“You’ve written a book with two main characters who are both pretty unlikable, you find out whodunit in the middle, and it has an ending that is not necessarily a tied-up ribbon.” Gillian Flynn recalls her editor’s response to Gone Girl with a hearty chuckle. The editor loved the book, she assures, but there were some things she needed to confirm were “intentional.” Ultimately, of course, those narrative elements were what drove the 2012 thriller to phenomenon status. But the editor wasn’t quite wrong to bring them up, either. After all, as the 2010s began, they were hardly common in suspense fiction. More specifically, they weren’t exactly indicators of commercial success.
The start of Flynn’s journey to literary fame began on a white-hot day in Scottsdale, Ariz. She was pacing in a pool, ankle-deep, waiting for news when she finally got the call that Gone Girl was debuting at No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list. It’d reach No. 1 the next week. “My book tour went from three cities to 16,” she cracks.
When Gone Girl was published, people wanted to talk about it. This stunned the author. “To go from your weird hollow where you write to The View, talking to Whoopi Goldberg, within the space of a couple weeks is definitely head-turning,” says Flynn, a former EW writer. Gone Girl was her third novel and not only marked her breakthrough but became one of the best-selling books of the decade.
Flynn loaded the book, about a marriage in which the wife disappears (because, we eventually learn — spoiler! — she faked her own death), with devices that seemed avant-garde at the time but are now staples for the prestige thriller: unreliable narrators, structural twists, and a treatment of women’s lives as being equally as exciting, unpredictable, and nuanced as men’s. “I’m proud [that it] reminded people the domestic sphere doesn’t have to be [limited to] frothy, light topics,” Flynn says. “Things in the domestic sphere being about women and less worth our attention — that idea is absolutely not true. So I love that there’s now the term domestic thriller.”
She says of the book’s thematic prescience, “It’s tying into the rise of social media, the idea of packaging one’s life as a certain thing and being something different in real life. People responded to that.”
As EW’s Leah Greenblatt notes, the term domestic thriller denotes an entire subgenre, perhaps the breakout literary category of the decade. Similar novels like The Girl on the Train and this year’s The Silent Patient all ascended to the very top of the New York Times list on the strength of suspenseful stories propelled by twists in the structure, but that also had rich commentary as it related to gender, middle age, and the constitution of an “ordinary” life.
Flynn tapped into this duality uniquely — and intently: “I’ve always thought if you could write something that was about ideas and has layers to it, people who want to take it as a thriller [would] read it that way, and for people who want to engage more and dig deeper, there’s a lot to talk about, too.” She adds, “I’ve never had a problem with making something entertaining or something called a page-turner. That’s what it’s supposed to be. The only phrase I don’t like is guilty pleasure.”
Besides subverting gender norms, Gone Girl affirmed books’ vibrant cultural pulse, too, both as a source for Hollywood (David Fincher directed the 2014 adaptation) and as a conversation starter. Warning signs in publishing persist, even as the Kindle boom has died down, but work like Gone Girl affirms the enduring potential for breakout sensations. “People at book signings would wait in line, slam the book down, and just say, ‘I hated this book!’” Flynn recalls. “It was great! I’d accomplished what I wanted: People argued about not just plot or character, but what it meant.”