Book club webchat with Gillian Flynn
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Gillian wrote for Entertainment Weekly for 10 years before writing her first novel, Sharp Objects. It won two Crime Writers Association Daggers. She chatted to Mumsnetters about how she plans and writes her books, the characters of Nick and Amy, and That Ending.
Q. TillyBookclub: Which childhood book most inspired you?
A. Gillian Flynn: I loved stories about bold, adventurous children (particularly as I was a fairly shy, unadventurous child). I loved Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, Lucy in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Tom in Tom Sawyer, but I think my favourite was Alice in Wonderland.
I loved how curious and precocious and fearless Alice was, and I was fascinated by this strange other world that she explored. I spent many hours looking for rabbit holes in my backyard.
Q. cm22v077: I read you grew up in Kansas City. Do you think that your chosen genre is linked to novels like In Cold Blood, which was famously set in the same region?
A. Gillian Flynn: Yes, I grew up on the Kansas border and read In Cold Blood at a very young age. It touches on an obsession of mine, which is: why violence happens. The inevitability of it in certain circumstances, with certain people. My second novel, Dark Places, actually starts with that image: a family murdered in their lonely Kansas farmhouse. What happened?
Q. TillyBookclub: What would be the first piece of advice you would give anyone attempting to write fiction?
A. Gillian Flynn: This will sound too simple, but I think it's very important: keep writing. I wrote my first book at night and on weekends after I finished my day job, and the process was long and sometimes discouraging and very erratic.
But I kept at it, even when I lost momentum and life took over and I hadn't looked at the book in six months. I just kept going back and writing and rewriting and then finally - magic! - one day it was done.
Also: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Don't worry if your first version is crummy; that's what a first draft is for - to figure out what it is you want to say. I always find my books in the third or fourth draft!
Q. Patchouli: Your alternating chapters made it so readable for me. I'd get to the end of one and have to whizz through the next. I might say to myself, 'one more chapter then I'm going to bed' but it was too engrossing to put down.
A. Gillian Flynn: Thank you so much. They were fun to write, and I wrote them as they were in the book, alternating between Nick's mind and Amy's. It made me feel like an actor, trying on different characters.
Q. BOF: When you write, do you 'see' the scenes in your head, or are you more about the sound of the language and finding poetry and rhythm?
A. Gillian Flynn: Yes, I am the daughter of a film professor, and I wrote about film for 10 years at Entertainment Weekly, so I do think very visually and I do write in scenes often. It's just the way my brain works, I suppose.
Q. BOF: Will you ever write a screenplay?
A. Gillian Flynn: I am writing the screenplay for Gone Girl and really enjoying the process!
Q. BOF: Which of your novels has been most fun to write?
A. Gillian Flynn: They're all fun in different ways. Sharp Objects was special because it was just me and my laptop at night and on weekends, writing for the fun of it. Dark Places has one of my personal favourite characters, Libby Day - love that meanie! She's one of the characters I catch myself thinking about: How's Libby doing? What's she up to?
And Gone Girl really tested me, the structure and the voices were so tricky and complex, and it was both a giant challenge and a thrill.
Q. Gargamella: Did you create other parts of the plot or character development that you then didn't show? I'm thinking of how the characters Amy manipulated early on got over that and what they thought about her in the intervening years before she was back in the spotlight.
A. Gillian Flynn: Yes, quite a bit of stuff that didn't end in the book. One of the things I like to do when figuring out a character is to write the character from someone else's point of view - so a scene with Amy told from POV of Hilary Handy, or Nick as seen by his childhood teacher.
Q. gaelicsheep: Do you feel this book is more about the story or the telling of it?
A. Gillian Flynn: It's very much a book about storytelling. We are all engaged in our own myth-making. When we meet someone and tell them our life story, we are choosing to portray ourselves in a certain light; we are picking the stories and the anecdotes that we believe represent us (this isn't always correct, but that's the whole point, the choices you make in trying to explain who you are).
I wanted Amy and Nick to be writers - people who were already trained in telling stories, and I wanted their alternating chapters to make the reader feel like he or she was trapped in an argument between friends.
Q. HellesBelles396: Is the book more about dysfunctional marriages or dysfunctional parenting?
A. Gillian Flynn: My intention was to explore a marriage that, on paper, may seem to be a fantasy match - and then to explore what went wrong. But you're right, Nick and Amy are two people who've been parented in such a way that they truly believe they are the golden children ie they can do no wrong. They are self-centred and egocentric. In Amy's case, she had an iconic status, because of the Amy books, that she didn't even earn.
Q. KateSMumsnet: I was really interested in the dynamic between Nick and Go, how do you imagine that would change with the return of Amy?
A. Gillian Flynn: Great question. I think Go may be the one thing Nick wouldn't give in on. She's his moral centre, and she's the one who can give him perspective. He needs her. And yet, I also feel that Go is very threatening to Amy. Still, she's smart enough to push exactly as far as she can. It may become the one thing they agree on, if uneasily: Go stays.
