Often, when I read reviews about books for and about women, the same word comes up again and again. That word is “relatable”. A female protagonist is a girl just like you. She dates, she drinks white wine, she worries about whether she can fit into a tiny dress. A female protagonist in mainstream fiction is never meant to be more than two degrees away from Bridget Jones: she must always be jolly, must always have a peppy thing to say about modern life. When I wrote a book with a female narrator, it’s something I kept coming back to – how do I make her likeable? How do I keep the audience on her side?
This is not something Gillian Flynn worries about. In fact, it’s something she actively works against. The 47-year-old writer’s most famous book, Gone Girl, followed Amy Dunne, a woman who fakes her own death to punish her cheating husband and starts her own murder spree on the way. In Flynn’s 2006 debut, Sharp Objects, reporter Camille Preaker is a world-weary gumshoe returning to her hometown to solve the murder case of two young girls. Camille carves words into her body. Words like “dirt” and “vanish”. Her relationship with her mother and half-sister is a whirlpool of psycho-sexual dysfunction, one she’s forced to confront when she returns to Wind Gap, Missouri.
“I was tired of reading about men and their anti-hero troubles and their darkness,” says Flynn, reflecting on her debut now that it’s getting the HBO Big Little Lies-style treatment, starring Amy Adams as Camille. “I was sick of it because I was, like, ‘Where are any stories about women and their darkness? Where’s a troubled female narrator? I’m tired of women I can root for. I’m really tired of it. I don’t always want that. I want a woman more like me, who is screwed up and psychologically struggling and has issues, and has darkness. Where are these women?’”
These are the kinds of women that run rampant in Flynn’s books. Her characters are violent, angry, prone to fetishes, urges, addictions, illnesses. Flynn’s artistic outlook hinges on the fact that humans are naturally violent, but women suffer from having no reliable outlet for that violence. Male violence is socially understood, embraced and funnelled into society’s strong-man roles: police officer, bouncer, the army. Female violence erupts differently – sometimes, through motherhood.
“Men have a safe outlet for it. Men have a sanctified way of doing it, and a very accepted stamp of approval on their violence, and women are expected to not have those emotions.To me, that’s very frightening because it’s keeping us in the stone age. To expect that women don’t have rage, and don’t have violence, and don’t have hatred, don’t have, you know, all these darker ‘masculine’ emotions is to say that we’re not human. So, then, what are we left with? OK, we’re left with nurturing and kindness. Well, what do all those qualities mean? I know what those mean. Those are the qualities that put us back in wife and mother mode.”
Right at that moment, with great cosmic irony, Flynn’s young daughter starts talking to her. She apologises, embarrassed that her point about motherhood is being cut off by her own literal role as a mother. “Can I just, one sec? I’m going to put on a video for them. One second.”
As we slide back into conversation, I find myself quoting a line from Sharp Objects back to her, one she wrote long before she had children: “I just think some women aren't made to be mothers. And some women aren't made to be daughters.” I ask her how she feels about that line, in light of her own motherhood.
I want a woman more like me, who is screwed up and psychologically struggling and has issues, and has darkness. Where are these women?
“I still agree that some women shouldn’t be mothers. I still completely agree with that. I think some women do it because they feel completely societally bound to do it. I think we all know those women, and men too, but particularly women, who don’t seem to enjoy motherhood. I think some woman will tell you they’ve been mothered by women who did not want to be mothers, and how corrosive and toxic that can be. Some women do want to be mothers, and are just terrible at it. I mean, sort of, aggressively terrible at it, and that’s who Adora (Camille’s mother, played by Patricia Clarkson) represents.
“There’s possibly no more dangerous thing than to go into motherhood for the sole reason of fixing what your mom did to you. It’s sort of like having that next baby to save your marriage. I think we all know those mums who definitely love their daughters but love them in a very sick way. They just don’t know how to love in a correct, nurturing way. They pick at them, they fight, they are in their minds and in their business, and they can’t quite let go of things. That’s Adora, you know. Adora is that, writ very large.”
Generational abuse is a huge theme in Sharp Objects, and, in particular, how each generation of women have internalised trauma. There’s Adora, the former Southern belle, rotting like an orchid in a hothouse. Amma, the over-sexed teenager. And Camille.
“Camille, who’s of my generation, Generation X, is of that first real wobbly post-feminist phase, you know, the children of the women of the 1960s who marched and burned their bras, and were probably in the workplace but still very much figuring out. We were kind of feral, these baby feminists thrown out into the wild, and so we made a lot of mistakes. We were the first latchkey-kid generation,” she says thoughtfully.
“We were figuring everything out on our own. So, I think when we had anger, we expressed anger, but we mostly expressed it on ourselves. You know, we tend to be the ones who make ourselves the sickest.”
Sickness, anger, violence, ferality: these are all subjects Gillian Flynn comes back to in her conversation, and ones she meditates fiercely over in her work. Not since Patricia Highsmith has a writer made violent urges so universally palatable, and, like Highsmith, Flynn is proving herself to be an incredibly adaptable author for screen. Let’s hope that Sharp Objects the show is every bit as relentlessly menacing as the book is.
Sharp Objects airs on Sky Atlantic on 9 July, 9pm.