Riley Sager - SURVIVE THE NIGHT

Riley and I discuss Survive the Night, how he enjoys making the reader scared, setting a story over the course of one evening in a car, using a screenplay format for the chapter headings, converting from a plotter to a hybrid pantser, switching up his cover, and much more.


Riley and I discuss Survive the Night, how he enjoys making the reader scared, setting a story over the course of one evening in a car, using a screenplay format for the chapter headings, converting from a plotter to a hybrid pantser, switching up his cover, and much more.

Riley’s recommended reads are:

  1. Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  2. Elizabeth and Monty: The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship by Charles Casillo
  3. Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

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If you enjoyed this episode and want to listen to more episodes, try Clare Mackintosh, Flynn Berry , J.T. Ellison, Sarah Pearse, and Jane Harper.

Survive the Night can be purchased at the Conversations from a Page Bookshop storefront.       

 

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Transcript

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

book, write, screenplay format, Charlie, girls, outline, cover, set, Riley, authors, fun, movie, read, Sager, people, night, episode, setting, stays, Patreon

SPEAKERS

Cindy Burnett, Riley Sager

 

Cindy Burnett  00:05

This is the Thoughts from a Page Podcast which is now a member of the Evergreen Podcasts Network. My name is Cindy Burnett, and each episode I interview authors about their latest works or others in the book world about their roles, what those roles entail, and the books they love. For more book recommendations, check out my earlier episodes, and my website thoughtsfromapage.com and follow me on Instagram and Facebook at @thoughtsfromapage. Thanks to Maggie Garza of HTX Real Estate Group for sponsoring my podcast. Last week I posted my first Patreon-only episode, my June reading wrap up, and this week my first monthly Patreon bookstagrammar interview will air. I am speaking with Berit of @berittalksbooks and Deb of @dg_reads. You can check out the benefits I am offering through the link in the show notes, and I hope you will consider becoming a page turner. Today I am interviewing Riley Sager about his latest book Survive the Night. Riley Sager is the pseudonym of a former journalist, editor, and graphic designer. Now a full time writer, he is the author of Final Girls, an international bestseller. And the instant New York Times bestsellers The Last Time I Lied, Lock Every Door, and Home Before Dark. A native of Pennsylvania, he now lives in Princeton, New Jersey. I hope you enjoy our conversation.  Hi, Riley, how are you today?

 

Riley Sager  01:23

I'm good. How are you?

 

Cindy Burnett  01:24

I am very good. Well, first thing I always ask is for authors just to give a quick summary of the book for those that haven't read it. So do you want to talk a little bit about Survive the Night?

 

Riley Sager  01:32

Sure. Survive the Night is about a college student named Charlie. And she is dropping out of school and leaving campus because her roommate and best friend was murdered by a serial killer known as the Campus Killer. And she's just grief stricken and guilt ridden, and she just needs to leave right now. So she puts her name on the ride board at her University, which was a thing that existed in 1991, which is when the book takes place, and meets a guy named Josh, who's like, Hey, I'm going to Ohio too; let's share the ride. And Charlie agrees, and they set off on the highway at night. And she starts to think that Josh might not quite be all that he says he is and in fact might be a killer himself. And it just goes really fast and furious from there.

 

Cindy Burnett  02:25

So how did you come up with the idea for this one? I was so curious. I mean, all in one night, so much of it taking place in a car, where did the ideas come from?

 

Riley Sager  02:33

A lot of it stems from my, my previous book, Home Before Dark was so complex. It was dual timelines, set 25 years apart. There was literally an entire book within the book. And it was so difficult to get it right and so exhausting. And by the time I was done with it, I just knew I needed to do something completely different. And so the idea of a book that takes place in real time, pretty much, was interesting to me. And I really liked the idea of it's two people in a car, suspicion everywhere, claustrophobia, and basically just taking place over the course of a single night, and seeing where it goes. So it was a little challenge I set for myself to see if I could actually pull this off.

 

Cindy Burnett  03:22

How did it compare writing one evening, mostly in one setting, compared to writing Home Before Dark? I mean was it a lot simpler? Or in the end did you feel like they both created a variety of challenges?

