Gone Girl author Flynn on the Lake Michigan waterfront near Chicago’s Lincoln Park
Photograph by Daniel Shea for TIME
By Lev Grossman
September 25, 2014

Gillian Flynn wrote her first short story when she was in third grade. It was called “To the Outhouse,” and it was inspired by a one-room cabin that her family owned in southern Missouri. (She grew up in Missouri and pronounces the last syllable of that state uh rather than ee.) The cabin had an outhouse. Flynn wasn’t very fond of it. “I had a little phobia about it,” she says. “So I wrote about a little pioneer girl who went to the outhouse in the middle of the night, and it was surrounded by wolves. She spends the story thinking about how much she loves her family, and she’s got to get back to them and help work the farm, and then she bursts forth from the outhouse and is immediately torn apart and devoured by the wolves. The end!” This is followed by peals of anarchic laughter.

Flynn is the author of Gone Girl, which has sold 8.5 million copies since it was published in 2012. Although she’s come a long way from “To the Outhouse,” you can definitely pick up affinities with her adult work: the apparently safe, domestic setting, coupled with a willingness, even an eagerness, to depict difficult, violent realities. A film version of Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, will open Oct. 3. “What has always scared me is the danger close to home,” Flynn says over Diet Cokes in Chicago, where she now lives. “I’ve never been that scared of the serial-killer genre, that kind of thing. I like Rear Window, Hitchcock, the phone call’s coming from inside the house–that sense that the people you’re supposed to trust are the very people you should be keeping an eye on.”

Gone Girl is an acid-etched portrait of an apparently serene marriage that harbors dark secrets. Its combination of compulsive readability and frank truth telling have made it one of the essential books of our present cultural moment. The husband and wife, Nick and Amy, each discover that the person they share a bed with isn’t the person they thought they married at all. Crimes are committed and blood is spilled, but most of the carnage is psychological, and Flynn’s depiction of that is graphic, brutal and precise. Gone Girl is a murder mystery in which murder is almost beside the point. The real crime is the marriage.

In person Flynn isn’t a particularly sinister presence. At 43 she’s a self-described “recovering shy person,” with a manner that combines Midwestern good humor with a helpless inability to resist a slightly twisted one-liner. She had, to all appearances, a happy childhood. Both her parents were college professors–her father’s specialty is film, and she was named after a character in Bell, Book and Candle, a 1958 movie in which Kim Novak plays a witch named Gillian who casts a love spell on Jimmy Stewart. The witch’s name is pronounced with a hard G, rather than the conventional soft J, which resulted in Flynn’s getting called “Gilligan” a lot in elementary school.

Flynn always wanted to write for a living, and she spent 10 years as a journalist for ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. While working there she wrote her first novel, Sharp Objects, on nights and weekends. It was a mystery, though she didn’t realize that at first–all she knew was that she wanted to write about women and violence. “I feel like there are so many novels about male violence, male aggression, and there’s not that much out there about how women psychologically approach it,” she says. Her breakthrough came when she brought a copy of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River home from work. “I can put a book down very easily, but I stayed up all night with that one. I went to work in the morning and I was like, That’s what I’ll do. I can attach it to some sort of whodunit, some sort of crime. That’s going to give me the discipline and the engine to move this thing.”

It did, and that remains her modus operandi: using an escapist genre to confront dark realities. She followed Sharp Objects with another mystery, Dark Places, but Gone Girl was the book that made her famous, though at the time it felt like a risk. It’s a tricky, intricate novel, full of secret doors and hidden compartments. It’s not a conventional mystery or thriller. It doesn’t begin with a murder, and it doesn’t end with a big reveal–that comes in the middle. “We thought it might be too much of a genre for people who didn’t like genre,” she remembers, “and not enough of a genre for people who did like it. It’s going to fall in the crack in the middle, and no one’s really going to read it.” But they did read it. Gone Girl debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list, and it stayed on it for the next 91 weeks. It became the book of the summer and then of the year.

Gone Girl got at an essential truth about the limits of intimacy: however close you get, you can never know everything about your partner. There’s always that secret increment, a black box with God knows what inside it. What if there were a whole secret life in there? A whole alternate personality? Gone Girl became a way for people to think and talk about relationships, but its resonance went beyond that. In the age of social media, we are all more than ever invested in creating and maintaining fictional personas for others to consume. That ongoing fraud is part of how we live now.

