Gillian Flynn wrote one of my favorite novels, Sharp Objects, which won a slew of awards, sold in 22 countries and is optioned by Pathe Films (Slumdog Millionaire). Second novels are always proving grounds, but Flynn's second, Dark Places, is even better than her fantastic first. About a childhood murder, a clandestine society obsessed with notorious crimes, and the secrets we hide from ourselves, Dark Places is unsettling and brilliant.
Of course I had to pepper Gillian with questions, and she was gracious enough to respond.
Did you always write? And was it always dark? What I love about your work is that there is a kind of glee in the wickedness that reminds me of certain fairy tales (we all love the part of the story when the witch thrusts the kids into her oven, right?) You have said in interviews that you're from a happy family, so where does that dark, slicing edge come from?
I always wrote. My first short story was inspired by my third-grade obsession with the Little House on the Prairie series. It was called, quite romantically, "To the Outhouse" and it was about a pioneer girl trying to make it to the potty before a pack of wolves got her. I think the wolves got her, if I remember correctly.
And ah, yes, fairy tales! From the time I could read, I loved Brothers Grimm--the dark, unedited meaty Brothers Grimm. Maybe because I was from a fairly normal, cheery family I craved contrast. I was always most interested in the villains of those stories. Why root for the pretty, loving princess--she has enough people on her side! It's the evil crone I wanted to know more about. What makes a woman want to bake kids into pies? Or turn young maidens into songbirds? Why is she all alone? Was she born evil, or did she have some heartbreak? Why? Why? Why? I guess I was born with an affinity for villains. When I was a child, I never wanted to play the princess. I wanted to play the witch.
What was your research process like for Dark Places? Do you have trouble with people assuming you are your characters?
People definitely assume I'm like my characters--I think they're both relieved and disappointed when they meet me and I don't attack them with a switchblade or guzzle all their liquor (though I wouldn't turn down a nice bourbon if offered.) My research for Dark Places was mostly mental: I put myself in the mind of Libby--a woman who survived the slaughter of her family and became famous for it as a child. I put myself in the mind of Ben--a fatherless 15-year-old kid who wants to be a man, but settles for the aggression he assumes is manly. And I put myself in the mind of Patty--a mother of four struggling with a failing farm and an equally faltering family. I wandered around the house, talking to myself in each of their voices, playing music I thought each would listen to, even putting on grungy jeans and a ball cap when I was trying to get into Ben. It's all quite strange and creepy, but it works for me.
As for the more technical research, I read a lot about the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and the farm bust of that same period. I drove all over Kansas and Missouri, where I'm from originally, to get back into the feel of the terrain. I spent a day on a friend's farm in Missouri, so I could see what farmers really did, day to day. How a calf moves in mud, the sound of a tractor, the feel of milo pellets. All these things I'd never experienced firsthand
You're a TV critic for Entertainment Weekly. Does watching so much TV (good and bad) impact your novel writing at all? Structurally and subject-wise?
I'm not with EW any more. I'm writing my third book and working on the screenplay for the film adaptation for Sharp Objects, which is quite a scary and cool new challenge. But all that TV? It definitely helped. It helped to spend years thinking, Why is this show good, why is this just OK, why is this bad, and to pinpoint, for me, what worked and didn't. It makes me a bit tougher and more exacting with my own stuff. As I write, my own little critic sits on my shoulder and says, "Wow, that scene was really awful. Flynn-critic, you would give that scene a D!" And I grudgingly rewrite.
Dark Places revolves around a terrible series of murders and a little girl who testifies that her brother was the killer. She's later contacted by a secret society obsessed with notorious crimes. So, I have to ask. Are there societies like that? Did you speak with any?
I have no idea if there are. I know there are true-crime obsessives and I will admit to being one of them (I can talk Fatal Vision with you all day long.) The idea for the Kill Club came from the fact that large groups of people, largely through the Internet, can now play detective in famous murder cases, and form a real social community around these gruesome events. I took it one step further. What would it look like if they all got together at an actual convention? The idea of role players of famous murders comes from my own nerdy fondness of sci-fi conventions and RenFests. I love fests and cons!
Structurally, Dark Place is brilliantly done, which makes me want to ask you about your process.
I go where the computer takes me. So far, I haven't know the endings to either of my mysteries. The person I think will be the murderer turns out to be a bit player, a bit player becomes more and more interesting to me and becomes the murderer. With Dark Places, it was Libby who surprised me most of all. I started out writing her as a peppy, proactive church-going sweetie-pie and it obviously didn't work in the least. I was writing the character I thought I wanted to write, not the character I should be writing (who comes out of the triple murder of her family and is peppy?) So I literally trashed about half the book and started from scratch and wrote Libby how she needed (wanted) to be written.