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For Gillian Flynn, American author and screenwriter, the state she grew up in is as much a character in her novels as the protagonists. Its towns are either bleak and impoverished or sinisterly bourgeois. The people range from simply snobby to outright murderous. For the central characters in her novels, Missouri is a place to be escaped from, to be recovered from, sometimes literally. Flynn doesn’t shy away from showing the grim underbelly of the supposedly charming Midwestern area and seems quite keen to bring it to the audience’s attention.
Given all this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Flynn had a less-than-happy upbringing in her hometown of Kansas City. But really, nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from her questionably early exposure to horror films such as Alien, Flynn was raised in an overwhelmingly normal household, her two college-professor parents encouraging her insatiable reading habit. This is perhaps where she drew her first inspirations from- the gritty realism of Charles Dickens. In an interview with the Kansas Morning Star, she admits that “I grew up loving to be scared”, and her father regularly brought home the horror films that shaped her tastes. Her fascination with stories led her to a degree in English and Journalism, and later to master’s in journalism from the prestigious Northwestern University.
So, what next for a young journalist with a taste for the macabre? Crime reporting in New York City seemed like a logical next step. However, Flynn found she didn’t have the stomach for real-life violence and chose to take a job with Entertainment Weekly. It was during her employment there that she wrote Sharp Objects, which has recently been adapted for TV. Focusing on a young Missourian journalist returning to her hometown, it’s easy to draw parallels with Flynn’s own life. The journalist freely admits that certain aspects of herself make their way into her writing. The leads in Gone Girl were writers laid off during the 2008 recession, just like her. The central figures of all her works are women, like her- and herein lies of the greatest controversies of Flynn’s work.
Gillian Flynn does not write nice characters. They are broken, haunted, terrible people. The fact that many of these characters are women, doing awful things for awful reasons, leads many to question whether Flynn identifies as a feminist. Is it feminist to portray your heroine as a struggling alcoholic, sleeping with men far too young for her and making no efforts to recover (Sharp Objects)? What about a manipulative, murderous sociopath who tortures her husband for the pleasure of it (Gone Girl)? Flynn’s argument is that writing women as complex, flawed characters is inherently feminist whether those characters are ultimately good or bad. There is a distinct lack of good female villains on the market, and bleak characters fit seamlessly into the bleak landscape she portrays- a dying town whose major business is hog slaughtering, or cut-throat suburbia filled with social climbers.
Ultimately, while Flynn’s work only borrows superficially from her own experiences, the rich and morbid approach she takes to her work is a brave one. Unflinchingly exploring such topics as murder and child abuse, she manages to maintain a sense of style throughout while avoiding becoming tasteless. Her works are at once competent thrillers, mysteries, and shocking horror novels. Seeing success both in literature and on the screen, Gillian Flynn has proved to be an author to be reckoned with.