In the early days of their marriage a few years ago, Chicago attorney Brett Nolan and his wife, the thriller novelist Gillian Flynn, were having drinks with a group of friends when Flynn posed a surprising question. "Does anybody have any idea," she asked out of the blue, "what would happen to a dead body if it were thrown into the Mississippi River? How far down the river would it float?"
"I realized then that behind this beautiful exterior was someone who has some pretty dark thoughts," Nolan recalls with a laugh. "Gillian's as sweet as pie, but she loves to turn over rocks and see what's underneath."
Does she ever. In her 2006 debut novel, "Sharp Objects" , Flynn examined a toxic mother-daughter relationship and the corrosive anger that leads to violence among women; in 2009, in her second, the best-selling (and aptly named) "Dark Places", she took a baleful look at the psychological cost of being branded as a child in particularly vicious way.
And on the very first page of "Gone Girl", her new poison apple of a novel about a marriage gone horribly wrong, we're confronted by the fact that one of its two wildly unreliable narrators, a laid-off magazine writer named Nick Dunne, is a bit — how to put it? — off. Nick seems nice enough, but the way he describes Amy, his attractive wife of five years, is more than a little creepy. She has what the Victorians called a finely shaped head, he tells us, "like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil." He imagines what's inside it: "Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy?"
Things get creepier still as Amy goes missing and the police increasingly suspect her husband of perhaps turning his skull-opening reveries into reality. Gradually, too, we realize from her diary entries that Amy — a type-A perfectionist and a skilled word-twister in her own right — isn't exactly a poster child for mental health, either. As a couple, in fact, the Dunnes turn out to have less in common with Ozzie and Harriet than with George and Martha, the seething spouses in"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Dark places indeed.
"Yes, I've lived this nice little Midwestern life, but — and maybe because of that — I've always loved really dark stories," says Flynn, 41, nibbling a banana muffin at a café around the corner from the home she shares with Nolan and their two-year-old son in Ukrainian Village. Growing up in Kansas City, she loved the unexpurgated and often startlingly violent tales of the Brothers Grimm, as well as Edward Gorey's "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," in which 26 children, each representing a letter of the alphabet, die untimely and sometimes gruesome deaths.
Flynn also adored mysteries — Agatha Christie was a favorite — and scary movies, to which her father, a professor of film, introduced her long before the Motion Picture Association of America would have approved. While still a young girl, for example, she recalls an impulse to flee the theater after watching a monster chew its way out of a man's chest in "Alien." "I remember thinking that it was so scary that I had to leave, but instead I backed up with my mom, chair by chair, until we were sitting at the back of the theater with the wall right behind us," she says. "We watched the rest of the movie that way, because I had to see what happens next."
After earning a degree in journalism from Northwestern, Flynn became a feature writer and, later, TV critic for Entertainment Weekly, where she was still working when she wrote her first two novels. (Like Nick, she was laid off in 2008.) "I loved my job at the magazine, but just had this itch to try a full-length book," she says. She wanted to write a mother-daughter story and had a couple of false starts before reading Dennis Lehane's"Mystic River,"which crystallized for her that she could explore ideas and themes while keeping on track with the help of the structure of a mystery.
The result has been a series of hybrid novels that combine layers of literary texture with the page-turning narrative propulsion of popular fiction. "She marries the two best things about both categories," says her editor at Crown, Lindsay Sagnette. "She's intensely observational, like a dramatist or poet, but also as adept at storytelling as some of the best mystery writers. She's sort of a griffin."
And while Flynn gets tired of readers assuming that she's like her twisted characters — she once told an interviewer that people are always looking for scars on her wrists — she admits that in Gone Girl, she drew aspects Nick and Amy from herself and Nolan, who read the manuscript in progress.
"Brett and I had conversations about the parts where certain things were kind of close to home," she says. "We talked about how much of Amy's negative thoughts about Nick were mine toward him, and I owned up to what I kind of felt that was, ah, similar. Not that I'd stolen bits of dialogue directly, but there are certain things that anyone might read and feel like it's an argument you've had with your partner. I told him, 'You need to take your highlighter, and if there's anything that feels like it's exactly us, that I've stolen from our lives, I don't want that in there.'"
But Nolan declined to use the highlighter. "I definitely saw things that were taken directly from our marriage and our life, although we're not anywhere near that dark," he says. "It was a little bit frightening at first, but at the same time, that's her strength. She writes from a place people can relate to because it's real."
It helps, of course, that his wife has never actually killed anyone.
"As far as I know," he says. "Of course, she may have sworn me to secrecy."