“Um, I’m actually Team Nick,” I said to a very pregnant Gillian Flynn who was signing my #TeamAmy shirt, the one a bookstore employee had given me just minutes before.
By Nick, I meant Nick Dunne, one of the main characters in Gillian’s best-selling thriller “Gone Girl,” the guy Ben Affleck is playing in the book’s film adaptation set to hit cinemas on Oct. 8.
Gillian—pronounced with a hard G, as in “gore”—laughed a great big laugh. It was April and we were in New York, at Barnes & Noble in Union Square. Gillian was there for a discussion with author Laura Lippmann, I was there for Gillian.
“Gone Girl” was the first Gillian Flynn novel that I read and, like many others, it gripped and stunned me. (My friends and I had to form a “Gone Girl” support group to help us get over that maddening ending. News flash: still not over it.) I dove into “Sharp Objects” immediately after. It was dark and disturbing, shocking and repulsive. “Dark Places” gave me the gift of Libby Day—a flawed heroine who has gone through hell and is forced to revisit it. Like the other books, it was twisted and horrific and I loved it.
Gillian has the ability to take me on an intense ride, make me care about characters who also creep me out and bring me to a world so grim that I feel like I’m in darkness. Finishing her books always feels like breaking through the surface of the ocean and taking big gulps of air.
And so it was a bit of a surprise to realize that unlike her fiction, Gillian wasn’t dark at all—she was funny and self-deprecating. But, she insisted, she was a creepy little girl. “I always had a very dark side, like Wednesday Addams. I liked creepy stories, horror movies, I liked being scared. My cousins would always grab the princess costume and I would always grab the witch costume. I was like, she’s got a backstory. I always had that interest about why people did bad things and why bad things happen,” she said during the discussion.
Gillian didn’t set out to be a suspense author. She was a journalist at Entertainment Weekly for 10 years, spending four of them as its TV critic. She had written her first two books—“Sharp Objects” and “Dark Places”—while still at the magazine. “I loved my job. I did movies and TV, my two favorite things. I had a great time doing it.”
But right before her second book came out, she was laid off. “To me, it was like, don’t quit your day job, don’t quit your day job and so to have my day job removed from me put me in a very different space. I decided I didn’t know how to do anything but write. I’ve never done anything but write. I did dress up as a yogurt cone and give out yogurt samples in the ’80s. That’s about the extent of the other nonwriting jobs that I could go back to.”
She took the plunge into writing fiction full-time. “I was one of the lucky ones, my husband still had his job and I certainly wasn’t in dire straits but it definitely changed my relationship with writing. I actually overwrote because I’d never had so much time before.”
The result was “Gone Girl,” which, if you ignored “50 Shades of Grey,” was the biggest literary phenomenon of 2012. Over six million copies have been sold worldwide—and that was before the paperback edition was released in the United States earlier this year.
“Gone Girl” tells the story of a troubled marriage through the eyes of Nick the narrator and the journal entries of his wife Amy. The novel starts with the disappearance of Amy on their fifth wedding anniversary and soon there is one big question: Did Nick kill Amy?
The trouble with writing (and writing about) Gone Girl is the fear of spoilers. Gillian said, “When I finished writing it, I said, great, I’ve written a book that I can’t ever talk about to anyone.”
Strangely, it was being a newlywed that inspired Gillian to write about a marriage gone wrong. “I spent way too much time thinking [about] what a good marriage is, what a bad marriage is. I thought, what does that mean, really, when you’re joining your life with someone for good?”
“And my other obsession was, being a media person, the true crime angle, how the media covers tragedy, how media packages it for consumption and that idea that when a woman goes missing, very often the media thing is to assume to look at the husband. My initial thought was what would that feel like for a husband whose wife was missing? There’s no way to win that media game—if you’re crying and being really emotive, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s putting on a show’ and if you’re stoic and calm, you don’t care enough.”
She enjoyed writing the story from two points of view. “It was fun. I wrote it very much in order. I would write a Nick chapter and I would write an Amy chapter. They’re not always the most likeable characters so whenever I was getting angry with one of them, I would switch over to the other one and let them harangue about the other one.”
Gillian said she’s more of Nick—they have the same background, they are kids from Missouri who moved to New York and who got fired from a pop culture magazine. “I did channel a lot of that angst into Nick,” she added.
