Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn.

I figure a lot of you have read this, or have plans to. Flynn is arguably the master of popular fiction right now. She writes fantastic stories that get great reviews and sell a lot. So I'll take this is another direction.

I admit I became a fan of Flynn because of her biography. She is a Kansas City native and University of Kansas graduate. It helps that she’s written three fantastic novels. But sharing that common background is what first drew me to her books.

Flynn and I are the same age. We arrived on campus at KU in the same steamy, late summer days of 1989. So each time I read one of her books, I’m thinking two things. A) Why the hell haven’t I written three best-selling novels? B) Did our paths ever cross while we were in Lawrence?

The first isn’t worth writing about. I have dreams of writing something that gets published, but it’s not like I’ve slaved over drafts and seen them rejected for the last 20 years. There’s no jealousy of a classmate who made it while I’ve suffered for my art or anything like that.

But that second one can be interesting to explore. What if we were casual acquaintances and, at some point, something I did caught her attention and she tucked it away, pulling it out years later as she was creating a character? She may not have remembered that the trait or mannerism or silly joke originated with me, but still there would be some small part of my DNA in one of her books. That would be kind of cool.

And then there’s the bigger What If. What If we had been more than just classmates or casual friends? What if we had dated? If you’ve never read one of her books, they’re pretty dark and twisted. They aren’t populated by normal, well-adjusted people. What if she created a character that vaguely resembled me? And then what if that person was a total freak, or a murderer, or did awful things to women? Would I be hesitant to share that I had known and dated Flynn years before she was famous if people could connect me with some nutjob in one of her books and wonder, “Gee, is that psycho based on him?”

Silly, I know. But I can’t help but think it. And maybe it’s not so far-fetched. One of my friends from high school who also went to KU had a roommate her freshman year that, ever so slightly, resembled Ms. Flynn. I can’t for the life of me think of that girl’s name, although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Gillian.

But just for fun, let’s say it was her. Why is that fun? Because this girl had a bit of a crush on me, or so I was told, and I kind of blew her off.1 Then I could say, “You know, a best selling author was totally into me in college. And I blew her off.” Self-mockery is the best mockery.

Finally, there’s another thing I think about while reading Flynn’s books. By all accounts she is a very nice person, true to her Midwestern roots. I greatly admire her ability to write about awful things and remain normal to the outside world.2 That has been a barrier I’ve struggled with when I think about writing fiction to share with others. How do I write about darkness, about the failures of humans, and not have people put that behavior back on me?

Another example: Tom Perrotta is one of my favorite authors. Each of his books is built around infidelity. He is married and has a family. I can’t help but wonder about that. Does this mean he is always thinking about banging the babysitter? Does his wife question him as to whether every book he publishes needs to center on people cheating? If I wrote stories similar to him would people think, “Dude, you might want to chill on the whole “sex with someone other than your spouse” thing in your books,”?

And then there’s Stephen King. I don’t think I could ever write true horror, or even some of the more graphically gory fantasy stuff he’s crafted over his career. Still, if I wrote about a psycho clown that was killing children, would other parents be reluctant to let me be around their kids?

Again, all silly thoughts.

Being a writer requires you to free your mind. You have to be able to take an idea and explore it in any direction until it finds an interesting and entertaining end. As important, though, is the need to free yourself from the expectations and reactions of your readers. You have to trust that they will get that your story is fiction, a product of your imagination. There might be familiar settings and elements in your stories, but they still are rooted in the land of make believe. You have to trust that even if your readers don’t like what you write, or give you uncomfortable, “Sooooo, that was an interesting book…” in response to your work, they still understand that it’s art and not memoir.

Oh, and I loved the book.

  1. That’s right, friends. Me, the guy who complained about never having dates, blew off a perfectly nice girl who showed interest in me. Sadly that wasn’t the first time I did that. Often my misery was self-induced. 
  2. Of course, we have no idea. She could be bat-shit crazy. But that does not come across in interviews.