In-Depth Discussions with Today's Darkest Talents

Last Man Standing: Meet the Guy Behind ‘Final Girls’ 

By, Vince A. Liaguno

If you haven’t heard of Final Girls, out today from Dutton (a boutique imprint of Penguin Group), you’ve likely spent the first half of the year living in a bubble.  Easily the buzziest book since Gone Girl, the hubbub that heralded Final Girls started with a mere tweet from a little-known author named Stephen King, who called it the "first great thriller of 2017" and compared it to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Quite an endorsement from quite the writer indeed.

The momentum behind the thriller has only ratcheted up in the months since, with foreign rights sold in more than 20 countries,  starred reviews from Kirkus, Library Journal, and Booklist, and features in major press outlets like Entertainment Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, Elle, and The Wall Street Journal. And with the kind of enviable marketing campaign Dutton has dedicated to the book, Final Girls—which has also been named a Book of the Month Club selection for July—promises juggernaut success for its creator, one Riley Sager. But you won’t be seeing Sager making the rounds on the evening news or late night talk shows the way Gillian Flynn did when Gone Girl blew through the bestseller stratosphere nor doing any book signings—at least not just yet.

Riley Sager, as it turns out, is a pseudonym for a previously published mystery writer—a previously published male mystery writer—who Sager’s savvy agent suggested step aside and let the pages do the talking this time. And, if the fact that Final Girls generated so much watercooler conversation before its official release is any indication, it’s a strategy that seems to have worked brilliantly.

If this all sounds like the literary version of the Hollywood dream, it is for the mild-mannered film nerd who wrote Final Girls. Sager isn’t letting the book’s pre-release buzz or prospects go to his head nor is he counting any chickens at this early juncture. In fact, when this writer presses him during the interview to fantasize about casting choices for the inevitable film version, he politely declines, citing that he’s got no thoughts beyond the book’s release—nor does he want risk possibly “torpedoing anything” with his own thoughts on which Hollywood heavyweights might make the perfect Quincy, Sam, or Lisa.

For now, he’s taking it all in humble stride, grateful to be a full-time novelist able to support himself with his writing. He’s got no immediate plans to move out of the New Jersey townhouse he’s lived in for the past dozen or so years and still drives the same beat-up Volkswagen Beetle sorely in need of new tires and a paint job. He’s still cooks dinner and does dishes and the housework. After all, he tells me, “When the toilet needs to be cleaned, it doesn’t really matter if Stephen King liked your book.”

On the weekend before the novel’s release, Dark Scribe Magazine caught up with Sager to discuss Final Girls, its inspirations, and the origins of that mysterious pseudonym. And, yes, we know who the real Riley Sager is—but we’re going to let The Wall Street Journal spill those beans shortly.

Dark Scribe Magazine: With the book’s titular moniker originating from a term coined by Carol J. Clover in her seminal meditation on slasher films Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, let’s begin by clearing something up: Is Final Girls a horror novel with thriller elements or a thriller with horror elements?

Riley Sager: It is very much a thriller with horror elements. My goal with the book was to take the concept of the Final Girl and drop it into the real world. I treat what happened to these women as true-life scenarios, with all the modern-day baggage that comes with it. The press. The Internet. The psychological trauma. It was really important to me to avoid veering into camp or parody. Yet the title alone does indicate that there’s a horror element involved. That comes in the form of flashbacks to the night Quincy—the main Final Girl—survived a massacre that left the rest of her friends dead. I think of those chapters as a slasher flick within the book. You know what happens in the very first chapter, but not how or why it happened.

DSM: Where did the idea for Final Girls come from—and were there any earlier incarnations of the idea that might have led to a completely different book?

Riley Sager: The idea came to me on Halloween while watching, of course, Halloween. I’ve seen the movie too many times to count, along with Halloween II and the unfortunately titled but surprisingly effective Halloween: H20. Basically, I started thinking about Laurie Strode and how the movies—especially Halloween: H20—really missed an opportunity to show how traumatizing the events of the first movie were for Laurie. Sure, they touch upon it, but not nearly enough in my opinion. That got me thinking about how a Final Girl would be like five, ten, fifteen years after what happened. Do they think about it every day? Do they try to forget it? Can they ever truly trust anyone? So I came up with the idea of three real-life Final Girls and how they might interact, especially if they find themselves threatened years later. I toyed with the idea of making it a YA series, kind of like a slasher-flick version of Pretty Little Liars, but that lasted about a day. Very early on, I knew exactly what kind of book I wanted it to be.

DSM: Editing can often be a painful process for the writer. Is there a personal favorite scene or character in Final Girls that got excised during the editing process?

