Q&A with riley sager

Q: Where did the idea for THE HOUSE ACROSS THE LAKE come from?

A: THE HOUSE ACROSS THE LAKE was born, quite fittingly, at a lake house in Vermont. After being cooped up in my house for so long during the pandemic, I decided to be cooped up somewhere else and rented a lovely lakeside cottage in Vermont for a week. The first night there, I poured myself a bourbon, went out to the back porch that overlooked the water and stared at the lights of the houses on the other side of the lake. It got me thinking about who lived there, what their lives were like and, since I write about such things, what dark secrets they were hiding. I realized the setting was perfect for a story about voyeurism, suspicion and wondering how much you really know about the people living right next door. I decided then and there that it would be my next book. I ended up spending most of that week sitting on the porch, watching the lake and mentally plotting the story.


Q: Tropes are common across the thriller and horror genres. How do you use and move beyond classic tropes to create something completely original?

A: The reason something becomes a trope in the first place is because it works. It’s a proven concept that can succeed in any number of scenarios. Each tried-and-true trope comes with its own set of expectations—something every reader is instantly familiar with. My job is to give them all of that while also moving beyond the trope in new, hopefully surprising ways. HOME BEFORE DARK, for example, is more than just a familiar haunted house tale. It’s about grappling with grief and family secrets.

Q: In THE HOUSE ACROSS THE LAKE you feature an unreliable narrator, specifically a narrator that tends to drink too much. Why use this trope this time? Why now?

A: On the surface, the plot of THE HOUSE ACROSS THE LAKE looks like well-trod territory. We’ve seen many of these elements before. The emotionally damaged woman who drinks too much, spies on her neighbors and sees something she shouldn’t see. There have been variations on this plot before, and there will be more to come in the future. It’s evergreen. I chose it because I saw a lot of potential to do something new and unexpected with it. That was the main reason. But it also felt like the pandemic was a perfect time to revisit a plot like this. I suspect many readers can relate to a character stuck at home, drinking too much and staring out the window.

Q: Did you do any specific research to get into the character’s addictive headspace?

A: I didn’t do much research because I wanted the drinking in the book to be character-driven instead of, say, a clinical diagnosis of alcoholism. Casey drinks for a very specific reason. She’s an alcoholic, to be sure, but for the most part it’s very structured. She has a drinking schedule, which I think gives her a misguided sense of control. She’s fully aware she’s drinking too much. She just doesn’t care.

As for Boone, that came more from personal experience. I’m certain I’m not the only person who drank too much at the start of the pandemic. At the time, it felt necessary. Everything was scary and uncertain and we were all stuck at home, so why not drink up?

But after a few months, I started to realize that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to be downing two or three drinks every single night. I found myself starting to watch the clock, itching for it to be 5 p.m.—a socially acceptable time to open that bottle of wine or make that martini. That’s when I realized, hey, this could turn into a problem very soon if I don’t do something about it. So I cut back, and now maintain an appropriate balance. I still indulge, but not as often. I wanted Boone to be that voice of reason. He represents the part of me that realized my actions were close to getting out of hand.

Q: You’re a fan of classic movies—is there a specific film that you would recommend pairing with this novel?

A: Definitely Rear Window. After almost seventy years, it continues to be the greatest movie about voyeurism ever made. It touches on everything—why we watch others, why it’s not a good idea to do so, the morality of it all. At the heart of it are evergreen questions that THE HOUSE ACROSS THE LAKE also raises. How much can we truly know about others? What’s going on below the surface? What’s really taking place just beyond those well-lit windows?

Q: Your novels are famously twisty, and THE HOUSE ACROSS THE LAKE is no different. How difficult is it to write a successful twist?

A: It can be exceedingly difficult. Listen, anyone can come up with a twist. The hard part is making it work in a way that feels organic to the story that’s being told while also playing fair with the reader. The best twists are something you don’t see coming, even though the book has been secretly guiding you to that point the entire time. For example, my book THE LAST TIME I LIED is known for having a killer twist in the last few pages. During the writing and revising of the book, I made sure to drop little breadcrumbs along the way. I wanted to give readers a chance at figuring everything out. That doesn’t mean I took it easy on them! The clues were there, they were just exceedingly difficult to notice.

Q: Without spoilers, can you give a little insight into the twist in THE HOUSE ACROSS THE LAKE?

A: I honestly can’t. I would love to but I don’t want to ruin the experience for any future readers. All I can tell you is that you think you’ve read this story before. Trust me, you haven’t.

Q: So far, all your novels have been complete standalones. Do you think you’ll ever write a recurring character?

A: I never say never, so I’ll simply say, “I doubt it.” I love all my characters, and one of the hardest parts of finishing a book is saying goodbye to them. But I also relish the challenge of starting from scratch with each book. I enjoy coming up with new characters, new locations, new experiences. It’s fun always getting to play in a new sandbox.

Q: Has your approach to writing changed in the years following the breakout success of FINAL GIRLS?

A: That’s a very difficult question to answer, simply because FINAL GIRLS was such an unusual experience in so many ways. I wrote it when I was broke, unemployed and at a dark place in my life, and I ended up completing the first draft in nine weeks. Things have obviously changed, which makes writing a very different experience. Each new book now comes weighted with reader expectations and commercial demands that need to be met. There are now more things to consider than just what I feel like writing on any given day, and I’m still learning how to balance all of that in a way that’s both creatively satisfying and right for sustaining a writing career.

Q: Any hints as to what might come next?

A: I get leery about saying too much about what I’m currently writing. I always think talking about a work in progress will somehow jinx it. I suppose it’s okay to reveal it’s about a young caregiver with an infamous patient who lives in a crumbling mansion with murder in its past. And already I’ve said too much!

(On a fun side note, I was told that Dolly Parton has also stayed at that lake house a few times. I like to think I got so inspired because Dolly left some creativity behind and I was lucky enough to find it.)