Riley Sager on Summer Camp and Stephen King

in Thrillers by

Last year, there was one book at the top of everyone’s must-read list: Riley Sager’s Final Girlswhich was so good, Stephen King himself called it “The first great thriller of 2017.” If that’s not proof enough that Sager knows his way around the thriller, then just know that his follow up to Final Girls has been lauded by the likes of The Woman in the Window‘s A.J. Finn, The Last Mrs. Parrish‘s Liv Constantine and The Perfect Stranger‘s Megan Miranda, just to name a few. The Last Time I Lied, Sager’s latest novel, was just released today, so make sure to carve out some time for yourself so you can head down to your local bookstore to pick up a copy.

Not only does The Last Time I Lied meet all the expectations you have for a follow up to Final Girls, it surpasses them in a brilliantly twisting tale that makes you second-guess everything you’re being told. The story centers on Emma Davis, who’s attending summer camp for the first time. After the games are over, and everyone should be asleep, Emma wakes up to sleepily watch as Vivian, Natalie and Allison sneak out the door, with Vivian motioning for her to keep quiet before closing the door. This was the last time the three girls were ever seen.

15 years later, Emma is an artist in New York City, unable to let go of what happened that summer. Her art work is of the trees in the woods, dark and sweeping, and always covering up the shape of three girls hidden behind them. When Francesca Harris-White, the wealthy owner of the summer camp invites Emma back to the camp as an art teacher and councilor, Emma makes a bold move and accepts, determined to find out what actually happened to the three girls. What she isn’t expecting to find, though, are the cryptic clues, the horrifying origins of the camp, and the very real, very current danger she now faces.

BookTrib was lucky enough to sit and talk with Riley Sager about writing The Last Time I Lied, the surprising inspiration behind the summer camp idea, creating a literary universe, and the key to a really good thriller.

 

BookTrib: So, this is really satisfyingly creepy take on the summer camp thriller. How did the idea for this book first come to you?

Riley Sager: Honestly, it was Picnic at Hanging Rock. I was looking for something to follow Final Girls, and I had no idea what I was going to do next. I had so many ideas that just didn’t gel for me, or they weren’t quite working. I would get fifty pages in, and go, “I don’t know if I want to spend a year doing this.” I take inspiration from movies, and so I was just watching things, trying to get ideas, and there was Picnic at Hanging Rock, and I was like, “Yes, this is it: girls vanish into the woods, never to be seen again, and it messes everyone up. That’s my next book.” I have the book, but I haven’t read it. I was afraid that if I read it, it would have affected The Last Time I Lied, so that’s on the reading list for this summer: the actual book Picnic at Hanging Rock.

BookTrib: One of the things that really struck me about The Last Time I Lied was the artwork that Emma paints. It’s so vivid and detailed, and the fact that she paints the girls who disappeared when she was at camp actually disappearing into the painting is really haunting. Do you have a background in art? Where did the artistic influence come from? 

RS: I don’t, actually. But my late aunt was an artist, and she painted with… it’s a carbon caustic, where it’s melted wax, and I actually gave a shout out to her in the book, in the description of the artist who sublets Emma’s apartment: “She paints trippy starscapes with wax melted in scalding-hot aluminium pots. I’ve seen her at work, each colorful pot bubbling like a witch’s cauldron.” She was very talented, and she would paint these very abstract “views from space,” is what she would call them. When I was trying to think of a way for Emma to express her whole messed-up relationship with these girls, and not know what happened to them, I immediately thought of my aunt, and how you can do so much with the idea of painting and hiding things in the painting, and just abstract views of things.

BookTrib: A lot of summer slasher movies take place at camp, as does this book, which really only adds to making the story seem even creepier. I have to ask: did you go to camp? 

RS: The camp setting honestly came about because of The Parent Trap. Because The Parent Trap – and I don’t acknowledge the Lindsay Lohan version, I go by the original that I grew up watching – is this fun, family comedy ,the first half of which is at this summer camp. But when you really think about it, it’s such a bizarre plot: the parents separate these twins, and never even told them about it? When you’re a kid it seems like a great, fun movie, but if you really spend a second thinking about everything that went on, it’s just completely messed up. But it struck me that The Parent Trap really just wants to be a YA thriller, and that summer camp would be the perfect place to set a book about missing girls in the wilderness. And, yes, I did go to summer camp: it was for one week, when I was ten, and I hated every minute of it. I think that did manifest itself a little bit in the writing of the book!

