Hailed by Stephen King as ‘the first great thriller of 2017’, Riley Sager’s Final Girls was one of the most exciting fiction debuts released last summer. Combining the psychological suspense of Gone Girl with the slasher scares of classic horror, it’s hardly a surprise that the film rights were snapped up by Universal.
To celebrate the book’s paperback release last month, we chatted to Sager about the process of writing Final Girls, the unreliable characters in the book and the resilient movie heroines that it’s inspired by.
Final Girls is the story of three women – all survivors of horrific massacres – who the press dub ‘the final girls’. It’s a gripping homage to 90s horror movies – which films in particular inspired you the most when writing the book?
I got the idea for Final Girls while watching the movie Halloween on, you guessed it, Halloween. It got me thinking about all kinds of things. What would it be like to survive something horrible like the events of that movie? How much would it affect your life years later? And, above all, what if these kinds of scenarios happened in real life? How would the media – and the general population – treat these survivors? So while Halloween was definitely the jumping off point, I looked to many films for influence. Scream was another big one. And Single White Female, with its idea of a shady stranger living in your apartment.Almost all the characters seem suspicious at one point or another, and it feels like anyone could be a suspect. Did you have a clear idea of who the killer was right from the beginning?
Yes and no, which I totally know isn’t an answer. I did indeed know the ending when I started writing. But when I reached the halfway point of the first draft, I was struck with another idea and started to rethink the entire book. I eventually stuck with what I had originally planned, but that other idea became another twist that occurs in the final third of the book.
What I love about the novel is that it’s not just a standard slasher story – it has psychological elements too. Quincy has repressed memory syndrome and there’s always that hint that she could simply be lying to the police about what actually happened to her. Why do you think readers love unreliable, damaged characters like Quincy and fellow final girl Sam?
Readers love to be kept guessing. And one of the best ways to do that is by implying that the narrator might be lying. Or, at the very least, isn’t revealing the whole truth. Let’s face it, no one is completely honest. We say one thing but mean another, or we hide the truth about who we really are from certain people, be it our parents or spouses or co-workers. Although it’s usually not as nefarious as the stuff in books like mine, we are all, in some way, liars. Psychological thrillers are a great way to explore that. I love not quite knowing what’s happening in a book and trying to sort out the truth from the lies. I think tons of readers do.
How long did it take to write Final Girls?
I wrote the first draft in nine weeks, which is a record for me. I never write that fast. But I loved the plot and the concept so much that I felt compelled to work on it literally 24/7. After that came the inevitable rewrites, which took about six more months to get it right.
What was the hardest scene to write and why?
Going into it, I thought it would be the scene that reveals what really happened to Quincy that horrible night at Pine Cottage. That actually ended up being a breeze. I wrote the entire thing in an afternoon. The really hard scenes came later, during the revising process, where I had to dig deep into Quincy’s mental state and justify her choices, good and bad. It took a lot of work making everything psychology sound.
We’ve mentioned film inspiration but who are your literary influences?
Stephen King, of course, because of his mastery of the language. People are always so distracted by the carnage in his books that they often overlook how great of a wordsmith he is. Gillian Flynn, because she kind of kicked this unreliable narrator trend into overdrive, although I loved her before that. I read Sharp Objects right after it first came out and was riveted. Then there’s Megan Abbott, who really cuts to the heart of female relationships in the most brutal, insightful way.
Final Girls has been optioned by Universal – any thoughts on your dream cast list?
Oh, I definitely have a dream cast in mind, but I like to keep it to myself, lest I offend any actresses who might stumble upon this. Also, I have literally no say in anything regarding the development of the film version, which is fine by me. I love movies, but really want nothing to do with the process of making one.
What’s your one piece of advice for aspiring authors?
It’s a hard road to travel, from the writing to the revising to trying to get an agent. And nothing – literally nothing – about the process will go the way you planned. But you need to stick with it. You need to want it more than anything. I’m the perfect example. It took me twelve years and three completed manuscripts before I was good enough to get a literary agent and a book deal. Then it took me eight more years, four books and a name change before I could finally become a full-time author. So my advice is to be patient, to work hard and to believe in yourself.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
Right now I’m finishing up THE BLINDS by Adam Sternbergh. It’s a terrific book. Utterly original storytelling. I have a stack of other books that I’m dying to read but might not get to for a while now that I’m wading into the writing of my next book. I don’t like to read too much when I’m in the middle of a project. I get too distracted and end up spending more time reading than writing.
Lastly, who’s your favourite final girl on screen?
While I love Halloween and Laurie Strode, played by legendary scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis, my favorite has to be Sidney Prescott from the Scream movies. She had a strength and wit that I loved, and it was great to see the character grow over the course of four films.