John Searles, Critic and Bestselling Author: JOB HACKS

What happens when the people you wait on become your peers?  

Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on the way to the top of their field.

Name: John Searles

Original hometown: Monroe, Connecticut

Job: Bestselling author, book critic on NBC’s Today Show. Read an article he wrote in The New York Times here. Read Gillian Flynn’s interview with him here.

How did you get your start?

My dad was a cross-country truck driver and no one in my family went to college. So to say you want to be a writer in my family was as foreign as saying you wanted to be a rock star. We lived in a tiny house with four kids. I didn’t have a bedroom growing up — I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag. I was bullied in high school and I would hide in the library. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to go to college but my parents didn’t have the money, so I worked at the DuPont factory. I didn’t fit in there, so I took a night job as a telemarketer. I saved money and went to state school, majoring in business — I thought it was practical — and minoring in creative writing. When I was nearing graduation, one of my sisters passed away tragically. If anyone’s ever experienced a tragedy, you know it impresses upon you that life is too short. If life can end so quickly and with no reason, I reassessed my life and thought, “What am I doing majoring in business?” I ended up staying an extra year at school, taking more english classes, and got a partial scholarship to NYU.

Was it a straight shot from there to publication?

I live a life I love, I have an apartment I love, I get to meet readers who I love. I’ve been very lucky to get to go to the White House, been on TV, appeared with other big writers at events. But I could have had a very different life — I was a waiter for 12 years. I was very lucky when I sold my first book, after plenty of rejection. I sent it to a friend of a friend at a publishing house. When they sent me back the manuscript, there was a handwritten note on it that someone had left by mistake. I wasn’t supposed to see it. It said, “I could barely make it to page 60 and I feel bad for anyone who has to make it to page 400.” I was devastated and didn’t write for many months after that.

How did you motivate yourself to write after that?

I was very Downton Abbey about it, I practically took to my bed with vapors. I remember thinking, “Well, I’ll just write this for myself.” Because I love to do it. If I don’t write for a few days, I get really cranky.

How did you end up landing an agent?

I was trying to get an agent, and I was getting interest but no one was taking me on. Then I went to a reading Wally Lamb gave in Rhode Island. I told him I was a writer and he offered to read my work. He contacted me like six months later saying, “I read your pages, I really liked them, I’ll put you in touch with my agent.” He did, but I never heard anything. A year later, as assistant at that agency contacted me and said, “You’ve probably found a rep by now, but I was cleaning out a closet and found your manuscript and liked it, and I’ve been told I could represent my first author.”

What’s your process like?

Because of that early rejection, I try to create a question in my reader’s mind from page one, sentence one. For my first book, I heard the first sentence while cleaning under my bed. Strange But True came to me on the subway one night. The first third of the novel is the discovery phase. Once I figure out the world, I see it much more clearly, but the first third is a lot of trial and error. It’s both really fun and scary. And I’m not one of those writers who likes sitting in a barn with a candle and a typewriter. I love meeting people. That’s a fun part of my life I never planned — doing talks, evenings, events.

What kind of events?

I did a big event at Book Expo two years ago with Donna Tartt, Erica Jong, and some others. Back when I was a waiter, Erica used to come to my restaurant. She was a real pistol. Another waiter told me I should confess to her that I wanted to be a writer. I said, “Are you kidding? She’ll probably respond with, ‘That’s nice honey. Now bring me another Chardonnay!’”

Do you read reviews? How do you stop the negative ones from getting to you?

I love reading the hilarious things people say online. People say mean things, but I read the good and the bad. They balance each other out. I still remember one review — google, “John Searles, self important little twit.” The reviewer said that. They also said, “I don’t know who this guy is, but if I could give him negative 5 stars, I would.” You have to laugh. There are writers who take themselves very seriously, but I try to have fun with it.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

You do need a thick skin. When you put yourself out there in a creative form, many wonderful things happen and people come forward and do great things that surprise you and touch you. A smaller percentage of people say odd things or write nasty things, and all you can do is create the best book you know how and put it out there. People always say the same things like “learn to take rejection,” but I think remain hopeful, find trusted readers, read everything. Make your own rules.