Gillian Flynn is kind of amazing. She graduated from Medill with a one-year master’s in journalism back in 1997, worked for Entertainment Weekly, and beginning in 2006, turned out some of the most fantastically twisted dark fiction I’ve ever read. Her first novel (a New York Times best seller), Sharp Objects, revolves around Camille Preaker, a small-time Chicago reporter and former “cutter” who returns to her back-of-the-woods Missouri hometown to cover a string of child murders.
Flynn’s second book, Dark Places (2009), follows Libby Day, the seven-year-old sole survivor of her family’s gruesome massacre, the “Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” That is, aside from her brother, the murderer, who went to prison on her testimony. The novel picks up with Libby two decades later, questioning her childhood memories and contending with the possibility that she wrongly convicted her brother. North by Northwestern sat down with Flynn to talk about her jump from journalism to fiction.
So when you enrolled in Medill, you were interested in being a crime reporter but—according to your author page—you “wimped out”?
Yeah! That’s what I started at Medill for, you know. I pictured myself as this hard-boiled, really cool police/crime reporter. And then just realized very, very quickly that I wasn’t assertive enough or didn’t have enough guts, absolutely not cut out for that kind of thing. Um, and very quickly, thankfully, found myself in the arts line and found that was something I could do.
So did your interest in crime factor into becoming a mystery novelist?
Absolutely. If you read Sharp Objects, Camille, she’s kind of the crime reporter. You know–a surrogate for me. I always imagined that I would cover this fascinating mystery and go out on assignments and that kind of thing. And Camille’s not the greatest crime reporter. She’s a little bit unassertive, kind of wishy-washy and doesn’t like doing a lot of the parts of her job. So, in a way, that’s probably what I would have been like, too.
Why the switch from journalism to fiction?
After Northwestern, I went on to work at Entertainment Weekly. I was there for 10 years, half the time covering film and half the time as their TV critic. And I always kind of had in the back of my mind, you know, this idea for this book floating around. As much as I loved Entertainment Weekly, I just couldn’t quite give up this idea. That’s how you know you have an idea for a book. I ended up starting to write it, just to see if I could, actually. It wasn’t that I dreamed about leaving Entertainment Weekly necessarily. I remember very distinctly being in New Orleans and on the set of a movie called Runaway Jury, with Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman, and coming back to my room to check with my editor about just how the story was shaping up and the interviews I’d gotten so far, and I was doodling on my leg as I was talking to him. I was kind of writing different words he was saying, and all of a sudden I looked down and thought, “Well, that’s what Camille does.” She carves words into her skin. It was an “aha!” moment.
Obviously the tone is very different from the conversational, sort of humorous tone of Entertainment Weekly. And I was writing about TV and movies the whole time, and you’ll notice Sharp Objects doesn’t have a single pop culture reference. I was very careful to keep the two worlds very separate so my voice from one didn’t leak over into the other.
So you’re a full-time novelist now?
Yeah! I am a full-time novelist now. I’m wrapping up my third book, and I have a contract for another one after this third one, so I will for sure be writing books for quite awhile. It’s kind of a nice way to spend your day. I like to think someday I might go back and dabble in journalism a little bit because I love that process also. I like nonfiction too.
Your novels deal with a lot of dark, taboo subjects—self-mutilation, child molestation, Satan worship. Where do you get your ideas?
You know what, they come from the characters themselves I think. When I started Sharp Objects, I didn’t even know it would be a mystery. I knew it would involve a woman with a very kind of sick, toxic relationship with her mother and kind of why that was. It kind of snowballed from there. I’ve always been one of those people that love scary stories. I love Brothers Grimm and all that sort of darker stuff. I just very naturally fell into mysteries, and they become in their own way a kind of dark fairytale. You know, this town surrounded by woods where bad things happen, and there’s sort of this evil matriarchal, stepmother-type woman. And in Dark Places, I started out thinking I would have a much different protagonist. I was determined to make her much lighter than Camille had been. I’d written a pretty solid first draft for a character that was very kind of optimistic and healthy. And she’s suffered this awful murder of her family in her childhood, but had recovered and was pretty stable. It was just awful. She didn’t work at all. I kind of tossed it out and had to start again. I went back and it became darker…and darker. And it started with the germ of that idea: What happens to these people who are the survivors of true crime? These people who are famous for the horrible, horrible things that happen to them? Ten years later, where are they? And just from growing up on the Kansas border, I was very familiar with In Cold Blood. So starting with that, dead bodies in a farmhouse in Kansas, and what happened, was a little bit of a nod to Truman Capote.
Does it ever get to be too much when you’re writing something so macabre?
It takes over every once in awhile. I remember during Sharp Objects I kept dreaming about Camille’s dead sister. I kept having ghostly dreams about this dead little girl. And that was fairly awful. And then Dark Places, I actually went away to write the final scene where the family is actually murdered, where you finally figure out what happened in the flashbacks where the mom and the two girls are killed. I went to a friend’s break house, just by myself, to write this scene. I would be pretty much finished with the book. So I was up there. I’d bought a bottle of champagne I was going to open up and celebrate when I was done, you know, woo hoo! Finished the book! I tell you what, I finished writing that scene and just burst into tears. It felt so author-y and silly, but you become very attached to these characters. And I finally had to murder them and kill them off. I was just beside myself for most of the evening and into the next day.
How do you keep your novels from becoming formulaic whodunits?
I guess I’ve been accidentally lucky in that I don’t really structure my novels. For me, what’s interesting in the books that I’m writing is not necessarily so much the whodunit as who these people are. I mean, in Sharp Objects, the real mystery almost is who Camille is and what’s wrong with her, and what’s happened to her, as much as what happened to the murdered children. It’s just as much using a mystery to propel a character study as it is a whodunit in and of itself.
Are you planning to stick in the mystery subgenre?
I don’t know. I’m in the process of finishing up my third novel, and it’s a mystery. It’s about a husband and wife, and the husband comes home on his five-year wedding anniversary to find his wife missing…we think, and kind of what ensues after that. I don’t even know what my fourth one will be. I don’t know if it will be a straightforward mystery or what. I kind of let my brain seize upon what interests me and go from there.
I’ve heard your novels are in the process of becoming films?
Yes! Both of them. They’ve been optioned at least. Sharp Objects was optioned by Pathé, and my most recent one has been optioned by Hugo Productions to be adapted by a really great French director named Gilles Paquet-Brenner.
So what was it like adapting your novel for the screen?
I had a great time. I really enjoyed the process. It was kind of fun to figure out which parts of the book should be kept and which parts shouldn’t. I think we’ve all seen adaptations of books that were way too true to the book, and you kind of look at them and say, “Oh. Actually, you know, that scene kind of slowed the movie down, or this one needed to be added.”
Any chance of a Northwestern shout-out in a future novel?
That would be good! I gotta do it someday. Maybe I’ll name a character Medill.
Gillian Flynn currently lives in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village with her husband and six-month-old son. Her third novel, Gone Girl, is set for publication in September 2011. More info on Gillian: http://gillian-flynn.com/