Last year, while searching the library app for a new book to read, I came across Five Total Strangers by Natalie D. Richards and checked it out. Going in blind, I was mesmerized by the story about five strangers on a road trip through the snow, I finished it in less than two days. I was hooked. I immediately sought out every book by this author and after I read the last one I could find, I was disappointed that there were no more left. Well, the time for a new book has come, and Natalie’s Four Found Dead is fantastic. I’m a sucker for “locked room thrillers” and the abandoned mall setting with a killer on the loose is everything I wanted and more. To celebrate the release of the book, I chatted with Natalie via phone about her inspiration for Four Found Dead, turning her books into movies (someday!), what’s up next, and more!
PopHorror: I devoured Four Found Dead in probably a day and a half. I’m a huge fan. I randomly found one of your books in an advertisement, read it, and then searched out all of your books and read them all.
Natalie D. Richards: Oh, thank you!
PopHorror: So this is really a treat for me, thank you.
Natalie D. Richards: Thank you so much! I feel so lucky. I hear that more than a lot of my writing friends. They’re always like, “You’re so lucky,” because I have a lot of repeat readers. I have a lot of people that say, “Oh my gosh! I bought every single book you have!” And I’m like, “Oh, I love you!” It is kind of a gift. It’s such a wonderful thing to hear.
PopHorror: I was really disappointed when I finished the last one. I thought, well what do I do now?
Natalie D. Richards: Well, hang tight. I just wrote one so there’s another one on its way.
PopHorror: Sweet! That’s exciting!
Natalie D. Richards: I just turned in one that’s maybe my favorite. And I don’t normally say that. It’s just a very girl-power book. It’s about best friends that’s set in southeastern Utah. It’s set in Moab and it’s two girls that are on a trip and end up having to rescue a third girl or so you think that’s what’s going on. It’s very much survival in the desert with a side of horror.
PopHorror: I am so excited for that already and I know nothing about it.
Natalie D. Richards: Now you know a little.
PopHorror: So for Four Found Dead, how did you come up with the concept for that?
Natalie D. Richards: This is really interesting because there are several malls in Columbus that have closed down over the last 10-15 years. One of them, when I was very, very little, I remember teenagers would go to Eastland mall near me, and it was a really popular place to go. I remember feeling sad. When I was very little I would go there to see Santa Claus and I remember being able to go there and play in the fountain and throw pennies in. It was just this really cool experience. Slowly over time, that mall started to die. You started to see the chain stores would move out, and discount stores would move in. Then chunks of the mall would close down. There’s something so eerie about these, especially with the one that inspired me because I drove past it so often and saw it decline. But there was something about that setting that really called to me. So I thought, oh I have this thing. For me, you can have a plot, or you can have a setting, and it’s not really a book. It’s like a piece of a book. So I was waiting for the other piece of the book for several years, honestly. Finally, Jo came to me, meaning I kind of saw that character in my mind’s eye, if you will. I started hearing a character talking, bits of conversations. I’m a little odd as a writer. That’s kind of how it comes together for me. It’s like I see snippets of scenes in my head. And I was like, well, she’s in a theater and then it hit me. Oh my gosh, she could be at a theater attached to a mall that’s closing. And then I thought, I think I have a book coming together. The one piece of it that was really especially interesting for me to write – and that I really enjoyed and was also incredibly hard – is that you know who the killer is immediately in this book. There is no secret. So all of my books before this have dealt with, “Who is doing this?” And that’s not what you’re really trying to figure out. You’re trying to figure out who is going to live, and also why on Earth is any of this happening? Those were different questions for me to ask, and I loved that. I also loved being able to build a lot of suspense and fear without the fear of who’s doing it. I really loved that aspect of it.
PopHorror: You are right. All of your books make you question who is doing it, and reading this, I thought it was too obvious so I kept trying to figure out who was actually doing it. And I was wrong!
Natalie D. Richards: Right!
PopHorror: You really threw me for a loop there because I wasn’t expecting it to actually be this person.
Natalie D. Richards: Oh good!
PopHorror: And I loved the setting. I’m fascinated by abandoned malls because they’re so empty when they used to be so full of life.
Natalie D. Richards: Oh me too! Maybe in particular now, and I don’t know if it impacts you this way, but when I am writing this setting and thinking about this setting, it really brought me back to the pandemic. When the pandemic began, you would go onto the streets, and it was desolation. It was so strange to see a grocery store utterly empty of food. In Ohio we had several grocery stores that literally were entirely cleaned out for several days, where there was nothing in them, or really random things, like “Hey you can find cocktail corn on the cobs in a jar!” Like very, very strange. We had that going on and I think it did bring back that strange feeling that something is terribly wrong. And obviously during the pandemic it was, but I think you have that same feeling in an abandoned mall. Like, this is not how it’s supposed to be, something is so wrong here. We took photos of me in front of Eastland Mall and it’s so disturbing.
PopHorror: Was there anything that you were adamant about keeping in the book or anything that you had to edit out?
Natalie D. Richards: My editors, I have an incredible editing team at Sourcebooks, and I don’t believe that I’ve ever been asked to take anything out of a book ever.
PopHorror: Oh, awesome.
Natalie D. Richards: They’re great. They’re very, very supportive. Generally speaking, I’m a real stickler for editing myself and knowing when something is in a book because I like it, or I’m interested in it, and when a book has an element because it’s serving a story. Everything in a book needs to serve the story, obviously. So there’s really nothing that they ask me to take out. I will say it was really important that I did not turn any of the characters into caricatures. Sometimes when you have an ensemble it can be easy like, okay this is the spoiled rich girl, and this is the whoever. And that was really important to me, so I went back through that myself several times, just to say, “Alright. I do not want anybody to be the stereotypical anything,” because no one is. We all have dimensions and layers so if there was anything, it would be that, just really making sure my characters were who they were and that’s really editing myself, making sure that I’m not getting lazy.
