9.28.2014

How a Book Can Change You: GONE GIRL

Join me on a recurring blog series where I discuss various books that managed not only to be great, but life-changing.

Here's a little story about a gone girl...
In June of 2012, I was coming off the high of signing my first book contract with Hobbes End Publishing for a little sci-fi dystopian novel I wrote called THE LAST SUPPER (due out on 12/13/14, pre-order now!). In addition to that, I had developed a pretty stable platform of speculative fiction stories composed mostly of horror-lite and science fiction. Things were looking good.

But I was frustrated. You know how, if you live in an apartment with thin walls,  you can hear your neighbors in the next door units knocking around? Their muffled voices, their televisions, their plumbing every time they flush the toilet, and even the sound of their fucking starts to feel like an invasion, a constantly playing soundtrack to your life, and no matter how many times you pound the walls to tell them to pipe down, the racket doesn't stop.

The textbook example of a frustrated writer
That's what it was like inside my head, only the thing on the other side of that wall was a whole world of stories that try as I might, I couldn't seem to access. I knew what I loved. I loved gritty, hard, mostly realistic stories that made me feel uncomfortable, with characters I didn't like but still wanted to hang out with and observe. FIGHT CLUB is like a fucking bible to me. But I seemed to be lacking the proper tools or inspiration to help me access that part of myself. It was getting so my choice to go supernatural all the time felt like a crutch, and I didn't want to make stories that felt like a gimmick, where things started out normal enough, and then I pulled a laser ghost bunny out of a hat.

Then my friend Jody told me I absolutely had to read a book called GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn, an author I'd never heard of. In fact, she was so insistent I read this book that she mailed me her copy. She and I had done this a few times over the years. In fact, Jody was the person behind my discovery of Margaret Atwood, but I will leave that marvel for another day.

I read the synopsis of GONE GIRL, and I have to admit, I wasn't expecting much. It sounded like a pretty cut and dried mystery-suspense thing. Not that I had a problem with the genre--I love crime stories--but Jody must have known there was something special and twisted about it that would appeal specifically to me. And you know what? I trusted my friend more than the book jacket blurb, so I dug in.

Immediately, I was hit over the head by the voice. Crisp and biting like good gin. It strung me along like the best kinds of stories do, making me all too aware that I was entering a place of danger, but worse, I didn't even care. It was the quintessential poisoned honey, and I was lapping it up like Winnie the Pooh. But still, I was wondering exactly how this was going to play out in a way that wasn't staid, that hadn't been done a thousand times in stories about a missing wife and a suspicious looking husband. Did he do it or not? To me, it wasn't enough to answer that question.

Well, as anyone who has read the book can tell you, Flynn delivers a sucker punch at about the 1/3 mark that makes you question whether the world is right-side-up, and from that point on, the punches just keep coming. Punches to the gut, punches to the head, punches to the soul. I reached the final page, and I wanted to throw the book across the room. I wanted to curl up into a fetal position and rock myself. I wanted to write Flynn a love-hate letter telling her I hated her so much I wanted to marry her, because goddamn her for not being afraid to "go there" and tell the kind of story that makes you bleed. People have criticized the story for being bleak. I call that it's most redeeming feature.

I knew, as soon as I closed the book, that I wanted to write a story that did the same thing to someone else that this story had done to me. Not only that, but I knew that I could. I didn't have the idea yet, but I now had the axe to break down that wall separating me from the characters and the situations I had been desperate to meet and explore.

And so, a month or so later with those tools in hand, I wrote a short story called "The Good Girls." And then a couple months after that, I expanded TGG into a book called STRINGS, which I also sold to Hobbes End. The book was mainly branded as a horror, and rightfully so given some of the graphic content, but I was playing in a real-world sandbox I hadn't previously entered before. I wasn't only calling to my newly found muse, but also to old solid favorites like Stephen King and Thomas Harris. And I knew that this was where I truly wanted to live as an author. While I would of course still pursue my speculative fiction stories as they came to me, the dark psychological horror/suspense books were going to be my bread and butter. STRINGS poured out of me with pretty much no resistance, and I knew there were going to be more stories just like it. I was a silver miner who had hit a fresh vein of ore.

Some time passed after the release of STRINGS where I tried to figure out my next move. I started the sequel, released the first book in a sci-fi franchise, and I started pondering what would be my next book in the genre that Gillian Flynn and GONE GIRL had opened up in me. Then my mother and I were having lunch one day, and she told me about her trip to visit her old hometown in Georgia the summer previous, about how it hadn't changed much at all since her childhood, and about the kudzu that had grown so thick in the ditches that you could probably bury a body in there and no one would ever find it.

That planted the seed for my book KUDZU, a story about a murder and family secrets set in the south. It was the book I knew I wanted to use in order to hopefully acquire an agent. And the first agent I knew I wanted to query was the one who represents the author who inspired me back in 2012 to find that hidden layer living inside me. And as I detailed in a previous blog, the rest is history. Gillian Flynn's agent, Stephanie Rostan, is now also my agent, and when I think about the kismet associated with that, the whole "coming full circle-ness" of it, I want to fall over and die of happiness. I just don't want it to happen before Ms. Rostan sells my book, as well as the other twisted thriller I'm currently writing called A MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE.

So there you have it. GONE GIRL quite literally changed my life. It inspired me to be the writer I truly wanted to be. And I will be in line first thing this Friday, 10/3, to see the movie.

Feel free to comment below and tell me about the books that have changed your life!

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