A Conversation with Gillian Flynn

The author discusses the decadence of literary adaptation and how Red Bull is helping her tackle the myriad projects she's working on now.

Set to debut as a thrilling new HBO limited series airing on July 8 from the masterful Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects brings us to the edge of our seats in the most satisfying of ways, delving deep into the darker side of life and its hauntingly traumatic echoes.

Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, reporter Camille Preaker faces a troubling assignment: she must return to her tiny hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls. For years, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows, a beautiful 13-year-old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed in her old bedroom in her family’s Victorian mansion, Camille finds herself identifying with the young victims—a bit too strongly. Dogged by her own demons, she must unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past if she wants to get the story, and survive this homecoming.

Recently, Gillian spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright about the experience of seeing her work adapted to screens of all stripes, what it means to be a hero, and how she can’t stop dancing to Bruno Mars.

Read It Forward: Thanks for talking with us, Gillian! I’m so excited for Sharp Objects on HBO.

Gillian Flynn: Me, too.

RIF: You’ve seen almost all of your books get adapted for the screen, big or small. What’s the adaptation process like for you?

GF: It’s been different with each one. This one, I’ve been very involved with, as with Gone Girl. I was in the writer’s room all one summer, which was completely its own trip. It was the most fun to get to see the book broken apart very lovingly and put back together again. It’s made into eight different episodes, and it was so decadent to see it able to have all that room. You can see certain characters who really bloom and become larger and take on more back character, and you see Curry’s home life much more. He’s always been one of my favorites, so that was really fun. It was just a really fun experience.

RIF: Is having Sharp Objects adapted for an HBO limited series different than watching Gone Girl and Dark Places go to the big screen, in a big three-hour chunk?

GF: Certainly, it just is kind of different. It has the larger room, and it’s the exact same thing having that space and room means—that decadence of not having to figure out what to cut, so being able to put it all in, and more. It was the first book I wrote and the last one to reach the screen, so it was wild to revisit these big characters I hadn’t seen in so long. It really was like visiting old friends and seeing them come to life in a way.

RIF: Going off of that, what was it like having your third book, Gone Girl, absolutely explode, and then watch readers who hadn’t yet read Sharp Objects or Dark Places find your earlier work? Did it feel out of order, or really satisfying that readers couldn’t get enough?

GF: No, it was totally satisfying. It was vindicating, I would say is the best word for it. Vindicating because I knew those books were really good. I really completely believed in those books, so it didn’t feel like a cheat to me in any way. It didn’t feel like these books that were first tries, but not that great, are getting sold. I really thought those books are great, in and of themselves, and for whatever reason hadn’t been discovered yet. So, to me, it was just vindicating. They were the lost children, so I liked that they were found.

RIF: From a reader’s point of view, there’s absolutely nothing better than reading something you can’t get enough of and realizing, “Oh my god, the author’s written more. There’s more out there for me to discover!”

GF: Isn’t it? That’s so true. I remember doing that with Hilary Mantel, who wrote Bring Up the Bodies. I’m like, “Ooh, there’s more?”

RIF: Clear my calendar; I can’t do anything else. One thing I love about your writing is how beautifully and realistically flawed your main characters are. What do you love about Camille? Do you find her relatable?

GF: Oh, to me, she’s completely relatable. I just love her so much. I love how strong she is because I think anyone who’s that beset by demons and doesn’t give in is a complete hero and a warrior. People might say she’s weak or view her as weak because she does have demons, because she does drink, because she is a cutter, but to me, she’s someone who has gone through so much. Sometimes you’re a hero when you keep your head above water and don’t succumb. She’s still battling, getting through the day, figuring out how to do her job and trying to figure out why she is the way she is, what happened to her, to her family, and to this town.

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RIF: She’s so brave. What was it like seeing Amy Adams play her?

GF: It was lovely. She was so completely committed to that character. She loved her in the same way I did. She didn’t pity her, you know, but she understood her and had compassion for her. She believed she was brave in the same way I did. I didn’t have to ever explain her to Amy, which I appreciated about Amy. She’s such a lovely human being in general, and I really appreciated that she slipped into the role of Camille so seamlessly and went to all those dark places without any hesitation. You see her in ways you’ve never seen her before.

