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Riley Sager on his new thriller 'Middle of the Night'

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Summer 1994, a leafy New Jersey suburb - two boys have a sleepover in a backyard tent. Come morning, only one boy wakes in that tent. Author Riley Sager writes, his name is Ethan Marsh. He is 10. And this is the last carefree moment he'll have for the next 30 years. Riley Sager is actually former newspaper reporter Todd Ritter. Ritter, as Sager, has published a bestselling thriller a year since 2017. His latest, "Middle Of The Night," is just out, and Todd Ritter, or should I say Riley Sager, joins us. Hello.

TODD RITTER: Hi. How are you?

GONYEA: I'm good. I'm good. What sets this plot in motion in present day when Ethan returns to his childhood home where that disappearance occurred as an adult?

RITTER: Yeah, he returns home after a lengthy absence because his best friend vanished there, so he doesn't really have fond memories of the place, but circumstances force him back home. And he starts to notice strange happenings around the neighborhood that make him think that his friend, Billy, who vanished 30 years ago, might have also returned and maybe wants Ethan to help figure out what happened to him. It's a mystery, it's a ghost story, it's a coming-of-age tale kind of all rolled into one.

GONYEA: There's a word that you use, I don't know how many times in the book. It's a scritch (ph) like that. Describe that word and why it keeps coming back like that.

RITTER: Yeah, he has this recurring dream of the sound of the tent being slashed open. And for Ethan, he does not think he witnessed the tent being slashed open or Billy being taken. But this dream kind of makes him think, did I see something? Did I hear something? Is this recurring dream a memory? What is going on here?

GONYEA: This book is set in suburbia on a cul-de-sac called Hemlock Circle. These places, I think, to a lot of us, feel both familiar and frightening at the same time.

RITTER: Yeah, I am a suburbanite myself. I happen to live on a cul-de-sac in Princeton, N.J., where Ethan lives. I just liked the idea of writing about a place that everyone thinks is so safe and so quiet and nothing bad ever happens and then look at the fallout when something does happen.

GONYEA: You also capture a certain claustrophobic vibe. And then, I guess, just for kicks, the place is surrounded by pretty deep woods.

RITTER: In my books, there's always a deep woods. Usually, there's always a deep, scary woods lurking in the background. But, yeah, this cul-de-sac is a very insular neighborhood. They're set off from the rest of the development. They're kind of a land unto themselves. They're in everyone's business. Everyone knows stuff about each other, but also everyone does have a secret.

GONYEA: One thing you do is you take mundane objects - a baseball turning up on a patch of lawn, a motion sensor that triggers security lights turning on, going off, maybe one by one down the street in the middle of the night. What is it about these objects and how you use them?

RITTER: Well, this actually happened to me. One night, I couldn't sleep, and I was looking out my bedroom window, which has a view of the entire cul-de-sac. And one of the motion-triggered security lights over my neighbor's garage flicked on. And there was nothing in the driveway that I could see that would have activated it. And I thought, oh, that's very weird. The light went out, and then it went on at the next house. And I thought, that's really weird. And then it did it again at the next house. And at that point, I just thought, oh, there's a ghost on the cul-de-sac. That's going to be the only explanation for this. And I don't think it really was a ghost. It was probably bats or bugs, but it got my brain working, my writer's brain. And I just thought it was very chilling and spooky.

GONYEA: You worked for years as a reporter at the New Jersey Star-Ledger. I wonder, how have you drawn on your career as a journalist in your thrillers?

RITTER: I don't really use journalism in my books at all. Occasionally, there is a reporter because in my books, there's lots of crime, lots of mysteries, and, you know, reporters are drawn to that like flies. But what I took away from working in journalism was just the work ethic. In newspapers, you have a deadline. You have to meet that deadline. You have to write for clarity. You can't be obtuse. And so all these great lessons that I learned while working at newspapers I use now in my novel writing.

GONYEA: You're hitting deadlines. You're doing research. You're doing the things reporters do.

RITTER: Exactly, except I'm just writing stuff that I made up. Yeah.

GONYEA: We've been talking to Todd Ritter, who writes as Riley Sager. His new thriller is called "Middle Of The Night." Thank you so much for talking to us.

RITTER: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL HERSKEDAL'S "RAINFALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.