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Made at Medill

Entertainment Weekly TV critic Gillian Flynn writes about the crime reporter she never was.

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Camille Preaker, the heroine of Gillian Flynn's debut novel, Sharp Objects, is a reporter for a second-rate newspaper called the Chicago Daily Post. In an effort to boost lagging sales with a sensational story, her crusty but compassionate editor sends her on assignment back home to the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover the grisly, unsolved murders of two preteen girls. Camille has to not only deal with the suspicions and gossip of Wind Gap's leery residents but must also grapple with her obsessive, control-freak mother and her 13-year-old half sister, a borderline psycho who wields unnerving control over her schoolmates. To complicate matters, Camille herself, sharp as a tack and beautiful but emotionally distant (and a bit of a boozer), has been recently released from a psych ward: a "cutter," for years she's sliced words over nearly every inch of her body. As she comes ever closer to unraveling the mystery of the murders, she's drawn deeper into the dark secrets of both the town and her family.

It's an unsettling and creepy tale--and a far cry from the work that Flynn, 35, does in her day job as lead TV critic for Entertainment Weekly. "Yeah," she says, "I pad out in my pajamas in the morning and watch TV for four or five hours . . . . It's a good gig."

At one time Flynn imagined that she might be a crime reporter herself. The daughter of teachers in Kansas City, Missouri, she majored in English and journalism at the University of Kansas before going on to grad school at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. As a reporter for the Medill News Service she covered all sorts of local news, from the dedication of a corner park to court cases and labor conflicts. But in 1998, fresh out of school, she landed an entry-level job at Entertainment Weekly in New York City, answering phones and opening the mail. Eventually she moved on to write movie reviews and other features (an admitted Lord of the Rings geek, she got to meet director Peter Jackson and go to New Zealand a few times), and was ensconced there until a couple years ago, when EW decided to increase its presence in Los Angeles. Flynn moved west, having had enough of New York.

She'd started writing Sharp Objects in 2001. "I'd dabbled in fiction but I'd certainly never published fiction before, or anything like that," she says. "I just kinda started writing to see if I could." The character of Camille, she says, was based a bit on her experience at Medill, where, she says, "I discovered I was a much better writer than a hard-core reporter. That's what I figured I would do with my life, and I very quickly discovered that I was horrible at it. I hated trying to walk up to people in large crowds, so she was kind of based on that. . . . She has to have a couple drinks before she talks to people."

Though she ran some medical passages past doctors and dentists she knew, she didn't do a lot of research. "I didn't want it to read like a police procedural," she says. "I wanted to keep that sort of gothic-fairy-tale-gone-wrong tone." When she was done she sent the manuscript, "whole hog," to Stephanie Roston at the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. "I had a conversation with her, and had lunch with her one time," says Flynn, "and we just clicked. And, uh, then she sold it!"

Sharp Objects was published by Shaye Areheart Books, Crown's literary imprint, in September. Her industry contacts were invaluable in getting jacket blurbs from Harlan Cohen and Stephen King, who calls the novel "an admirably nasty piece of work."

By then Flynn was a Chicagoan again: she moved here in March. "To me it is the definition of a big city, since I was a kid," she says. "New York was like a fairy tale, and LA didn't seem real. Chicago is a place I've actually visited and loved. I always thought it was the kind of place I'd want to live when I was grown-up." She currently lives in Wicker Park, where, in a move that seems to say she's here to stay, she replaced her old box TV with a 40-inch Samsung flat screen about a month ago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.

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