 

Riley Sager  03:34

It was challenging, but in a completely different way. Like I didn't quite know what I was going to do when I said, Hey, most of this book is just going to be two people in a car. Because it just opens up all these questions like, why are they staying in the car? Like, what's going to happen? Like, how are you going to keep the tension and suspense up? And so it was it was a fun little puzzle that I had to try to figure out.

 

Cindy Burnett  04:00

I would think it would have been pretty hard. It would be hard for me to come up with something like that.

 

Riley Sager  04:05

But it's enjoyable to, I've tried to think of a good analogy, it's fun to devise ways to keep people nervous.

 

Cindy Burnett  04:15

For sure.

 

Riley Sager  04:17

And it is an enjoyable part of my job is to be like, okay, I want to make people really, really, really scared during this scene. And so how do I do that the best and most effective way?

 

Cindy Burnett  04:28

And what about Charlie's movies in her head. Where did that idea come from?

 

Riley Sager  04:32

Yeah, Charlie has these things, she calls them the movies in her mind. When in truth, they're really hallucinations. She's had a rough go of things, even before her roommate was murdered. Her parents died in a car accident when she was a teenager. And she deals with her trauma and her grief by immersing herself in old movies. And it really kind of takes on a life of its own where, if she's feeling too stressed, her brain will just twist what she's seen into this more cinematic fantasy. And that's how she's able to deal with it. And so it's a blessing and a curse because it helps her process her grief and trauma. But also, it really messes with her sense of reality and her perception of what's actually happening. And I devised that to keep her in this car. Because I thought that the easiest way to keep her in the car is for her to doubt

 

Cindy Burnett  05:31

herself,

 

Riley Sager  05:31

what she's experiencing Yeah, to doubt herself. And then it became this fun mind game that you play with the reader like, okay, is this really happening? Or is Charlie imagining this?

 

Cindy Burnett  05:42

And it was fun. I mean, because there were times where I was like, is this really happening? Is it not? And then I won't give any spoilers, but because of other things that happen, then you really wonder like, did that happen? Did it not? There's a lot of back and forth.

 

Riley Sager  05:54

There's a lot of messing with reality in this book. And it was fun to do. And also, in some instances, like, I would take it too far. Like I wrote some movies in her mind that were just insane. And be like, okay, this is stretching it; this has got to go. Like I had one where other, there's there was like one where it was like a movie in her mind, within a movie in her mind within a movie in her mind. And I was like, this is too much. This is like Inception, no one's gonna understand what is going on.

 

Cindy Burnett  06:22

Well, you do have to really pay attention while you're reading. I mean, I had to really focus to make sure I didn't miss anything. Because sometimes I can be a pretty quick reader, but I'll miss little details. And it won't really matter in a story. But in this one, I had to slow down and pay very close attention.

 

Riley Sager  06:36

You have to sort of play fair with the reader. You can't just bring something out of nowhere. So you have to plant little clues. But sometimes, I do intentionally plant them in like the places where people might be reading super fast, for like where they'll just sort of gloss over it.

 

Cindy Burnett  06:55

Yeah, no, you do. So that's why I'm like, okay, I have to slow down. I mean, even the format of the book sort of harkens back to those old black and white film noir things. I mean, with the way you set up each chapter and everything you do. Want to talk a little bit about that? And the way you introduce the book.

 

Riley Sager  07:08

Yeah, Charlie is, you know, a super big movie buff. She's a film theory major. And there are so many film references in the book. And so each chapter is set up like in screenplay format with like, Interior, Car, Night. And that was I almost titled the book that like Interior, Car, Night. But then this great author, Charles Yu did Interior Chinatown, which also has sort of like the screenplay format to it. And so. But it's really just sort of kind of setting up like the movieness of the book and Charlie's way of thinking. And the opening scene, we begin sort of, kind of at the end, which is where a lot of the great film noirs begin, like on Sunset Boulevard, with William Holden, dead in the swimming pool. And then we sort of like, go back and see how it all processed.

 

Cindy Burnett  08:01

Did you start with that format from the beginning?

