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Q&A: John Searles

Writing novels by night, editing Cosmo's book excerpts by day, and navigating between the two.

- July 16, 2004

One would imagine that a deputy editor of Cosmopolitan, the staffer in charge of overseeing all book excerpts or reviews, would be in a pretty good position to promote his own works of fiction. And John Searles is. But that doesn't mean he didn't go through the months of sweat and hard work it takes everyone to complete a work of fiction. When his first novel, Boy Still Missing, was a national bestseller in 2001, Searles was named a "Person to Watch" by Time magazine. Now, with his second book, Strange But True, which is out next week, the young writer and editor has cemented his reputation as a serious writer of fiction. mediabistro.com recently caught up with Searles, just as he was beginning to promote his new book, and asked him about his work as an editor, the process of writing, and whether he's got the inside track on promoting his book.

Tell me about the interaction between your job at Cosmo and your work as a novelist.
I always wanted to be a novelist; the magazine thing kind of happened by accident.

Neither of my parents went to college. My dad is a truck driver, and my mom is a housewife. They weren't so keen on me going to college, but I put myself through. I had come to New York and went to NYU for my MFA, which I loved, and I studied with a couple of really good novelists. After I got out of the program I was waiting tables and trying to write, and I went to a writer's conference in North Carolina and met the fiction editor at Redbook. She offered me a job reading fiction submissions for 50 cents a story—slush pile stuff. But to me it was great because at least I wasn't serving nachos and Caesar salads. From there I heard about a job upstairs at Cosmo, and I went on the interview.

My first day on the job there was the day of the O.J. Simpson verdict; I remember because we all watched in Helen Gurley Brown's office. Everyone was glued to the screen, but my head was cocked around staring at Helen. She had this miniskirt on and this plunging top and all these bracelets, and her office was like this I Dream of Jeannie bottle, color everywhere.

So how do you balance that magazine life with writing a novel?
I write in the mornings. I get up every morning at about six in the morning and write until nine, hop in the shower and go to work. Nighttime I usually reserve for re-reading what I've done that morning. I would be lying if I said I stuck to that schedule every single day. There are times when I'm just not feeling particularly inspired, or things are just too chaotic at work, and I don't have the focus. I don't force myself to do it when I'm not feeling it. The hardest thing is that I have to say no to going out a lot. But I never regret it, because I'm home and working, and I'm always happy that I did.

I wish I could say there's a five-step formula or something. But the truth is that I follow different rules at different times. There are stages where I do the 6 to 9, and then there are stages where I take off a week from work. I usually don't write at night, but there are times where I wake up at 3 in the morning and write all night. It's different each time.

When you're working on a novel while you're also working on a day job reading other novels, is it hard to keep track of the plot you've been working on, or is sort of just this other world you just step into?
It depends on the book. For this new book I got the idea on the subway home from Cosmo one night last spring, and I came home and wrote it longhand. I wrote longhand for three weeks, the first draft.

The whole novel?
Yeah, I just did not stop. I wrote on 23 pads of paper. And it's a rough rough draft, but then I spent about a year, well eight months, revising it and shaping it and transcribing it. I did probably six subsequent drafts after the first one. It was so freeing to be able to just write on a pad of paper and just have fun with it. I had a lot of fun doing this book. Really happy time for me.

How do you think that your work at Cosmo influences your fiction writing?
I think seeing the number of books that come out—and seeing so many writers, and talking to editors and publicists and agents all the time—makes me much more sympathetic to the struggle that all writers have. Working at Cosmo has also taught me the value of keeping readers entertained and the importance of writing the sort of books that people will want to turn the page. My goal is to write books that are quality books with very real characters and a gripping plot.

As you say, there are so many books that come out each year. You're in charge of excerpts for the magazine; how do you decide which you'll excerpt?
At Cosmo we like to do sexy, fun things, and we've done everything from A Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing to Bridget Jones's Diary. The readers are women, 18 to however old. We try and pick books that will appeal to single women.

We're sent hundreds of books every months. My assistant and I sit down and go through the books; we try to figure out what sort of books we think would appeal to the reader. If the book has a particular buzz, we like to look at that. If it's an author we've excerpted before, we like to look at that book too. It's Cosmo, so we want something sexy and fun and entertaining that will be a good read. Also something that I hope that the readers will go out and buy. Beyond just reading the excerpt in the mag, they'll go out and pick up the book. The main thing I want is for it to be entertaining in the magazine.

Are you using any marketing strategies for Strange But True that you've learned from the other side?
I've been meeting so many writers over these years who I think are just really brilliant. Because of my job I'm lucky, I get to do lots of television. I'll go on and talk about the hot summer reads or the hot fall reads, I'll do a roundup of books of particular interest to their audience, their viewers. I'm fortunate that I have that to do in terms of publicity. But I also get in my car and I drive around to bookstores, introduce myself to booksellers, and do readings and signings.

But also in terms of the way people approach you with their books.
I never pitch anyone if it's inappropriate. I read a magazine before I do. We get a lot of science fiction at Cosmo, and things that we aren't able to cover because it's not appropriate for our readership. I only bother people and bug them if I think there's a chance.

David S. Hirschman is mediabistro.com's news editor and a reporter for Metro New York. You can buy Strange But True at Amazon.com.



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