Q. BumgrapesofWrath: How did you go about writing the plot of the story without getting confused yourself? Lots of Post-it notes? Or diagrams? The story wove together so nicely you must have planned it meticulously (like Amy?).
A. Gillian Flynn: Yes, mad Post-it notes! I am not good at plotting, and I chose to write this very plotted book. My way of organising my thoughts is to write the chronology and the facts, and the dates, and the clues on pieces of paper and tape them to the wall of my little home office. By the end of Gone Girl, it looked like the den of a madwoman! Thousands of fluttering little scraps of paper. Who was telling what lie to whom and when? And then all the police work and legal questions on top. Madness!
Q. kermithermit: What are the character arcs for Nick and Amy if they end up back where they started? I can see more of a transformation in Nick, less so in Amy - I suppose this makes him the protagonist?
A. Gillian Flynn: They are definitely not traditional character arcs. Not everyone learns something here! Nick's transformation is much more dramatic. He finally grows up, and he makes a choice, and it's not the choice everyone would like for him, but I think he's finally proud of himself. He's doing the hard thing after a life of doing what's easiest.
As for Amy, I think only time will tell. She finally learned she's not invincible. She can get robbed and be threatened. So, will that humble her a bit? She also learns that she can get herself out of any mess she finds herself in, so she may actually feel more powerful.
Q. BumgrapesofWrath: Is Amy based (loosely obviously) on someone you know? Also, how did you go about writing the plot of the story without getting confused yourself?
A. Gillian Flynn: Ha! Thank you! She is, thank goodness, not based on anyone I know. But I think we've all met people like her. Severe alpha girls who will always do better than you and get more than you because they don't care whether they're acting morally, they just want to win. To me, that was a big key to Amy. Also her 'perfection'. She's beautiful, smart, wealthy - nothing has ever gone wrong for her. I think that's a very dangerous way to grow up, because it doesn't teach buoyancy. I believe buoyancy to be one of the most important human skills there is. When things begin to go wrong, Amy doesn't know what to do or how to handle it.
Q. gazzalw: You have painted the starkest picture of the disintegration of a love-affair from heady perfect romance, to simmering tensions, to the pure hatred and rage which culminates in such a twisted form of vengeance. Are you, personally, that cynical about love and relationships?
A. Gillian Flynn: Thank you for such a thoughtful question! I am not a cynic, but I can be wildly pragmatic. I do think a lot of people enter relationships because of the way the person makes them feel. They don't enter them to love, they enter them because they feel better about themselves when reflected through the eyes of this other person.
Obviously, your spouse should make you feel good about yourself, but entering a relationship because you believe someone may 'fix' you is a losing proposition for both sides. I think that's partly Nick and Amy's problem. As Nick says: they complete each other in the most dangerous way. Nick felt smarter with Amy, and more challenged to be the man he wants to be, but he doesn't feel able to be himself with her. He doesn't feel loved unconditionally. Amy would, of course, say that isn't the point of love.
Q. SinisterSal: Diary Amy comes out with some fairly nuanced feminist arguments, though not actually explicitly stated as such. The Cool Girl thing for example. Yet it turns out that she is literally using it as cover to be a psycho from hell who traps a man by getting pregnant, cries rape, and deliberately tries to ruin a poor schmuck's life, and nearly succeeds because everyone thinks the worst of men. Why did you choose that portrayal of a 'feminist'?
A. Gillian Flynn: Wow, fascinating question. I don't think Amy is a feminist, actually. I think Amy hates women just as much as she hates men (possibly more so). Amy is an Amy-ist, as in, she is for whatever is best for Amy and against whatever isn't. But I'm sure she would be proud of the fact that she's never a victim, even when she's playing a victim. She turns the idea of the woman as the constant receiver of pain, the constant sufferer, on its ear, and uses it to her advantage.
Q. squeaver: I'm interested in the Cool Girl thing, too. As I'm 20 years past being single, is this something that you think is true? Or an Amy-posited hypothesis to make us think about her character?
A. Gillian Flynn: I think the Cool Girl idea is very relevant today, in the idea that some women 'spin' themselves into a persona that's designed to appeal to men (general) or a man (specific). It seems to me much more common that women take on their men's interests and hobbies than vice versa (ie Amy's comment about men and Jane Austen). I think women tend to be socially ambidextrous anyway - much more so than men - and so it's easier for women to transform than men. That can be a great skill or a dangerous one depending on how it's applied.
Q. lilibet: I think that both Amy and Nick were both thoroughly unlikeable as they were products of bad parenting, albeit in very different ways. Do you agree with this?
A. Gillian Flynn: I agree to an extent. I think it was well-intentioned bad parenting (except for Nick's dad, which was just plain old bad parenting). Nick and Amy are two people who've been parented in such a way that they truly believe they are the golden children - they can do no wrong. A dangerous way to grow up!
