Writer and book critic John Searles joins Zibby to discuss his latest novel, Her Last Affair. The two talk about John’s path to becoming a writer which involved being the first in his family to attend college and working at Cosmopolitan for twenty-three years as the books editor, the deputy editor, and the editor-at-large. John also shares how losing his father, his sister, and his apartment in a recent fire inspired him to weave elements of grief into this novel and why he was opposed to weddings until his own.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, John. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Her Last Affair.

John Searles: Thank you. I’m happy to be here, Zibby. It’s nice to see you.

Zibby: I have to say — we were just talking about the Hamptons. Back in the day, I used to go when I was a little girl. I would drive by the drive-in that used to be on the way to the Hamptons. Did you even know about that?

John: The Rocky Point Drive-In is what gave me the idea for the setting. That’s on the way to Port Jeff. Is that the one you used to pass?

Zibby: No. It was on the way — it was on the left. We would drive by. I feel like it was near Southampton. I always was like, that would be so great. It had just been sitting there for so long. Anyway, that is the extent of my relationship with a drive-in until I got to your book.

John: Usually, people have some connection. I only went a handful of times as a kid. I grew up in Connecticut. When I drove home to see my mom, I crossed the island to go to the Port Jeff fairy. I would see this old drive-in movie theater off the road. I would always just stare at it and wonder what it was like in its heyday. Then I started googling. I found hundreds of images of all these abandoned drive-in movie theaters all across America forgotten by time. I thought they were kind of beautiful in this eerie, evocative way, the tattered screens, the bent speaker poles. I thought, well, Stephen King hasn’t used it as a setting yet. I better hurry and use it, so Her Last Affair was born.

Zibby: I’m imagining a split screen, you over here and Stephen King over here. You’re both frantically — you’re like, I’m going to do it first, typing as fast as you can.

John: It’s just such a great setting for an eerie, creepy story. I hope people feel the same.

Zibby: Yes. In your book, a widow is living on the property. Her late husband’s family owned this movie theater. They left her with these twin cottages, which are really awesome on the cover, by the way. That’s exactly how I had them in my head. She’s renting out one of the cottages and has this very amusing interview process, especially given that I didn’t even realize until the end of the chapter that she was vision-compromised. I’m not sure the correct word.

John: We’ll say that. Vision-impaired, I guess.

Zibby: Vision-impaired. Oh, yeah, that sounds better. Vision-impaired, I think I’ve heard it. That’s definitely an expression. We start finding out more and more about the person, the man who she rents the cottage to. Her innocent questions lead to him digging back into his past. I don’t know why I’m summarizing this for you. Why don’t you summarize what your book is about? Why don’t you tell everybody what your book is about?

John: Good job so far. I’m pleased. Thank you. You know what’s funny? When I give book talks, I love to get up and gab and tell stories. I’m not much of a reader. When we did our launch event at Symphony Space, the actress Amy Ryan, who was in Only Murders in the Building recently and The Office and Gone Baby Gone, she starred in a film of an earlier book of mine called Strange but True. We became friends. We met on the set and became friends. I asked her if she would join me in the launch event. I said, “I just hate reading.” She said, “I’ll read for you.” I said, “Really? You will?” She said, “Well, it’s in my wheelhouse.” I was happy to have her read. The same thing, I don’t think I’m very good at summarizing my books, so I’m happy to have you summarize.

Zibby: Okay, great. That was where it starts. Then things unfold from there.

John: I will say, the book is really three seemingly separate storylines all having to do with love, so three very eccentric, very quirky, colorful, troubled characters in a film noir sensibility since it’s set at a drive-in primarily. Then halfway through the book, the three storylines collide. That’s when it really ratchets up into less of a character study and more of a thriller. My books get categorized as thrillers, but I don’t really think of them as thrillers, whatever that means. They’re kind of a mix of genres. Someone was interviewing me, this gentleman from Newsday. He said, “It reminded me of the tone of Fargo, the movie, where it’s weird characters and very sinister and dark but then darkly funny in moments and kind of poignant.” It was the ultimate compliment because I love that movie, Fargo. I really appreciated that.

Zibby: I love that. That’s good. I should just read critics’ descriptions and throw them back and see what you have to think about them. I haven’t tried that. Maybe I should do a podcast just based on that.

John: He wasn’t a critic. He was just interviewing me like you and I were talking. I felt so complimented. Thank you.

