Skip to main content


March 18, 2015

50 Book Clubs in 50 States: An Interview with John Searles, Author of HELP FOR THE HAUNTED

Posted by emily

When we heard that bestselling author John Searles was visiting a book club in each of the 50 states to discuss his award-winning mystery, HELP FOR THE HAUNTED, we couldn’t help but be impressed by such an ambitious undertaking! Halfway through this exciting project, he took time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions about his whirlwind tour. Here, John talks about some of the most interesting groups he’s chatted with so far, the strangest question he’s been asked, and what makes HELP FOR THE HAUNTED such a terrrific book for discussion. If your group is interested in discussing it, you can find the guide here. Visiting a book group in each of the 50 states is a very ambitious project! What inspired you to undertake it? 

John Searles: I’ve been meeting with book clubs pretty regularly for years now and it’s always been a lot of fun. When the paperback of HELP FOR THE HAUNTED came out, I began to come up with interesting ways to create a challenge around the meetings. At first, I thought of doing 30 book clubs in 30 days, but it would have been tough to pull off that exact scheduling. Then I remembered an initiative we used to do back when I was an editor at Cosmopolitan, called 50 Bachelors from 50 States. Readers loved it and it also got tons of media attention. Let me tell you, when those good-looking single guys descended upon our offices every year, it was difficult to get the staff to concentrate. There were the occasional one-night stands between the young editors and Mr. Kentucky or Mr. Tennessee or whomever! Anyway, I thought it would be fun to morph that into a slightly more literary challenge…minus the beefcake and the one-night stands. Ha! And that’s how 50 Book Clubs in 50 States was born.

BRC: How far are you through the process so far?

JS: I’ve met with 27 clubs, plus a bunch that were not technically part of the challenge but wrote me on my Facebook page asking me to meet, and so I did.

BRC: You visited some groups in person, and with others you interacted via Skype/FaceTime/phone. Which states did you visit in person? What made you choose visit those states in person?

JS: I’ve met with most states via Skype, which has been great. But I was in North Carolina, Rhode Island and Michigan for speaking events, so I tacked on an extra night to meet with the club in person.

BRC: What states do you still need to schedule?

JS: Delaware! Hawaii! Wyoming! We had lots of entries from clubs around the country but none from those states. I keep joking with the great people at HarperCollins that they should send me to Hawaii in person for the final meeting. That would be a nice way to complete the challenge, don’t you think?

BRC: Were you excited/nervous to meet the groups in person?

JS: Definitely excited! I’m always happy and grateful to meet readers and make new friends. I stay in touch with so many of the clubs afterward. It’s an interesting connection that we form, and I love it.

BRC: In what ways have the groups been similar? In what ways were they different? Did you see any patterns in different parts of the country?

JS: I Skyped with Key West and Pennsylvania clubs on the same night, one right after the other. It was funny to go from PA, where it was freezing outside and everyone was bundled in sweaters, to Key West, where the gang was dressed in warm weather clothes and drinking margaritas and partying down.

BRC:  What have been some highlights so far?

JS: Speaking of that Key West night, they made themed foods inspired by the book. There’s a character in HFTH who’s missing a few fingers, so they specifically made finger foods that looked like fingers! Another group in Colorado made Good & Evil themed food. They had healthy stuff, but they also had very decadent bourbon mashed potatoes. I swear I could taste them through the computer screen. Also, one group organized a trivia game with prizes, which is something I think every club should do. And on a slightly more serious note, I work so long and hard on my books that when a club takes the time to read their favorite passages or tell me moments from the story that resonated for them, it means everything.

BRC:  Why do you think HELP FOR THE HAUNTED is a good discussion book for reading groups?

JS: The book operates on lots of different levels. Personally, I think of it as a family story and also a tale of two sisters --- one the “good girl” and one the “wild child.” But it’s also kind of a murder mystery, because the parents are killed under strange circumstances in the very first chapter of the book. Also, they have the unusual occupation of “helping haunted souls find peace,” and so the story has a slight paranormal vibe going on. So to answer your question, there’s a little something for everybody!

BRC: How have groups reacted to HELP FOR THE HAUNTED?

JS: They’ve been so insightful and warm and welcoming to me. They make me feel like the luckiest writer in the world. I’m not kidding. But you are probably wondering if anyone ever says anything negative, right? Well, of course I get the occasional critical comment. But I’m pretty good at letting it roll off. I mean, it’s a book, and open to interpretation.

BRC: What were some of the topics you discussed with the groups?  

JS: Family. Faith. Belief. Which character they think is “bitchy” and which characters they loved. Who they thought committed the crime. There’s a certain scene in the book that takes place in an old movie theater and clubs almost always bring that up. Plus, we talk some about my own background, my kooky childhood, the losses I’ve had in my life, how I came to be a writer. I tell funny stories about my days at Cosmo…there are lots of those. Oh, and my dog Ruby always makes an appearance on Skype. The meetings often start with the club asking me to get Ruby and wave her paw at them…and I do!

BRC: Has there been any one question that surprised you?

JS: On Twitter, my profile photo is of my niece and me next to a small Piper plane. Because of that, one group assumed I was a pilot and asked how I came to get my license. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to lie so much in my life! I mean, how badass would I seem if I wrote books and flew planes on the side? Sadly, I had to tell them the truth…that it was a friend of a friend’s plane and I just hitched a ride.

BRC: Did you come away from the discussions with new insights into your own work?

JS: As dark as my books tend to be, I always think some moments are kind of funny, too. It’s been great to see that there are other oddballs who get my weird sense of humor. Plus, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings. So many readers tell me that they loved the ending, but there are those who want to know more. It’s a tricky balance for a writer so I’ve been paying attention to the things readers say.