Brenna Ehrlich spoke with Riley Sager about why a story is like a human face, taking care of Frankenstein’s monster and locking himself in a barricaded room.
I think women make such great thriller characters because of the constraints society continues to put on them. They’re supposed to be pleasant, to not speak their minds.
Which villain in literature would you like to be friends with and why?
Frankenstein’s monster, even though I don’t think of him as a villain. He’s just a victim of cruelty and hubris; the monster version of a pit bull that’s survived a dog fighting ring. I’d want to feed him, calm him and try to keep him safe, all the while hoping he won’t accidentally snap my neck.
You tend to write books from a female POV. Why do you choose to do so? What about women makes them such popular fodder for thrillers?
It all started with Final Girls. The movie trope dictated how the story needed to be told. I wanted the immediacy of a first-person POV and knew that telling the story from a man’s perspective wouldn’t do justice to such a strong, iconic archetype. So I wrote it from a female POV and, much to my surprise, discovered I was very, very good at it.
I think women make such great thriller characters because of the constraints society continues to put on them. They’re supposed to be pleasant, to not speak their minds, to put on makeup and smile and let a man handle everything. But the women I know — every single one of them — have untapped wells of strength, intelligence and anger.
That tension of a complex woman pushing back against what’s “proper” makes for fascinating storytelling, especially if you raise the stakes by adding thriller elements. It worked with film noir sixty, seventy years ago and it works today with psychological thrillers.
If you had to inhabit a fictional town from a thriller/horror novel, where would you live and why? I would maybe say Derry from It — it seems actually quite lovely.
Stepford, Connecticut, from Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. I will be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for upscale suburbia. The huge houses, the manicured lawns, the repressed emotions — I love it all. So if a house there became available, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. Yes, there’s that nasty town habit of turning the wives into robots, but I’m willing to overlook a lot for a three-story Victorian with a wraparound front porch. Plus, it might be nice to have a front-row seat when the robot wives of Stepford inevitably rise up against their awful husbands.
I guess a blank page is like a person’s face, and that it needs to be carefully groomed to be presentable.
Please tell us how the following objects could potentially be ominous:
The baby chick, the lone survivor of its flock, happily cheep-cheeps in the backyard until, quite suddenly, it stops.
A college freshman whose roommate was recently murdered returns to her dorm room to find her mascara wand was used to write a terrifying message: “You’re next.”
Miriam, still mourning the loss of her husband, Earl, dreams about how he loved to eat nectarines. When she wakes, she discovers a nectarine pit resting on the pillow once occupied by Earl.
The desk fan, a rattling old thing, has a gap in its cage just big enough for a child to poke a finger through. And here comes a curious five-year-old now…
True crime and thrillers seem to be a kind of American comfort food nowadays. Why do you think people are turning to such dark fare when it comes to binging real life away? Do you have a guilty, dark pleasure?
Things are insane right now. Truly, utterly incomprehensible. Yet, on the surface, American life has mostly been humming along like normal. People go to their office jobs, run their errands, go to their kid’s soccer games, watch Netflix after dinner. The current thriller craze taps into both of those aspects of American life. Things are relatively normal, yet chaos lurks just beyond the horizon. And I think people relate to that, even if it’s in a subconscious way.
My guilty pleasures are the opposite of dark. Because I deal with some pretty dark topics in my writing, I tend to escape with something light and fanciful. I love Disney movies. I love The Sound of Music. If there’s someone singing in a pretty European village, then I’ll watch it.
Who would the final final girl be?
It is my sincerest hope that Betty White outlasts us all.
In a horror movie, how long do you think you’d last — realistically?
It depends on the scenario. I’m a pretty skittish person, so I wouldn’t be doing any of those things that generally get people killed in horror movies. No going off alone. No, to paraphrase Sidney Prescott in Scream, running up the stairs when I should be running out the front door.
At the first sign of trouble, I’d probably either lock myself in a heavily barricaded room and not budge until the police arrive or hop in my car and drive as far and as fast as possible. If that’s not an option, then I’d like to think I’d at least make it to the final act bloodbath. But I harbor no illusions that I’d survive all the way to the end credits.
Please describe writing using only toiletries.
I’m stumped. Seriously. I guess a blank page is like a person’s face? And that it needs to be carefully groomed to be presentable? That’s all I’ve got. I’m sorry.
When she wakes, she discovers a nectarine pit resting on the pillow once occupied by Earl. The desk fan, a rattling old thing, has a gap in its cage.
Do you have your earliest piece of writing on hand? Care to share?
I’m sure there’s a box in my parents’ basement that contains a floppy disk of my high school creative writing. I’m also sure it’s best not to try to find out what’s on it. I do remember being very proud of a short story I wrote my senior year about a lonely, suicidal New Yorker who spends a snowy night contemplating suicide. I was going through a Salinger phase at the time. It was my naïve version of A Perfect Day for Bananafish. I suspect I’d die of embarrassment if I read it today.
Please send a photo of the oldest thing you own. What is it? Why do you have it?
20 years ago, I lived in a town that had an absurd number of antique shops. I’d occasionally wander into them looking for cheap, vintage knickknacks to put in my apartment. Old, mass-produced cameras fit the bill. They were indeed cheap — often available for less than twenty dollars — but made for interesting conversation pieces.
I eventually bought seven of them, choosing them more for aesthetics than historical value. After doing a little online research, I concluded that this one — a Spartus Press Flash from about 1939 — is the oldest of the bunch. It’s apparently the first camera to feature a built-in flash unit, which I didn’t know at the time. I bought it because I liked how it reminded me of the front of a mid-century locomotive.
Curated by: Brenna Ehrlich
Conducted by: Email
Transcribed by: Morgan Enos
Published: December 14, 2018
Total questions: 10
Word count: 1127
Reading time: Four minutes
absurd, aesthetic, anger, barricade, basement, blank, bloodbath, Brenna Ehrlich, budge, camera, chaos, character, cheap, constraints, emotion, fanciful, Frankenstein, grooming, horizon, humming, incomprehensible, intelligence, lawn, locomotive, mascara, monster, nectarine, option, pillow, pit, pit bull, pleasant, police, presentable, psychological, rattling, repressed, resting, Riley Sager, strength, untapped, Victorian, village, vintage, well, writing
About the guest curator
Brenna Ehrlich aspires to write a novel that’s a classic album. She enjoys taking solitary trips to distant locations and scoring the whole experience with the perfect book, record and restaurant. She often dreams (literally, while sleeping) of getting lost in unforgiving locales sans shoes or socks.
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