Clarissa Cruz
September 08, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

He may have researched virulent ghosts, creepy genetic engineering, and icky skin grafts, but suspense writer Ben Mezrich (who also writes under the pen name Holden Scott) has done one really scary thing for the sake of his craft: He sat on a public toilet in Manhattan’s Penn Station.

”I’m very neurotic about health,” Mezrich, 31, admits, settling back on a (more accommodating) leather couch in his Boston apartment. ”My one fear is catching something from the toilet seat, but I’ve always wanted to write that scene.”

Call it Method writing. Mezrich also traveled with $25,000 in cash in a backpack and sneaked into hospital wards to simulate scenes in his just-out thriller, The Carrier. The toilet incident inspired a passage where a businessman is reduced to a pile of dry bones just minutes after plopping down on a Penn Station commode infected with renegade flesh-eating bacteria.

If it sounds X-Files-ish, it’s no surprise that Mezrich was picked by the series’ creator, Chris Carter (who was impressed with Mezrich’s first thriller, Threshold), to write for the show in 1997 — an offer the young author promptly turned down.

”Writing for a show seems like it would be really hard,” says Mezrich, who had amassed 190 rejection letters before publishing Threshold at age 25. ”Novels I have a lot more control over, [so] I pitched the idea to do a book.” That became 1999’s X-Files literary tie-in Skin, in which Mulder and Scully investigate a botched grafting procedure that leads them to a skin-eating Thai monster.

But forays into the paranormal aside, Mezrich’s immediate goal is a bit more mundane. ”I want to be one of PEOPLE‘s 50 Most Beautiful People,” he chuckles. ”Because the writer — Grisham made it, Crichton made it — is like the affirmative-action spot.”

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