Riley Sager has been writing thrillers for over a decade now, but each time he starts penning another, he’s gripped by the same terrible thought.
“There’s always this moment where I sit there and look at my blank page and think, ‘I don’t know how to do this,'” says Sager, who spent the first half of his career writing under his given name, Todd Ritter. “Then I eventually figure it out again, but it’s like this constant recurring amnesia. You sit and then you start again, you’re like, ‘I don’t know anything.'” Ritter became the more gender-neutral Sager at his agent’s behest with the release of his first book under that name, Final Girls, in an effort to rebrand.
Despite all that, Sager has managed to write five books under his current nom de plume, all of them bestsellers that delve into diverse corners of mystery and horror — from 2017’s Final Girls, which brought the horror movie trope of a last girl standing into the real world; to 2019’s Lock Every Door, a modern take on Satanic cult books and movies like Rosemary’s Baby; to 2020’s Home Before Dark, a thorny haunted house tale.
Survive the Night, out June 29th, weaves together film noir and Nineties slashers to tell the tale of a movie-obsessed college girl named Charlie who, after the murder of her best friend by a suspected serial killer, drops out of college and hitches a ride back to her hometown with a mysterious stranger. The whole thing unfurls over one night on the road in 1991 — so, you guessed it, there are no cell phones. Oh, and did we mention Charlies often hallucinates her life as scenes from a film? What could go wrong?
Sager spoke with Rolling Stone about films, twists, and how you know when a twist is too twisty.
Where did the germ of this book idea come from?
Well, it started with wanting to do the complete opposite of my previous book, Home Before Dark, which was just so structurally complex and a book within a book. It was exhausting and so difficult to write that I just wanted to make it easier on myself this time.
So, I just had this idea of writing something almost in real-time, that the events of the book take place almost for as long as it takes you to read the book. I really liked the idea of isolation, and this was before Covid-19, so this idea of just basically having two characters in a car and one of them suspects the other of doing horrible things, and the other one suspects that she suspects him of doing horrible things. Just having this cat and mouse mind game going on as they’re just driving down a dark highway.
I really wanted to strip it down to bare bones; I just wanted to make a very streamlined thriller, which I had never done before. Most of my books have dual timelines and flashbacks, and I just thought it would be neat to just get into a car and drive really fast.
Why Charlie’s fascination with movies? Do you share that passion, or did you have to study up?
Like Charlie, the main character in the book, I was a film studies major in college. It was a great gig: Our classes were we’d watch a movie, then we’d talk about it, then we’d write a paper. It was fun and it just did not prepare you for the real world whatsoever. At the end of the day, you’re like, “So how can I make a living off of this?” And most people can’t.
But the film aspect I knew was going to be a very integral part of her character, and I really wanted to bask in the nostalgia of 1991. I chose that time period for a reason because I was a senior in high school and I remember everything about that time. So, I didn’t need to do any research, because it was all still in my memory. The music and the movies… it really was just me indulging my interest in my past.
I always looked at Charlie as a supporting character in her own life, and part of her journey in this book is becoming the leading lady of her own life. So, she looks to these cinematic heroines that she’s seen, and so there is Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs, and there is Thelma and Louise, and there is Sara Connor from Terminator 2. It was a really big year for strong kick-ass women in movies, and I think her journey reflects that.
There’s a point where Charlie decides to become the femme fatale, of leading lady, of her own story. How did noir mix and mingle with the Nineties in this narrative?
Well, with film noir, they were always in cars and they were always driving at night, and you never knew who was good or bad. It was just so morally murky and I love it. I really liked the idea of having a main character who was well versed in film noir and could see the reflection of her own situation in some of these movies, and want to be this femme fatale but also not knowing how to be this femme fatale. I thought that was very fun to look at, what she would love to be and what she can’t quite be. I wouldn’t say Charlie’s a femme fatale, she’s her own messed-up strong vulnerable thing.
At what point in the writing process do you decide on the twist?
Usually, it’s something I have in mind from the very beginning. On one occasion, and I won’t say what book, but it didn’t hit me until halfway through. I was like, “Oh, yeah. This is what I have to do here.”
But for the most part, I do set off knowing what the endgame is going to be. Sometimes that makes it difficult because I think that I’m one of those writers who always thinks I’m giving away too much because I know the twist, basically. Because I know it, “Oh, everyone’s going to see this right away.”
How do you know if the story is getting too complicated? Or, rather, how do you know when to stop?
I don’t know, actually. I have a very good editor who reins me in sometimes or sometimes says, “Go further. Push it harder.” I don’t know.
The weird thing about being a full-time professional successful author is that a lot of times I really don’t know what I’m doing, and so it still astonishes me when I have another book coming out and it’s like, “Yeah, that’s another one, and I’m still not quite sure what I’m doing, but I guess I’ll keep trying until somehow I just can’t write anymore.”
You tend to write women. Do you see yourself writing women indefinitely, or do you have some story ideas where the main character is a man? Or is that just not really important to you?
Well, it really started with Final Girls, which had the trope been different, and had it been Final Boys, I think my career would have been very different. But I knew, “If I’m going to write about final girls, it has to be written from the point of view of a final girl.”
It turned out that I was pretty good at it because I don’t see my characters through the lens of gender, I see them through a character. Like this specific person, “How would she react to this situation based on her own experiences?” Not, “How would a woman react to this?” So it just has become a thing where the plots that I come up with are better served by having a female main character. The next book I’m thinking about writing could go either way. I still have a lot of thinking to do about that.