Gillian Flynn’s dark inquiries
Gillian Flynn knows the importance of not taking her work home with her. Which is not necessarily easy, given she works from an office in her basement. A plaque therein, gifted by a friend years ago, reads: “Leave the Crazy Downstairs.” So when it’s time to switch off at the end of each day, Flynn turns on YouTube for “something happy”.
“I’ll watch something that makes me laugh,” she says. “I’ve learnt that it’s really important to take 15 minutes before I go upstairs, or even five minutes, to switch gears, otherwise you bring whatever you’ve been writing. It does trail up with you.” She’ll watch clips from late-night hosts Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert and the like, but there’s one that never stops working its magic. “My go-to, never-fail is ‘Moses Supposes’ from Singin’ in the Rain with Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly,” she says, describing the iconic scene from the 1952 technicolour musical where the two stars tap dance havoc around a diction class with an uptight professor. “That dance bit is literally just happy-making. I try to not watch it more than once a week, so it doesn’t get old, but it never gets old. It always seems to make me grin by the end.”
If this seems at odds with Flynn’s dark writing, it’s not the first time she’s heard that. After all, the journalist turned novelist and screenwriter is known for her tales of marital dysfunction (Gone Girl, the hit novel of 2012 that became a blockbuster movie in 2014) that make spouses glance askance at one another in suspicion, and estranged mothers (Sharp Objects, her debut from 2006 that became a TV series earlier this year) that raise questions of the skeletons in Flynn’s own closet. Previously, her forays into screenwriting were adapting her own work, reimagining words first written years earlier for the likes of directors David Fincher and Jean-Marc Vallée, and actors such as Amy Adams.
But now, she’s diving into a world first imagined by someone else with Widows, a TV mini-series that gripped British audiences in the 1980s and piqued the interest of Oscar-winning writer–director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), who asked Flynn to co-write the screenplay for his film adaptation. This version is set in present-day Chicago – where Flynn lives. It’s here that three women – Oscar-winner Viola Davis, The Great Gatsby’s Elizabeth Debicki and The Fast and the Furious’s Michelle Rodriguez – widowed after a botched heist attempt by their husbands, resolve to finish the job. In typical Flynn style, it’s a dark movie, the trappings of a run-of-the-mill heist reinvented to thrilling effect, interrogating complex questions of race, class and gender.
“My friends are always having to reassure people I haven’t stolen from them, or taken their husbands, or ruined their lives,” Flynn laughs, speaking from her adopted home town during a marathon day of phone interviews, her voice at times theatrical in its enthusiasm and expressiveness. “Especially childhood friends, who will come to events with me. Anyone who, when [people] discover they have a friendship with me, they always tell amusing stories about, ‘Oh, you’re friends with her?’ or ‘Oh, she has friends?’ ” The surprise carries over to her family, too. A recurring theme in her work are abusive and exploitative parents, whether the biographical-picture-book writers of Gone Girl or the sinister matriarch of Sharp Objects. When people first encounter Flynn’s own mother, they assume fact and fiction are closely related. “Everyone’s always, like, they assume we’re estranged: ‘Oh, you keep in touch with her! Really?’ ” Flynn laughs, imitating surprise.
But her fascination with the macabre can nonetheless be traced to childhood. She grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, a locale her work frequents. Her parents were both professors at a nearby community college – her mother in reading comprehension, her father film. Nights and weekends were a study in the latter, watching horror and thriller classics at a young age, which undoubtedly left an impression. “I have a lot of memories of him with the giant, ’70s VCR, the top-loading VCR, and putting the big tape in and saying, ‘Today we will watch Psycho.’ Like, ‘It’s time – you’re eight,’ ” she says. “I think that was the first film that, number one, really, really frightened me, and number two, I watched it so many times. I was so thrilled by it, the idea the hero of the story was the bad guy. You were, in a way, empathetic with him. That certainly has stuck with me, that idea of the bad guy can be the good guy, too.”
In grade 3, she wrote her first story, her eventual sensibilities already in place. Titled “To the Outhouse”, it was inspired by the one-bedroom hunting cabin her parents owned in the woods – as it lacked plumbing, one had to venture to the outhouse during the night. In the story, a young girl is faced with the same challenge, only her ending was much less pleasant than Flynn’s. “It’s immediately surrounded by wolves,” she describes. “So she’s trying to figure out how to get back to the cabin safely, get back to her family, and at the end of the story, she bursts forth from the outhouse, and is immediately set upon and devoured by the wolves. The end!”
“I had a dark sensibility and fear of happy endings all the way back in third grade,” she says, laughing. “Luckily for me my parents actually encouraged me and did not call the authorities.”
She took odd jobs in high school, including having to dress up as a giant tuxedo-wearing yoghurt cone. “Children ran from me,” she wrote about the experience, in a 2016 New Yorker article. She studied English and journalism, working her way up through trade magazines and freelancing, eventually becoming a feature writer and television critic at Entertainment Weekly for 15 years before being laid off in December 2008. “I could not have written a novel if I hadn’t been a journalist first, because it taught me that there’s no muse that’s going to come down and bestow upon you the mood to write. You just have to do it,” she told The Guardian in 2014.