RIF: Oh, I can’t wait. When you’re writing a sinister character, how do you go to those dark places? How do you put yourself in the character’s shoes, and then when you’re done writing for the day, how easy is it to shake it off?

GF: Unfortunately, I can slip into dark places fairly easily, so that’s not too much of a problem. I can will myself into that place pretty quickly. But I’m a deep empath, so I’ve always been kind of a skin-shifter in a way. I can get into most people’s heads; it’s getting back out that’s a little trickier. If I’ve had a long day of being in someone’s head, that does stay with me. It used to be much harder to get out easily just because at first, I didn’t realize it was staying with me.

RIF: Mm-hmm. 

GF: I thought it sounded just too author-y to say, “Oh, this character clings to me,” it just seemed too darling. So I didn’t even admit that was happening. I’d be like, “Ah, I do my job and then I quit and it’s done,” and so I didn’t quite admit that was happening or acknowledge it. My husband started pointing it out after we got married. He realized that was a thing, and so I realized I just need to take a moment. It takes 15 minutes to decompress before I come up from my little underground lair at the end of the day and shake it off and do something happy. My agent and good friend made me a little plaque that sits on my desk that says Keep the Crazies Downstairs. That’s always a good reminder.

RIF: Yeah, exactly.

GF: And then I’ll just put on something fun to listen to that makes me happy. For a long time, it was Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk.” I would just put on that video. I get addicted to one thing or another for months at a time. There’ll be old-time dance musical numbers, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It doesn’t take too much to remind myself to click it off.

RIF: It’s like those de-pressurizing chambers that astronauts walk through! One of the things you do so well is the pacing of your stories. You make them suspenseful enough so readers can’t stop turning the pages, but often they have this slow burn; they give a sense that something’s off. How do you do that, and how do you know when you’re getting your pacing right?

GF: You know, with that part I have no idea. But I read through it a lot, and I’m a fan of good old-fashioned cliffhangers. I grew up with a dad who was a film professor, and he showed me old-time serials that were great about that. Steven Spielberg will talk about that, too, growing up with that kind of thing, constantly building and keeping that suspense, and that there’s no shame in making people stay interested.

I feel like there are a lot of literary writers who worry about being entertaining, which I find hilarious and sad. To me, you can say very deep things and be entertaining at the same time. And that’s always my goal. If I can say things about feminism and marriage and economic disparity and female rage, and still tie it all up in an entertaining package that people will actually read, want to read, and talk about—that’s always my goal. Make people want to keep turning the pages and keep reading.

I have a very small group of readers who I trust, and I keep it very small. I don’t like a lot of cooks in the kitchen. I tell them read through this, and one of the big things I ask them to do is to just tell me when they’re bored, and if I’m going on about something too long, or waxing on about something, and they don’t want to turn the pages anymore. There’s no harm in keeping people entertained while you’re saying something worthwhile.

RIF: Exactly.

GF: So that’s always my goal.

RIF: What are you working on now?

GF: I’m double working; there’s a lot of hustle in my house right now. Red Bull and 5-Hour Energy are in every corner. I’m finishing a book, my next book.

RIF: Woohoo!

GF: That’s a first draft situation, and I also have a TV series for Amazon where all of my scripts are done, and we’re getting ready to go into production this fall. That’s called Utopia. I wrote every episode myself and created it, and I’m showrunning it. It’s my own baby, so it’s very fun.

I’m sure it’s shocking that my novel is kind of a dark, psychotic thriller. It’s about a group of women. I’m trying not to talk too much because it’s in a weird stage at the moment, but it was in the wake of Trump being elected. And Utopia is a conspiracy thriller set around comic book nerds who come across the ultimate graphic novel that may be predicting the end of the world—another light little frolic! It’s a fun, kind of ’70s, paranoia thriller that’s going to feel very current right now in this political climate.

Author Photo: Heidi Jo Brady

GILLIAN FLYNN is the author of the runaway hit Gone Girl, an international sensation that has spent more than 95 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Her work has been published in 40 languages. Gone Girl is a major motion picture from Twentieth Century-Fox. Flynn’s previous novels, Dark Places and Dagger Award-winner Sharp Objects were also New York Times bestsellers. A former writer and critic for Entertainment Weekly, she lives in Chicago with her husband and children.

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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