Q. FakePlasticLobsters: Have you got an idea how Nick and Amy's baby might turn out?
A. Gillian Flynn: Well first of all, you can give an author no better compliment than wondering what happens to the characters after the book is closed, so thank you. I think the answer is: not well. I think Nick will try his best to keep the child from too much mental gamesmanship, but I don't know that Amy will be able to mother without manipulation - using the child as a pawn in the ongoing marital chess game.
Q. Genesgirl: Did you ever consider another ending? I thought Nick would kill her in the end in a sort of Fatal Attraction ending. He'd been provoked enough. I also worried for the baby. I thought it was a great book and better for having an unpredictable, atypical ending.
A. Gillian Flynn: First of all, I'm always very interested to hear how people thought it should end, so everyone feel free to chime in. I did consider several different endings, and none of them worked for me.
I didn't want Amy to go to jail - she's Amazing Amy! She's not going to let that happen. And I didn't want her killed off. Nick wouldn't do that. He loves her, as crazy as their relationship is. And to have someone else do it is putting him back in the place where he started out - passive, letting someone else do the hard work.
People tell me a lot that they want justice. I wasn't interested in justice for Amy - this isn't what the book is about. It's not a morality tale. It's a love story, in a way, and not all love stories end happily. I wanted it to feel realistic, and this is what felt realistic to me.
We all know those couples who become toxically addicted to each other. They like the gamesmanship of their marriage - they have found a worthy nemesis who also happens to be their soul mate. As Nick says: He wants to be a better man than he is. He is a lazy guy; he wants someone who will force him to be smarter, wittier, more considerate, better. And in turn, Amy needs him to love her. He makes her laugh, he gives her perspective. You know, it's tragically romantic.
I like open endings; I think they're much more unsettling than a big ka-pow! That said, I understand it's not for everyone. My hope is that even if you didn't like the ending, you can still like the book - if it made you think, or feel, or squirm, or get angry, or laugh - if you wanted to talk to a friend or a spouse about it, then wonderful. That's the goal.
Q. CoteDAzur: I read Gone Girl as the story of a brilliant psychopath who, like Hannibal Lecter, manipulated everyone and succeeded in getting her way against long odds. Nick is staying with Amy only because she is pregnant, so how is this a love story of soul mates?
A. Gillian Flynn: He's not staying with her only because she's pregnant. He stays with her because she makes him (as in forces him) to be better. I'm not saying they're soul mates in the way normal people would like to be soul mates, but they are meant to be together. Even sociopaths need love...
Q. littlewifey: Would you consider, or do you have, any plans already for writing a sequel to Gone Girl?
A. Gillian Flynn: That was never my plan when I wrote the book. But I do find these two characters fascinating. It could be fun to dip back in on them when their child hits the teenage years.
Q. tallpoppies: I loved the part where Nick thinks about the downfall of Carthage. The point he made about being the first human beings who would never see anything for the first time, and the second-hand experience always being better - these few paragraphs really stayed with me for weeks after finishing the book.
A. Gillian Flynn: Thank you so much. That's actually one of my favourite passages in the book (if I may be so immodest). I do think we are getting so saturated with pop culture and devices and the ability to upload anything and everything into our brains that it becomes harder to be genuine people - our first reactions too often are echoing someone else's. Plus everything is better with a soundtrack.
Q. CuriousMama: If you have any say on movie casting would you please consider Ryan Gosling as he can do hot and horny and also tortured soul. Also, your skin is so lovely, what's your secret or is it lucky genes?
A. Gillian Flynn: I will pass on your Ryan Gosling advice to casting! And you are incredibly kind to say that about my skin - it helps to get one's author photo taken in the waning sunlight of a golden afternoon - everyone looks peachy and glowing.
Q. squeaver: Do you think some people are approaching the book in the wrong way because it's been marketed as a thriller? I know people who have said, 'Oh I don't want to read that, I'm not really into thrillers'.
Secondly, in a book where the main protagonists are so unlikeable, who is the moral centre of the book? Is it Go? Boney? I thought it was interesting that you had a central female villain, and that all the main male characters were also unsympathetic (Nick, Amy's Dad, Desi) but you had two females to whom you could remain sympathetic throughout. Also interested in what other options you considered for the ending.
A. Gillian Flynn: Thanks for the question. Yes, it's a tricky thing figuring out how to market a book. I do think some people may have chosen not to pick it up because they 'don't like thrillers'. I personally would never write off an entire genre. There are smart, beautifully written westerns, science fiction, fantasy, and yes, thrillers, that tackle such meaty and worthy subjects as socio-economics, gender roles, marriage, race, parenthood, politics etc and do it brilliantly.
As for the moral centre: I think the one unchanging core centre of the book is Go. I think Boney is a moral person, but she's also doing a job. Go, except for that one awful, turning point moment, is very much unwavering in her love and faith.