 

Riley Sager  08:03

I did. Yeah. I like to play around with, I'm not really a fan of like, Chapter One, Chapter Two. Like I just I like playing around with that kind of thing. And I just knew that doing the screenplay format chapter heading would be fun, and also a little bit deceptive. Because sometimes, it's a movie in Charlie's mind. And so you don't know if we are really are like Interior, Car, Night.

 

Cindy Burnett  08:28

Right, and sometimes she kind of gets outside the car. And you're wondering, is that in her head? Or is it not in her head exactly.

 

Riley Sager  08:34

Right. Yeah. So it's just another part of the mind game that I was trying to play.

 

Cindy Burnett  08:39

So we talked a little bit about this, but was it hard to plot it out? I mean, did you have to go back after you had an initial draft and really mess with portions of it, alter them, edit them? Or was it pretty straightforward to just write it through?

 

Riley Sager  08:51

It's pretty straightforward. I used to be a huge outliner. And I'm not anymore. Because a lot of times I'd experience when I'm outlining something, a book, it's all outlined. And I continue to follow that outline, even though it's not working. And then I, even when I know it's not working, it's like, oh, but the outline says that I have to go here.

 

Cindy Burnett  09:15

Yes I must obey my outline.

 

Riley Sager  09:16

Right. And then it took, it was honestly Lock Every Door that I was writing where I'm like, halfway through, I'm like, this outline is leading me astray. This thing that I came up with is not working, I need to abandon it and go back and redo it. And so since then, I know what the end game is going to be like. I always know like, who did things and why and when it's going to happen, but I don't know the journey, how we're going to get there. And so now I like to sort of experience it organically as I'm writing. So I did know the end. But I didn't quite know the route that we were going to take.

 

Cindy Burnett  09:51

That's so interesting. So have you found it easier now that you've abandoned a more strict outline and kind of half-plotter, half-pantser but writing as you go. Have you enjoyed that more for these last two books?

 

Riley Sager  10:03

Yeah, it's a lot easier for me now because I am not beholden to this thing that I shouldn't be beholden to. And so now it is just, I'm going to try to enjoy things a little more. Like there's that that saying, like, it's not the destination, it's the journey. I'm trying to keep that in my head more as I write.

 

Cindy Burnett  10:21

That's interesting. I'm not sure I've heard many authors who've done such a dramatic shift in their process and had it work for them. It's great that you recognized it that you're like, I have this outline, but it's making me go in a direction that I think I shouldn't. So now I need to abandon it. I'll just have a new format. And clearly it worked very well.

 

Riley Sager  10:37

Yeah, in talking with other authors and talking to the people who are pantsers, they'd say, like, oh, but you lose the spontaneity if you have an outline. And I was always, I'd always disagree. I'm like, no, you don't. But I started to realize, yeah, you kind of do. And so I still need to know where that destination is, though. So I can't just be like, I don't know where we're going at all. Like, I need to know where I'm going. But then the rest, I think will try to come naturally and be more spontaneous.

 

Cindy Burnett  11:07

I like that. And I think with a thriller, that makes perfect sense. Because if you just sat down to write with no idea where you were going, that would be really tricky I would think. So you have your ending, you know this is where I want to get to, but you're a lot more flexible in the middle.

 

Riley Sager  11:21

Yeah, I can't imagine. Some writers are like, I'm just gonna sit down and see what happens. Like, I can't imagine doing that. That's insane to me.

 

Cindy Burnett  11:29

You're like, I just sit there and nothing would happen. I'd be like, I have no idea where I'm going. So I can't write anything.

 

Riley Sager  11:34

Right.

 

Cindy Burnett  11:35

Well tell me about the cover. So you had a very specific cover design for your first four books. And this Survive the Night goes in a different direction. And I actually love the original covers, I mean, the first four books, and I love this one, but tell me how you had this shift.

 

Riley Sager  11:50

We just knew that this was going to be a slightly different book. It's told differently from my other books, and that it's not first person narration and my other books, I think all of them have some sort of dual timeline or flashback structure. And this is just pretty much straightforward, real time. So we knew that we wanted the cover to convey that this is not quite the typical Riley Sager book, and that it's a little bit different and a little bit of a departure. And when they showed me that the cover concept, I was in love instantly. Like I was like, Yes, this is perfect. I love it. And I'm so happy to see people who do love the original covers of mine also love this one, even though it is wildly different. But we did get like some little slashes in the eyes on the in the title to as an homage to Final Girls.