Zibby: That is really nice. There is certainly humor, especially the scene where they — the renter has this rekindling — stop me if I’m giving too much away or whatever — with a past love. They have a revealing moment — I’ll just leave it at that — where they have to show each other in this very revealing manner — I could just say it, but whatever. I do host a sex talk show, and yet I still cannot yet even talk about showing each other naked bits and pieces. Anyway, then the woman is sort of like, how am I even supposed to be doing this? It was very funny.

John: I joked with my editor. That’s part of the book that goes into almost Tom Perrotta a little bit, those sorts of suburban awkward sex scenes and things. For twenty-three years, I was the books editor and the deputy editor and the editor-at-large of Cosmopolitan magazine, and so I feel comfort writing and talking about sex because that was my life for twenty-three years. This woman that you’re talking about, Linelle, she’s an empty nester, a bored housewife living in Florida. Her marriage is just dull as could be. She’s not into her husband. Then she’s fired from her job. She’s kind of canceled for this seemingly innocuous photo from her youth that surfaces on the internet. She has no joy in her life. Then one morning, she gets a Facebook message, of all things, as people do. It says, “I’ve never stopped thinking about you.” It’s from her very first love. She reluctantly begins this online affair with him. The way people have affairs online, I know from my Cosmo days, is very different from maybe when I was younger and dating. They send each other very explicit pictures. They do that. It was kind of funny to show that woman who’s been a mom for years — her daughter’s now gone. She’s really grappling with this new reality of how people connect online. It’s partly about that in the beginning. People magazine did an excerpt of that scene, of all the scenes. My mom wrote me saying something like, “Johnny, I was so proud of you, but is the whole book like that? Is it Fifty Shades of Grey?” I said, “No, Mom. It’s just that one part. It’s not a sex book or anything like that.”

Zibby: I did not see the People excerpt. I just thought that was so funny. Now I should go back and read that. That’s funny. What’s your relationship like with your mom?

John: My mom and I are really close. My dad was a cross-country truck driver. My parents sent me, in the summers, trucking with my dad to “make a man out of me.” I always say, Zibby, they didn’t get the results they wanted.

Zibby: I was going to say, how’d that go?

John: My mom and I are close. My dad, may he rest in peace, he actually passed away in a motorcycle accident a couple .

Zibby: Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry.

John: Thank you. He was quite the ladies’ man. He was a good-looking young guy. He loved women. They loved him. My mother and I spent a lot of time in my youth driving around — probably not the best thing to do with a child — sending me into bars to get him and find him. It was an odd existence, but my mom I really bonded like that. We’re close friends. I was just home last weekend in Connecticut visiting her. She’s very proud. When I wanted to be a writer, no one in my family had even gone to college. I was like, “I’m going to become a writer.” They’re like, “Yeah, good luck.” I moved to the city. My dad was bringing in a shipment. He shipped, at that time, Broadway show tours around the country. He was bringing in a show. I put my stuff in the back of his truck and came to New York and waited tables for twelve years and went and put myself through graduate school at NYU and then started writing books and working in magazines and never looked back.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Wait, which restaurants did you work at?

John: I kept my restaurant job up in Connecticut so I could go home and see my mom and my sister on weekends because sadly, I — I feel like this is all sounding like a very sad story, but parts of everyone’s life are sad. We have a younger sister. She passed away after her high school prom. I wanted to go home and see my baby sister and my mom. I would go home and work at a restaurant in Fairfield, Connecticut, see my mom, see my sister, and then come back and be in New York Monday through Friday at NYU and going to school and trying to become a writer here. I also had this thing where I was like, I wanted that to be my last restaurant job, and I did it for twelve years. I was like, I don’t want to start at a new restaurant. This is going to be it. It was, thankfully.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Wait, I’m so sorry about your sister.

John: Thank you. I know. A friend of mine, the writer Ann Hood, she was my mentor at NYU. She lost her brother. At that point when I met her, her brother had died twelve years before. I had just lost my sister. I said, “You get over it, right?” She said, “You never get over it. You just get used to it.” That’s really how I feel. It’s kind of something you carry with you. I don’t know if you ever saw the play Rabbit Hole with David Lindsay-Abaire, that play. There’s a great quote where he says grief becomes something that you could eventually crawl out from under, but you carry it with you like a brick in your pocket eventually. Sometimes you forget about it. Then every once in a while, you reach in, and there it is. It just gets you. Part of Her Last Affair is very much about grief, too, because Skyla, the main character, when we meet her, we learn that she and her husband ran this drive-in movie theater for nearly fifty years. Then a few nights before their golden anniversary, he dies in a freak accident in the wood behind the drive-in. That’s really one of the central mysteries of the book, is his death and some of the things she finds out about his life following his death. It’s really about people reconnecting with the past and all of them grappling with an issue around love. Two of them actually make a date with their very first love. Sometimes they go well. Sometimes they don’t.