Even people who didn’t love Gone Girl had strong feelings about it. “I’ve certainly been called a misogynist,” Flynn says, “and that to me is strange. It feels so old-fashioned to think because you write about awful women that you don’t like women. To me it’s worse to only write about good women. I’m tired of women as the supporting character, women as the helpmate, women as the adorably flawed heroine–she can be front and center, but only if she falls down a lot and has trouble with men.” Flynn’s women don’t always use their powers for good, but you can’t deny that they’re empowered.

It would be natural to assume that Flynn’s own marriage must be a private, unending frozen hell, but that doesn’t appear to be the case at all. Her husband is a lawyer. Their first child was born while she was writing Gone Girl, and they had a second this summer. If Flynn has a dark domestic secret, it’s probably that she’s something of a power nerd. Her basement is full of old arcade games: Joust, Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man, Dig Dug and her favorite, Elevator Action. She’s been known to put on period dress and go to Renaissance festivals. “That time period really always appealed to me–jousts and knights and things. I haven’t gone into full LARP [live-action role playing] mode yet, but I’m reserving the right to do that at some point,” she says.

Hollywood Calling

Reese Witherspoon’s production company bought the rights to Gone Girl in 2012, and Fincher came on board in 2013. It was a good match. “My big fear was that it could turn quite easily into a straight procedural,” Flynn says. “Fincher was just the opposite. He wanted that marriage, he wanted that warfare to be captured onscreen.” Fincher is no stranger to movies about murder, but he zeroed in on the intricate interpersonal dynamics of the story. “What was important to me was this idea that we create these narcissistic projections of ourselves,” he says, “and use them to great effect in seducing the people that we wish to see ourselves with, and that we sometimes lose track of the fact that that may be being reciprocated. What happens when one or more of the parties that enter into this agreement decides they can’t keep up the facade? I thought that that was a profound and modern idea.”

Fincher and Flynn are a good match too. She wrote the screenplay for Gone Girl, which is unusual: usually that’s handed off to an experienced screenwriter. When Fincher read her take, he invited her to meet in Los Angeles. Flynn, the recovering shy person, was nervous. “David can get very still, he’s very watchful, and at one point I was talking about Amy and the difference between her and other women, and I was like, ‘Ultimately, Amy’s never going to let a man'”–and here she describes in explicit language an act of sexual domination. “And I remember he was silent for a second and then said, ‘Exactly!'” (It’s interesting to compare Fincher’s memory of that meeting, which features a much more reserved Flynn: “She didn’t say very much. She’s a little inscrutable. I think that she laughed a couple of times.”)

They agreed right away that Affleck should play Nick, if they could get him, which they could. Casting Amy was a different story. They needed somebody who was both compelling to watch and impossible to read. Fincher had seen Pike in An Education and Pride & Prejudice. (You may also remember her as Bond girl Miranda Frost in Die Another Day.) “As somebody who prides himself on being able to see an actor’s toolkit,” Fincher says, “I was shocked that I didn’t have any take on her. I realized as I was talking about Rosamund that I didn’t know what she was.” That inscrutability got her the part.

Once production began, Flynn sat in on rehearsals to tweak dialogue and make sure the story kept its edge. “What I like about Gone Girl is those weird moments where you’re not sure if you’re supposed to laugh or not–where it’s like, ‘Am I a bad person if I’m laughing here?'” Flynn says. “We talked a lot about how we wanted to keep those moments.” The collaboration between Fincher and Flynn went so well that they’re about to work together again. Their next project is an adaptation for HBO of the British series Utopia.

But she’s also mulling a new novel. It’s still in the early stages, but she describes it as having the feel of Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, a book she rereads about once a year. “It’s dark, and it has to do with murder, but it’s much more,” she says. “I want it to feel like a big American folkloric tale of murder, but not necessarily with any sort of a whodunit element.” Success and parenthood don’t appear to have softened her uniquely dark sensibility in the slightest. Outside the outhouse, the wolves are still waiting. “Let’s put it this way,” she says. “I would like to think that I could still kill children in my books. The angel on my shoulder says I can still do it.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the October 06, 2014 issue of TIME.

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