PopHorror: I appreciate that because that makes it more realistic, and more relatable, when they feel like real people.
Natalie D. Richards: Right!
PopHorror: If Four Found Dead was made into a movie, who would you want to play your characters?
Natalie D. Richards: This is always such a hard question for me. It’s funny. I work a full-time job, I have three kids, and I write both middle grade and young adult, so I have less than zero time at all. I know no actors’ names because I almost never watch TV of any sort. I really don’t. I read a lot, but I really don’t have a lot of time to watch TV. I do make time for things like Stranger Things. But really, when I look at screenplays, I’m always really interested in any time you adapt a book to film, there is an immediate change. Just a little bit, whatever they’re going to change. I’d love to see this adapted because I think it would be such an inherently creepy and cheap setting to film in, so I think that would be awesome. I would really prefer to see what their vision is for it before I could say that. I had this amazing thing happen when Five Total Strangers came out. Lana Condor, she was in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and she is amazing. And she really loved Five Total Strangers and said she would have loved to be in that movie if there was a movie. That would be so amazing so I would love to have her involved in some way.
PopHorror: I think if they were to make Four Found Dead into a movie, there are so many abandoned malls out there that it could actually be made in one.That would be amazing.
Natalie D. Richards: It would be such a crazy movie! It’s funny because Five Total Strangers was my first New York Times bestseller. If you’ve read it, it’s really a great one. It’s a lot of fun. It’s like a road trip from hell. You’re going through the snowy mountains and there’s a bad person in the car, so you have this whole terrible thing happening. A lot of people were interested in it but we kept hearing the same thing, “We’re just struggling on exactly how to film it, because it’s all in a car.” And I’m like, ah! How do I do this to myself? This one, I did not make that mistake this time.
PopHorror: Five Total Strangers is the first one of yours that I read, and not only is it all in a car, but there’s all that snow and the accident. I can imagine that it would be very hard.
Natalie D. Richards: Yeah, it would be very hard to film, and it was very hard to write, let me tell you. There were just times when you’re like, “You’re still in the car. What can I possibly do in this car?” It was really, really difficult but a lot of fun.
PopHorror: What are you currently reading? I’m sure you get asked that all the time.
Natalie D. Richards: I do, and you know what happens? It goes immediately out of your brain. You’re like, “What? Books? What are those? Do I ever read those?” I just started The Appeal. I know absolutely nothing about that. I just finished If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery. It is a series of interconnected short stories about a Jamaican family who moves to the United States. Really interesting book. There was a thriller that I read recently that was really great. One that I read really recently was Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver which was phenomenal. Not a thriller but phenomenally good.
PopHorror: I’ll have to look that one up.
Natalie D. Richards: I liked The Club. That’s one that I read pretty recently. By Ellery Lloyd. That one was kind of fun. I enjoyed that. And The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley. Those are two pretty good thrillers that I read recently. Thrillers in particular are very difficult for me because I write them, I’m incredibly critical of them and I don’t mean that in a mean way. I think anybody can love any book they want. I have no judgment about different authors or books. Personally, because I write them, I’m immersed in them a lot.
PopHorror: I think I would be too. You said that you had just finished a book, but what is up next for you?
Natalie D. Richards: I just finished 49 Miles. That will be my next release. I think we’re going to retitle it but that is about two girls that go on a backpacking trip every summer. There’s a tragedy with one of the girls so they lose one summer and kind of go back to commit to this big trip, 49 miles. If you have ever done any hiking near Phoenix-
Natalie D. Richards: Oh you’re not a hiker?
PopHorror: No. I watch too many horror movies and read too many books that I don’t like hiking, and I will never go spelunking.
Natalie D. Richards: Oh my gosh. Absolutely not.
PopHorror: Or mountain climbing.
Natalie D. Richards: Or rest stops? Can we talk about rest stops? If I’m going to stop at a rest stop, it’s got to be that my bladder will burst if I don’t stop there. If you are in the canyon in Utah or Arizona, you really don’t have cell service. Not just for like a couple of miles, but for like a hundred miles. I went on a hike in Utah last year when I was out there researching the book, and I was out of service for eight hours. We are so connected to our phones at this point, being without service for eight hours feels like you’ve literally landed on the moon. Anything could be happening, and you wouldn’t know. The isolation of the desert compounded with the technological isolation, and they see something happening to a girl and realize that they’re so far away from help that their only option is to help her themselves. That’s what the book is, is these friends trying to grapple with their broken friendship coming back together and then also having to choose to help a stranger in danger.
PopHorror: When is that expected to come out?
Natalie D. Richards: They have switched my release dates to spring. Four Found Dead comes out May 2, so I’m sure if they’re planning on releasing this one in May of the following year or if they’re going to do me every 18 months and switch it to fall. They have not released a firm date yet.
PopHorror: Oh no! That’s so far away!
Natalie D. Richards: I’m very excited about this book. So that is what’s next for me. And then I do have a middle grade, 15 Secrets to Survival, which is a much more lighthearted fun adventure with a smart alec kid who I adore, who is stuck on the Montana mountains in the snow, and he’s forced to follow a scavenger hunt in the snow. Very fun. And that one comes out this fall.
PopHorror: I have just one last question for you today. What is your favorite scary movie?
Natalie D. Richards: Can I pick a show?
Natalie D. Richards: The Haunting of Hill House. It was so good and so creepy. I really, really enjoyed it.
Thank you so much to Natalie for taking the time to speak with us. Four Found Dead is out now!