New York Times bestselling author Riley Sager joins Zibby to discuss his latest thriller, Survive the Night. Riley shares why he loves writing plot twists that the readers will least expect, as well as how this book started with the simplest pitch: “a girl, a killer, a car.” The two also talk about why it is that they remember the 1990s better than they remember the last few days, the importance of starting a chapter with a captivating sentence, and how Riley has adjusted to living the life he once dreamed he would have.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Riley. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Survive the Night and all of your amazing works.

Riley Sager: Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

Zibby: My pleasure. I’m a little worried, this mind of yours going in these very dark places. What are you thinking?

Riley: I scare my parents. My dad, after reading Final Girls, just pulled me aside and said, “Where did you come up with that?” I’m like, “I don’t know, but I’m your child, so clearly, you guys had something to do with it.”

Zibby: When you come up with these ideas, it’s as if you go through this exercise of assuming the worst. The reader goes in and trusts characters. You go in and you’re like, oh, this guy’s so nice, or this woman or whatever. Then by the end, you’re completely betrayed. Your expectations are not at all met, which is what makes it so exciting and fun, because you just don’t know. Tell me about how you flipped the characters on their heads, this introduction of things that are unexpected, and how you managed to do that so well.

Riley: It’s always fun to think, what are readers expecting in this moment? and then always trying to find the way to completely reverse those expectations. At the same time, I think at this point, I’ve gotten a bit of a reputation for people knowing things aren’t what they seem on the surface, so now the challenge is to do it in a way that still surprises them even though they kind of know it’s coming. That’s where I find now it’s like, oh, gosh, is this good enough? Is this twisty enough? Is this surprising enough? What really helps is — my first beta reader is a dear friend of mine. We’ve known each other since high school. She’ll read the book usually in one sitting. She will text me her real-time thoughts as she’s going through the book. It’s a great gage to see, okay, she’s thinking this right now. She’s dead wrong, and so I think I’m on the right track. That’s always a very nerve-racking day, when I know she’s reading the manuscript and then texting me. I’m waiting for the day where she’ll be like, yeah, I saw it coming. Then I’ll just have to rewrite everything.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s really funny. Maybe you should try a new experiment. Part of even packaging your books with your name and the thriller-y packaging, you know in the back of your head that something’s not what it seems. What if you tried it as a — not that you need help, obviously. You’re massively successful. I’m just saying this would be a funny exercise, if it’s packaged as a rom-com or packaged as something and then you get completely knocked off your feet. I wonder if the marketing is throwing it off a little bit. You know what I mean?

Riley: I could just imagine this cutesy, wonderful rom-com, beach read-y. Then all of a sudden, two thirds of the way in, it’s just mass murder. I think Goodreads would not be kind to me there.

Zibby: You have all these people reading on the beach sitting straight up and being like, what?

Riley: What just happened here?

Zibby: I can’t believe it. That would really get them off the scent of a twist. For this book in particular, what made you start it on a college campus and the characters that were involved in this and the drive and the picking — what did you call it? It was like teeth on the wall where somebody pulls down the name for a rideshare. I loved that imagery. That was awesome. How did you decide to base it there? Why this formulation? How did you come to it?

Riley: With Survive the Night, it was a complete knee-jerk reaction to my previous book, Home Before Dark. It was two books in one told by a father and a daughter twenty-five years apart. It was so complex. I just wanted simplicity. The idea that popped into my head was — I still to this day don’t know what prompted it. It was film noir of Little Red Riding Hood. I thought, oh, that sounds like something, but I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. I liked the idea of most of the book being two characters and a car and playing suspicious mind games with each other. The really quick pitch I gave to my editor was, “A girl, a killer, a car.” I just really liked the simplicity of the idea. The hard part is, how do you form a whole novel out of this? I knew instantly that I could not set it in the present day because, cell phones. The book would be five pages long. I chose to set it in the past, but in the past that a lot of us can still remember and are still familiar with. I was a senior in high school in 1991, which is when the book takes place.

Zibby: I’m trying to even do the math to remember how old I was in 1991. I think I was a freshman in high school in 1991 because I graduated in ’94. Do with that what you will. Maybe I’m wrong.

Riley: My car broke down one night. I had to walk down this country road to the only farmhouse in sight and knock on the door at eleven PM. They answered. I said, “Hi, I’m a complete stranger. My car broke down. Will you let me in so I can call my parents?” They did because that’s what people did back then. They were so much more trusting. It’s a bit of a nice quaintness to 1991 before all the technology took over and made everything so much easier to get out of situations. Also, being a high school senior in 1991, I remember that time period so well that I knew research was not necessary. I could remember every song that was playing on the radio then, every movie that was playing, just everything. It made my job a lot easier.

