The pairing of Gillian Flynn and Cheryl Strayed seems at once too obvious and not obvious enough.
Too obvious because both are female writers who happen to have had best-selling books optioned by Reese Witherspoon and made into high-octane, swinging-for-the-fences films.
And not obvious enough because Flynn specializes in probing dark, unsavory recesses of the human psyche, like her antiheroine Amy in the 2012 novel “Gone Girl.” Strayed rocketed to fame the same year with her memoir “Wild,” about her redemptive 1,100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail as a brokenhearted, divorced 26-year-old grieving the early death of her mother.
Yet the authors share similarities that run deep. Feminists both, they create bluntly authentic, deeply engaging stories through characters that defy stereotypes.
They also have forged roads to Hollywood gold. Directed by David Fincher and adapted by Flynn herself, the film “Gone Girl” has earned more than $300 million globally. “Wild,” directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, adapted by Nick Hornby and starring Witherspoon, is one of the season’s most anticipated films. (It is being released Dec. 5.)
The first and last time Flynn and Strayed met was two years ago at a literary event in St. Paul, Minn., and they reconvened on a wintry Halloween in Chicago, greeting each other happily with hugs. Flynn, 43, has a newborn, her second child, and lives with her family in Chicago, and Strayed, 46, happened to be in town with her husband and two children.
Here are excerpts from their conversation.
Q: Tell me about when you first met, in St. Paul.
Cheryl Strayed: It was freezing. We went on a hike, and I didn’t have a jacket. It was like “Wild” all over again, with the elements for which I was unprepared. And I remember I was talking about how our books are so different, readers have a different relationship to them.
Q: This question is from a Times reader: “Witherspoon wanted to create better roles for women, but has ‘Gone Girl’ shown women in a better role? Is it empowering or continuing stereotypes?”
Flynn: I’ve been asked that a lot, and to me the answer is always: “Of course, it’s not misogynistic.” Women shouldn’t be expected to only play nurturing, kind caretakers.
That’s always been part of my goal – to show the dark side of women. Men write about bad men all the time, and they’re called antiheroes.
Q: Were you surprised that that was the reaction you got?
Flynn: I had about 24 hours where I hovered under my covers and was like: “I killed feminism. Why did I do that? Rats. I did not mean to do that.” And then I very quickly kind of felt comfortable with what I had written.
Q: Cheryl, it’s your story, but did you get blowback from people, or was it just more relief at having told an honest story?
Strayed: It never occurred to me, not once, that the book would be read as an inspirational tale. I really have no interest in likability when it comes to characters. It’s always about credibility, and to be credible you have to seem human. One of the most difficult things reading about the movie “Wild” was when people started writing about it and me in this shorthand way. I knew they hadn’t read the book, because the things they would say about me were just patently untrue.
Q: What kind of stuff were you getting?
Strayed: Often, they’ll say my problems were self-inflicted. And really the two biggest problems I began the trail with were the opposite of self-inflicted: the dead mother and the abusive father who wasn’t in my life. Those were my two most significant wounds, neither of which I inflicted upon myself, both of which I had to heal in myself.
It’s interesting what Gillian is saying. I think the lazy interpretation of Amy is she’s this evil psychopath and she’s all darkness. I think so much of the reason “Gone Girl” is so successful is that all of those very winning passages where Amy writes about her romantic life, falling in love with her husband, the way she constructs herself as a woman in the world. Those are very recognizable to us.
Flynn: I think we wouldn’t have heard as much anger about it if she was more dismissible. She’s understandable, and that makes her a little harder to just write off. She’s not Norman Bates’ mom just sitting there in a rocking chair being evil.
Q: Is there a double standard, where male characters don’t get that level of scrutiny?
Flynn: The likability thing, especially in Hollywood, is a constant conversation, and they’re really underrating their audience when they have that conversation. What I read and what I go to the movies for is not to find a best friend, not to find inspirations, not necessarily for a hero’s journey. It’s to be involved with characters that are maybe incredibly different from me, that may be incredibly bad but that feel authentic.
Q: When you were writing the books, did you think, “I’m breaking the mold and pushing the edges of these women characters?”
Flynn: A theme that has always interested me is how women express anger, how women express violence. That is very much part of who women are, and it’s so unaddressed. A vast amount of literature deals with cycles of violence about men, antiheroes. Women lack that vocabulary.
Strayed: The story I wrote has an ancient tradition in literature, man against nature, the hero’s journey. I was conscious of the narratives that I was both taking part in and also countering because the variation on the theme is: It was a woman, and it wasn’t “versus.” I say the wild felt like home to me. It wasn’t me trying to conquer it; it was me living in it.
Q: (To Flynn) Is “Gone Girl” the movie being talked about as a feminist film or an anti-feminist film, or is the jury out on that?
Flynn: The jury is still out. That’s what’s been interesting: Is it anti-woman? Is it anti-man?
Strayed: What do you think it is?
Flynn: To me, it’s neither. It’s about two specific people who are battling and who happen to be a man and a woman. I certainly enjoyed playing with those gender roles. Amy is certainly a character who understands every single female stereotype – and uses it. So when people say she’s embodying awful stereotypes about women, I say, “Yes, exactly, and that’s kind of the point.” She knows every trope there is. She’s a storyteller, she’s a studier, and she has absolutely no compunction about using the female victim role, using the femme fatale role, using the girl-next-door role.
Strayed: I was so mindful that I had not written a book for women. I think the death of us would be if our films or our books were interpreted in this kind of “You go, girl” thing. And I think the last frontier for women is to say we are fully human, which means that our stories are as relevant to men as they are to women.
Flynn: I would love it if I could do an event without a very well-meaning man telling me, “I don’t normally read books by women.” Do you get that?
Strayed: All the time. One of the first experiences I had when “Wild” came out was this male radio host interviewed me, and right before we went live, he said, “I picked your book up and I couldn’t stop.” And then we’d go live and he’d go, “Cheryl Strayed has written a great book for women.”
Q: Where does the twisted girl come from?
Strayed: I do think those things are like early indicators of what our obsessions are going to be as writers. When I was 6 and 7, when my mom’s friends were going to come over, she’d say “OK, you’re only allowed to ask three questions.” Because otherwise I would get them in a corner and just grill them about things that were kind of shocking to them.
I wanted to hear from other people what they thought about their wounds, and I was trying to find out in ways that made adults very uncomfortable. I’ve always been the one to ask a question beyond the one that’s appropriate.