Star Magazine

Kansas City native Gillian Flynn emerges as a literary force with her twisted mystery 'Gone Girl'

As Entertainment Weekly TV critic, KC native Gillian Flynn can love it or feel her "sould is dying."
As Entertainment Weekly TV critic, KC native Gillian Flynn can love it or feel her "sould is dying." SUSAN PFANNMULLER/Special to The Star

Originally published Nov. 11, 2012

We interrupt the dark and deeply disturbed world of Gillian Flynn to bring you this important image.

Soft afternoon sunlight feathers the living room of her 1893 town house, and the author of the hugely successful literary thriller "Gone Girl, " the breakout book of the Kansas City native's relatively brief writing career, is nestled up to her 2-year-old son.

"... a zebra and a zipper jacket ... a fox and an ox are making alphabet soup in a box."

Yes, mother and son are reading aloud from Richard Scarry's "ABC Word Book, " instant evidence that in Gillian Flynn's real life there is no toxic drama, no buried, scarring pathological secrets of the kind that have electrified hundreds of thousands of passionate readers and book buyers from coast to coast.

Those who have read her books are usually surprised to discover that Flynn is, ah, nice - nothing like the tortured women who have populated her three novels, all of which reflect her geographical roots and continued avid interest in the lives of Middle-Westerners.

"It's hard to believe, " said her uncle, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Robert Schieber, "this wonderful, thoughtful, beautiful niece I've got is one twisted gal."

Flynn's hairpin fictional plot turns and her characters' lurid, scheming lives have launched her into the publishing world's upper reaches of fame and fortune. Since it came out in June, "Gone Girl" has spent every week near the top of best-seller lists, often at No. 1, sometimes in a running battle with "the book that shall not be named, " as she referred to the "50 Shades of Grey" phenomenon on this Friday in late October. The surge has sent a flurry of readers back to her first two murder-in-the-heartland novels, "Sharp Objects" (2006) and "Dark Places" (2009), both of which have reappeared on paperback and digital top-selling lists.

As if her footprint on the pop-culture landscape weren't already swelling, Flynn has spent the last couple of months transforming "Gone Girl" for the big screen (Reese Witherspoon producing for 20th Century Fox), and she's keeping close tabs on a forthcoming film production of "Dark Places, " written and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner ("Sarah's Key") and apparently to star Amy Adams. (Although "Sharp Objects" was also sold to Hollywood and she turned out a screenplay, the project has stalled in a not-unheard of bout of development limbo.)

All of this seems natural if not a little humbling to the auburn-haired Flynn, 41, a soft-spoken, sharp-witted, hard-working talent who spent 10 years writing about movies, books and television for Entertainment Weekly and has seemingly devoted her life as much to pop culture as she does to the warm embrace of family.

In one corner of the dark basement office in her home, an unglamorous few steps from the furnace, Flynn has something of a shrine to Hollywood. An autographed photo she landed directly from Jimmy Stewart. A "Lord of the Rings" poster inscribed to "A genuine nerd!!" by director Peter Jackson, whom she spent several weeks with as he was working on the J.R.R. Tolkien saga in New Zealand. She can't wait to see "The Hobbit, " which opens next month, although she has a tinge of regret over being out of the movie-journalism loop.

"One of the things I'm looking forward to, " she said, "is when my son gets old enough, sitting down with him and Middle-earth."

But Gillian Flynn a nerd?

"Don't fret, " goes the "Gone Girl" co-narrator, Amy Elliott Dunne, "we'll sort this out: the true and the not true and the might as well be true."

Gillian (pronounced with a hard G) Flynn was in third grade when she wrote a story that seems to have foretold her future career. In "To the Outhouse, " she found a raw kind of middle ground between Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" stories and the brutal reality of unexpurgated Brothers Grimm. ("I grew up loving to be scared, " she said.) Indeed, the girl of the outhouse story met a cruel fate - the wolves prevailed.

"If you're wondering if I've always written dark stories, " she told a Chicago bookstore audience recently, "yes. Starting at age 8."

Books and movies are much valued in the tree-shaded house in midtown Kansas City's Coleman Highlands neighborhood where Flynn grew up and where her parents still live. Her parents, Matt and Judith Flynn, were on the faculty, both now retired, at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley. He taught speech, theater and film, she taught reading. Their influence is everywhere in their daughter's life and mindset. No surprise that Gillian turned into a voracious reader. The vast social realism of Charles Dickens? Of course.

"How old was she when she finished 'Nicholas Nickleby'?" her father wondered aloud one day.

"She was a kid, very young, " his wife said.

Flynn's mother came from a large family - "I think I had 25 or 26 first cousins, " Judith Flynn said - and Gillian grew up in a pack of cousins of her own; they amount to a sprawling Kansas City clan and support network, and her books are peppered with subtle little shout-outs (the invented Kansas town of Schieberton, for instance, in "Dark Places, " in honor of the Schiebers, her mother's side of the family).

Gillian went to Kansas City schools (Swinney, Volker, Lincoln Junior High), then Bishop Miege for high school. Painfully shy, she said, she found escape in reading and also found encouraging teachers all along the way. "Writing came naturally to me, " she said, "because I didn't have to talk."

She went to the University of Kansas and majored in journalism and English, studying fiction with the late novelist Carolyn Doty.

But early on she also got the family-sponsored education in motion pictures. Her parents took her to theaters for such age-inappropriate experiences as "Alien, " "The Great Santini" and "The Elephant Man."

"At 'The Great Santini, ' I had to leave in the middle I was weeping so hard, " she recalled.

At home, she said, her father would typically pop a videotape into the player with an announcement like, "Today we will watch 'Psycho.' "

"He helped me develop my critical eye, " she said of her father. "He'd talk about what worked and what didn't."

And Oscar night at the Flynn home was an avid annual event. They still compare ballots each year by long distance.

"Movies, " she said, "have always been taken seriously in my family."

After KU, in the early 1990s, Flynn headed to Los Angeles without a job or much of a plan, just the general desire that if something could happen for her in magazine writing, it could happen there. "To me, " her father said, "that was the kind of guts she showed."

She waited tables. Eventually she landed a job writing for a human-resources trade journal, and two years later she moved to Chicago and Northwestern University, where she got a master's degree in journalism and met her future husband, Brett Nolan, a lawyer.

She spent a Northwestern quarter in Washington, D.C., and a brief freelance stint at U.S. News & World Report before being lured to the staff roster at Entertainment Weekly in 1998. She worked for the pop- and celebrity-culture magazine in New York and Los Angeles, but after her editors tapped her to replace a departing television critic, she realized she could work anywhere, and she returned to Chicago.

As an entertainment journalist she followed the likes of "the 'Jackass' boys" to Costa Rica, lounged on the beach of Cabo San Lucas with Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom during the making of "Troy, " and watched director Terry Gilliam, a "maestro of chaos" (her words), work on the ill-fated "Brothers Grimm" in Prague.

On the side, she started writing a novel. She worked on it nights and weekends at home and whenever and wherever she could as she traveled.

She wasn't planning to write a mystery novel, but one night she started reading Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River, " and she read all night till she got to the end. "This is how to do it, " she told herself. Start with a character, go deep and dark and craft a mystery.

The narrator of "Sharp Objects" is a Chicago journalist, but any resemblance to Flynn pretty much stops there. Camille Preaker's editor sends her to the small town in southeast Missouri where she had grown up and where now two young girls have been murdered. The assignment opens the proverbial Pandora's box of family secrets, tortured mother-daughter relationships and Camille's own reckless anxieties, which caused her for a long time to cut words into her skin.

Whatever first-novel creakiness Flynn might have overcome, she accomplished it with an acid-edged style, a rip-roaring pace, what-next story lines and a love of figurative language, to the last of which she credits the influence of California crime novelist Ross Macdonald. She was reading a lot of Macdonald's books and noticed how he dropped metaphors and similes onto every page. "Every time I started thinking, am I overdoing this? I'd go, Ross would say it's OK."

Flynn was happy just to have figured out how to write a novel and to have finished it in two years or so of work. Then she realized, in a self-described Pollyannaish moment, "It gets to get published, too?"

Yes it did. And very successfully. "Sharp Objects" won critical raves from her hometown newspaper (this one, that is) and review outlets almost everywhere. It prompted the likes of Stephen King to praise it as an "admirably nasty piece of work."

As she began casting around for another idea, Flynn decided she didn't want to write about "another dark, troubled female blah blah blah."

So she launched into the story of Libby Day, who, as a child in a house outside a small Kansas town, survived the murder of most of her family. (Yes, an echo of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood.") Although her brother had long been in prison for the crime, years later Libby sets out to learn what really happened.

"She was a goodie two-shoes, " Flynn says of the character in that first draft. "She could've been an aerobics instructor."

Brett, her husband and first reader of all of her work, liked the story as it was developing, but, when she asked him what he thought of Libby, he said he couldn't stand her. She wasn't believable. Flynn knew it, too. "It just did not work, " she recalled. Brett convinced her to chuck those first 100 pages and start over.

But writing is an evolutionary process, and one grows by making mistakes. "I learned you have to write the book you need to write, " Flynn said, "not the one you think you should write. ... It was a rough lesson to learn."

So, of course, Flynn transmogrified Libby Day, and "Dark Places" opens with a chill: "I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly, and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It's the Day blood."

In December 2008, about the time she finished "Dark Places" and months before it was published, Flynn encountered the recessionary darkness that befell many in her business. Entertainment Weekly laid her off.

It was not unexpected, but it was a blow to her ego and her sense of stability, and that winter unspooled in dread. What was she supposed to do? "I don't know how to do anything else but write, " was her refrain.

By March of 2009, her path became clearer. "Dark Places" would soon be published, and Random House asked her for another book.

When she launched into "Gone Girl, " Flynn did herself no favors when she envisioned a tale whose freight would be carried by alternating first-person narrators. Developing distinct and believable voices for each was only part of the challenge.

Although her novels are far from autobiographical, her experience sometimes lends them details. In "Gone Girl, " for instance, the central couple's downward spiral seems to begin when the husband, Nick Dunne, loses his magazine writing job.

It's the depth of the Great Recession and (cue the fictional invention) Nick convinces his wife to move from the swirl of New York City to his tiny Missouri hometown. His parents are ailing there, and he and his twin sister plan to open a bar. On their fifth anniversary, Amy Dunne disappears, and Nick is suspected of killing her. The narrative shifts back and forth in time, interweaving developments as they unfold in the present and as Amy's diary entries fill in the couple's past.

When she needs to pin down specialized details, Flynn taps her family's expertise and professionals in various fields.

Her older brother, Travis Flynn, a railroad machinist, is her trusty adviser on all things mechanical. One cold winter day, when his sister was writing "Dark Places, " he took her to a Platte County shooting range where she spent the afternoon getting a feel for guns. "She gravitated toward the 12-gauge shotgun, " he said. "She had an idea of what she wanted to work into the story."

Getting guns right is one of the first rules of crime fiction, Flynn noted. And accompanying that knowledge, after four or five hours of shooting, was a whole lot of recoil pain in her bruised shoulder.

She consults frequently with her uncle, the judge, tossing him questions about court procedures, rules of evidence and the like. "The last explanation not only made perfect sense, " she wrote to him by email during the writing of "Dark Places, " "it really helped me refine this book, and steered me in the right direction."

And, last year, while working on "Gone Girl" (spoiler alert here): "It's a high-profile murder case; they've finally arrested the guy for killing his wife - is there any chance a judge would grant him bail?"

When Overland Park Police Detective Craig Enloe messaged a high-five to Flynn via Facebook, she turned around and picked his brain, too. "God bless him, " she said. "He answered a billion questions."

But Flynn is hardly a slave to research. Mostly she draws from a deep well of insight about the modern lives of men and women. She loves Westerns, she said, and in "Sharp Objects" she transferred the genre's foundation on male "cycles of violence" to explore how they worked among women. "It's usually not the same; it's not outright, it's more psychological. But I think it's much more damaging ultimately."

In "Gone Girl" she gets below the skin in ways that are both discomfiting and achingly real. One "Gone Girl" passage that caught social-network traction involved the notion of the Cool Girl:

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don't they? She's a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and ... sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she's hosting the world's biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want ...

Flynn also accents her stories with understated but devastating social comment, such as a freakish "Gone Girl" scene that takes place in a homeless squatter camp inside a vacant mall.

Like Nick and Amy Dunne, Flynn and Nolan reached their fifth anniversary just last weekend. (Judge Schieber married them at a big family event at the historic Longview Farm in southeast Kansas City.) As that milestone loomed, it was her husband who tossed out the idea that maybe, just maybe, if one of them would disappear on that day, "we could really move some books."

As Flynn put it: "It would be the greatest book tie-in ever."

Success has perks. Someone at General Motors read "Gone Girl" and liked it so much Flynn got a call one day asking if she'd like to drive a new Cadillac for a week. No strings.