BookTrib: In the book, you filter through Emma’s perspective as a kid at camp, which is when the girls go missing; and then again as an adult, when she returns as a councilor and art teacher. Emma back then is very clearly not the same person she is now, but you make that transition seem so organic and natural. Did you already know from the begining who she was going to be in both stages, or did writing one help inform you on the other? 

RS: It was definitely the latter. Originally, there weren’t going to be flashbacks in the book, because I did that in Final Girls. I was like, “I want to do something different!” But the past just kept coming back in these chapters, and it came to the point where I just needed to do flashbacks, there’s just no way around it. So, it helped to have the book basically written by that point, and to go back and say, “Okay, here is where I need to insert these flashbacks, and this is the information I want them to know.” I also thought that would be a great way to illustrate how much she has changed as a person in the past fifteen years.

BookTrib: Did you know what to write about Emma in the flashbacks because of what you had written in the present, or did other things come up?

RS: More things came up, certainly more things about Emma’s relationship with Theo. But again, it was because I already had the book pretty much written that I knew who Emma is, and who she was back then. So the flashbacks were honestly, just shockingly easy to write.

BookTrib: You overlap several different stories or narratives, and tie them together in a way that’s so brilliant and really satisfying. Did you know how you were going to bring everything together from the beginning? 

RS: That all developed through the revision process, actually. This book went through so many revisions and so many different versions, that I think maybe one third of my first draft actually made it to the finished product. So, there was a ton of trying to figure out what this book really was. I knew in my mind what I wanted it to be, and what I hoped it would be, but getting there took a lot of trial and error, and a lot of false starts. My agent weighed in, and my editor weighed in, so it was very much a collaborative effort in the revision process to be like, “Okay, this is what we need to do, and this is how we figure it out.”

BookTrib: With around one third of the original making it to the final draft, was there anything that you really wanted to keep in, but just didn’t make it because it wouldn’t work, or because you wanted to save it for something else? 

RS: Not really, actually. I attempted to have a character from Final Girls make an appearance, so that both of the books would be in the same universe, but it just didn’t work. That was really the only thing that I wish I could somehow have found a way to fit it in there, but also I think it might have been too jarring for some readers.

BookTrib: Is that something that you want to create, a literary universe where you have the two books you have out, and any future books you write?  

RS: They’re all standalones, but in my mind they’re all taking place in the same world. I like thinking that at any moment, any of these characters could intersect. In the book I’m working on now, my next one, there was an attempt to sneak a character from Final Girls in there, but again I was like, “No, it’s too convoluted. It just doesn’t work.” But someday, I’ll have Emma bump into Quincy on the street. I’ll make it happen!

I think having that literary universe is a nice treat for the reader. I mean, Stephen King does that, and sometimes it’s just so off-handed. I remember his books from the 90’s, like Bag of Bones mentioned a character that was in Hearts in Atlantis, and I was just thrilled, because I picked up on it. When you pick up on things like that, it really kind of brings you in more to the story.

BookTrib: Speaking of Stephen King, he called Final Girls “The first great thriller of 2017.” And then, with The Last Time I Lied, you have all of these best-selling authors calling it the one of the best thrillers that they’ve ever read. What do you think the key to a great horror or thriller is? 

RS: I think part of it is to set a certain amount of expectations, and in some instances meet them, and in others give the reader what they don’t even know they wanted. I do really enjoy working with these tropes, and I also enjoy messing around with them, and upending them. I try to give a sense of.. you’re going through this tunnel, as a reader, and you don’t know where it’s going to lead you. You think you know, but very often it takes you in a direction that you least expect. And when I’m reading a book, I love when that happens, and so that’s what I try to do with my own readers.

BookTrib: Just to finish up, you mentioned that you were writing a third book. I know that The Last Time I Lied has just come out, but can you give us any details? 

RS: All I can say is that I’m trading a cabin in the woods for a sinister apartment building in Manhattan…

The Last Time I Lied is now available for purchase

ABOUR RILEY SAGER

Photo: Jesse Neider

Riley Sager is the pseudonym of a former journalist, editor and graphic designer. Now a full-time author, Riley’s first thriller, FINAL GIRLS, was a national bestseller that has been published in 25 languages. His next book, THE LAST TIME I LIED, will be published in July. A native of Pennsylvania, Riley now lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

 

Rachel Fogle De Souza was born and raised in Connecticut, and traveled extensively throughout Europe, parts of Asia, and the United States, before attending college at the University of California, Davis, where she received a B.A. in Comparative Literature, with a double minor in Women, Gender and Sexualities studies, and Middle Eastern/South Asian studies. When she's not writing, she's reading, boxing, or thinking about traveling.

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