PW met with John Searles, author of Strange but True and senior book editor at Cosmopolitan, at BEA in Chicago.

How has having written two novels [Boy Still Missing, Searles's first, was published by Morrow in 2001] affected your perception of the books you handle at Cosmo?

I think I'm more sympathetic to writers, to the work and the struggle and the craft of it, than when I was in graduate school at NYU and was very judgmental.

What's the struggle like for you?

Chris Bohjalian had given me the advice to start writing something right away. So I did. I worked on a book for two years. That was a struggle. And after working on it almost every day, it wasn't going well. Whereas Boy Still Missing came to me fluidly. And then in April last year I was riding home on the subway, and I had the idea for Strange but True. The whole story came to me at once. I wrote it by hand in three weeks and spent eight months revising it.

What was the idea?

That there's a family who loses a son on the night of the prom. I had a younger sister who died after her high school prom. And then the son's girlfriend returns years later and makes shocking announcements. All the what-ifs started presenting themselves, on that subway ride.

The characters are wonderful. Some of them will seem familiar to many, but some of them are really odd. How have you learned about people so you can make them so real?

I take stuff from real life and try to make a character out of it. And I try to live the world of the characters a little bit. When Charlene starts gorging on Wonder Bread, I started to eat Wonder Bread. Or Holly, who does these strange face exercises—I went and bought a face exercise video. Charlene likes telling people off. I'm really gentle and mild-mannered, but once in a while... we've all been pissed off.

Who's going to buy this book?

This book is very different than Boy Still Missing, but the people who seem to respond to it are those looking for a family story, but also people looking for a mystery. I don't write to a genre. With my job I've gotten several calls from agents asking if I would write about being a guy at a woman's magazine. Like The Devil Wears Prada at Cosmo. But Kate White [Cosmo's editor-in-chief] is so nice it would be The Angel Wears L.L. Bean. So I write from my heart, and I'm kind of straddling two genres—literary fiction in addition to mystery.

How are you going to reach potential readers?

Because of my job I'm very fortunate that I do a lot of television. I do CNN, I do TheToday Show weekend edition, I do Regis and Kelly. I hope to go back on many of those shows. I do a lot of radio. I'll get in my little Geo Prism and drive around to bookstores.

It seems Morrow is giving you a lot of support on the book.

They're really great. I just signed up for two more with them, did they tell you? And I didn't write anything. "Your contract's up, we want to sign you up again."

Has there been international interest in your work?

Boy Still Missing sold in France, then I got a two-book contract in Germany. And I just sold Strange but True in Spain, Czechoslovakia and Japan. When the French publishers published Boy Still Missing, they left out the prologue and the epilogue. I didn't notice, but my boyfriend did. In Germany, they put on the cover this Marilyn Monroe lookalike climbing out of a dumpster. You know what German covers are like. And they called it My Father's Lover. But it sold really well.

Your books have great titles and covers.

The reason there are birds on the cover of Strange but True is that I'm afraid of birds. But writing about it [in the novel], I'm a little less afraid now. When I first came to New York, I would scream like a girl and run to the other side of the street if there was a pigeon. Now I can face off with a pigeon.