In the past six years, Riley Sager has published seven novels — all of them best sellers except his first, “Final Girls,” which won a 2018 International Thriller Writers Award. The Pennsylvania native reliably produces one book a year on a strict schedule that sounded remarkably uncomplicated (if dizzying) when he described it in a phone interview.
“I usually start on Jan. 2 and keep writing until June,” Sager said. Then comes a month of publicity and touring for the book he wrote the year before, followed by a “scramble in July and August” to complete his manuscript in progress with enough time left for revising and polishing before the end of the year. Simple, right?
Thankfully for those of us who see the similarities between writing and having a cavity filled, Sager admitted that his eighth book did not go according to plan. In fact, it was a bit of a slog. “I was racked with self-doubt,” he said. “I always have some impostor syndrome going on at all times, but in the case of ‘The Only One Left,’ it just got so complicated narratively that I was lost and in the weeds.”
Sager’s latest best seller includes a story within a story, plus significant background on the disgraced home health aide who has been dispatched to care for a Lizzie Borden-like septuagenarian in her creepy home on the Maine coast. What he envisioned is a feat requiring skill and concentration — and his confidence flagged around the 150-page mark. Sager said, “I did something I’ve never done before, which was email my editor and my agent and say, ‘Help! I don’t know what I’m doing! I think this book sucks!’”
He expected the pair to reply with a tactfully presented plan for resetting and salvaging the book, but instead the response was encouraging: “They got back to me saying, ‘It’s fantastic, we don’t know what you’re talking about, just keep doing what you’re doing,’” Sager said. “And that was the little boost I needed to get over this wall I was banging against.”
He cued up the Go-Go’s — the book is set in the 1980s — and got back to work. Sager finished “The Only One Left” two months later, relying on Google to research the responsibilities of home health aides, plus tide and weather patterns in Maine. (He’s never been there.)
“I know enough writers now to know that none of us know what we’re doing half the time,” Sager said. “I don’t buy this, ‘I know exactly what I’m doing all the time.’ You do not. It’s just hard work and weird alchemy.”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”
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