Riley Sager is on a roll.
The Princeton-based author has hit his stride in suspense over the last few years. He exploded onto the horror/thriller scene in 2017 with Final Girls, a novel that sees its protagonist dealing with the aftermath of surviving a massacre that left six of her friends dead. She’s dubbed a “Final Girl,” after the horror trope that refers to the last woman standing at the end of a slasher film—think Laurie Strode in Halloween or Alice in Friday the 13th.
Stephen King tweeted about it, calling it “the first great thriller of 2017.” The book was featured in Entertainment Weekly. Whoopi Goldberg held up a copy and raved about it on The View.
Sager continued to churn out books—2018’s The Last Time I Lied, 2019’s Lock Every Door and 2020’s Home Before Dark all hit bestseller lists and earned praise from readers and critics for their thrills and badass women protagonists.
Now, he’s back with Survive the Night, a road trip thriller about Charlie, a woman who may or may not be stuck in the car with a serial killer she has a connection with. Sager called the book a “love letter to movies”—Charlie is a film studies major, and dozens of films are mentioned or integral to the plot.
“I set out to write a thrill ride,” Sager said. “I wanted this book to feel like a roller coaster, and I think it does.”
We talked to Sager over the phone about writing women, the recent horror lit boom and more. The conversation follows below.
Six09: “Survive the Night” is almost out, and it really does seem to be a big summer for horror and thrillers with this new class or writers. There’s Survive the Night, a new Stephen Graham Jones, a new Grady Hendrix. How does it feel to be a part of this gang of writers all doing different things with the genre?
Riley Sager: It’s a really good time to be a reader and a writer. This summer is just ridiculous with the amount of amazing books coming out. I’ve been joking with other writers on Twitter that we should call it #HotBookSummer. It’s just filled with all of these books. Every time I see a new list, it’s like, “Okay, that one I’m gonna read, that one I’m gonna read.” There’s just so many cool things being done with the genre right now—horror, thriller and suspense. It’s just a really, really great time with so many great people working at the top of their game. I think we all sort of, whether we know each other or not personally, want to do a great job. You want to top what someone else has done, so there’s that great friendly competition going on.
Six09: It seems like movies really play a big part in “Survive the Night.” Were there any films that specifically inspired the book or any films that inspire you just in general?
RS: There was nothing that specifically inspired the book. My previous book, Home Before Dark, is a dual-timeline haunted house family saga that involved a book within a book, and it was just so complex and exhausting that I wanted to do something completely different, and I wanted to basically write a book that was as stripped down as possible. I wanted something that’s just written in real time, that’s mostly just two people in a car, speeding down the highway in the middle of the night. Then, I had to think up a plot. What is driving this, no pun intended? That was really the goal—to do something completely different and have fun with it. The movie idea came about when I decided that the main character was going to be a film studies major, because I was a film studies major in college, and therefore I didn’t have to do any research. I really wanted to pack in a lot of movie references because I think it’s a great way of bonding the reader with the main character. Charlie will make a reference to something, and if the reader knows what she’s referencing, they’ll understand what she’s feeling in that moment. There’s a connection there. It’s really kind of emotional shorthand to pop in a really apt film reference.
There are so many movies that I love, but this one, I really can’t think of a good example of something similar to it. It’s so obscure, but there was the Twilight Zone movie in 1982. There’s this framing device with Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd in a car, and one of them is like, “Do you want to hear a really scary story?” It’s just a framing device, but it was very evocative to me. It’s just two people in a car kind of playing mind games with each other.
Six09: You’ve done some online movie watch parties ahead of the book’s release. How have they been going? It’s a pretty unique way to promote a book in a time where people still can’t necessarily get together in large groups.
RS: It’s been a lot of fun. It was something that we did last year just to entertain ourselves during the pandemic. It’s Saturday night, no one can go anywhere, let’s all watch a movie at the same time and tweet about it. When it came time to promote Survive the Night, with all its movie references, it was just a no-brainer to be like, “Let’s watch some of the movies referenced in the book.” Last night, we did Silence of the Lambs. It was great to look back on what is not a modern classic, although I feel so old because it’s 30 years old this year, and I saw it opening night in theaters when I was in high school.
Six09: Did you write “Survive the Night” in quarantine?
RS: I did, although I got the idea before COVID really hit. I knew it was going to be my next book, so it was just, I guess, serendipity to write about people stuck together. When it came time to write, it was a nice escape from the daily headlines and the madness of what was going on at the time.
Six09: What was it like being an author in quarantine? Last year, there were a lot of virtual author events when “Home Before Dark” came out. What’s it like doing that again but also seeing a really, really clear light at the end of the tunnel?
RS: It’s strange because in some ways, the book tour this year is exactly like last year. It’s all virtual. Nothing’s in person. But I think the big difference is last summer, it was a necessity, and now, I think it’s a convenience. Who knows if the typical book tour will ever return? It’s very time consuming and it’s very expensive. I’ll hop on a plane and fly to Chicago, go to a bookstore, get up the next morning and then fly to a different city. You can do all of that now from the comfort of your own home and reach just as many, if not more, readers.
Six09: Are you working on anything else right now?
RS: I’m at a weird time where I just finished next year’s book, and my editor just read it. It’s this weird limbo. It’s always weird with writing and promoting books, because it takes such a long time for the publication process. Right now I’m talking about Survive the Night, while my main focus is on next year’s book, but then sometimes you have to go back and talk about a previous book. It’s just sometimes hard to really compartmentalize. My third book, Lock Every Door, was just released in Mexico, so I’ve been doing some press for that. It’s been so bizarre to be finishing next year’s book while promoting Survive the Night and having to answer questions about a book that I have not looked at in, like, three years. There have been some moments where they’ve asked a question and I’ve just had to stop and think, “Okay, what book are we discussing right now?”
Six09: A lot of your books really focus on women. Is that by design, or does it just come naturally when you’re starting the process?
RS: It really comes naturally. It all began with my first book, Final Girls, which is about the trope of the horror movie “Final Girl.” I always joke that if the trope had been “Final Boy,” my career would be very different. But I knew if I was going to write about final girls that it needed to be told from the point of view of a final girl. Other than that, I didn’t give it much thought. I really didn’t think about gender. I thought about character. This woman’s life and previous experiences and suffering and guilt—how has this affected how she responds to this situation? When I start a new book, I never intend to say “Okay, this one’s going to be about a woman.” It’s just whatever the plot sort of dictates. Who is the best person to view these events through their eyes? I’m sure there will come a day, and it might even be the next thing I write, where it’s like, “I think this should definitely be told through a man’s point of view. Right now, it hasn’t happened. Also, I love writing and reading strong women characters. Survive the Night takes place in 1991, and that was just a year that was filled with really strong, badass movie heroines—Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, Thelma and Louise, Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. I love writing about people who don’t know their own strengths until situations force them to really act on them.