There had been no outline, she didn’t know how the story would end. “I didn’t even know what Nick’s involvement with the case was. I originally had pages and pages written from the point of view of a true crime journalist who was covering them.”
Asked why her book was such a success, she replied, “My guess is that people latched on to it because it has a relationship at its center. Most people have been in a long-term relationship and recognize that ebb and flow. People like to talk about gender differences, the way Amy saw things and the way Nick saw things. I think there were a lot of entry points for different people, I get that from what different people want to talk about. People want to talk about that awful ending that I had. They want to talk about that a lot. To me, it’s all great, if people want to talk about your book, that’s awesome, if people feel an ownership on your book and [have] a viewpoint about your book, I think people just become engrossed and they become attached to these characters and what they should do.”
The book has a lot of fans but there are people who have called Gillian out for being misogynistic, including blogger Nile Cappello who wrote in the Huffington Post, “There is not a single woman in the entire novel that isn’t a complete and utter mess.”
But Gillian seemed amused by the accusations. “You can Google ‘Gillian Flynn misogynist.’ It’s interesting to me that in this day and age, if you write a woman who is an unlikeable character and women who do nasty awful things, that means you dislike women. I have really awful male characters, too, but that never gets pointed out. I have good female characters, too. Just the way a male author is allowed to write an antihero and is allowed to write a male character who’s not likeable and who does bad things… that’s called a book.”
Misogynist is the last word we would use to describe Gillian, especially after hearing her choice of bedtime stories for her son. “I want my son to be able to read great stories about boys and girls… Snow White is one of his current favorites but I changed all the words. The stepmom is very jealous because Snow White is so tough and capable. Instead of being saved by the prince in the end, she breaks loose, bursts out and reclaims her kingdom. My husband was talking to him one night and my son was like, ‘If I need anything, will you be there?’ And my husband said, ‘Yeah, absolutely. Daddy’s always gonna be here, Daddy’s tough.’ And my son was like, ‘Not as tough as Snow White.’”
Gillian worked with director David Fincher (“Fight Club,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Seven”) in bringing “Gone Girl” to the big screen. “People asked me early on, if anyone would direct this, who would it be? And I was like, David Fincher. David Fincher is my favorite director… obviously he’s incredibly good at suspense, at these unsettling, dread-inducing moments, this feeling of inevitability. But he doesn’t get enough credit for his black humor that’s in his movies, he’s got a very great strain of personality-based humor that I thought we would work well together. We really did. We had a great time.”
Fans were thrilled to find out that it was Gillian who wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation. (And it was incredibly satisfying to see the movie she wrote land on the cover of the magazine that fired her.) “I felt like my first job in adapting it was to respect it as a screenplay and understand that to make it a really good movie, I had to not try to save everything… and still keep the nuances of the book. But I didn’t want the movie to just be sheer police procedural… I was very careful about that to protect my characters.”
Gillian handed me the #TeamAmy shirt she had just autographed and I held on to it along with my freshly signed books. Before saying goodbye, I said to her, “Please do a signing in the Philippines, you have so many fans there.”
There have been a lot of developments since that day in April. Gillian has given birth to her second child, she is part of two newly released anthologies (“Rogues,” which was edited by “A Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin, and “Drivel: Deliciously Bad Writing by Your Favorite Authors”) and, just last week, Forbes released its list of the world’s top-earning authors and revealed that Gillian is tied for 12th place with “The Fault In Our Stars” writer John Green. This is a list Gillian will climb with ease with the upcoming adaptations of all her books (the movie version of “Dark Places,” which stars Charlize Theron and Chloe Grace Moretz, will also come out this year, while “Sharp Objects” is being adapted for TV).
She’s also working on two other books—a folkloric American murder tale and a young adult novel. “The YA is a little bit down the road but I’ll tell you that there are no vampires or anything. I really wanna go back to like the Lois Duncan, that kind of vibe… the good old-fashioned real mystery.”
There is so much going on for Gillian but one fan at the book signing wanted to know: Will she ever write about Nick and Amy again? “Are you offering me money?” Gillian joked. “Never say never. I’m ready to take a break from the Dunnes but I really do love those characters. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who they were so I know them very well now. Their iPod playlists are on my iPod. I know what they would like to watch and what they would eat. You know you’re in trouble when.. something would happen to me and I’d [think], ‘Oh, Amy wouldn’t like that.’ I’d love to revisit ten years from now.”