We chat with Riley Sager—author of Final Girls, Last Time I Lied, and his latest psych thriller, Lock Every Door.
I’ve had my eye on Riley Sager for awhile now—ever since his novel, Final Girls was a Book of the Month pick over a year ago. Since then, he’s become a threepeat author for the monthly book subscription service with the release of his latest novel, Lock Every Door, which is about a girl named Jules who lands a job as a high-end apartment sitter at the famed New York City Bartholomew apartment complex. But strange things start to happen throughout the building and suddenly Jules realizes the place isn’t as charming as it once seemed. Sager likens the story as a “fresh take on Rosemary’s Baby.”
“If you like creepy buildings, untrustworthy neighbors, and sinister happenings, then you will absolutely love Lock Every Door,” said Sager.
I spoke to Mr. Sager on the phone about his new book and throughout the conversation, I felt like I was talking to a friend the whole time. He’s so down to earth and totally open about his writing process and his own past. Also, fun fact? Riley Sager is a pseudonym! His real name is (drumroll please) Todd Ritter! Read on about all things psych thriller and why he decided to write under a new name.
Q: You started your writing career as a journalist working at a newspaper in New Jersey, did you get story ideas from your time as a reporter?
A: Working at a newspaper is a fantastic place to get story ideas. Sometimes the news really is stranger than fiction and you see something and you’ll just be like “oh… that might make a good story idea. People are strange and do strange things.
Q: This is your third go ‘round writing a novel as Riley Sager. Was Lock Every Door difficult to write because of that?
A: This one was actually was going to be my second book. I had the idea of an apartment sitter in this fancy apartment complex, and something goes wrong and I really just didn't know what that “something” was yet. I knew I needed to follow up with a new book after releasing Final Girls rather quickly so that’s why I wrote The Last Time I Lied second… that idea was a little bit more fleshed out.
Q: What made you decide to write under the pseudonym of Riley Sager?
A: Publishing is weird, and sometimes careers don’t work out the way you want them to. When that happens, an author's name can become a bit of a liability. We knew when we handed in Final Girls to my agent, she thought it was something special and said it could be my breakout novel. We wanted to give it the best opportunity to thrive. If we had released it under my real name, editors would have seen my previous sales history and would have seen that I hadn’t sold that many books, and they would have judged it accordingly. Unfortunately, that’s the way the industry works, so my agent decided that it would be best to “hit the reset button” on my writing career and start over from scratch with a new name. This happens more often than people think.
Q: Was there anyone in particular that inspired you when it came to Jules’ character?
A: This is going to sound so strange but… me! I know that’s weird, but I wanted Jules to be very relatable. In the thriller genre right now, it’s very big on unreliable narrators and bad girls and prickly women, and that’s wonderful and I do love to read those books, but I wanted her to be very down to earth. Because what’s going on in that apartment building is pretty out there. In order for the story to work, I needed to have some sort of grounding in reality so that’s where Jules came in. She’s just had a long string of bad luck, and so she’s really financially struggling through no fault of her own. I was in that boat not too long ago. I was laid off from my job, dropped from my publisher, I couldn’t get a job interview to save my life and I just saw my bank account dwindling. It was terrifying and there were days I was paralyzed with worry. I totally tapped into that worry with Jules and I put it all on the page.
Q: Why do you think people love true crime and psychological thrillers?
A: Well, I think psychology itself has a huge part in it. I’ve been fascinated with true crime for a long time and I think it’s because we want to know what makes people do these things. What in their childhood, what in their brain, what circumstances cause these people to do what they do. I don’t think any of us think of ourselves as would-be killers but to take a step back and think, “Gosh could I really do this? Could someone I know really do this?”
Q: What would you say to writers out there, how would you encourage them to taking that leap to write a book?
A: I get asked this a lot, so I have a good answer now. 1) If you haven’t already, read On Writing by Stephen King. It’s a master class on how to write. 2) Read as much as you can from EVERY genre. I get more inspired and learn more when I’m reading outside of the thriller genre. I was reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong which was basically a novel-length poem. While we have nothing in common when it comes to what we write, it inspired me to use better words. 3) Write the book you want to see in the world. I think too many authors are trying to hop aboard trends or write the books that they think readers want to read and you might finish a book that way but it probably won’t be good because you heart isn’t in it. Write the book that you want to read.
Click below to listen to the full Riley Sager interview: