WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: What were your favorite slasher films growing up? What slasher films in particular inspired Final Girls?
Riley Sager: For me, the gateway drug to slasher flicks was Scream. I was in college at the time—which is dating myself tremendously—and a film studies major. So even though I wasn’t a fan of slasher flicks, I was curious about a movie attempting to ironically revitalize the genre. I saw it opening night and was just blown away. It was the perfect combination of scary and funny. I loved it. And I especially loved Sidney, played by Neve Campbell. She got to be strong and witty and smart and vulnerable. I honestly hadn’t seen a character like her on screen before.
After that, I watched as many horror movies as I could, both classics like Halloween and those influenced by Scream, such as I Know What You Did Last Summer. When I sat down to write Finals Girls, I wasn’t thinking of one particular slasher flick. I was inspired by the genre itself. It was my attempt to understand what it means to be that character—the final girl—and how that title affects every aspect of your life.
I will say that a big inspiration was Single White Female. I thought it would be very interesting to take two strangers who have nothing in common other than being survivors, put them in an apartment together and see how they influence one another.
MT: As a man who writes frequently about and from the POV of women, I constantly fear accusations of appropriation and other types of backlash. Have you experienced that at all? Why did you choose the pen name Riley Sager?
RS: The pen name was a necessity. When I wrote Final Girls, I was at a crossroads in my career. I had tried my hand at a series of small-town mysteries, without much commercial success. Then I did a historical mystery, which I loved writing and was crushed by its failure. It was either hit the reset button on my writing career or have no career at all. Those were literally my only two options. So I hit that reset button as hard as I possibly could. Now, I didn’t write Final Girls because psychological thrillers are hot right now. I wrote it because I love that genre. I mostly read that genre. I wanted to contribute to it rather than simply emulate it to make some cash.
Yet my agent and I also knew the subject matter of Final Girls and the way the story is told would carry certain expectations based on the gender of that pen name. I’m not saying that women only read women and men only read men, because we all know that’s not true. But gender does play a part in how many people respond to a work of fiction, especially one in which violence against women is a major plot point. So we decided the best course of action would be to take gender out of the equation. Just have a name that could easily belong to a man or a woman. My publisher agreed, which is why there’s no mention of gender in my author bio and no author photo on my website. It wasn’t an attempt to trick women into buying my book. There was never any discussion of pretending to be a woman on social media. We simply wanted the book itself to be the sole focus, not the gender of its author. The book addresses many issues, including trauma, the effects of PTSD and how the media insists on portraying women as victims and not survivors. Those are the things we want people to talk about. Not me. I am literally the least interesting thing about the book.
MT: Did you find any challenges writing from the POV of someone different from you? How did you channel the being of, say, Quincy? How long did it take you to get her voice in order, to establish her frame of mind?
RS: I found Quincy’s voice immediately. Mostly because Quincy and I have more in common than I probably should admit. I was going through a very difficult time when I wrote the book. Without getting into specifics, I’ll simply say that a lot of bad things happened in a short amount of time. So I totally related to Quincy’s anger and fear and loneliness. I was experiencing them as well. Writing her story was also a bit of catharsis for me.
MT: Have you seen Scream 4? It’s an absolute favorite of mine—Emma Roberts is, pardon the pun, killer—and it’s been argued that the film is the first truly feminist horror film. Would you argue that Final Girls is a feminist novel? How do you create such realistic, well-rounded women characters?
RS: It’s undoubtedly a feminist novel. At least, that was my intention. Throughout its history, horror films have been criticized for alleged misogyny and their depiction of violence against women. I’ll be the first to admit that some of that is justified. But few people ever mention that horror consistently features strong, smart, capable women. That’s why the genre is so popular among teenage girls. They see themselves on the screen. That’s the aspect of horror flicks I wanted to focus on in Final Girls. These fierce women who have survived so much and are still struggling. They’re flawed. They make mistakes and sometimes do bad things. But at the end of the day, they stay strong, smart and capable.