 

Cindy Burnett  12:46

I just love the cover, I think it's fabulous. And I'm sure it's kind of nice after a while to go in a little bit of a different direction. I mean, like I said, I love your other covers, too. I love covers generally. And so it's really fun to sort of see how they evolve with a writer who you know, continues to write and see what changes, what stays the same. So do you think you'll go back to the other scheme for your next book? Or do you think you'll just go in a different direction again? Or do you have any idea at this point?

 

Riley Sager  13:10

Is this your way of trying to get information about the next book?

 

Cindy Burnett  13:13

That I'm going to ask next actually, but like I said, I just love to chat about covers, I always talk about them. And I'm curious because you had a pretty definite thing going. And so you know, this one taking a different direction. It's just more pure curiosity.

 

Riley Sager  13:27

I really did have like, I think it's rare for an author to have like this set style of cover and I really did have that where the bold colors and the bold font and it just it was it was great. And I loved standing out on the bookshelf like that. But this really was signaling of not a new Riley Sager, but just a slightly different evolving Riley Sager. And so we will probably in the future keep what we have now or maybe even do something different. I love covers to like I love a good book cover. And it is interesting to see like what works and what doesn't and we really didn't want to get into the thing where like I think if you have five covers that are like the same style, then people will come to expect that every single book from now until forever.

 

Cindy Burnett  14:22

Exactly.

 

Riley Sager  14:23

And so this was really like, you know when you see this cover, like okay, this is a whole different Riley Sager thing, and I hope that everyone goes along for the ride. No pun intended.

 

Cindy Burnett  14:37

I was like, okay, that's a good one. Okay, so talking about your next book. Are you saying anything about what your next book will be like yet?

 

Riley Sager  14:44

I cannot. I know I get asked that so much. And it's finished. It's with my editor. And now we get to you know, spend the rest of the summer making it better. And that is all I can say because it's just... I'm super psyched about It, like I love it. And I'm so excited for people to read it like a year from now. But like, it's all hush hush, it's so secretive.

 

Cindy Burnett  15:07

Well, let's talk about some of your older books. Do you have a favorite of your books?

 

Riley Sager  15:11

It's really hard. Like, you know, they're they're like kids, where they each have their own distinct personality and issues and things. I always say Final Girls, because it's the book that changed my life. Like my existence is literally lightyears different from what it was when I wrote that book. And so I have Final Girls to thank for that.

 

Cindy Burnett  15:34

What about one of them that just kind of stays with you as a time period you really enjoyed writing it, or there was a particular character that stood out for you, or somebody you at some point might want to revisit? Do you have any of that?

 

Riley Sager  15:47

Lock Every Door. That was really, it was great, because I had this idea in my head. And I went ahead, and I executed it. And I mean, I know that sounds like so simplistic. Where like, yeah, you wrote a book, you're obviously doing that. But books change and evolve, and sometimes end up not quite what you intended it to be. And so like, with Lock Every Door, it really was like, I'm going to set out and I'm going to do this, and I'm going to nail it. And I'm so proud of myself for doing that with like very minimal fuss and self doubt and writer's block and all this stuff that comes along with like being a creative mind. And it just, it was a very nice accomplishment for me. But like, yeah, I set out to do exactly what I intended to do. And it's great.

 

Cindy Burnett  16:40

Well, the one that always stays with me is The Last Time I Lied. And I'd love to hear a little bit more about where you came up with the idea for that one. I love the camp setting. I think that the story really resonates with whoever I recommend it to. So I was just curious how it came about.