Zibby: I feel like the memories I have of those years are so much clearer than the nebulousness of everything in my twenties and thirties. It all kind of smooshes together. High school and college, those moments, they’re very crystal in my head.

Riley: I remember 1991 better than I do two years ago. It’s crazy.

Zibby: Exactly. Yes, thank you for saying that better than I was saying it. Thank you. I have the same thing. It’s funny you say that, that the novel would be five pages, because what does that say about our life? All the intricacies of that, all the richness of experience that would come from all of those experiences would just be gone. I’m sorry, I’m not speaking coherently. I’ve had no sleep. I think you know what I mean. What does that say when there are so many shortcuts, that you don’t get to even live the real experience, let alone read about it? That’s all.

Riley: Some of the responses were very surprising readers who were not yet born in 1991 and not quite understanding. Oh, why did she do this? It’s like, well, ride boards were a thing on campuses back then. People used them all the time. It was campus-sanctioned hitchhiking, basically. Of course, the main character, Charlie, when she needs to get home, she’s going to go to the ride board. There was no thought to it about thinking all the dangers that might come about from going to that ride board. It’s what she knew.

Zibby: When you said how Charlie kept seeing movies in her mind and how the medicine she was taking kept the movies in her mind at bay, I loved that visual and how you describe medication working its magic in that way. Tell me a little bit more about that and the role of medication and what anything can do to calm the stories that we tell ourselves.

Riley: That’s another thing that is more of a modern-day thing. There’s a lot more things available to sort of tame our mental demons. That’s a good thing. It really is, but it makes for, sometimes, a boring narrative. You have to, as a storyteller, come up with ways to get around that. For Charlie, she’s been through a lot. She’s had a hard, hard life. Her defense mechanisms are these movies in her mind. I loved that idea of everything is so horrible that her brain shuts down. It’s on a big screen. Because it’s a movie, nothing can hurt her. Because it’s her defense mechanism, she doesn’t like that this medication she’s been forced to take makes those movies go away and she has to face the real world, and so she decides to stop. The movies in her mind come back at full force at probably the worst-possible moment. It makes for a very interesting story. It made for a fun writing experience. I loved creating these situations where, is this real? Is it a movie in her mind? What is going on? She doesn’t know. The reader sometimes doesn’t know. It was a challenge to strike the right balance. I had earlier drafts where there were too many movies in her mind. They went to crazy places. I had to really pull it back because I knew readers would be like, okay, enough.

Zibby: That’s funny. I’m like, what are these orange and white pills? I don’t know. I got to get my hands on some of these orange pills or something. Not that I’m in any position to do this, but I taught this random little writing class last night about what I like to read and what I think makes a good book. One of the things I said was how much I appreciate great opening sentences for every chapter. I think that you have to continually reengage the reader. Each chapter has to start with something just as captivating as the beginning of the book. One of your opening sentences is, “Charlie learned to drive in the car her parents would later die in.” That is a great sentence opening if I’ve ever heard one.

Riley: Thank you.

Zibby: You’re immediately empathetic, nostalgic. You see yourself in that. We’ve all learned how to drive. Tell me a little bit about that and if that’s a conscious decision on your part when you’re writing.

Riley: It is. I try to always end the chapter with a great line and then start the next chapter with a great line. I try to make what’s in between that great as well, but sometimes it’s not as easy. With Charlie, I really wanted to drive home — no pun intended — the point that this is why she doesn’t drive. This is why she’s in the situation where she’s in. Her parents died in a car accident. She hasn’t driven since. It speaks to her specific experience and her specific fears. There was a lot of attempts to make her as understandable and empathetic as possible because I also knew that a lot of decisions she makes are highly, highly questionable. I wanted people to be on her side and understand, okay, I don’t know why she’s doing this in this particular moment, but I kind of get it. I wouldn’t do this, but I get why she’s doing this. That’s where her past comes into play. That particular sentence you pointed out, I was pleased when I came up with that. That is like, oh, this is an attention-getter of a sentence right here and explains a lot about the character.

Zibby: Check plus on the sentence.

Riley: Thank you.

Zibby: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Riley: Oh, gosh. That is such a good question. I always loved reading. Reading was big in my household. My mom, still to this day, just always has a book at the ready. There would be her easy chair and the TV, and there’d be a book, usually Mary Higgins Clark or some romance novel right there. Reading was just something we all did. I remember distinctly, I was ten when I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That was the first time that a book truly took me out of the world I was in into a whole different world. It was this magical, weird thing where I just had no concept of what was going on around me. I was in the book. I think maybe that was when I decided, gee, this might be fun to do this for a living, not knowing then that when you’re writing a book, there is no magic. It’s all hard work and trial and error and revising. At the time, it seemed like this wonderful job to have, to create stories that people would fall into and the world would fade away for a little bit. I think that’s where it started. Like most writers, you just noodle around, bad poetry in junior high and then maybe some bad short stories in high school. I just kept at it writing different things until I got up to, I’m going to write a book. That never got published. I’m going to write another one. That never got published. Then eventually, it happened.