As for the characters, I never once thought of them as “women” characters. To me, they were simply distinct characters with their own personalities, thoughts and feelings. I can’t recall a single moment where I thought, “What would a woman do in this situation?” It was always, “What would Quincy do here? How would Samantha react?”
MT: Final Girls is a fine balance between slasher and crime genres. How did you balance the two so expertly? What elements did you draw from both?
RS: One of my goals was to bring the concept of final girls and slasher flick-like massacres into the real world and make it all seem believable. That became a bit of a tightrope to walk. Stray too far from the horror genre and you lose that creepiness that makes it special. Lean into it too much and it becomes campy. I think what helps is that all the slasher flick elements are in the past and told in flashbacks. The psychological thriller aspects make up the present-day plot. I think that separation helped me balance the two.
As for elements, well, the slasher flick flashbacks feature a group of friends going to a cabin in the woods for the weekend. You honestly can’t get more clichéd than that, which was definitely on purpose. Part of the fun of writing Finals Girls was taking some of these clichés and then dismantling them until they turn into something fresh and surprising. The psychological thriller aspects are also firmly within the genre. Unreliable narrator, memory loss, substance abuse problems. Again, it was an attempt to take these elements that are familiar to readers and then twist them in a new direction.
MT: In Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, arguably the definitive book on final girls, the ultimate purpose of the final girl is to live on to tell her legacy. How do you think that comes together in your novel? What legacy do you give your final girls to tell?
RS: The day Final Girls was released, I gave a shout-out to Carol Clover on Twitter because the book literally would not exist without her. In my book, it’s less about the final girls living to tell their legacy and more about living to give others strength. At the start of the book, there are three final girls—Lisa, Samantha and Quincy. They’ve survived similar horrors and have been treated the same in the press, so you’d think the three of them would have formed some strong bond. But that’s not the case at all. All three deal with their trauma in different ways, including Quincy’s de facto response of denial. So one of the journeys these characters take is learning that they’re stronger together than they are apart.
MT: What’s next? A sequel? Another crime novel, or something entirely different?
RS: I can say with a great deal of confidence that there won’t be a sequel to Final Girls. Endless sequels of declining quality is a horror movie cliché I’d like to avoid. That might change in the future, but for now I think it’s best to leave those characters alone. My next book is a blend of mystery and psychological thriller. We’re still in the editing and revision phase, so I can’t say too much about it yet. Like Final Girls, it features a cabin in the woods, but under very different circumstances and with very different results.
MT: What advice do you give to aspiring writers? Any hints as to how to get Stephen King--Stephen King—to blurb your book? Surely, that’s a very special club—and well deserved on your part.
RS: Read Mr. King’s On Writing. That’s my first piece of advice. Other than that, I’m reluctant to give too much advice because everyone works differently and has a different journey. My journey involves reading everything I could get my hands on and just absorbing ways to tell a great story. I also wrote a lot, much of it unsuccessful. My past is littered with unfinished novels. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reached the 100-page mark only to abandon the book because I had no idea about what to do next. I’ve also completed novels that will never see the light of day. The first book I ever had published technically wasn’t my first book. I wrote two other novels before it that were never published and never will be. I think of them as exercise and training for what came after. Writing is a craft. You learn by doing. That means sitting down and writing something that may never get published.
Despite having that sought-after Stephen King stamp of approval, I’m still not sure how it happened. He was given the book, obviously. But I don’t know when or how or what made him pick it up from the pile of books he surely receives every week. But I’m honored that he did decide to read it. I will forever be in his debt.
MT: It was nice talking to you, Riley. Any closing remarks, advice, or thoughts on Final Girls, slasher films, crime fiction, or writing in general?
RS: Thanks for inviting me. Since I’ve rambled on enough, I’ll simply make some recommendations of things that have recently rocked my world. Everyone should read The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, see Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix, which takes a horrific scenario and makes it deeply, profoundly funny.