Toward the end of writing the novel, he realized why Sylvie’s voice sounded familiar. One of his sisters, Shannon, died a year before he graduated from Southern Connecticut State University.
“My younger sister was Sylvie’s age when she passed away,” he says. “I realized I was channeling her voice and emotions of that time. She’s not Sylvie, but there’s some kind of essence there of my youngest sister. She showed a remarkable resilient spirit for someone so young.”
A variety of different influences inspired Help for the Haunted, Searles says. His mother used to make Raggedy Anns and Andys from a mail-order kit (“They used to sit on the rocking chair in our living room and creeped me out”). A trip to the library reminded him that he’d grown up in the same town in which Ed and Lorraine Warren lived (you know them as the paranormal investigators from The Conjuring and The Amityville Horror). The memory lingered, though Searles is quick to point out the Masons are nothing like the Warrens.
But the real inspiration was a Tudor house Searles lived in at Yaddo, the artists’ community in Saratoga Springs. Swamped with work for Cosmo, he’d had no time to write and begged for a sabbatical, which the magazine granted. “I didn’t know if I could write anymore,” he admits. But when he stepped into the impressive gothic house, it fired his imagination and became in his mind (and book) the Masons’ home.
So in other words, Help for the Haunted is a testament to the power of perseverance.
“This book really killed me,” Searles says of the novel, which he estimates took four or five years to write (he had written about 400 pages of a different novel and reluctantly abandoned it when his agent offered up a little tough love about its worth). “I had so much self doubt. That’s what slowed me down the most. I was thinking, ‘Are people gonna make fun of me?’ I guess without knowing it, I was doing something I hadn’t done before. . . . the second book [ Strange But True, which is being adapted for the screen] was a stroke of luck — I had an idea in the subway. I wish that would happen all the time. This was so complex for me . . . . There was just so many layers to it, it hurt my head.”
Searles gets to rest his head, sort of, for the next few months. He’ll be touring this fall. He plans to continue his TV appearances (“I love doing it. At first I was so bad, I can’t believe they put me back on TV . . . . but I got comfortable”). And he still loves working at Cosmo, where he gets to write those hilarious headlines (his favorite, on a story about a couple having sex in the bedroom, bathroom and the stairway, was “Bed, Bath and Beyond Her Wildest Dreams”). Come spring, he says, he’ll “hunker down” and get back to writing a new book.
“I missed it so much,” he says. “I love being able to be a writer. That’s what I moved to New York to be.”