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‘Gone Girl’ puts Chicago author Gillian Flynn in the thriller elite

Gillian Flynn is interviewed Innertown Pub Chicago for story about her latest novel Thursday July 12 2012. | Richard A.

Gillian Flynn is interviewed at the Innertown Pub in Chicago for a story about her latest novel on Thursday, July 12, 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 18, 2012 6:07AM

With his corner-mounted flat-screen blaring on a recent late afternoon, Todd the tattooed bartender already had mumbled several “Jeopardy!” question-answers — “What is oceanography?”; “Who is Jane Fonda?” — before best-selling Chicago author Gillian Flynn entered the cool and dimly lit Inner Town Pub in Ukrainian Village. ¶ A favorite hangout of hers in the neighborhood she has called home since 2007, the character-rife tavern merits mention in the acknowledgements of her latest and, many claim, greatest book, Gone Girl.

Currently perched atop the New York Times hardcover fiction list — well above the latest offerings from such mainstays as John Grisham and George R.R. Martin — it has drawn broad critical acclaim and put Flynn in the literary spotlight like never before.

An erstwhile resident of nearby Wicker Park, the Missouri-born former Medill graduate student and Entertainment Weekly film-television scribe (she was laid off in 2008) now shares an old Victorian home with her lawyer husband Brett Nolan, 2-year-old son Flynn, an outsized black cat named Roy and a dual Ms. Pac Man-Galaga video arcade machine.

A birthday gift from Nolan, the classic console sits in her subterranean office-lair and provides welcome respites from sweating the details — often literally, especially when creative juices are gushing forth — of her tortuous and deeply dark thrillers.

Flynn’s third novel, Gone Girl emerged from its basement birthplace last August and was published in June. Although a number of reader reviews on and slam its ending and characters, among other things, the book’s most ardent admirers — and there are scads of them — proclaim it nothing less than masterful.

To date, according to Nielsen BookScan, Flynn’s intricate tale of a marriage gone horribly awry has sold well over 100,000 copies. And late last week, movie rights went to 20th Century Fox for a reported seven figures, with actress Reese Witherspoon attached in a producing role. While Flynn’s previous two works — Dark Places and Sharp Objects — also are in various stages of film production, this time she’ll write the screenplay.

Whether it does boffo box office, fizzles during opening weekend or even survives the notoriously sink-holed journey from page to screen is unpredictable at this early stage. Still, it’s a heady, head-spinning time considering Flynn, 41, initially tried her hand at fiction simply “to see if I could.”


Flynn said penning Gone Girl was “trickier” than usual because she no longer had her magazine gig and its ever-looming deadlines to force a certain order upon her life.

“If you know you have your day job and you have to write at night, then you make yourself write at night or on the weekends or whatever,” she said between sips of light draft beer. “And for a while I felt sort of at loose ends, like, ‘What do I do with this extra time?’

“I think I overwrote the book a little bit,” she went on. “I second-guessed myself in a way I probably wouldn’t have [before] because I wouldn’t have had time to with Sharp Objects and Dark Places. I would really agonize over scenes.”

With the birth of her son came the death of structure-less days — of writing (or not writing) whenever the urge struck or didn’t strike.

“Time was of value again,” she said with a laugh.

When it came to eyeballing Gone Girl during its genesis, Flynn’s former EW colleague Scott Brown (now New York magazine’s theater critic) offered numerous insights. And he isn’t surprised by her literary stardom.

“Gillian’s talents were obvious from the start to anyone who knew her and read her,” Brown wrote in an e-mail. “We took a writing class together once, and the instructor told me, privately, ‘With her, it’s not a matter of if but when.’ ”

Flynn’s spouse, a voracious reader, was a top-notch sounding board as well.

But even with their keen commentary, not all of which was easy to swallow, the book proved challenging from start to finish.

“I don’t remember any part of it coming easily to me,” Flynn said. “I kind of had writer’s block the whole way through.”

She and her agent sold it on a specific premise, but Flynn “had no clue” how major chunks of the story ultimately would pan out.

“I knew I wanted to delve into marriage in general,” she said. “Sharp Objects and Dark Places dealt with unattached people. I’d thoroughly explored dysfunctional loneliness and isolation and the inability to make connections, and I kind of wanted to get into the opposite — what happens when you choose to yoke yourself to another human being and those attendant issues.”

As Flynn and Nolan near their fifth wedding anniversary, she said her fascination with matrimony might well have been spurred in part by their real-life union. But Gone Girl’s unique breed of blackness is entirely a product of Flynn’s exquisitely warped noodle.

Her female protagonists are particularly rattling.

“I don’t think there are enough really scary women in fiction,” said this creator of really scary fictional women. “I think there are over-the-top, campy, soap-opera-y villainesses who are very dismissible. And there are the cuckoo-crazy women who are also very dismissible. And what I like to write about is women who are really scary in a not-dismissible way.”


More than ever, Flynn herself cannot be dismissed. Calling Gone Girl the author’s “dazzling breakthrough,” Times reviewer Janet Maslin made that abundantly clear.

Grateful for the plaudits (lovers, it appears, far outnumber haters), Flynn said she is trying to savor the moment and remind herself that literary success on any level is a capricious thing. And so, after chalking up a huge win that keeps getting winning-er, she already has begun to manage her expectations for whatever comes next.

“Between Sharp Objects and Dark Places,” she said, “I had a moment where I was really scared: ‘Oh, my God. What if I can only write this one book?’ And between Dark Places and Gone Girl it was like, ‘Can I do this for a living?’ ”

Despite the resounding “yes” she got in reply, Flynn remains true to her Midwestern roots. That is to say realistic. This is “a very lucky time,” she reminds herself, “that’s probably not going to happen again.”

Of course, in life as in Flynn’s twist-filled stories, one never really knows.

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