John Searles behind the screen at the Malta Drive-In in...

John Searles behind the screen at the Malta Drive-In in upstate New York. Credit: Thomas Caruso

In his novel “Her 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 tale accented by mordant wit.

In a phone interview from the Sag Harbor home he shares with his husband, theater director Thomas Caruso, Searles talked about how his book came together, suds and all.

You’ve lived in Sag Harbor for 18 years. How is that village as a place to write?

It’s so peaceful and serene out here and there is that literary tradition.   It feels like a great calm space for creativity. I write at the kitchen table, and in the bathtub. I grew up in a tiny house with two bedrooms, four kids, my mom, my dad, my grandfather, dogs, cats, fish, birds. There was no place to escape and the TV was blaring all the time. So as a kid, I started doing my homework in the bathtub; it’s comforting and an escape. I’m a big bathtub writer.

Much of the action plays out near an abandoned drive-in movie. How did you come up with this setting?

Whenever I go home to Connecticut, I drive to the Port Jefferson ferry and pass the old Rocky Point Drive-In. I wondered what it was like in its heyday. I started researching old drive-ins and found endless beautiful, haunting images of drive-ins forgotten by time. I thought, wow, what a great setting! I started asking the writer’s “what if” questions — what if the drive-in had been owned by a woman named Skyla Hull and her husband? What if, a few nights before their golden wedding anniversary, he had disappeared in a mysterious accident in the woods behind the drive-in? What if Skyla took in 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 love’s power to affect our lives for good and bad.

Why did you preface each chapter with quotes from classic films?

The book is structured along three separate story lines. I wanted to give a sense of cohesion for the reader. I had the idea to have movie quotes start each chapter as clues to the mystery. Finding film quotes that matched what was going on in the story was so much fun. I did a mix of classics, like “Casablanca,” and darker films, like “Psycho” and “The Shining,” and I brought in some ‘80s films like “Overboard” and “Mannequin.” All of those movies would have played at the drive-in.

What underlies the unhappiness and the violence among the characters?

They’re all driven by a need to be loved and to resolve past heartbreak. You can’t fall in love and not experience heartbreak. The main character is trying to sort out in her mind the heartbreak about things she learned about her husband. They’re all driven by a need for a sense of peace.

Do you see the heartbreak among these characters as something that’s pervasive in life?

 My parents married very young; they were very much in love but had a tumultuous relationship. I think that was imprinted on me at an early age. Then, after years of being a magazine editor [at Cosmopolitan] and hearing from readers about relationship woes and talking to relationship experts, I think it is common to experience the disappointments of love and also the hope and promise and 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 tragedies. Did those events affect your work on the book?

Our apartment [in New York City] burned down at the hands of arsonists, my dad was killed in a motorcycle accident, the pandemic swept in. In the wake of all those things, getting up in the morning and writing became my escape. I channeled my heartache into the work and it gave me a sense of peace — it was something to do separate from the tumult of my life at the moment.

A character named John appears in the last third the story. Is this your cameo?

Yes! That is me! I started inserting myself into the narrative in a meta way. I’ve done all these interviews and no one has asked me that! You just won an award! Ding! Ding! Ding!

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