After the success of Gone Girl, the thriller writer is back with a macabre novella full of her trademark chilling twists. Jourdan Fairchild meets the (very normal) queen of darkness
Photography: Christopher Patey
It’s 3:30pm on a clear autumn Tuesday in Chicago, but Gillian Flynn is feeling a bit under the weather. This is the author’s final interview of a long day, so I’m just relieved she didn’t cancel on me (she’s not that type, you can tell). The hotel conference room where we’re meeting is exactly what you’d expect: bleak and dark, save for a glaring overhead light. But Flynn doesn’t seem to mind. Despite the huge success of her third novel Gone Girl – the UK’s number one book in 2013, having sold four million copies here and a further four million across the globe – I work out she’s not high maintenance as soon as she walks into the room. Her straight brown hair is as fuss-free as her outfit: dark jeans, a leather jacket that she slips off as soon as we start chatting, and dangly rhinestone earrings that show she cares, but not too much.
Three years have passed since Flynn was thrust into the spotlight with the success of Gone Girl, one of those rare bestsellers championed by reviewers and passed around like a hot potato among friends. Even those who weren’t thriller enthusiasts couldn’t resist picking up a copy, if only to see what the buzz was about. And in the months that followed, Flynn adapted her complicated characters from the page to a BAFTA-nominated screenplay for the blockbuster film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, whose hauntingly perfect portrayal of Flynn’s Amazing Amy earned her an Oscar nomination. To date, the film of Gone Girl has earned more than £238 million at the box office across the world.
But today we’re here to talk about Flynn’s new short story The Grown-Up, which first appeared in Rogues, a 2014 collection of stories edited by Game Of Thrones author George RR Martin. At the time, Gone Girl was being filmed and the then-pregnant Flynn was still fiddling with scenes in the script. “But if George RR Martin asks you to write a short story, you write a short story,” she says. The first 25 pages are playfully provocative, narrated by a drifter who works at Spiritual Palms, a fortune- telling shop where employees take a “hands-on” approach to healing back-room male customers. After a promotion to the front room where she masquerades as a psychic, the narrator meets a desperate client living with a sinister stepson in an ominous Victorian house. Flynn’s description of the stepson, a perturbed pre-teen with porcelain skin and spider-black eyes, will make your stomach churn with dread and anticipation. And by the final page, you’re desperate for more. Initially titled What Do You Do?, the piece was resurrected as a stand- alone book to be released this November because Flynn’s publishers thought it might deserve a second airing, making no changes except to the title. “It’s OK – I fully admit I’m bad at titles,” she explains.
But Flynn’s always had a thing for short stories, albeit very dark ones. When asked to name her own favourite work, she immediately recalls a one-pager she wrote in Dr Kyle’s third grade class. “To The Outhouse was about this brave pioneer girl who lived in a cabin without plumbing, like the one my parents had in Southern Missouri,” she says. “One day she decides she’s going to outwit the wolves that surround the outhouse. So she bursts forth from the outhouse, but is immediately torn apart and devoured.”
Growing up strange
Midwestern to the bone, Gillian (pronounced with a hard “G”) was raised by a pair of community college professors in Kansas City, Missouri. Her mother taught English, Dad taught film, and they raised their children to think outside the box, even if it scared them. “I have a very clear memory of my dad saying to me when I was about nine years old, ‘OK, Gillian, it’s time to watch Psycho.’ And I was fascinated and scared, but not overly scared.” She couldn’t get enough. When Halloween rolled around, she wouldn’t be caught dead in a princess costume. “More like a killer scarecrow.” Last year Flynn and her husband considered going trick or treating in the neighbourhood as Nick and Amy, but nasty weather put the kibosh on their plans. This year called for a surprisingly tame costume at the request of her two young children (a son, six, and a daughter, two). “My son loves Scooby Doo, so we did a family costume.” she sighs. “I know… you expected something scary. But hey, we had a skeleton that looks like Johnny Depp with glowing eyes, some ravens, and a little zombie in our yard.”
Flynn attributes her wild imagination to her upbringing. “I was very lucky to grow up in a household that really valued storytelling and didn’t find it frivolous.” She kept childhood journals and wrote her way to English and journalism degrees from Kansas and Northwestern universities before toying with the idea of becoming a crime reporter. “I’ve always been interested in why bad things happen and why people do bad things,” she admits. “But you have to be a decent human being yet tough enough to ask the questions that need to be asked. I just didn’t have the right skill set.” And so, she found herself in New York, landing a television and film critic job that turned into a 10-year career at Entertainment Weekly magazine.
Unbeknown to her editors, Flynn began flirting with complex characters and stories from the dark side in the evenings and at weekends. She had major breakthroughs while waiting around to do interviews on set for films such as Jackass and Runaway Jury. One day while on the phone with her editor, she began doodling on her leg, writing words that she was saying out loud without paying attention. When Flynn hung up the phone, her leg was covered, sparking the inspiration for the female protagonist in her debut novel Sharp Objects, who cuts words into her body.
Published in 2006, Sharp Objects went on to win several prestigious awards, and Flynn followed it up in 2009 with Dark Places.
From page to screen
While funds were being raised to adapt Dark Places into a film, Flynn lived in the twisted land of Nick and Amy Dunne, the main characters in Gone Girl. “I had to learn how to not bring it home with me at the end of the day,” she admits about the infamous characters and the unsettling moments when she identified with one of them. “I didn’t realise I was doing it for a while and I’d be in such a bad place and come out from my office and inflict it on my poor husband. He was just minding his own business.”
Before shipping off her manuscript, though, she handed it to her lawyer husband, Brett Nolan, with a yellow highlighter and told him to mark anything that made him feel uncomfortable. He threw the highlighter back at her and said, “Gillian, it all feels too close to the bone. That’s why it’s good.” After she finished her self-proclaimed “weird book”, she passed it along to her editor and agents. “It’s a whodunnit where you find out in the middle. There’s no-one you’re particularly supposed to root for, and there’s no justice,” she says. “It just didn’t scream, ‘That’s gonna be a hit!’”
But, as we all know, she was very wrong. On Wednesday, 4 July 2012, just one month after the book’s publication date, Gone Girl appeared at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. “My editor immediately called me screaming, ‘It’s number one, it’s number one!’” recalls Flynn. After putting their son to bed that night, Flynn and Nolan popped some champagne on their back porch as neighbourhood fireworks lit up the sky above their Chicago home. The summer timing didn’t hurt sales, either. Flynn says she’s still surprised by the success, explaining that all she ever wanted was to sell enough books to score her next contract. “I can only take credit for writing a book that I knew I really liked. And then it just came to the point where – and any other author who tells you otherwise is lying – it was a book that people read because other people read it. That just means you’re very, very lucky,” she says. “God bless the book clubs!”
By August, she’d sold the film rights. And in October, in the midst of her whirlwind book tour, she turned her 500-page book into a 120-page screenplay. “It’s not uncommon to have authors try a first pass at a screenplay,” she says, but this normally doesn’t end in success. “Studios will give you a little bit of money to separate you from your material, and you’ll never be heard from again.” Flynn was one of the rare exceptions. She wrote the film’s final scene on a train back home from a signing in Kalamazoo, Michigan, rewarding herself with a glass of “very bad train wine”. She turned the script in to Fox on 15 December 2012, and the day after Christmas, director David Fincher – the man behind films such as Fight Club and The Social Network – asked to set up a meeting.
The life of a best-seller
So how has her life changed since becoming a household name? “I mostly go under the radar, which is fantastic, because I would not be a good famous person,” she says with a chuckle. “The skill set that lets you be alone in your pyjamas for two years writing a book is not the same skill set that lets you go on television shows like The View or Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” Flynn clearly recalls the first time she was recognised, while at a restaurant salad bar of all places. “I was just doing my salad bar thing and this woman leaned forward to look at me. I thought maybe I was in her way. She said, ‘Are you Gillian Flynn?’ And I said, ‘I am!’ It was bizarre.”
Living in the Midwest, rather than Hollywood, also helps her maintain a sense of normal life. These days, Flynn treats the writing process like a nine-to-five job, refusing to censor herself in her first draft, a rule she recommends that all writers follow. She writes out – by hand – a general structure, then turns to the computer to fully develop her characters and plotlines. Stop by Flynn’s house on any given weekday and you’ll find her strolling and typing on a new treadmill desk in her basement. “I’d read about how bad sitting is for you, that you might as well smoke a pack of cigarettes a week,” she explains. “At first it made me a little sea sick. I’ve got a very slow pace but it’s not so much to exercise as to get some circulation.” Nearby, a sign from a friend reads, “Leave The Crazy Downstairs,” a lesson she follows at the end of each day. “Now before I head upstairs to be a mom/wife again, I take 15 minutes to clear my brain with something happy, like watching a dance scene from Singing In The Rain, playing a video game or calling a friend.”
As we wrap up our conversation, I ask Flynn what questions she’s tired of answering – after all, for much of her career she was the one asking them. “‘How do you access the darkness?’” she shoots back. “I use my imagination. People get disappointed when they meet me. I’m pretty normal, unfortunately. The stuff that drives me nuts is the whole – am I a misogynist because I write about women who aren’t nice and do bad things? I mean, nowhere in Gone Girl do I say Amy is an admirable person. She’s a bad person. The same way that Cormac McCarthy has bad males and they’re just bad males. Because I’m a woman writing about women who do bad things, that’s somehow very ‘other’. When men write that, it’s called a novel. It’s just a book.”
Her next book, she reveals, is going to be based in the Midwest and set around a murder in the Seventies, although sadly her publisher is citing 2017 for publication. She was writing a US remake of the Channel 4 series Utopia for HBO, but that’s been put on hold due to budget disputes. “It’s really f***ing dark and I’m really proud of it, so I’m hopeful it’ll work out.” And she’s also writing a film with 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen, set in Chicago – this one’s also a UK remake, adapting Lynda La Plante’s Widows. But after that, she’s anxious to return to novels. “As fun as film is, I want to get back to that place where I don’t have to think about budgets,” she says. “I can just be in my own world for a while.” And considering what dark materials emerge from it, we should all be looking forward to it.
Photography: Christopher Patey/Contour by Getty Images, Rex