Zibby: Tell me about the beginning of your career and how you did both magazines and books and how each informed the other.

John: I went to graduate school at NYU. I got out, and I heard about a job reading what they called the slush pile at Redbook magazine. They paid me fifty cents a story to read them. They got something like 35,000 story submissions a year. They published eleven short stories at the time. I would go, Zibby, and I would fill these bags of the short stories. At the beginning, I would read every single line. I would feel bad rejecting people. I had attached the rejection slip but put little notes. Keep going. I just didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings. It really taught me a lot about writing and the submission process and editing and getting readers’ attention. Then from there, I heard about a job upstairs at Cosmopolitan. I went on the interview. I remember my friend, Ann Hood, who I mentioned — I said, “I guess I need a résumé.” She said, “You’re a writer. Writers don’t need résumés.” Zibby, I had no money. I bought a jacket at The Salvation Army for twelve dollars. I went on the interview. They said, “Where’s your résumé.” I said, “I’m a writer. Writers don’t have résumés.” I think she thought I was either really arrogant or really dumb. She hired me because she felt sorry for me.

It turned out it really changed my life, that job at Cosmopolitan. At first, I didn’t know I would stay. I ended up staying for many years and working in the books department and, in the beginning, opening packages and talking to agents and subsidiary rights people. Then I worked my way up and worked with Kate White, who I know you know. I was there before her. Then she came. We, together, really ran that magazine for many, many, many years. It was so much fun. At the time she ran it, it was the number-one magazine in single-copy sales in the world. It was such a huge success. We just had a blast running that magazine. We had this thing, it was an excerpt of a romantic thriller every month. It was a sex scene. I called it the “blank” of the month club. I used to have to come up with names for them. One was about this couple who had a tryst in the bedroom, in the bathroom, and then in the staircase. I called it “Bed, Bath, and Beyond Her Wildest Dreams.”

Zibby: Ooh, you’re good.

John: We just had a lot of fun doing those coverlines and all of that. Then I kept writing books along the way. I wrote a first book, Boy Still Missing; Strange but True, which is now a film on HBO Max. Now I have Her Last Affair. I’ve had a bunch of books. Have you always been a reader, Zibby?

Zibby: I have. I have always been a reader. I love to read. You must love to read too.

John: I do. When I was little growing up being gay — I didn’t even know I was gay, but the other boys knew. I was not athletic. I weighed about two pounds. I was really, really picked on and bullied. The place where I would go and hide was the library. I lived right by it. After school, I’d often get dropped off there on the bus or I’d walk there from home. That was really how I discovered my love of reading and of books and why I have such respect and love for libraries and librarians still. That, and on those trucking trips with my dad, I will say, he used to buy me books, mass market paperbacks, in the truck stops because it’s kind of boring. He would buy me Stephen King and John Irving, which I think still kind of influences my writing because I have the creepy Stephen King vibe and a quirky character vibe of John Irving. I’d read those books. My mom had a Sidney Sheldon collection. Do you remember him?

Zibby: My mom also had a Sidney Sheldon collection, yes.

John: I would take those books and read them, but it was not really meant for a twelve-year-old. I wasn’t the target audience. At night, these women would bang on the doors of the truck. My dad would be sleeping in the bunk. I’d have a flashlight reading. They’d say, “You want some company up there, big boy?” I would say, “Dad, there’s some ladies at the door.” He would say, “Just ignore them.” I would say, “No, thank you. I’m twelve. I’m reading Sidney Sheldon. No, thank you.” All those things contributed to me wanting to be a reader and a writer as well, but I didn’t know how because no one in my life was a writer. Then it wasn’t until my sister passed away, as I said, that I thought, as a cliché as it sounds, life is short. I saw how fragile it was. I thought, this is what I always wanted to do. I just moved to New York and did my best to make it happen. It’s been so much fun. Although, there’s been a few other things. During the writing of this book, my apartment burned down. My husband and I’s apartment burned down, which is sort of a hilarious story in and of itself.

Zibby: That doesn’t sound funny. That sounds terrible.

John: You know, Zibby, it was — we live down in the West Village near the Meatpacking District. I’m on the co-op board. This guy bought an apartment two doors down. He and his girlfriend would argue all the time. I would hear them. They would say, “Alexa, call 911. No, Alexa. Don’t call 911.”

Zibby: No!

