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Interview with Gillian Flynn 2009

Having won so many awards and having her debut novel being turned into a movie, Chris High finds that Gillian Flynn’s writing world isn’t such a Dark Place.

Image: Gillian FlynnGillian Flynn could hardly have hoped for a better response to her 2006 debut, Sharp Objects. The Chicago based, former chief TV critic for Entertainment Weekly won the Crime Writers’ Association New Blood Dagger for Best Newcomer and the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for Best Thriller in 2007, as well as having none other than Stephen King describe her as “The real deal ...with a knack for the macabre”.

Two years on and Flynn’s second novel, Dark Places, has been published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. So, following the praise the debut received, did the author feel any extra pressure or, indeed, did she place any extra pressure on herself when writing Dark Places? ‘Ugh, yes, she groaned. ‘It was such a different experience, because I wrote the first book on my own, on the weekends and the evenings, with no publisher or agent—very few of my friends even knew. It was my little secret. With the second one, obviously that’s not the case. You’re dealing with deadlines and expectations and the dreaded fear of the “sophomore slump” and your own little Greek chorus of doubt and doom. I definitely had moments where I thought: “Hmm...how does one write a book? I can’t remember…” I had to learn to get out of my own way.’

Dark Places concerns Libby Day, whose family is murdered by her elder brother, Ben, when Libby is seven years old. It is Libby’s testimony that finally puts Ben away amidst accusations of Devil worship. Twenty-four years on, forced into trading in on her fame as a survivor, Libby is put into a position she never thought would come about … that she might have been wrong about her brother. As with Sharp Objects, Gillian has opted to place Libby as the narrator, who has one or two particularly unusual traits. ‘Both my narrators have suffered horrific childhood events, so it made sense to me that they’d have destructive patterns of behavior, and difficulties with anxiety. Camille self-harms in Sharp Objects and Libby steals in Dark Places, in part, because she grew up incredibly poor, in a home where it was necessary to grab what you could when you could: soap, food, make-up. But she also has a penchant for swiping strangers’ personal belongings—because her own personal belongings are too painful, too harsh a reminder of her family’s murders: “The actual stuff my family owned, those boxes under my stairs, I can’t quite bear to look at. I like other people’s things better. They come with other people’s history.” I actually started writing Libby Day very differently: I so wanted her to be a sweet, well-adjusted woman who had battled her demons and won….and I wrote two-thirds of a book with her as that “Good Libby” character. But it didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel real. How does a girl survive the massacre of her family by her own brother and end up well-adjusted? I had to start writing her how she needed to be written, instead of how I wanted to write her. I’m not sure what would happen if Camille and Libby met and can’t decide if they would be friends. Quite possibly they would adore each other but, even more likely, is that they would want to scratch each other’s eyes out.’

As if all the adulation Sharp Objects and its author received wasn’t enough, the book is now being turned into a major movie. How involved is Gillian in the process?  ‘Very and have just turned in the first draft of the screenplay to Pathe, so it’s moving along. It’s thrilling and scary to turn a book into a movie—you realize certain scenes and even characters you love in the book just don’t have a place in the film. But don’t worry; it’s very true to the book: We haven’t turned it into an upbeat, fizzy musical or anything.’

So, what’s next for Gillian Flynn and are there any upcoming trips to the UK in the offing? ‘I’m working on my third book, Gone Girl, about a man whose wife goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. As for the UK, I’m always looking for a reason to get back—there’s a particular pub with a particular pint with my name on it.’

Like a lot of full-time writers, Gillian has a writing routine and although hers might appear a little more relaxed than some others, it clearly works. ‘I do my hard stuff during the day. I try to keep a real day-job schedule, although my day-job schedule looks a bit different. I usually start with a soak in the tub, because that’s where I do my best thinking. I bring my old notebook and scribble a general outline for what scenes I’ll be writing that day, and even start some of my writing there. I take an hour-long midday break for a walk, because that wakes me up for the second half of my day: I think over what’s working and what isn’t, and go back and revise accordingly. But some of my most creative, inspired moments happen late at night, so that’s my time to just write what I want to: It may be I just want to describe a setting or a smell or a weird dog I saw on my midday walk. I have come to believe Chicago is the weird-dog capital of the world. I think my brain just works differently – or maybe better – at night. It’s my most joyful time of writing.’

How did working for a magazine add to, or detract from, Gillian’s fiction writing?  ‘I loved my time at EW, and being a TV critic helped me focus on what works and what doesn’t in a story. Working for a weekly magazine certainly taught me discipline: You can’t wait for the muse, you can’t postpone for the perfect time to write and you can’t nurture your writer’s block. You just keep writing because it’s a job. That’s always my first piece of advice to aspiring writers: Know that it can be a slog, know that you will have a lot of days you won’t want to write. Do it anyway. Be aware of what kind of writing you’re drawn to, because that’s the kind of writing you’ll do best: What you have a passion for. Read good writers, writers who craft sentences that you want to read out loud. Writers who create worlds you want to linger in. I read Kate Atkinson for her ability to make decent, ordinary people absolutely riveting, Joyce Carol Oates for her unrivaled skill at building dread, Dennis Lehane for his extraordinary sense of place. My first short story was inspired by my childhood love of the Little House on the Prairie book series. I was in third grade when I wrote it, and it was entitled—I’m not joking—To The Outhouse. It was about a pioneer girl’s midnight attempt to run to the titular outhouse before wolves got her. If I remember correctly, the wolves got her.’

Dark Places by Gillian FlynnDark Places sees Libby being written in the first person, with the back story of the lead up to that horrific night being told through the eyes of her mother, Patty, and her brother, Ben. Was writing the novel from different view points over different timescales something Gillian managed to do easily or was there a certain amount of style adjustment required? ‘Switching viewpoints from a damaged thirty-something woman to a struggling mother of four and then to a teenage boy—the latter two in a 1980’s time period—presented quite a few challenges on a logistical, tonal, technical and practical basis. Since Patty and Ben are both written as they go through the day leading up to the murders, there was quite a bit of juggling: Who knows what when, who is where at what time, that sort of detail. Then there was the pure fact-checking aspect: Was the death penalty in effect in Kansas in 1985? Did this kind of cigarette Gillian Flynn and Chris High together in Londonexist in 1985? This model of car? I must admit, I did really love writing in a world where cell phones didn’t exist. I never know where I’m going to end up with a novel.So far, I haven’t known in either book which character the murderer will be or what the motive is. I have my suspicions, and they’re usually wrong. In Sharp Objects the murderer wasn’t even in the first draft of the book. I can vaguely outline, but I usually find the story takes me someplace else—someplace better. Battling your story to fit your preconceived notions only results in weak books: Let the story win, I say.’

See also: Interview with Gillian Flynn 2007 by Chris High

Parts of this interview have, or will, appear in other publications and in other formats.

  
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If you would like to comment on this interview with Gillian Flynn in June 2009, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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