Zibby: Was it your third full-form book that sold?

Riley: Yes.

Zibby: You have to just throw out the first two.

Riley: Lucky third try.

Zibby: Then is it all you dreamed?

Riley: It’s weird. Sometimes it’s more than I ever dreamed. Then sometimes it’s like, wow, the reality is not what I thought it would be at all. It’s a very strange feeling sometimes. I’ve been fortunate enough to have some situations that are just truly surreal that I never thought would happen like Stephen King tweeting about my book six months before it came out. Who thinks that that would ever happen to them? Then the next week, I was just sitting at home on my couch flipping through Entertainment Weekly, and there was my book in Entertainment Weekly. They were talking about how Stephen King tweeted about it. Part of me just wanted to smack myself and be like, wake up, wake up, but no, this legitimately happened. I still can’t wrap my head around it.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so exciting.

Riley: It’s still weird.

Zibby: I wonder if that’s how everyone feels when all this great stuff starts happening. I always used to think, oh, famous people, they would just be a different type of person. Of course, they would win an Oscar or whatever. I’m realizing that’s completely not the case at all. Everybody else is still just going about their day. Then they have a massive best seller or something amazing happens. You’re still just on the couch hanging out, maybe.

Riley: Yeah, it really is. Tonight, I’m going to have to cook dinner. Tomorrow, I’m going to have to fix this broken shelf that I didn’t get to for the past week and a half. It’s normal life. Beyond it is this whole other plane of existence. It’s very strange. It’s very surreal.

Zibby: I had to go to the Hampton Inn — don’t even ask — for this thing for my son. I had all my other kids. I literally am holding like fifty-seven bags wrapped around my neck and hanging off my arms. I’m at the elevator. My older daughter, I have carrying like fifty-seven bags too. I just looked at her. I was like, “Do you think Reese Witherspoon has to do this?” There must be a better way. We can’t even get the luggage cart to come up and help us, let alone a person. Anyway, my thoughts on fame, but end of story.

Riley: I bet she does. She seems like the person who would be carrying her twenty bags around and still being chipper as hell about it all and just being like, hey, y’all, I’m carrying twenty bags.

Zibby: Yeah, that’s true, doing a little dance. Whereas I would be like, this is terrible, and screaming at everybody. Oh, well. It becomes funny later, but in the moment, I’m not always having the best sense of humor about it. What are you working on now?

Riley: My next book is finished. I’m so excited about that because normally, this is the time of year when I am scrambling to meet my deadline. This is the room I write in. That’s the chair I write in over there.

Zibby: It’s beautiful.

Riley: Now I’m like, oh, this is nice. I’m relaxed. I’m wearing real clothes and not sweats and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and guzzling my third cup of coffee of the day and just being like, I must write two thousand words today. It’s so much more relaxing now to have the book done. This is so ironic. It’s because of the pandemic. Writing got so much easier when I had no other social obligations whatsoever. It was like, I can’t leave the house. I might as well just write. The book got done so fast. My next one is coming out summer 2022. I’m taking a little bit of a break before I start diving into the writing of the next one.

Zibby: What is the next book called? Do you have a title?

Riley: It is called The House Across the Lake.

Zibby: The House Across the Lake. Oh, wait, I think I knew that. That was already on your website. I’m sorry. I did know that. My apologies.

Riley: I’m very exciting. It’s very Rear Window-esque. There are bonkers twists in this book that I cannot wait for people to read.

Zibby: Not only do I have to worry about everyone I get into a car with now, but now you’re destroying lakeside comfort.

Riley: Lake houses will be ruined for everyone.

Zibby: The whole market, no more Airbnbs rented out. That’s it. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Riley: To just keep at it. It’s really, really hard. It’s such a tough business to break into. It’s even tougher once you’ve broken into it to really succeed. Then when you succeed, it’s tough to maintain it. I always use the example — I love my agent. We are the perfect fit. She’s amazing. I was rejected 110 times before she accepted me as a client.

Zibby: That’s crazy.

Riley: That is some tenacity right there. It’s not easy, so you just have to stick with it. Believe in yourself. Keep writing. I think a lot of authors have that one or two or three or more unpublished manuscripts in a drawer. It took them a while to find their voice and the right way to tell the story. It’s a lot of stuff that you think is wasted time, but it ends up being valuable because you’re learning from all of it.

Zibby: Awesome. Amazing. Riley, thank you so much. This was fun. Thanks for chatting today. Now I’m very excited for your next book coming out next summer. Can’t wait.

Riley: Excellent. Thank you very much. I had a blast.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Riley: Bye.



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