John: I’m like, you can’t call 911 yourself? You have to have Alexa do it? What I hear is she came in and caught him in bed with someone else, is what I hear. I don’t know if it’s true. What I know happened is he was out the next night, and she came back, got into his apartment, slashed his artwork, slashed his furniture, attacked his flat screen TV — I don’t know why — then took all — they’re duplexes we live in. She took all his clothes out onto the terrace, which connects to our terrace. There’s a fence between. She lit them on fire. He had three propane space heaters out there, and it blew the roof off the place. Zibby, we were out of town. I’m at a friend’s beach house. Normally, I’m such a worrywart. I don’t know why the one time I wasn’t, someone texts, “There’s a fire in the building.” I was having so much fun. I was like, oh, it’s probably a little kitchen fire. It’ll be fine. The next day, people were sending us messages, links to ABC News, the fire. We pulled up, the bomb squad was here. There was police tape.

They wouldn’t let us up at first. I’m so persistent. I convinced them to let us upstairs. There was one little part of our apartment that was fine, where the couch and my desk was, actually, where I’m sitting right now. I said to Thomas, my husband, “It’ll be okay. We’ll just hang plastic sheets. We’ll fold out the sofa. We’ll sleep here until they rebuild it.” The head of the New York City Fire Department said, “Son, you don’t have a roof over your head. It’s toxic. You cannot live here.” I’m always like, I can do it. It’ll be okay. It took many, many, many months before moving home. It was a tricky time. During it, I really channeled a lot of my grief into, or escaped my grief, I should say, into writing Her Last Affair, which, as I said, is really a book about love, about the power of the past to impact our lives for both good and bad. I did something fun because I realized — like I said, part of the puzzle piece is three seemingly separate storylines. How do they connect? Halfway through, you learn how they do. I thought, I need something that gives it kind of a connective tissue, so I had the idea to start each chapter with a film quote of a movie that once played at the drive-in, so whether it’s —

Zibby: — I loved that, by the way. That was awesome.

John: Thank you. Whether it’s Casablanca or Mildred Pierce or more sinister fare like The Shining or Psycho or some forgotten eighties movies like Mannequin or Cannonball Run, they act as clues to what’s about to happen in each chapter. It’s a fun way to engage the reader and also my way of saying, trust me, this is all part of one thing as you go.

Zibby: You should do a Facebook Watch series where you watch all those movies with people, one a week or something.

John: That would be really fun. That’s a good idea. See, I need to be more on that social media thing like you.

Zibby: Have somebody on your publishing team just set it up.

John: I will. I don’t know when this airs or whatever, but on June 1st, I’m doing the Today Show. I’m talking about Her Last Affair and also announcing my summer picks. I’m really excited.

Zibby: Ooh, exciting.

John: There’s so many good books right now. It’s hard to choose. You know what’s that’s like.

Zibby: I do. I should send you my book, get it in the running for best books of the summer.

John: When is your book out, Zibby? When is it out?

Zibby: It comes out July 1st.

John: Are you excited? How are you feeling?

Zibby: I am excited. It’s nice, the people who have read it, I’m getting very warm reactions, just like what I was hoping. I’m not attempting to be the most literary writer. I just tell it like it is. I’ve been working and reworking this forever. Then I started it for the fiftieth time from scratch and did it all in six months.

John: Congratulations. It’s really great. I can’t wait to read it. What’s it called?

Zibby: It’s called Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature. The through line is how books have shaped my life and how at every — I’ve had a lot of loss in my life. Not my siblings, but just people I’ve loved who I’ve lost. And the books that have helped me through those times and the traumas and also some of the good times. It tracks loss and grief and divorce and remarriage and motherhood and depression and anxiety and all the good things. Then it ends up starting my podcast, and here we are.

John: It sounds incredible. I can’t wait to read it.

Zibby: I’ll send you a copy.

John: I would love it. Please do. I’ll send you my address now that we’re best friends.

Zibby: Exactly. That is exciting. I’m not sure when this will air. Even if it’s after, people can go back and watch, so there you go. What is your next book on the horizon that you’re going to write?

John: You know, this one took me a bit because I was at Cosmopolitan. My apartment burned down. There was stuff going on. I’m going a bit faster this time. While I’m writing them — I don’t know if you feel this way — it’s hard for me to talk about sound bite. I just know it’s darky and twisty. I’m having a lot of fun doing it. I’ve been on book tour doing lots of events. My hope is, July and August, really just to hunker down, stay home, quiet everything. Do you find this? I love to be social. I love seeing people, talking to people, but the more I do that, the harder it is to get back into the writing. I have to discipline myself to kind of sometimes shut out the world and work. Did you find that when you were writing the book?

