When Gillian Flynn learned in June that her new novel, Gone Girl, had debuted at number two on the New York Times bestseller list, it was not exactly a glamorous moment in publishing. “I was in Scottsdale by myself,” Flynn recalls. “I got the phone call while wading in the hotel pool.”
A second chance for a proper celebration came on the Fourth of July, when she found out at home in Chicago that her book had reached the top of the list. “We went out on the back porch—our neighbors are very fond of illegal fireworks, so we popped open champagne and watched,” she says.
Flynn experienced modest success with her first two novels, 2007’s deeply creepy Sharp Objects and 2009’s aptly named Dark Places. But Gone Girl is a bona fide phenomenon, selling 1.8 million copies to date and spending 20 consecutive weeks (so far) on the New York Times bestseller lists, including eight weeks in the number-one spot for hardcover fiction. It’s the word-of-mouth hit that book lovers everywhere have been reading, talking about and gushing over. For these reasons, BookPage has named Gone Girl the Breakout Book of the Year.
Flynn spoke to BookPage from her home in Chicago, still sounding slightly stunned by the book’s astonishing performance.
“I’m smart enough to acknowledge that I’m a good writer, but this is lightning in a bottle.”
“This one’s so different from the other two, just wildly different and incredibly unexpected,” she says. “I thought it would do incrementally better, like the first two. It was thrilling to see it take off like that.”
In Gone Girl we meet Nick and Amy, happy newlyweds living in New York. The inspiration for her parents’ popular series of children’s books, Amy has a healthy trust fund that partly supports their Manhattan life. Then they are both laid off from their magazine jobs, and her parents’ unwise investments drain Amy’s bank account. Nick and Amy move to Missouri to care for his sick mother and start over. After they settle in a gloomy subdivision filled with empty foreclosed homes, the cracks in their marriage quickly appear. Those cracks soon become gaping crevasses, and then Amy disappears, leaving Nick as the prime suspect. But is Amy the golden girl everyone thought she was, or is there something much darker there? And that’s really all you can say about this deliciously strange story without giving away too much.
It’s hard to pinpoint why Gone Girl has captured the popular imagination so thoroughly. It’s perhaps in part because America is still a place where we are most comfortable with women fitting the very specific role of selfless caretaker.
Flynn doesn’t write about that kind of woman.
“I really fight against the idea that we’re natural nurturers,” Flynn says. “It belittles us and our fight to be a good person.”
Flynn is warm and funny on the phone, a far cry from the deeply damaged heroines of her novels. It’s hard to understand how Flynn, who grew up in a happy two-parent home in Kansas City, Missouri, spins such wickedly eerie stories.
“It may be that’s why I’m able to go to those darker spots and always been attracted to that,” Flynn says. “My dad is a film professor and he loved to share movies, particularly with his daughter. I loved to watch horror movies, loved to wander around my house imagining things in the closets. I still remember Dad putting a tape in the big VCR and saying, ‘It’s time to watch Psycho.’”
It seems pretty inevitable, then, that after earning a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern, Flynn would become a writer for Entertainment Weekly. “We were charter subscribers,” she says of her family. “Entertainment Weekly was an iconic thing in our house.”
Flynn worked her way up to TV critic (for the record, she currently is watching “Parks and Recreation,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Homeland” and “30 Rock,” but maintains that the best TV series of all time is still “The Wire”). When the economy tanked and magazines had to trim budgets, Flynn was among those laid off.
“It gave me the freedom to walk around and feel sorry for myself for a few months,” Flynn says with a laugh. “I spent my days watching movies and playing video games.”
Dark Places came out just months later, though, and Flynn made the transition to full-time novelist. She writes in the “weird little basement area” of the old Victorian house in Chicago she shares with her husband, a lawyer and fellow pop culture junkie, and their toddler son.
Right now, her writing is focused on drafting the Gone Girl screenplay. Reese Witherspoon has signed on to produce and potentially star as Amy. (No word at press time on who will play the handsome but cagey Nick, although Internet opinion seems to lean toward Bradley Cooper or Ryan Gosling.)
With so much of the novel taking place inside Amy’s and Nick’s heads, writing a screenplay is a unique challenge. “I’m trying to find a way to externalize that dialogue,” Flynn says. “I think of Trainspotting, Fight Club and Election—I can’t imagine those without voiceover.”
Once the screenplay is delivered and the publicity for Gone Girl is done, Flynn will have to focus on her next book. She admits to feeling the pressure of what she calls her own “Greek chorus” to produce another runaway bestseller, but tries to focus on the work rather than the result.
“I’m smart enough to acknowledge that I’m a good writer, but this is lightning in a bottle,” she says. “You just do the good work and write what you want to write.”