April 2007

Michael Carlson

features

An Interview with Gillian Flynn

I met Gillian Flynn in the lobby of London's Connaught Hotel. She's been there awhile, not in the sense that she's been waiting for me, but that she's come a few days early for her U.K. publicity tour and made her base this very English setting between Grosvenor and Berkeley Squares. It couldn't have been more different than the motel where her character Camille Preaker winds up in Sharp Objects, which Stephen King called "a terrific debut novel," and, in this case, that isn't just a blurb-o-matic talking. It is a terrific debut novel, for reasons you'll see as I ask my questions and try not to give too many spoilers away.

Flynn has the pale complexion of what used to be called an English Rose, though one can not be sure whether that's from acclimation to the climate, or her Irish heritage, or perhaps the fact that her day job as television critic for Entertainment Weekly means she spends far too much time indoors. I confess I looked for any tell-tale signs of psychological disturbance; read the novel and you'll see why. Rather than admit that, I complimented her on the short book reviews she also does for EW. Being concise and still conveying the nature of the book is a difficult task. She's obviously familiar with genre fiction, so the first question seems almost automatic...


What drew you to the thriller format?

Well, I always was a fan of the mystery. I'd read Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, but I saw this book as being less a mystery and more a psychological book, and I wanted to see if I could write it. I had a character who was a cutter, who was alcoholic, who had a toxic relationship with her mother, and I played around with psychological realism, then with pieces of the story like the town surrounded by woods, the missing children. It's America's fascination with milk cartons, and the children's pictures on them. I'd intended it to be dark, but you should've seen the original draft, it was much darker!

There are those almost hallucinogenic elements of fairy tale about the darkness...

I always loved the Brothers Grimm -- the child baked into a pie, the bad things that can happen even to good little girls. Children can be, are, vicious, and the part I loved was always the children in jeopardy.

Camille's a very "child in jeopardy" kind of name.

Exactly. And at times she behaves very much like a child in a fairy tale.

Or babysitter in a horror movie.

They're the same thing, aren't they?

And other characters, with names like Adora, or Amma? They sound like Tennessee Williams or Carson McCullers. Were you drawing intentionally on Southern gothic?

More like Ozark gothic noir! That region where the book is set, the Missouri/Arkansas border, is a very specific kind of culture, and the coasts are unaware of it for the most part. And there's a difference in eras, too, between the one Camille grew up in and the one Amma does. Kids send a very different sexual message now, which makes the whole disappearance issue more dangerous, and more ambiguous.

Is that where you're from?

No, I grew up in Kansas City, and no, my mom and dad were really good, we were a happy family.

And is American life an endless repetition of high school?

Oh yes, absolutely! That's what I really wanted to focus on -- those cycles of nastiness, the hierarchy no one ever really grows out of. When Camille has "tea" with her old friends, it all comes back, the three levels of friends, the leaders and their toadies, the hangers-on, the whole bit.

Camille is a very daring kind of main character. She's got her problems, you want to like her, but she makes it very difficult to. Then there's that tremendous scene with the teenage boy, John, which puts all her fumblings with the cop, Richard, into perspective. You get the feeling she can't handle the threat of an adult, that she's afraid she's being used, or using.

How sad they are... how few skills she's been taught, and that was what I was hoping would come through. She can't deal with being sad, or being angry. She drinks, and she needs to.

And of course, she's a cutter...

My real aim was to question how you grow up in an environment that is wrong, but you don't know what to do about it. You're a kid after all, and then maybe it's too late. So the fact that she would cut herself just seemed natural. I did research, but I didn't want it too feel too gimmick, to be a book about a "girl with a disease."

That theme, and the question of "Munchausen's By Proxy," they're extremely relevant, Oprah-ish issues today.

I was very aware of that, especially the risks, because the media is so used to assuming all these stories are true, they're memoirs! I did the basic research and then stopped because I didn't want to feel like a psychological essay. But of course people are always looking at my sleeves, trying to see the edges of the scars that aren't there.

You should use some red ink on your arm before interviews.

My mother's come to bookstores when I've read, and I'm always asked if Camille is me. No, thank you. And my mother will make threatening gestures from the back in case I answer incorrectly!

Of course your "day job" is as a TV critic for Entertainment Weekly. Do you watch a lot of daytime TV (purely for research purposes)?

I watch a lot of TV period, mostly to my own detriment. It's the blessing or curse of working at home: I keep my PJs on and watch TV. It's fun to review when it's something that's really bad or really good, so much of it is just in that in-between.

Speaking of critics, Stephen King gave you a great (and accurate) blurb / review. He compared you to John Farris. Did you know Farris' work?

No, but I looked. I saw his dark family stuff. I guess it's got that gothic element to it.

To me, one of the most daring parts of the book is the way Camille cuts words into her body. It's a book about words.

I thought I might have to scratch that, because self-cutting usually doesn't take that form.

But it works so well, it's not just a literary conceit.

Thanks for saying so.

And it is self-injurious behavior, and those cutting scenes are written so well...

It is addictive, that's one of the first things you realize, so I wanted to make the scenes feel like someone suffering from an addiction, my writing got thick, wet and quick.

I thought the ending of the book was nice, a good second twist after Camille returns to Chicago, but it felt rushed.

That's funny. Originally there were another 30 pages or so, establishing her life in Chicago, but my editor thought that was merely emphasizing the point that there would be a twist coming, telegraphing it, so I cut it down.

What's next? A sequel?

My friends all want me to write one, to make sure Camille's okay! But I just don't understand how people write series with the same character. You must have to want to spend time with them. Camille's nice, but she's way too dark to spend that much time with. No, my next is going to be a literary psychological mystery -- basically one with its roots in tabloids, a splashy murder trial from the 1980s which resurfaces and causes difficulties for someone who was a child witness at the time. I can't really say any more about it now.

Sounds fascinating... perfect for daytime television chats...

I hope so, because it means the book will be doing well.