Zibby: I’m so used to writing personal essays. This was writing about myself, so I just felt like I could do this anywhere type of thing. I’m working on a novel now, and I need hour buffers on each side. I need quiet. I need a totally different — I don’t know what, but yeah, it’s not the same.

John: I know. It’s a different process. Each book, I find, is different. I always joke — when Thomas and I first met, we were much younger. We met in our twenties. I would just get up at three in the morning, write until five, go back to bed. I would then have a book done. He’d say, “When do you write these books?” Now it’s the opposite. I’m like, “Come quick. I wrote a sentence. Look. Look at it. It has a verb, a subject. It’s a sentence.” Speaking of personal essays — Thomas and I, we’ve been together twenty-five years. He had wanted to get married a long time. I never really liked weddings at all. I kind of was dubious about getting married, or apprehensive about it. Then after the pandemic, we decided to. We just had tiny, little — I was like, “Let’s just go to town hall and get married.” We went to town hall in the Hamptons. There were men jockeying for space for hunting and fishing licenses. It was too impersonal even for me.

The woman behind the counter saw the look of horror on my face and slid a piece of paper and said, “Call the town justice. She’ll come to your house and marry you.” Thomas’s parents came and just a few friends. We got married in the backyard. It was so sweet. Now I love weddings. I’m a total convert now. I had no idea, Zibby. They’re beautiful. Just being gay and going to weddings for so long and knowing you couldn’t get married yourself, I kind of had a wall up about it. I know then when they became legal, I think other gay people rushed to do it. I still was like, no. I still was kind of bitter about it. Now all that’s gone. I wrote an essay in The New York Times about it called “Confessions of a Reformed Wedding Hater” in the Style section a month or so ago. I got so many nice letters. One letter I got was so meaningful to me, Anna Quindlen. You know Anna Quindlen?

Zibby: Yes, yes, yes.

John: I don’t know her. One day, I just got this email out of the blue. She said, “Your essay is near perfect. I just loved it so much. I thought it was funny and poignant and beautiful.” I nearly dropped the phone. I was walking down the street or something. Just to get a note like that, you’ll see when you — even now, I’m sure.

Zibby: We email now. We’ve done a couple podcasts and whatever. Every so often, she’ll be like, “I read your Instagram post. Here’s my weight loss advice,” or whatever. “Here’s what you should do about your back.” I’m like, okay. Hold on, I just have to write back Anna Quindlen.

John: I revere her. I know how you feel.

Zibby: Yes, me too.

John: Who are your other writer heroes? Who do you really love?

Zibby: I love Dani Shapiro.

John: Dani’s the best. She’s a friend too.

Zibby: I’ve gotten to know her over the years. That’s been the craziest part of this whole thing, is people who for so long, I’m like, this is one of my favorite authors, and then next thing you know, we’re saying hi at a party, going to dinner. It’s just the craziest. It’s the craziest.

John: I love Dani. She’s really cool.

Zibby: She’s awesome. I know we have to wrap up now, but you sparked an idea when you were talking about Sidney Sheldon books. I used to read all these Judith Krantz books of my mom’s. I don’t know what it was about that time period where everybody was reading their mom’s books. My kids wouldn’t dare read any of my books now. I don’t know if it was that the books were that interesting. Was there lack of material for people our age who had passed the stuff of the — I don’t know what it was. Anyway, it would be funny to do “What My Mom Read,” like a round-up, or “What Our Moms Read.” I think there’s something there. That’s really funny.

John: I remember my mother — there was The Other Side of Midnight, If Tomorrow Comes, all those kind of books. You’re right, Judith Krantz. They were just fun and juicy and accessible, I guess. There were a lot of them about revenge against men too.

Zibby: That’s true.

John: Then I went to a party once years ago, and I met Sidney Sheldon in person before with his secretary, who maybe he was married to. I don’t know. I can’t remember. He told me he used to dictate the books to someone, I think this woman. She would write them. It was just another era of New York publishing.

Zibby: Well, I am sorry about the fire. Congratulations on the wedding. It’s been a very eventful time for you. I hope that you get the space and time you need to write and everything. Maybe you can bring back the drive-in in the Hamptons this summer.

John: That would be kind of fun. I’ll just look on the left when I go out and see.

Zibby: Just look on the left, yeah. It was by the Lobster Inn, over there. I’ll find out. I’ll call my mom and find out.

John: Zibby, thank you for having me on. I appreciate it. Congratulations about the new book. I look forward to seeing you this summer.

Zibby: Thank you. You too. Buh-bye.


HER LAST AFFAIR by John Searles

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