comb my hair. And I don't usually sit at a desk but on the floor and I print endless drafts and take them into the tub and scribble all over them. Did you ever see that movie Beautiful Mind and that crazy room with all the papers everywhere? Well, it looks a little like that around here when I'm in the thick of things.
STAY THIRSTY: What is about fear that attracts you as a writer?
JOHN SEARLES: Someone told me that fear is the strongest human emotion. Maybe that's true. It's certainly up there with the big ones. Whether it's in real life or on a movie screen or in the pages of a book, I love the rush that fear can give. As a kid I was obsessed with either being afraid or doing my best to scare the hell out of other people. I used to make haunted houses in my family's garage and charge people a quarter to enter…if they dared! And when I was a teenager, my idea of a good time was loading bunch of friends into my honker of a station wagon and driving down a deserted dirt road. When we were deep into the woods, I'd turn off the car, take the keys and run off, leaving them there, just to see what they did. Demented, I know. But, hey, you asked!
STAY THIRSTY: You have spoken about family, faith and belief. Are these the most important values in your life?
JOHN SEARLES: My childhood was such a mix of happy moments and tons of love. But there was also a big share of drama and acute sadness for my family. So, yeah, all that shaped me as a person and a writer, and its all things I've explored in my books.
STAY THIRSTY: So your past heavily influences the stories you tell?
JOHN SEARLES: I have a fascination and a certain tortured relationship with the past. By nature, I'm a very nostalgic person so I can get caught up in "what was" rather than "what is." If I look back at an old photo, for example, a surge of yearning will often overcome me. I find myself thinking "I want that time again…those friends…that relationship…that apartment…those experiences…that sweater…whatever…" My present life can be perfectly happy and fulfilling, thrilling even. And yet, show me some old photo or conjure a specific memory, and if I'm not careful, suddenly I'm pining for the past, even if that particular time in my life sucked! I guess you could say I have a way of getting drunk on the past. So yeah, that fascination makes its way into my writing.
STAY THIRSTY: When the paperback edition of Help For The Haunted was released, you originated a project of speaking to 50 book clubs in 50 states. How has interacting with so many book clubs from so many different places impacted you? Have people reacted differently to your work based on where they hail from? What have you learned from these personal interactions from people who read your work?
JOHN SEARLES: The hilarious thing is that it was inspired by an initiative we used to do in Cosmo called "50 Bachelors 50 States." Each November, we'd choose one young single guy from each state and they'd descend upon our offices for a day. It was all we could do to get the staff to focus, and inevitably, some assistant would end up having a one-night stand with Mr. Kentucky or some other state. Anyway, back to books: I've been meeting with book clubs in person and over the phone and Skype for many years. When the paperback publication of Help For The Haunted was approaching, I thought of that bachelor initiative and the idea was born. The incredible team behind my books at William Morrow/HarperCollins gave it so much support. I spent a year meeting such smart, fascinating and fun readers from all over the country. It was one of the most rewarding adventures I've had as a novelist. And with the exception of one club (who forgot to turn off their Skype afterward so I heard them talking about me, which gave me a huge laugh), all the clubs were so warm and welcoming. Oh, and here are some observations: 1) Most book clubs involve booze, which makes them a lot of fun; 2) Most book clubs are made up of all women, which also makes them a lot fun, since apparently men don't join book clubs; and, 3) Lots of clubs have funny names, like "Books, Broads & Booze," "Reading Between the Wines" and "The V.U. Book Club," which stands for Vaginas Unite. Yeah, I know. I was surprised by that one too…and in St Louis of all places!
STAY THIRSTY: What is the next project in your typewriter?
JOHN SEARLES: If only I worked on a typewriter! I once did an event with Donna Tartt, who was so smart and eloquent. I remember her saying something along the lines of: Describing a book you're writing is a little like trying to describe a dream to someone. It is hard to really make it sound clear and cogent. So rather than describe the book I am in the midst of, I will just say that these last two years have been so freeing for me from a creative perspective. I've been able to travel and live in different parts of the world, and use that time and distance to try new things with my writing. My forthcoming book is every bit as dark and twisted as my previous, but it takes different risks and is more playful in places too. So I'm really excited about sharing it with my readers when I'm done.