Riley Sager: There’s actually very little that got left on the cutting room floor. I got very, very lucky in that my editor and I shared the same vision for Final Girls. There were no attempts to change things too drastically or push the book in a different direction. The only thing we disagreed about was a certain scene in Central Park. She stated her case. I stated mine. We agreed to compromise. It was all very civil and stress-free because my editor—the fabulous Maya Ziv at Dutton—truly is the nicest person on Earth. Plus, it helped knowing that we both wanted to put out the best damn book we possibly could. That was the goal with every little thing we changed.

DSM: We’ve all heard the term “water cooler” applied to pop culture phenomena that everyone’s talking about—usually a film or TV show. With the tremendous advance word that’s preceded Final Girls—including that doozy of a blurb from Stephen King—what does it feel like to be within the buzz and the topic of water cooler conversation this early out?

Riley Sager: Honestly, it’s all very surreal. I mean, I know it’s happening. I’ve seen the early reviews and the blurbs and the steadily building buzz. But it doesn’t quite feel like it’s happening. For instance, Stephen King’s very generous blurb. I’m still not exactly sure how it happened, so it doesn’t quite feel real. Same thing with Final Girls being chosen for the Book of the Month Club. Or it being featured in Entertainment Weekly. Right now, there’s a disconnect between my reality and the book’s reality.

Part of that is because I’ve been trying to avoid the buzz as much as possible. Don’t get me wrong—it’s wonderful and amazing and more than I ever dared to dream. But I think dwelling on it too much isn’t the healthiest thing to do. I wrote the best book I possibly could. Now there’s nothing left for me to do. Whatever happens next is now out of my hands.

Then there’s the fact that my life hasn’t really changed all that much. Yes, I’m now a full-time novelist, which is incredible. I feel very lucky to be able to support myself just through my writing. But other than that, I’ve kept things pretty normal.

DSM: Riley Sager is a pseudonym. Has being publicly anonymous—at least at this point in time—allowed you any advantages in the months leading up to the book’s release? Conversely, has there been a downside to the pseudonym? Without giving away any identifying details of your real identity, why did you and/or Dutton opt to go with a pseudonym?

Riley Sager: People sometimes forget that publishing is, at its core, a business. And the pseudonym was a business decision suggested by my agent. I’ve had books published under both my real name and another pen name. In both instances, sales were less than stellar. When I turned in Final Girls, my agent immediately suggested a pseudonym, mostly because everyone prefers a shiny, new, unknown author to one with several books and middling sales under his belt. She thought a pseudonym was the best way to make Final Girls a success. I agreed. As for the name Riley Sager, we wanted something gender neutral to add to the mystery of my identity while also giving a nod to the fact that many Final Girls in the movies have a gender-neutral name. (Hello, Sidney!) I chose Sager because it’s my maternal grandmother’s maiden name and my agent liked the way it sounded. Riley is a mash-up of my parents’ first names—Ray and Linda.

As for being anonymous, I quite enjoy it. I’m not one of those authors who needs public praise or recognition to feel good about myself. I’m also, by nature, very private. So the pseudonym situation works well for me. If there’s a downside, it’s probably the fact that I haven’t done much in-person press or events to promote the book. From the very beginning, my publisher and I agreed that the book should be the focus, not Riley Sager. That’s slowly starting to evolve now that the book is finally out. I just did an interview and photo shoot revealing my identity for a major newspaper, and I recently added a few public events to my schedule, which I hope will be fun and not stressful. My characters may not be shy, but I certainly am.

DSM: Is it safe to assume that slasher films in some significant way inspired Final Girls? What are some of your favorites in the genre? Any wink-wink-nods to any of these films in the book?

Riley Sager: My two favorites are Halloween and Scream. Sure, they’re the most obvious choices, but that’s because they’re both classics that advanced the genre. I’m also enjoying the artistic renaissance horror is experiencing right now. Movies like It Follows and Get Out that pair an indie sensibility with real scares and social commentary.

Final Girls itself is peppered with references to movies. Quincy, the main character, likes Hitchcock and film noir, so there are mentions of those throughout. I also sneak in a Mary Poppins reference, because it’s one of my favorites. And eagle-eyed readers will spot a few references to Halloween, the most notable being that Quincy’s last name is Carpenter. I had to show John Carpenter some love.

DSM: Will there be a next book by Riley Sager…or do your alter-ego and the real you now merge into one writing career? What can you tell us about your next novel?

Riley Sager: There will indeed be another book from Riley Sager, although I can’t say too much about it at this point. I’m in the process of revising it now and much will likely change, including its title. But I can say it’s a riff on Picnic at Hanging Rock. Instead of an all-girls school in Australia, it’s an all-girls summer camp in the Adirondacks. Bad things happen.

For more about Riley Sager, visit his official author website.

Posted on Tuesday, July 11, 2017 at 06:00AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | CommentsPost a Comment
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