ED WOOD: Just before I met you, someone said on Twitter that the person they most want to meet at Harrogate was you to find out what sort of person writes Gone Girl…
GILLIAN FLYNN: Maybe a crime writer gets all their dark impulses out writing crime. Certainly when I did my first book, everyone said that mystery and horror writers are usually the nicest people in the world – just watch out for those romance writers! I really love dark writing and dark reading. From childhood on I was always attracted to scary stories, turning over the rock and finding out what was underneath. My very first short story that I wrote when I was a kid in third grade – seven or eight years old – was when I was obsessed with Little House on the Prairie, so it was about a little pioneer girl. It was very grandly called ‘To the Outhouse’; the girl gets to the outhouse and it’s surrounded by wolves. You’d expect her to get back to the cabin safely, but no, I had her eaten alive by wolves. Luckily my parents did not push me into psychiatric care.
EW: It’s interesting you had the outhouse, because there’s also one in Gone Girl. Is that something psychological, the idea of putting all the bad things outside the home?
GF: For me, part of the reasons I like domestic thrillers like S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep is because I love, love, love horror stories that are set in the house; that feeling of not being safe in your own home. All my books have that: in Sharp Objects, the problem is coming from within the house; in Dark Places, they’re all killed in their own home; in Gone Girl, something has gone wrong between the two of them [husband Nick and wife Amy]. For me that is the scariest thing – the evil that you know but can’t quite put your finger on, it’s scarier than the serial killer that you can see coming at you with a big knife.
EW: In all three of your books there’s that idea of ambiguity of memory, how do you approach that as a writer?
GF: I like playing with that idea because there’s what you think happened, what I think happened and the truth; even if you and I are in a room seeing something happen, we’re going to tell a different story about it later. There’s a reason that when married couples are out with their friends and they’re both telling the same story, they’re like, “No, no, no, you’re telling it wrong!” There’s always that strange intensity to it. I think that comes from the question of if we disagree about that, what else are we getting wrong? I think that’s why people are responding to Gone Girl, that sense of no matter how close you are to someone, you’re not that person. And that can be a frightening thing.
SETTING THE SCENE
EW: It’s cast as a crime book, but it’s certainly not a police book. Do you think of yourself as a crime author?
GF: I’d like to figure out a term that felt correct, because ‘mystery’ to me isn’t quite right for my books.
EW: It’s the same thing as Hitchcock – you wouldn’t say he made crime films.
GF: No, Hitchcockian thrillers.
EW: But that’s closer to your books and these thrillers than the traditional crime novel.
GF: Well I will take that all day long. I am a huge fan of Hitchcock. My dad was a film professor and one of the earliest ‘lecture series’ we did was Hitchcock. We discussed the themes, the camera angles, building up suspense…
EW: And did that enter your writing? Do you think filmically?
GF: I definitely do. I don’t think that I am writing for film, but I write in scenes and picture them very strongly – scenes are how I organise my day’s writing. There are certain scenes in every book I’ve had where no matter what, even if it doesn’t work with the plot, it’s going to go in there because I get so attached to it. With Gone Girl, it was the big abandoned shopping mall. I like that as a symbol of recession, a company town that had lost its company. Then, as soon as I had that in there, I knew we had to get inside that mall.
EW: Crime novels seem to thrive in times of turbulence – James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown, just after Hurricane Katrina, was highly praised, for example – and yours has a decaying Midwest feel. How does the setting work for you?
GF: If a mystery/thriller doesn’t have a good sense of place, I drop out of it very quickly. The whodunit element is the least of it. I love Richard Price because he knows New York and New Jersey [so well] – you’re just there. Authors colonise locations, like Laura Lippman in Baltimore. The Midwest isn’t done very often in books, though Gone Girl started out in Chicago, where I live now, but the story just didn’t work there. I wanted it to feel like a place that was past its time, so I thought that as long as I could set it in a fictional town, I could set it in Missouri [where Flynn grew up], along the Mississippi river. They live in a little rented house in a failed development in a failed town.
EW: Is that how it feels to you now, in America?
GF: I think we have a lot of economic problems in America now that we are choosing not to address. We’re heading into this election cycle and no one wants to speak the hard truth. There are a lot of towns that lost their reason for existing, as happened before with the auto industry. We had this huge expansion of housing, when everything was so cheap, and now you really do drive past these developments that were built during the boom time, but now no one can afford to either finish them or live in them – skeletons of houses.
THE MIND OF A THRILLER
EW: There’s an oft-said phrase that you need to like the characters to enjoy the book. That’s not the case here, so how do you think that works for the reader, is it a challenge?
GF: For some readers it is. I get blasted by people who hated the characters. I get that if you want a kind of hero story, where someone overcomes something, it’s not going to be your sort of book. I deliberately write challenging characters. I read to get into people’s brains and see how they work. That’s more interesting to me than whether I like them or not. Some of my favourite books are the [Patricia Highsmith] Ripley series, so that’s where I’m coming from. I like putting people in that strange position of rooting for people you shouldn’t be. Hopefully if you’ve done your job well, they’re not sympathetic, they’re empathetic. As long as you know why someone is doing what they do, you can’t help by empathise a little bit, even if they’re doing horrible things. I have a big soft spot who screw up no matter what.
EW: And how did you get into the head of such a dysfunctional relationship?
GF: It was mostly imagine, though I like to think it’s the same as any relationship – those identifiable power plays, that sense of knowing somebody’s little habits and how to push their buttons. I think that’s how relationships go off the rails – because you do know someone so well, you are the most equipped person in the world to destroy them. In Gone Girl, it’s a bad relationship on steroids.
EW: And you’ve said that people don’t like to see women as the bad guys. Do you think that’s still the case after all the violent crime novels written by women?
GF: I think people are more willing to pick up a very dark and/or violent book by a woman these days, just because there are people who write that stuff so very well, like Karin Slaughter. I wanted to get away from this images of bad women as these camp superbitches and to write a woman who’s legitimately scary.
WORK, WORK, WORK
EW: Back on the film thing for a moment, I understand rights have been bought for all your books?
GF: Sharp Objects has just been reoptioned by the producer who did all the Paranormal Activity movies (which I like!) and The Reader, but it’s in the very early stages. Dark Places is much closer – it has Amy Adams attached to play Libby and the director is Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who did a great adaptation of Sarah’s Key. Giving up control of the screenplay made me nervous and I wanted to make sure it was in good hands, and he’s been very good at letting me take a look at different stages. I’m very excited about it. Gone Girl has sold the rights, so I’ll be writing in the screenplay. Reese Witherspoon is producing…
EW: Is she going to be Amy?
GF: We don’t know yet. But I think they want to fast track it. I’m not working on anything else yet though – I should be. Gone Girl didn’t come easily to me; after handing it in, my mind was a blank slate. It was very nice. I’ve got two or three little ideas, I just need to sit down and scribble.
EW: Would you ever write anything happy and fluffy?
GF: I’d like to write something with more humour, but I don’t think I’d ever write a fizzy little chick lit novel. It would be fun to not always be trapped in the brains of sociopaths, killers and losers.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is out now, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson