After two previous novels, Gillian Flynn catapulted to fame with 2012’s bestselling "Gone Girl"; the movie, for which she wrote the screenplay, came out in 2014. The Kansas City native, who previously worked as a film and TV critic for Entertainment Weekly, now lives in Chicago with her husband and children.
While it seemed like everyone in the world was looking for "the next 'Gone Girl'" in the wake of her immense success, Flynn wrote a short story for George R.R. Martin instead. Previously published in Martin’s “Rogues” anthology under a different name (“What Do You Do?”), Flynn’s “The Grownup” is a ghost tale with a twist about a phony psychic enlisted to help a desperate suburbanite deal with her spooky old house and its effects on her sinister stepson — who isn’t quite what he seems. “The Grownup” won the 2015 Edgar Award for best short story from the Mystery Writers of America and debuts as a stand-alone book in hardcover today.
Flynn talked with Salon about her novel-in-progress, her screenplay collaboration with Steve McQueen, and her deliciously creepy new short story.
There’s a line in your new story, “The Grownup,” in which the unnamed main character, who grew up in a kind of grafter family, is working as a fortune teller, and gets sucked into a wealthy family’s drama, thinks to herself, “people are dumb. I’ll never get over how dumb people are.” Anyone who’s read your book “Gone Girl” knows you’re interested in the shifting nature of reality and reliability –
Someone called her an unreliable narrator, and she’s not that to me, she’s very honest.
She’s the only one in the whole book who tells the truth!
Exactly! She’s quite forthright. But she’s someone who, because she’s such an empath, can see through most people’s bullshit. And so she does think people are dumb, because most people have some sort of filter they’re using, or some sort of lie they’re telling themselves to get through the day. As she says, they need some sort of mythology about themselves or their situation in order to function. And so she preys on that. Like any good grifter, she looks down on anyone who falls for her shtick.
It reminded me of that Bob Dylan line, “to live outside the law you must be honest.” Like, she’s the con man but she’s the most honest person in the story, in a way.
She’s at least honest about who she is and what she wants. I find the older I get, the more surprised I am about how hesitant people are to say what they really want, what they really dream about, what really drives them. It’s as if sometimes we’re sort of embarrassed, as we get older, to be transparent about that. But you save so much time if you’re transparent about what you want. I think she’s the most honest person in the story about what she’s doing and who she is and what’s driving her.
So, I just read that you grew up in Kansas City – I grew up about an hour away – and it seems to me that maybe there’s something Midwestern in that.
I just think – the Midwest, if you grow up there, you’re deathly afraid of putting on airs. Any time a Midwesterner criticizes someone, it’s usually involving some form of being too big for your britches. That inherent sort of attention to modesty makes one very frank, because you don’t tend to try to create a massive persona or have personality as a performance art. You’re just kind of raised to be who you are.
Yeah, whenever I compliment my dad on his shirt his immediate response is to tell me how little he paid for it: “This was $20 at Kohls!”
That’s really funny. At my wedding, I had bought just a dress off the rack, a really pretty white dress, but it cost $108, I remember. And everyone was like, “Your dress is so beautiful,” and I was like, “$108!” I did that the entire reception and people were like, “OK …”
People have made mention of you in interviews that you seem like such a normal, nice person, which is a very Midwestern thing to be, but then it’s sort of shocking that such a nice, normal person would write so adeptly about violence, particularly such twisted, sick forms of violence, not only physical but also psychological. Where did that come from?
I think I was always interested in the darker stories for whatever reason. I had a very safe childhood, so that let me venture over to the other side. I also think people either want to look under the rock or don’t want to look under the rock; I was always the one who wanted to look under the rock. I love a good worst-case scenario. My brain just kind of works that way. I like that idea of how much a person can get away with, and why.
Did you like ghost stories, scary stories, when you were a kid?
Always. I remember reading Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and loving that. And Daphne du Maurier – I remember reading “Don’t Look Now” from an early age. I always loved ghost stories and haunted house stories, whether they were done in a fantasy way or done in a realistic way.
There’s also a lot of sex in your work. Obviously the sex in “Gone Girl” is really twisted, and the new story begins with a line about being good at giving hand jobs. Are people surprised that you write about this stuff? Are you surprised?
I don’t sit down and think, now I’m going to write a sex scene. I think if I actually thought about what I was doing, I would probably censor myself more. The hand job thing was mostly just my fascination with the multitude of psychic reader, tarot card reader storefronts around Chicago. I never see anyone go in or go out, so I just made up my own story about what was going on in one. I thought it was a more reliable way to make money, perhaps.
Did you do any research? Did you go into any of these shops?
Not at all. For me, I do as little research as I can get away with. I would rather just tell a story. The more you learn the more hemmed in you get.
The hand job is just a mechanism in the story. She gets carpal tunnel from doing too many hand jobs. So that’s what forces her to start working as a fortune teller, seeing auras.
That brings up the story’s class aspect, because the women she meets as a fortune teller, most of their clients, in fact, are upper-middle-class. How important was that for you in setting up the story?
Class differences always interest me. I think they’re in every single one of my books. That idea of getting from one tier to another, how hard it is in America right now – I tend to be fairly fond of outsiders, in whatever form they take.
So at the end of the book there’s a tantalizing acknowledgment, in which you thank the writer George R.R. Martin, and say he asked you to tell him a story. Can you tell us more about that?
I had met him a few times at different author things. I remember that was the first time where I felt the real wave of “Gone Girl.” He was at this event I was at, and I went up to introduce myself, and he actually knew who I was! I am a total science fiction fantasy geek. I had read all his books before they became the TV series. I had always kind of hero-worshipped him. So he was putting together this anthology and he asked if I would write a story; at that time “Gone Girl” was still filming, I was saying no to everyone, but that one I couldn’t resist.
Your publisher put this story out as a hardcover single, which is really unusual. Do you think it’s to appease an audience that’s eager for your next novel?
I think largely it’s just to remind people that I’m still writing in some way!
I think it will pique a lot of curiosity. So are you working on the next novel?
Yeah, I’m starting it right now. I’m a slow writer. I kind of overwrite and then whittle it down from there. I’m hoping to be done by end of next year. My guess is a 2017 publication.
Is it a little scary to write after the enormous success of “Gone Girl”?
The short answer is yes. I so wish I had one I was working on when “Gone Girl” came out. It’s a little intimidating to think about sending another thing out there. You’re never, ever going to repeat that thing – it was its own weird lightning in a bottle kind of thing. My job is to never, ever try to replicate that, because that’s how you write a really bad novel. I think my main battle with the next one is to just do what has served me well so far, which is just write the kind of book I would read personally.
You also wrote the “Gone Girl” screenplay. And I hear you’re working on another one…
Yeah, I’m working right now with Steve McQueen, the director who did “12 Years a Slave.” He got in touch with me and wanted to do a heist film set in Chicago. It’s a heist film about four women who are the widows of these armed robbery guys: They all died pulling off a heist, and the widows get in touch with each other and decide that they’re going to pull off the heist. What I love about the whole concept is that it’s not remotely screwball – there’s absolutely nothing about, “Can these four wacky women possibly pull off this job, what with their fingernails and their periods!”
It won’t be like, “My boobs got in the way of my gun!”
Exactly! No running in high heels. These women are badasses trying to make a life for themselves. So far it’s been really, really fun. I do love the idea of writing a movie that has four big juicy roles for women, as opposed to the usual, which would have four big juicy roles for men and then a woman would come along on the side and be a girl or an object in jeopardy or whatever it is. I’m pretty excited about that.
Do you ever see yourself focusing more on screenplays than novels?
I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve worked with David twice now, Fincher, and Steve McQueen, and it’s largely because these are people whose work I respect so much. I love the collaboration of it. Since I spend so much of the time with the novel just by myself and in my head, just having a partner to bounce things off of, who you really respect and who nurtures you and involves you and excites you – it’s a really cool form of writing. But I think ultimately I’ll always go back to the novel writing, where I am the queen over every aspect of it, and don’t have to worry about budgets or casting or locations or any of those silly movie logistics.
I read that your new novel is not going to involve Nick and Amy, the main characters in “Gone Girl.” It’s not a sequel, it’s totally different. Do you think you’ll miss writing them?
No, I’ve had a nice good run with Nick and Amy! Between writing the book, and then talking about the book, and then doing the movie… I’m ready to let them retire to their weird creepy house and have their lives a little bit. I’m sure I’ll still think about them from time to time. When people ask if I’m going to do a sequel, I always say “never say never.” But it definitely won’t be the next one up. I feel like I need a break from their voices in my head.
Both “Gone Girl” and the new story, “The Grownup,” have these very sequel-friendly open endings. But also very creepy, sad endings. And yet the main character in “The Grownup” is this total optimist. At the end, she says, “I was either screwed or not screwed, so I chose to believe I wasn’t.”
I think grifters probably have to be inherently optimistic. You’re at least constantly in action. She’s always going to find an angle.