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Getting to What’s Working: A Conversation with Gillian Flynn

by Brendan Dowling on May 20, 2013

Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, the psychological thriller Sharp Objects, was hailed as “an admirably nasty piece of work, elevated by sharp writing and sharper insights” by no less a critic than Stephen King. Her follow-up novel, Dark Places, details the efforts of a troubled woman to uncover the truth about the murder of her mother and sisters, a task made more challenging considering her testimony put the alleged killer, her brother, behind bars. A former writer for Entertainment Weekly, Gillian Flynn lives in Chicago where she is currently at work on her next novel, Gone Girl, due next year. She talked with Public Libraries on February 9, 2011.

Public Libraries: You come from a background in journalism. How did you come to write novels?

GF: I had always, always, always wanted to write, and pictured myself as an author. From third grade on, my mom kept those scrapbooks about “what do you want to be when you grow up.” I always said, “An author.” Either an author or a farmer. But that was my aspiration. I was a big reader. My mom’s a reading professor — she literally taught reading for a living — so I was always surrounded by books and was a bookworm, which is where I think all writers start, with a love for books.

I got into journalism because I was a practical Midwesterner and thought, “I can’t actually write books for a living so I’m going to do journalism, and that’ll be great too.” And I loved it. I was at Entertainment Weekly for ten years and just had an absolutely great time. Then I started working on Sharp Objects just on my evenings and weekends. I would write at Entertainment Weekly all day doing interviews and going to set visits. I’d be on the set of Jackass: The Movie by day and then come back at night and try my hand at writing the book. And I think that’s why it’s so dark; because in a way I was combating the humorous, conversational tone of Entertainment Weekly and doing this very different kind of writing.  And it was fun; it never felt like a slog to me; I guess because it was so different from EW.

Then I was just very lucky. I was able to get it published and I did the same thing with Dark Places —working on it while working at EW.  Now I’m almost done with the third one and I’m writing fulltime, which is pretty amazing.

PL: So you have Johnny Knoxville to thank for your success?

GF: I do! I should put him in my acknowledgements. I actually remember coming back from that set one day — obviously a set with a lot of drinking, and being completely goofy in the Florida heat — and writing some really great, dark passages for Sharp Objects. So who knows where the inspiration came from?

PL: I’m interested in your comment about how the writing you did for yourself countered the writing you did for work. Was that a conscientious choice?

GF: It wasn’t necessarily intentional. It wasn’t this idea that I had to sound very different from my EW voice. One, it’s a mystery about child murders, so it technically probably shouldn’t be too chipper or funny. It was a sort of challenge to myself to switch gears and get my brain to flip over to another kind of writing. And it’s funny if you look at Sharp Objects, I do not think there’s a single pop culture reference in there. It could almost take place any time because no one seems to watch TV or movies or listen to music and I think that was a very specific choice: veering completely away from that world [of pop culture]. The main character doesn’t even have a cell phone, so it’s a very time out of time sort of place.

PL: Which is strange, because your second book, Dark Places, could only take place in the 80s.

GF: I didn’t think about that, but yes, that’s absolutely true.

PL: And pop culture really affects the characters.

GF: The music particularly, and certainly the whole Satanic Panic of the eighties infected and caused so much of what happens in those sections of the book. Part of it was my ode to the eighties, because I was a teenager then, so I was interested in writing about a high school and going back to that time period. Obviously, thank goodness, I had very different experiences than they did. But I certainly remember rambling in trucks and listening to heavy metal in the eighties, so that part was fun to dig into.

In my third book, the narrator is very pop culture-aware, so there are tons of references, both overt and sneaky little ones that only a few people will catch. So that’s been very fun to do — get back to my roots.

PL:  Has your work as a journalist influenced your work as novelist?

GF: Oh my gosh, yeah, absolutely. Without my background as a journalist, I don’t think I would be able to write books. Working for a weekly magazine for a decade, I was no longer precious about writing the way I had been before where I was like, “I am writing a novel!” And it became so overwhelming that I would never finish anything that I started.

Whereas if you’re having to turn over copy pretty much every single day, as you are at a weekly magazine, you learn to make yourself write. You don’t sit there and wait for the muse. You learn an exercise and like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. The more that you’re in that mindset of writing every day, the easier it is to write every day. That discipline, that practicality of it was hugely important for me.

PL: Both of your books have been really intricately plotted. Is that a result of you carefully outlining the stories or did you ever surprise yourself along the way?

GF: I am probably the least efficient writer that could be found on the planet. I don’t outline. I kind of think I know where I’m going and I never end up there. I feel like I write about three books for every one that gets published because I kind of go all over the place. It’s almost like a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” where I write “what-would-happen-if-this-happened.”  And then I write about fifty pages of that and say, “That’s not working at all,” so I’ll chuck that and start all over again. For me it’s very much a process by elimination. I’m not a good plotter. I have to see where it goes myself and write through it to get to what’s working.

In Sharp Objects the murderer wasn’t even in the first draft of the book. I had a completely different killer and didn’t like it. So I went back and realized I kind of liked this character I had been playing around with, and all of the sudden I had the murderer. And the same thing with Dark Places. I was writing pretty much chronologically through the book and was about fifty pages away from the ending thinking, “Huh, I wonder who did it? This’ll be interesting to figure out.”

I hope at some point I end up being a bit more disciplined but so far that’s what has worked for me. I start more with characters and an interesting situation and then go from there. I don’t usually start with knowing what the ending’s going to be.

