Connecticut native and author John Searles spoke to a crowd of 60 students about his third novel, “Help for the Haunted,” on Sept. 18 at the Fairfield University Bookstore. Searles, who is currently on a national book tour promoting his recent novel, was eagerly welcomed by the Fairfield community.
“There are so many familiar faces, it’s nice to be home. I was never homecoming king, but now I feel like one,” said Searles. Those attending were not only well acquainted with Searles as an author, but also as a person and friend.
Dr. Michael White, program director of Fairfield’s MFA in creative writing and friend of Searles, introduced him. “I was immediately taken by John’s intelligence, his talent, his sense of humor and, something unusual for a writer, his humility.”
Perhaps it is Searles’ humility that has aided him throughout his successful career as a two-time New York Times best-selling author for “Boy Still Missing” and “Strange but True,” book critic on NBC’s “Today Show” and editor-at-large of Cosmopolitan.
Searles opened with his personal timeline. “I know every writer says they always wanted to be a writer but I actually found proof of this recently, I’m taking notes at the age of six,” said Searles, over the howls of laughter in the audience. “My first book was ‘Stories and Stories and Stories’ by John Searles 1976. Published one copy that I sold to my mom for probably a quarter.”
However, as a teenager and young adult, he came to consider creative writing “impractical and uncool.” Although he abandoned writing stories and poems, he did go to his local public library daily to read. He also learned to read tarot cards. “I didn’t really believe in the cards, but it just goes back to my fascination with this sort of haunted, paranormal, future telling stuff,” Searles said.
Yet, following his sister Shannon’s death, Searles reassessed his life and transitioned back into the writing world to do what he had always wanted to do. He applied to New York University and received a scholarship in creative writing.
While at NYU, Searles maintained his Connecticut roots, returning home every weekend to work at a local restaurant and spend time at home. This time served as his primary inspiration for “Help for the Haunted,” as a key character in the novel, a Raggedy Ann doll locked in a cage, was drawn from Searles’ personal life. “My mom used to make these Raggedy Ann dolls and they’d sit in our living room and scare the crap out of me.
All sorts of inspirations help me when I’m writing,” he continued. “So I just borrow things from life.”
Searles also explained how his first rejection continues to help him now. A novel he wrote around the time of his sister’s death, “Stones in the Airfield,” went through months of rejections. After receiving yet another rejection letter and his returned manuscript, he found another note inside. “This piece of paper falls to the ground that was clearly a note not meant to be left in the package that said, ‘In ‘Stones in the Airfield,’ Adam’s messed up family life interferes with his engagement to ex Greenwich Village-ite Grace. Although Searles’ writing style is clear, the manuscript as a whole is dry, unsophisticated and trite. I could barely make it to page 60 and I feel really badly for anyone who has to go through to page 400.’”
Devastated, the author nonetheless continued writing as a hobby. On a whim, he sent his agent five chapters of his next book, and she sold it in a matter of weeks. Suddenly, following years of rejection, he had a two-book deal with HarperCollins.
“From this experience I learned the value of keeping a reader entertained and making them want to turn the page and see what’s going on. ‘Help for the Haunted’ starts with a phone call in the middle of the night, and we quickly learn that the parents have this weird occupation.” Searles sparks his readers’ curiosity and slowly doles out tidbits of information to keep them turning the pages. He plays with time and flashbacks throughout, something he found extremely difficult.
“This book was the hardest thing I’ve ever done creatively. I had to lie on the floor of the house trying to figure out the timeline, which is why this book took so long to come out.
I never really knew till the end that it was going to come together,” Searles said as he wrapped up his discussion. “But when I finished, I burst into tears and got down on the floor of my bedroom and kissed the ground. I had plans to go Miami with a friend and I got in a cab and four hours later had a drink in my hand.”
Searles’ newest novel, as well as his first two, are currently on sale at the bookstore.