John Searles' third novel, Help for the Haunted, is a chilling mystery and a subtle yet gripping thriller that draws you in emotionally and doesn't let you off the hook until the very end. Or as my colleague Chris Schluep put it in his review, it's "an expertly-wrought, coming-of-age story with a healthy dose of creepiness." It's also one of our Best Books of the Month picks for September.
Gillian Flynn, author of last summer's runaway hit Gone Girl spoke with Searles about the autobiographical nature of his main character, his views on the supernatural, recommended reading, and more.
Gillian Flynn: Writers imbue all of their characters with a little bit of themselves. Obviously, Sylvie Mason -- a young teenage girl – is very different from you. What were the challenges of writing her as a protagonist? How did you find a window into Sylvie?
John Searles: I always joke to people that deep down, I'm really a teenage girl. Growing up, my dad worked as a cross-country truck-driver and my older brother was usually off with his friends, so my mom and my two younger sisters and I spent most of our time together in a tiny house with two bedrooms. As an adult, I went on to become an editor at a women's magazine, where I worked in an office full of—what else?—women. So in a weird way, it was almost easier for me to write from a female perspective than a male one.
GF: You've talked before about how your sister's death affected your writing. How so in this book?
JS: After my sister, Shannon, died, my parents divorced, my brother moved out, and I took off for New York City to try and become a writer. In the wake of all that, our youngest sister, Keri, was left behind. Keri was around the age that Sylvie is in Help for the Haunted. At some point during the writing of the book, I realized I was channeling elements of her voice and emotions and experience from that time. She was so young to be faced with such a terrible tragedy, but she proved to have a remarkably resilient spirit.
GF: Help for the Haunted has some seriously scary moments and delves into a subculture that few are familiar with -– that of haunted souls and paranormalists. What inspired you to explore this world?
JS: As a kid, I was obsessed with scary things. I used to make haunted houses in our garage, and when I got my driver's license, I used to load my friends into my station wagon and drive us all down a dirt road late at night, where I'd do my best to scare the hell out of them. So I guess this is a grown-up version of what I used to do as a kid: Writing a scary book as opposed to terrifying my friends in an old station wagon.
Also, I grew up in the same town as the couple who were the real-life inspiration for the movie "The Conjuring." As kids, we used to see them in church and at the grocery store and the sight of them used to frighten and fascinate me. Years later, I saw the woman at an event at our local library. The two of us were posing for a photo for the town newspaper, and I started wondering what it would be like if Sylvie's parents had an occupation that dealt with the paranormal too.
GF: Do you believe in the supernatural? Do you feel you have to believe even just a little bit to tell a convincing story?
JS: In Help for the Haunted, Sylvie says, "I do and I don't believe." Her mix of feelings is very much like my own and like so many people I've talked to who have read the book. Logically, we know better than to believe in ghosts and the supernatural, but every once in a while life serves up some unexplainable phenomena and that little part of us can't help but believe again.
GF: This will be your third book, the first two being the bestselling novels Strange But True and Boy Still Missing. How do you think you've grown as a writer over the course of your career?
JS: I have always tried to take risks with my writing, but in Help for the Haunted, I took more than ever before. I don't just mean telling the story from a young girl's perspective, but also combining a murder mystery with a coming of age tale, plus switching back and forth in time, and introducing the idea of supernatural elements. I used to go to lunch with my editor and ask her again and again, "Are you sure this story isn't too weird?" Thankfully, she loved it and always told me to keep going.
GF: Did you begin Help for the Haunted knowing what was going to happen, or did you follow your characters to see where they'd lead you?
JS: All I had at the very beginning was the voice of Sylvie, a teenage girl, who was left in the care of her tough older sister. The rest of the story came in pieces. The old Tudor in the woods where the family lives was inspired by an old Tudor where I stayed during a writing residency at Yaddo, an artist colony in upstate New York. The sisters' part-time job doing telephone surveys about bubble gum and fast food was one I had in high school, and I decided to use it while writing. The doll in the basement came to me when I discovered old Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls in my mother's attic. She had made those things years before, and I forgot about them until they were staring me in the face—and scaring me!—once more.
GF: All writers have quirky habits and rituals for when it's time to work. Could you share some of yours?
JS: Lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. Push-ups. Chin-ups. Long runs. Coffee. More coffee. Tons of baths. Looking up weird facts on-line. I do all of those things when I am trying to figure stuff out because sometimes you have to distract your mind in order for the ideas to come. Plus, when I go into a real writing jag, I don't bother change my clothes or shower or shave. At one point, while revising Help for the Haunted. I had been in the library for eight hours straight and realized I was starving. I took a break and stumbled into a restaurant, where I sat at the bar and ordered dinner. All of New York City and who sits down next to me, perfectly groomed and dressed all swanky, but Jay McInerney. Someone introduced us and he looked at me with my greasy bedhead and scraggly beard and ripped clothes, and I swear he was about to say, "Excuse me but the soup kitchen is down the street."
GF: As a book critic yourself, you must read so much. What have you read recently that you enjoyed? And what are some books that have had a tremendous impact on you?
JS: Well, I am a huge fan of your books and have loved cheering for them! Also, I just read Chris Bohjalian's The Light in the Ruins and Ivy Pachoda's Visitation Street, which are captivating stories. Plus, there's Jodi Picoult's The Storyteller and Khaled Hosseini's And the Mountains Echoed. On a much lighter note, I read a really funny memoir called Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy by Ophira Eisenberg that is a total riot and made me laugh.