LI author talks about “Her Last Affair”
In his novel “His Last Affair” (Mariner Books, $24.99), John Searles sends six eccentric characters in search of love. Their pursuits turn dark and even violent in a narrative accentuated by biting wit.
In a phone interview from the Sag Harbor home he shares with husband, theater manager Thomas Caruso, Searles explained how his book came together, the foam and all.
You’ve lived in Sag Harbor for 18 years. How is this village as a place of writing?
It’s so peaceful and serene here and there’s this literary tradition. It looks like a great quiet space for creativity. I write at the kitchen table and in the bathtub. I grew up in a small house with two bedrooms, four children, my mother, my father, my grandfather, dogs, cats, fish, birds. There was no place to escape to and the TV was blaring all the time. As a kid, I started doing my homework in the bathtub; it is comforting and an escape. I’m a big tub writer.
Much of the action takes place near an abandoned drive-in movie. How did you find this setting?
Every time I get home to Connecticut, I drive to the Port Jefferson Ferry and drive past the old Rocky Point Drive-In. I wondered how it was at its peak. I started researching old drive-ins and found countless beautiful and haunting images of drive-ins forgotten by time. I thought, wow, what a beautiful setting! I started asking the writer’s “what if” questions – what if the drive-in had belonged to a woman named Skyla Hull and her husband? What if, a few nights before their golden wedding, he had disappeared in a mysterious accident in the woods behind the drive-in? What if Skyla was hosting a mysterious tenant? The story came to life in my mind from there.
How do you describe the tone and theme of the book?
It’s dark, funny, sinister, hopeful. Someone compared it to a Coen Brothers movie like “Fargo.” I wanted it to be a novel about the power of love to affect our lives for good and bad.
Why did you preface each chapter with quotes from classic movies?
The book is structured around three distinct story lines. I wanted to give a sense of cohesion to the reader. I had the idea to start each chapter with movie quotes as clues to the mystery. Finding movie quotes that matched what was happening in the story was so much fun. I did a mix of classics, like ‘Casablanca’, and darker films, like ‘Psycho’ and ‘The Shining’, and brought in 80s films like ‘Overboard’ and ‘Mannequin’. All of these films would have been shown at the drive-in.
What underlies the unhappiness and violence of the characters?
They are all driven by a need to be loved and to resolve past grief. You can’t fall in love and not be heartbroken. The main character tries to sort through her mind the grief of the things she learned about her husband. They are all motivated by a need for peace.
Do you see the grief of these characters as something ubiquitous in life?
My parents got married very young; they were very much in love but had a tumultuous relationship. I think that marked me from an early age. Then, after years of being a magazine editor [at Cosmopolitan] and hearing from readers about relationship issues and talking to relationship experts, I think it’s common to experience the disappointments of love and also the hope and the promise and the wonderful things about love.
In your afterword to the book, you reveal that you wrote the book at a time when your life was marked by tragedy. Did these events affect your work on the book?
Our apartment [in New York City] burned down by arsonists, my father was killed in a motorcycle accident, the pandemic swept away. As a result of all these things, getting up in the morning and writing became my escape. I channeled my heartache into work and it gave me a sense of peace – it was something to do outside of the hustle and bustle of my life right now.
A character named John appears in the last third of the story. Is this your cameo?
Yes! That’s me! I started inserting myself into the narrative in a meta way. I did all these interviews and nobody asked me that! You have just won a prize! Ding! Ding! Ding!