Gillian Flynn On Writing, Publishing and ‘The Centre’

The author who popularized the psychological suspense genre and triggered the 'unlikeable female character' debate now has her own publishing imprint.

When Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl eleven years ago, she indelibly changed contemporary literature and the publishing industry. Debuting at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list before spending ninety-one weeks on it, Gone Girl has sold over 20 million copies and spawned an award-winning movie directed by David Fincher—Flynn herself wrote the screenplay.

Flynn is sating our appetites for character-driven suspense with a new project. Heidi Jo Brady

While she’s yet to publish a follow-up to Gone Girl, Flynn is still sating our appetites for character-driven suspense with a new project: her own imprint with Zando books, which launched earlier this year with Margot Douaihy’s Scorched Grace, the first entry in a queer nun crime series—move over Mrs. Davis!—and a second offering: The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi.

What exactly makes a book a Gillian Flynn Book™?

“I’m not the kind of person that responds to an airport type of thriller—and I hate to use that as derogatory because there are plenty of great ones that appeal to millions of humans—but that’s not my thing,” Flynn tells Observer. “I would not look for anything that has ‘girl’ in the title.”

So says the writer largely responsible for spawning a cottage industry of airport thrillers with “girl” in the title.

For those waiting for the next Gillian Flynn-authored book, she’s hard at work on her next one. “It’s a character study wrapped in a thriller that’s about devastating power plays within a marriage,” she says. “I don’t want to get overly specific… it’s basically about what happens when different genders use their powers against each other instead of being useful partners in a marriage.”

How does Flynn avoid ‘voice creep’ while scouting authors for her imprint when she’s still writing? The quick answer is that she’s not particularly worried about it, but she does admit it’s better for her writing not to be in another writer’s head.

It’s somewhat ironic, on several levels, that being in someone else’s head is the overarching theme of Manazir Siddiqi’s The Centre. The debut novelist has maintained a level one about being picked up by such an esteemed author in the U.S. (The Centre is published by Picador in the U.K., where it first sold, and Zando decided to retain the British-English spelling for the title—a kind of meta-commentary on what The Centre deals with.)

“I would like to think that the book itself contains a kind of critique of this idea of putting people on pedestals and imagining them as being different,” Manazir Siddiqi tells Observer from her home in London. She wrote The Centre there during lockdown while working nights as a podcast producer for Serial.

The frankly foreboding novel follows protagonist Anisa, a floundering first-generation translator in London. “Some people have described her as an unlikeable female character,” Manazir Siddiqi tells me, sharing a chuckle about the overwrought ‘unlikeable female character’ trope that has dominated the zeitgeist for the past decade, in no small part thanks to Gone Girl. “There are aspects of Anisa that are frustrating—the way she holds her privilege and the things that she does and doesn’t see.”

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Anisa feels unmoored in her career and in her half-hearted relationship with Adam, a fellow translator who impresses her Pakistani parents with his fluency in Urdu, and in scores of other languages. After lots of pleading on Anisa’s part, Adam finally extends her an invitation to attend the prestigious but secretive language school—the titular Centre—that promises complete volubility in two weeks. The methods through which Anisa and the other attendees learn are shrouded in mystery. Of course they are.

Reading about the nefarious methods invokes a “feeling of absolute dread,” as Flynn tells me—akin to approaching the edge of a cliff face before being pushed off upon the big reveal, which came as a surprise to this reader. Flynn laughs when she shares it’s one of her favorite emotions.

“Many people have read it as metaphorical for various things, for example, the dangers of consuming another culture and maybe not seeing translation as this straightforward, wholly positive thing, but looking at it from different angles, like the cost of translation, tourism and interactions with marginalized or othered communities,” Manazir Siddiqi says.

But she didn’t write the novel with the intention of couching what she wanted to say in metaphor. A lot of what Anisa struggles with throughout the book are things Manazir Siddiqi has grappled with in her own life, including belonging, family, the illusion of success and self-determination. On the other hand, she admits that she always had the climax in mind and wrote toward it, with Adam and other characters coming to life as she went along. Whatever metaphors reveal themselves, she asserts, are a product of her subconscious mind or come from the mind of the reader.

“A lot of readers have said that it induces a kind of self-interrogation: What does it mean even to read the novel if you’re not of this culture? What are you reading? How are you reading it?” she explains. “Suddenly, the book turns the mirror onto you while you’re reading it. Are you a learner at the Centre?”

Gillian Flynn On Writing, Publishing and ‘The Centre’