Gillian Flynn, 44, author of the bestselling Gone Girl, talks about finding inspiration for her books and being frightened by fame
Before I had kids, I would write late into the night and stay in bed in the morning, pulling the covers over my head as my husband, Brett, left for work. Now, between 6am and 7am, our daughter, Veronica, who’s one, hollers from her room, and Flynn, our five-year-old son, runs in and jumps up and down on our bed.
Our house is an old artist’s studio in Chicago, with Frank Lloyd Wright-style architecture. We moved here last year and it was the big, arched windows that sold me. When you’re home all day writing, you can easily turn into a character from The Shining, so light is good.
My day starts with a giant pot of coffee, which I’m trying to cut down on. I put Veronica in her high chair and make us all midwestern scrambled eggs with cottage cheese. Brett, who’s a lawyer, will then take Flynn to school on his way to work, while our babysitter will arrive to look after Veronica. I then go to my study in the basement, have another coffee and, before I start, put on 20 minutes of a box set such as The West Wing.
I treat writing as a nine-to-five job. My office looks out on our yard. There’s not much to see, just a touch of green and blue sky, which is good as I’m easily distracted. I use a laptop and I’m also trying out a treadmill desk, after hearing that sitting down is nearly as bad as smoking. It means I stand or walk slowly on it while I’m reading and writing.
On the walls are sticky notes with my details for a story, from a single word like “chicken” to an unnerving “Is Mom dead yet?” Right now, I’m doing a screenplay with [the British Oscarwinning director] Steve McQueen, based on a 1980s BBC series called Widows. It’s about badass women who get together for a raid.
I’ll work for 90 minutes or so, then have lunch between 11 and 12, which is usually toasted bread, a chunk of cheese, a slice of tomato, mayonnaise and spicy mustard. Then I walk for an hour in the direction of Lake Michigan, which is three blocks away. The area is full of yuppies with their kids and tree-lined cafes.
I often get little pieces of inspiration when I’m out. With Gone Girl, I was returning home after a walk when the thought struck me: “What would I do if I came home and my front door was wide open?” I had a glimpse of a man who comes home from work and finds just that ... I knew how my book would begin.
It turned into my third novel and was about a woman called Amy Dunne, who is in a difficult marriage and disappears. It sold 15 million copies and was turned into a Hollywood film for which I wrote the screenplay. The fame freaked me out, then I realised I owed it to everyone to just enjoy it. Writers better than me often don’t get that moment.
If I get writer’s block, I’ll try doing a scene from another character’s point of view. I’m also disciplined about deadlines.
I wrote my first two books, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, while I was still a TV and film critic, but I lost my job at the end of 2008. It was grim, but that’s when I also had my son and wrote Gone Girl.
Books have always been a big influence on me. As a child, my favourites were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Alice in Wonderland. I grew up in Kansas City, a painfully shy child of professors, but I always wanted to write. In my junior-school yearbook I grandly wrote: “I want to be an author.”
At the moment I have a contract for two adult books, a YA [young adult] novel and a Hogarth series, where different writers take on Shakespeare plays. I always take 15 minutes at the end of writing to decompress, so I’ll play a video game such as Pac-Man.
Most days I pick up my son from kindergarten, but if I’m having a good writing day, I’ll text my babysitter upstairs and ask her to do the pick-up, then write for another 90 minutes.
At 5pm I’ll stop, grab the kiddos, put on music and we’ll have a dance party in the living room. When Brett gets home, the kids will have dinner, and once we’ve put them to bed, we’ll eat. Brett has a couple of go-to pasta dishes and finds cooking relaxing. I don’t. I’m baffled by our spice drawer — thyme, basil, garlic. I’m the woman of the simple cheese sandwich.
Every evening I get in the bathtub, read, then go to bed around 11pm. My biggest job is not to top Gone Girl. I know you only get one book like that in your life. If I chased that level of success again, I’d probably write a bad book, and I don’t want to be known as the author who wrote the really bad twist.
latest book, The Grownup (Random House, $9.99, hardback), is out now.
As told to