"They dropped it off Wednesday, " Flynn said as she walked toward the shiny black XTS sedan on her way to a book-signing event. Its gold interior prompted a comment about Missouri Tigers colors and the irony that she was one of the few members of her sprawling family to go to KU. (Try to reach her uncle, Judge Schieber, on his cellphone and you'll be greeted by a jubilant rendition of the Tiger march.)

It was a pleasant, slightly chilly blue afternoon in the close-in suburb of Forest Park, where a small crowd of book people filled the storefront shop called Centuries and Sleuths to hear Flynn talk about her book and her life.

They asked the questions she usually gets, including the one that almost always comes up, a version of "That ending - what were you thinking?" Almost everyone who reads the book is startled and unsettled by its gauzy uncertainty. Flynn said she's a bit baffled by how divisive the subject has been.

"I think I stayed true to something the characters set up for themselves, " she told her audience. "And I hear from book clubs a lot how the ending always prompts another 20 minutes of discussion."

Someone tossed out a comparison to the darkly drawn serial killer novels of Patricia Highsmith, the British author of "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Given Flynn's books' literary ambitions, a reader of "Gone Girls" and the others also put them alongside 1992's "The Secret History, " the much-admired first novel by Donna Tartt, rather than a standard-issue mystery series or detective novel.

Maribeth McIntyre, one of the Chicagoans who'd asked her questions and lined up for autographs, chose "Gone Girl" for her seasonal book club in January.

"This is one of those things that's definitely not a formula book, " McIntyre said. "It's great."

Before leaving the store and driving her temporary Cadillac into an inexplicable suburban traffic jam, Flynn chatted a few minutes with her husband's uncle, Tom Nolan, and his wife. The talk, of course, turned to Flynn's son - his name is Flynn Nolan - who just recently turned 2. Flynn proudly tells them of a defining moment in his young life - and hers.

The first sentence he spoke aloud, she said, was "read books."

"There's nothing in the world he'd rather be doing."

Music to her ears. Like mother, like son.

Flynn is facing an end-of-the-year deadline to finish a first draft of the "Gone Girl" screenplay. "It's too long, and I'm trying to figure out what to cut."

What happens after that, she's not sure. Will the studio suits like it? Will it ever get made? Will the decks be cleared to start writing her next novel? Right now she owes her publisher two more books. And she has also agreed to write a book for young adults, a booming publishing niche, sometime down the road.

When one of her readers at the bookstore appearance asked what her next book would be, she replied the only way she could: "I'm sure it will be dark psychology. I'm not going to write about shopping and boys."

Beyond that project, she has high hopes that "Gone Girl" will see the silver screen sooner rather than later. And when it does, she already has a plan. She will take her father, the movie historian, to Hollywood for the premiere. Another precious family moment.

Said the nice girl who's not anything like a gone girl: "It'll be the best father-daughter date ever."

Excerpt: 'Dark Places'

I pushed a foot out from under my sheets, but couldn't bring myself to connect it to the floor. I am, I guess, depressed. I guess I've been depressed for about twenty-four years. I can feel a better version of me somewhere in there - hidden behind a liver or attached to a bit of spleen within my stunted, childish body - a Libby that's telling me to get up, do something, grow up, move on. But the meanness usually wins out. My brother slaughtered my family when I was seven. My mom, two sisters, gone: bang bang, chop chop, choke choke. I didn't really have to do anything after that, nothing was expected.

I inherited $321,374 when I turned eighteen, the result of all those well-wishers who'd read about my sad story, do-gooders whose hearts had gone out to me. Whenever I hear that phrase and I hear it a lot, I picture juicy doodle-hearts, complete with bird-wings, flapping toward one of my many crap-ass childhood homes, my little-girl self at the window, waving and grabbing each bright heart, green cash sprinkling down on me, thanks, thanks a ton! When I was still a kid, the donations were placed in a conservatively managed bank account, which, back in the day, saw a jump about every three-four years, when some magazine or news station ran an update on me. Little Libby's Brand New Day: The Lone Survivor of the Prairie Massacre Turns a Bittersweet 10. (Me in scruffy pigtails on the possum-pissed lawn outside my Aunt Diane's trailer. Diane's thick tree-calves, exposed by a rare skirt, planted in the yellow grass behind me.) Brave Baby Day's Sweet 16! (Me, still miniature, my face aglow with birthday candles, my shirt too tight over breasts that had gone D-cup that year, comic book sized on my tiny frame, ridiculous, porny.)

I'd lived off that cash for more than thirteen years, but it was almost gone.