John Searles is the author of the national bestseller Boy Still Missing and Strange but True. You might recognize him from his frequent appearances on the Today Show and The Early Show, where he talks about new books. He lives in New York City, and if you follow him on Facebook or Twitter you’ll get frequent updates on things like his obsession with the Bionic Woman, and photos of his adorable dog. His new novel Help for the Haunted, on sale this week, is about Sylvie, a girl who tries to discover what really happened the night her parents (their occupation was helping “haunted souls” find peace) were murdered.
When I was growing up in a small New England town, my father made his living as a cross-country truck-driver. One summer when I was a teen, my parents announced that they were sending me trucking with my dad in order to “make a man out of me.” Since there was only so long a kid could stare out the window or listen to crackle of other truckers’ voices on the CB, I began devouring books on those trips. Most were by Stephen King and John Irving, since those were the mass market titles available in truck stops…as well as my father’s trucker erotica, which I snuck out from their hiding place beneath his mattress in the back. Those books and all those miles on the road might not have made a man out of me in the way my parents intended, but they did make a reader and writer out of me. The thing I remember most is the way the writers kept the pages turning, the plot moving, the characters colorful and the suspense at a high pitch.
Which brings me to Help for the Haunted. When I began writing this story, I was working mainly with the idea of two teenage sisters who were orphaned. But as I began to write, different sources of inspiration seemed to find me. The first was a gothic old Tudor in the woods where I lived during a residency at Yaddo. During my time in that house, I used to sit on the floor writing with my laptop and hear strange noises coming from the basement. It didn’t take long before that house became the one where the girls lived in my novel.
Around that time, I was invited to attend an event at my hometown library in Monroe, Connecticut, where the librarians were unveiling a quilt celebrating local authors. Since it was a small town, there was only a man who wrote a crossword puzzle book, a young adult novelist, yours truly…and a woman named Lorraine Warren who lived not far from my family. Recently, Lorraine and her now deceased husband, Ed, were the basis of the #1 horror film at the box office THE CONJURING. But when I was a kid, all I knew was that people in town spread rumors about them doing exorcisms in their basement. So, as you might imagine, whenever I came upon her or her husband in the grocery store or at our church as a kid, the sight of them was enough to terrify me. But as an adult, standing beside her at that library event, I began to wonder what it would be like to be the child of parents with a similar occupation. Although I did not want to (and did not) write the Warrens' story in any way, the supernatural twist to Sylvie's story came from that chance encounter.
Other inspirations include:
- One day while searching for something in m mother’s attic, I opened a bag to see a bunch of red yarn. When I pulled it out the yarn was actually the hair of a giant Raggedy Ann doll that she made when we were kids. That doll used to sit in a rocker in our living room and it scared the hell out of me. If you’ve read the book you know how that inspiration found its way into my story.
- The empty foundation near my childhood home, where a house was started but never built. My brother and I sometimes played in that foundation as kids, and I used to wonder what happened to the people who started that house and why it was never finished. And so I got the idea to make the Masons live on a street full of them.
- When I realized the sisters in my story needed a job, I thought back to one I had in high school, taking phone surveys about fast food and cigarettes and bubble gum.
- I once had a friend who was involved with a man who had lost some fingers. Everyone called him Seven since that’s how many he had left. That’s where I got Dereck’s nickname.
- Finally, there is the voice of Sylvie. So many people ask me about writing from the point of view of a young girl and I always joke that deep down I am a teenage girl inside. Really, though, in many ways she is the voice of my youngest sister Keri who I was very close to growing up. Also, she is the voice of me who was every bit the outcast as a kid growing up.