PL:  Is it hard for you to let go of those different versions?

GF: I wish we had those DVD options where we could put deleted scenes: “Here’s what might have happened if so-and-so was the murderer.” It’s hard, but again I think that’s where that journalism background comes in really handy because you don’t get too precious over it. In journalism you can find yourself completely rewriting because you’ve lost a page from your article and you’ve gone from 1000 to 200 words and you have to make it work. It’s that same sort of thing: once you realize it’s not working you learn to hit that old delete button.

PL: Sharp Objects earned a lot of praise for its portrayal of its complex female characters. Ben in Dark Places struck me as equally fully formed. How did you create such a fully developed character that was so different from what you had done before and from your own experience?

GF: I really connected with Ben. Ben was easier for me to figure out then the two women who are the other main characters, Libby’s mom and Libby herself. Ben I just knew right away. Which is interesting because I was not some sort of cool, loner, alienated teenager, but for some reason I got him. I knew what was driving him. I knew that loneliness that was the source of so many of his bad choices —that loneliness and insecurity and not knowing his place in the world and that relief at being adopted by these awful people who were making him part of the group. That sense of, “Here’s my tribe, I’ve figured it out. I’ve got my group of people.”

And there were certain things I ran by my husband. “You were a teenage boy — does this make sense? Would he do this?” And I’d occasionally call him up at work and ask him totally inappropriate questions. So he helped me with a few things, and there were a few things he definitely saved me from.

PL:  In both of your books, a crime from the past resurfaces and affects the characters in the present day. Has that been a conscious choice?

GF: I don’t think it’s coincidental. I have always been fascinated by the idea of your past returning. That if you do something bad in the past it’s going to bubble back at some point either through your conscience or other events. And particularly with Dark Places; that’s something that’s always fascinated me with true crime, what an odd sort of celebrity it creates and what that celebrity does to people. You become known for this awful crime and part of your way of keeping your loved ones alive is to continue to talk about them. [I wanted to explore] how that becomes part of your identity and what it does to someone, particularly a really young person, like Libby was at the time.

Having been someone who has read true crime all her life, I have certain books and certain murders — this sounds awful —that have always captured my imagination for decades and I always wonder, “Whatever happened to that little girl?” So with Dark Places that was really a prime motivator.

PL:  What books in particular influenced you?

GF: Well, In Cold Blood. I grew up right on the Kansas border and so I read In Cold Blood — at a way younger age than I should have — and that just resonated with me so much. That was really part of one of the inspirations of Dark Places:  you start with a farm house in the middle of Kansas, a family dead – what happened?

PL: Your books have some tough selling points and I don’t always know how to recommend them to people. So I find myself saying stuff like, “This book is terrific, but just to warn you, a little girl gets graphically murdered —“

GF: “— there’s a cattle massacre and a narrator that you’re probably going to hate.”

PL: Do you have an ideal reader for your books?

GF: No I don’t have an ideal reader in mind, and certainly it looks from the people who have come to my readings that it’s all across the board. It’s teenage boys and eighty-year-old women.  And it’s very gratifying, the wide diversity of people who seem to find it.

I think Dark Places has that one scene of violence but it’s not nearly as bloody actually as a lot of the serial killer airplane novels that are out there. But I think you can’t be too nervous about the harsher, darker psychology that’s at work [in my books].

PL: Do you picture yourself ever writing a non-mystery?

GF: Yeah, I’m not wedded to the idea of always doing mysteries. I think at some point I’d like to try to do a plain psychological realism story. Certainly the one I’m working on right now — it’s hard to describe — but it’s maybe a little bit less of a whodunit than a howdunit almost.

I don’t exclusively read mysteries so I don’t picture spending my entire career exclusively writing mysteries. That said, I really love mysteries and I have a great respect for the genre. I think when it’s done well it’s one of the greatest ways to do a character study. You have this wonderful propulsion of the mystery that can pull you through discussions about socioeconomics and family dynamics and personalities. I think when mysteries are at their best that’s what they’re doing.

For me Sharp Objects was as much a mystery of “Who is Camille Preaker” as “Who killed these girls?” And I think when it’s done well it’s a wonderful way to explore a vast amount of topics and themes.

PL: What’s your next book?

GF: It’s coming out next year and it’s called Gone Girl. It basically starts out with a couple, and the wife disappears under strange circumstances on their five-year wedding anniversary and what happens after that.

PL: And finally, what role has the library played in your life?

GF: It’s been hugely hugely important to me. I have a distinct memory of getting my first mystery, which was Agatha Christie, at Westport Public Library in Kansas City.  My mom taking me to the library as she did all the time and me saying I’m going to venture out of the kid’s section, I’m ready for my first grown-up book. And us very carefully selecting it. And the difference! It looked like the books my parents read and I was incredibly proud of checking it out, bringing it home, reading it and finishing the whole thing. I was absolutely addicted and went through their entire Agatha Christie collection in chronological order, because that was the kind of child I was.

Even Dark Places I wrote partly at the Wicker Park library in Chicago. I had hit a point where I just hated the book so much and I would go into my office and proceed to surf the internet and slowly end up watching TV. I just hated life and thought, “I can’t do this.” So I went to the Wicker Park library every day and parked myself there and that’s where I geared up again. There was something about being surrounded by all of these wonderful books and wonderful writers, and every once in a while I’d go over and say hi to Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood or Agatha and touch the spine and get a little good luck.