With the runaway success of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn has arrived.
After more than a year on bestseller lists, her deliciously poisonous ode to a marriage gone bad is heading to the big screen with Ben Affleck starring, David Fincher directing and Flynn writing the screenplay. Her previous novel, Dark Places, is also being made into a movie, starring Charlize Theron. And she’s only written three books.
Gillian, formerly a TV critic for Entertainment Weekly who was laid off in 2008, is now perched atop the literary pile. Last week at the Key West Literary Seminar, she found herself amid long-established authors that are now easily her peers, such writers as Judy Blume, Sara Paretsky, Carl Hiaasen, Laura Lippman. As fans lined up to talk to her — she good-naturedly agreed to a quick video thanking a book club for reading her book — someone thrust a copy of the most recent EW into her hands.
On the cover? Gone Girl, the movie. Her movie.
“It’s insane. It really is,” she says with a bemused smile. “I was a very shy and awkward kid. Painfully shy. I always wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t exactly booming with self-confidence. This weekend is one of those times where I wish I could go back and say, ‘You’re going to meet Judy Blume, and you’re going to talk about her books with her. And Joyce Carol Oates. It’s gonna be OK, kid. Like, it’s going to be all right.’ ”
It’s been more than all right. Gone Girl hit a sweet spot in publishing, a suspense novel with such artfully crafted twists and turns that a New York Times reviewer compared the author to legendary psychological thriller writer Patricia Highsmith.
Flynn’s pop culture roots are never far from her writing — and that may be why she’s been so successful. The basis for Gone Girl isn’t unique. It’s about a marriage that goes horribly, publicly wrong. But Flynn brings a fresh eye to the concept through the use of revenge, secrets and a critical look at the personas we construct for each other and ourselves. By combining our modern-day, reality-show culture with a universal theme of relationships, she puts her finger on something that resonates.
“There’s something to talk about for everyone. The gender roles we play, the domestic roles we play. There’s the push and pull between husbands and wives and how do marriages go wrong. I think people are fascinated by that,” she says. “You know, people who are in good marriages fear that, because they have seen good marriages go bad.”
She has not, despite reports to the contrary, completely rewritten the ending for the film, she says.
“You have to dismantle a book in order to put it back together as a movie. And it was fun to take all the different puzzle pieces and figure out what’s going to make it in the new puzzle and what can be left behind.”
And though she notes she has done a lot of rewriting for the script, “they hired me because they liked the book so... reports have been greatly exaggerated that everything is completely different.”
Her panel earlier in the day at the Key West lit fest — theme: The Dark Side — with authors Megan Abbott and Lippman was described as a discussion of true crime movies as inspiration for mystery writers. It turned into a defense of the Lifetime movie. It worked — A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick story was the sentimental favorite — partly because Flynn knows a lot about the ways popular culture is increasingly creating and manipulating our world. That viewpoint is solidly on display in Gone Girl.
“We’re so saturated that … we repeat things to each other, the chatter becomes very similar. We use movie references. I remember the first time I saw the Mona Lisa in person and I was like, meh. Because you’d seen it — it’s been big jigsaw puzzles. It’s been on posters. Like, I waited in line for this? And there are so many things like that, that you’ve seen so many times.”
But she’s also quick to recognize the strength of what she calls the “democratization” of culture that allows us to feel OK combining the popular with the classic. When she forgot her book for this trip, for example, she bought two at the airport: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
“It’s somewhat of a psychotic mix,” she jokes. “But there’s been a nice democratization — people will not only read this highbrow thing. You can acknowledge that more mainstream things are worthwhile.”
Reality TV has further pumped up the emotional content of the internal scripts we’re now carrying around, she says.
“I see young girls where they’ve clearly watched too much of that, and they go to this place, like whaaa! And you’re like, dude, I just said your hair needed brushing or whatever. And I do think it comes from watching other people act for the cameras, and we’re doing it for ourselves in real life.”
That kind of over-acting in real life is “something to be fought. I think it’s worth fighting. Living a genuine life, in which you are having your own responses instead of someone else’s, is a worthwhile pursuit.”
She’s not averse to manipulating her own moods through pop culture consumption — especially when she needs to shed the creepy, devious thoughts that allow her to create a warped relationship like the one in Gone Girl between Nick and his wife, Amy.
“I’m a big fan of setting the mood for writing. So for Nick and Amy, I had certain playlists put together for them. I knew kind of what would be on their iPods.”
Nick, “a child of the ’80s,” would have some country and some Kiss, more mainstream than Amy, whose playlist included The Smiths.
“I discovered particularly during the writing of Gone Girl, where it’s about this toxic marriage, and you’re in Amy’s head for so long, and you’re in this angry place, that it was important to kind of pull out of that.”
Her cure? Listening to songs from musicals like Singin’ In the Rain. Moses Supposes, a celebration of silliness, is her favorite.
“Every time I watch that I’m like … aaaand I’m happy now. It’s a go-to, easy fix. I could kind of — ah! — shake it off.”
She still has eye of a critic, with praise for Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project: “It makes me so happy. That was one of those ones where I wished I was still a TV critic again. I would flog that to death. … It’s so smart and clever and funny.”
On the flip side, she dislikes anything that feels too calculated.
“I don’t read a book on, is it perfectly structured, is it perfectly put together? To me it’s, is there a voice, is there a point of view? Do I feel refreshed when I read it and energized, as opposed to feeling that I’ve read it before but it’s been done perfectly? Those are writers where I always feel like they’re writing from a genuine place and not pandering to what they think we want.”