Her first aim in journalism was to be a crime reporter, like troubled Camille at the centre of Sharp Objects, but she quickly realised that imagining wrongdoing suited her much better – after all, you could always resolve it. “To do crime reporting right, you need to be extremely strong and humane. I had the humane part, but I didn’t have the strength part,” she says. “I did not have the strength to talk to people over and over again; it would’ve broken me. I did not have the mettle for that.
“I realise that what interested me in it, what drove me ultimately was, ‘Why do bad things happen?’ Why good people do bad things, why a collision of events ends up bringing bad things.
“It’s the psychology of it all. I was much better suited to standing at a distance and creating it in my mind than doing it in real life.”
It’s something that draws us all to a mystery, Flynn thinks, saying that an attraction to the true crime genre has always been in human nature, and she sees it in the popularity of her own work. “It allows us and gives us a way to talk about things in our real lives,” she says. “There’s a reason we’re fascinated with domestic-based murders. It allows us to talk about marriage and family and what goes on behind closed doors. It gives us a strange vocabulary and permission to talk about those things we wouldn’t otherwise.” Does she ever wish she could write about issues to do with gender, class and race without having to put it in a more tantalising package? “I’ve always talked about that idea with Sharp Objects that I knew I wanted to write a book about female rage and aggression and violence. But the key was to wrap it in a mystery, almost trick people into reading it,” she says. “I’m kind of guilty of it myself, so I can’t really take anyone to task. I’ve got things sitting on my DVR, and books sitting on my bedside stand that are like, ‘Ah, this is that really smart book about women’s anger that I’m going to read’ and I don’t. If what it takes to get that message across is to make it entertaining, I really have no problems with that”.
Flynn started a trend with Gone Girl six years ago, kicking off an acceptance of female characters who are allowed to be less than perfect and nurturing models of goodness and purity – see the protagonists in The Girl on the Train and Killing Eve, for example. Critics have incorrectly perceived her complex, at times villainous, female characters as a form of misogyny. It’s a claim Flynn finds funny instead of insulting. “It shocks me more than upsets me,” she says. Regardless, she much prefers dissent to agreement – it indicates that the reader has engaged with it. “The ones I find funniest are when people wait 20 minutes in line to get their book signed – this actually happens to me once or twice every book signing – and they get to the front of the line and they slam the book down: ‘I hated this book!’ And it’s usually they’ve come with their book club,” she says. “I’d much rather have a strong hate reaction than to just consume it and not think much about it.”
How does she respond to that? “ ‘Let’s get into it, let’s roll up our sleeves, what did you hate about it?’ ” she says. “It’s usually, ‘I hated the ending’, so it’s then, ‘Okay, what did you hate about the ending?’ and it’s some version of, ‘I wanted justice.’ Or it’s just, ‘I hated the characters.’ And then it’s like, ‘My writing’s not for you, let’s just agree to disagree, and don’t pick up any of the others’.” She laughs.
“Anything that expands the ability for more characters of all stripes, I think is important. I think we still have a ways to go, beyond just that, we need more stories about women of colour. We just need more everything.” That’s something she particularly tried to do with Widows – further dispel the idea that women are monolithic. “I wanted to make sure we didn’t soften anyone’s edges, no one became ‘likeable’, the dreaded word for women in Hollywood, the note that always seems to arise,” she says. “I really wanted to make sure we had women of all different economic backgrounds and races. That’s really what attracted me to the project, the possibility of [it being] not just for women on screen, but for women of different races. How often do you get to see that? Four women who look like the world we live in, not just four … consumable white women,” she emphasises.
During our conversation, real life outside of her globetrotting day of phone calls – “Is it tomorrow there? What’s happening? Are you in Thursday-land?” she asks when I mention I’m calling from Australia – intervenes: her husband comes looking for the car keys, to take their son out. It’s a reminder of how much her life has changed in the past decade – bestsellers, acclaimed TV series, Oscar-nominated movies – and brings us back to Sharp Objects, which after 12 years was brought to the screen this year as a mini-series with Oscar nominees Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson. Dispelling the myth that her work and life are one and the same may be a constant task, yet there is a level of herself in each book. Namely, that first novel, which was written over a few years on nights and weekends in her late 20s and early 30s, including while on reporting assignments for Entertainment Weekly. What was it like to revisit her former self, memories and pain confined to a book over a decade ago? “It was hard, to tell you the truth,” she says. “I wrote that during a very dark period of my life, when I wanted to talk about a lot of the things Camille was feeling – sexual repression, rage, self-hatred and all that. It was strange to go back there. At the time I wasn’t necessarily planning on getting married. I didn’t necessarily know if I wanted children. So it was both hard and cool, in a way.
“I wish I could’ve gone back and told my younger self that things were going to be okay. All the fruits of your labour are gonna be alright. You’re gonna be a writer. You’re gonna find a wonderful husband and have these amazing kids.” She laughs.
“Life is gonna be okay, girl.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2018 as "Grim like Flynn". Subscribe here.