Before she was a best-selling novelist and screenplay writer, Gillian Flynn was a shy, Bishop Miege High School student, passionate about writing and reading but unenthusiastic about pushing herself in the classroom.
The author of “Sharp Objects,” “Dark Places” and “Gone Girl” was so overlooked, that she was almost removed from her Honors English classroom.
Her Bishop Miege teacher Craig Ewing wouldn’t have it.
“I said, ‘There’s no way you can move her out of Honors English — she’s the best writer in the school.’” Ewing, who has since spent 30 years as a Saint Thomas Aquinas High School teacher and coach, recalls now.
On Friday, Flynn returned to the Kansas City-area, where she grew up and attended Bishop Miege, to participate in a panel discussion with students and honor her former teacher, whose support she said had a great impact on her.
“It was Mr. Ewing who singled me out and saved me from my own complacency,” Flynn told students Friday. “He gave me that boost and that confidence right when I really needed it.”
The reunion was years in the making.
Several years ago, two now-former Saint Thomas Aquinas teachers, Lisa and Boyd Bauman, met Flynn at a writing conference.
By this time, Flynn had built a successful career, first as a feature and television writer for Entertainment Weekly and later as the author of thrilling fiction with multi-layered characters and twist endings. She’d go on to write the screenplay in the film version of “Gone Girl,” directed by David Fincher.
When the couple told Flynn they were from Kansas City and teachers in Johnson County, the conversation immediately turned to Ewing. Flynn told the Baumans she’d do anything for her former teacher.
Back at Saint Thomas Aquinas, Ewing and other staff members were set on connecting with Flynn and seeing if she would speak to Ewing’s students before Ewing retires in the next few years.
This August, Saint Thomas Aquinas English teacher Paula McCarthy was able to connect with Flynn’s publicist and set up a panel discussion with Flynn at Saint Thomas Aquinas. On Friday, students from Saint Thomas Aquinas as well as members of other area schools, such as Flynn’s alma mater, Bishop Miege, attended the event.
In high school, Flynn said, she discovered books that would inspire her own writing.
“I felt like my brain was being opened 5,000 times each day,” Flynn said of that time, when she read “Lord of the Flies,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “In Cold Blood.”
Maggie Slaven, 17, knows that feeling. She had just turned 13 when the “Gone Girl” film was released. She remembers sitting in the theater, captivated by the movie’s plot, excited and not sure what was going to happen.
It’s the same feeling she had this fall when she read more of Flynn’s novels after Ewing started a Gillian Flynn bookclub with students who wanted to help prepare for Flynn’s January visit.
“Reading her books I couldn’t put them down — I fell in love with her writing style,” Slaven said Friday as she waited for Flynn to arrive. “I’m so excited to see what she’s like in person.”
In person, Flynn seemed down-to-earth, wearing jeans and a leather jacket. Several students remarked that they couldn’t believe the witty and upbeat woman speaking to them had conceived some of the dark and violent plots they were familiar with.
Flynn may have just returned from the Golden Globes, but soon students learned that Flynn not only understands the place they live in as a native Kansas Citian, she’s set her novels in Kansas and Missouri very intentionally.
“The Missourah/Kansas thing — it hasn’t been claimed by too many writers yet,” Flynn said. “I’m consistently stunned...(East Coasters) just don’t understand what happens in the middle of the country. To me, it gives me this extra room to play in.”
Senior Andrew Schoonover, 18, felt reassured by Flynn’s Midwestern upbringing.
“She’s from KC,” Schoonover said. “It’s kind of like you don’t have to be from New York City or LA to be a writer and make it big.”
On Friday, Flynn spent more than an hour with students talking about the writing that helped her “make it big.”
She spoke of her training as a journalist, which helped her hone her craft and realize quickly that she wasn’t interested in a career as a reporter.
“It was such good practice to write every day, to realize that no muse is going to come down and sit on my shoulder and say, ‘Let me help you,’” Flynn said.
She spoke of her favorite movies. (Jaws! The Godfather! Singing in the Rain!)Referenced the #MeToo movement and TIME Magazine essay she wrote to accompany the Silence Breakers introduction as 2017 Person of the Year. Gave students inside tips to battle writer’s block.
But first, she shared a message with the audience.
“For teachers, you really can’t ever know how much it makes a difference for a student when you grab them at the right point and say you’re pretty good at what you are doing, you should do it better even,” she said. “And for students out there who don’t feel like you are always the star of the show or always the biggest voice in the room, I always say you don’t have to have a giant voice to heard. There are other ways and often that’s just by doing the work really well.”