 

Riley Sager  16:54

On that one, it was hard to come up with a follow up after Final Girls where it's like, what do I do next. And I was watching the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is based on a book from the 60s of the same name. And it is about it was I think it was 1900 in Australia, these school girls go for an outing at Hanging Rock, and three of them vanish. And I just thought that that would be a really neat idea to update and set at an all-girls summer camp, and then see how it affected the sole person in that cabin who didn't disappear and is haunted by these girls that no one knows what happened to them. And it just was a lot of fun to have a summer camp setting and all the stuff that goes with it like the campfire tales and the cabins and just mean girls and good girls. And it was just it was a lot of fun. But at the same time, it was also this massive challenge to write a follow up to something that was turning into a phenomenon. Like I was halfway done with The Last Time I Lied when Stephen King tweeted about Final Girls. And then the book was all of a sudden in Entertainment Weekly. And like then there was like this big build. It was a lot of pressure all of a sudden that was completely unexpected. And so that really messed with my head when I was writing the second half of the book.

 

Cindy Burnett  18:24

That's interesting. And I hadn't really thought about that because I do remember when Final Girls came out. I used to work at Murder by the Book here in Houston. And I remembered that, you know, all of a sudden it was everywhere, and everyone's wanting to read it. And I hadn't thought about you probably being in the middle of trying to write your sophomore book that's interesting. Turned out well; I absolutely love that book. So you survived it and did quite well.

 

Riley Sager  18:45

Thank you and shout out to Murder by the Book. I just signed 600 copies for them.

 

Cindy Burnett  18:50

Oh, you did? Oh yay, I saw that they were gonna have them. I'm no longer there with the pandemic and everything. But it's such a great bookstore. Why don't you tell me what you've read recently that you really like?

 

Riley Sager  19:00

I just finished Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and I just I loved it. I love her. So she's not a thriller writer. But there is some suspense in her books a little bit. But I just I love the way she captures like this California mood. And right now, I'm actually reading, it's a book I think it's called Elizabeth and Monty, and it's a biography of sorts about the friendship between Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift and so that's I'm getting my old Hollywood fix in. And the book I'm going to start next is probably and this has been so difficult because this summer has been insane with the good books and I've had the good fortune that a lot of them were sent to me early and so I could read them and so like you know The Other Black Girl is fantastic, Bathhaus by PJ Vernon is fantastic. But then there's like these ones coming up that I cannot wait and so the ones I'm most excited about are Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby and Falling by TJ Newman, which is probably going to be my next read. And then the new books by Chandler Baker and Megan Miranda, who both of them I just love.

 

Cindy Burnett  20:13

I have read the Chandler Baker one, and it is really, really good.

 

Riley Sager  20:17

It's funny, like, just this past weekend. I was like, oh, would you like these books? Like Well, now that I've pre ordered them, it's a little too late. Three months ago, I would have said yes. But it's weird. Like I'm sure that I could probably get any book that I asked for this point. And I'm always reluctant to do so because I like having to wait like everyone else and buy them like everyone else and just, you know, support them.

 

Cindy Burnett  20:46

But I'm sure you get a lot sent to you for blurbs, too.

 

Riley Sager  20:49

I do and a lot of times, I just can't take them.

 

Cindy Burnett  20:53

Right

 

Riley Sager  20:53

Because I get a lot of blurb requests. And I feel terrible every time I have to say no, which is most of the time because I'm just too busy with one thing or another. It's great that people are sending me books, but it sucks that I just a lot of times don't have the time to even get to them.

 

Cindy Burnett  21:10

Well, and maybe that's just an easier way because then if you mainly aren't doing it, you're not really hurting anybody's feelings when you say no to one person.

 

Riley Sager  21:17

Yeah, like they're just time periods where, like my editor, my agent know just to say no to pretty much everything because they just know that like he needs to finish his next book now.

 

Cindy Burnett  21:28

Yes, that's the highest priority for them. So they're like, yes, please, no more books for him to read. I need his next book now. Well, Riley, thank you so much for joining me today on the Thoughts from a Page Podcast. I really enjoyed speaking with you.

 

Riley Sager  21:40

Oh, thank you so much. It was my pleasure.

 

Cindy Burnett  21:42

Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you like this episode (and I hope you did), please consider joining my Patreon as a page turner, follow me on Instagram at @thoughtsfromapage, tell all of your friends about the podcast and rate it or subscribe to it wherever you listen to your podcasts. I would really appreciate it. The book discussed today can be purchased at the Conversations from a Page Bookshop storefront, and the link is in the show notes. Thanks to Maggie Garza for sponsoring this episode, and I hope you'll tune in next time.