Author Notes – How Gillian Flynn taught me to love the female protagonist.

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Call it a result of playground mean girl trauma, those prickly remnants of high school girl-on-girl crime, or feeling out of sorts in my own female skin, but I have always had trouble relating to female characters. Strange then, that it took psychopathy-personified Amy Dunne, to prompt a definitive female character love in this reader.

Don’t get me wrong. Prior to, I had quite a few female favourites. Claire Abshire from The Time Traveller’s Wife. Lisbeth Salander, kick-ass Millennium Trilogy anti-heroine. Hunger Games tribute, Katniss Everdeen. The list goes on. I admired these women, saw something of my own story in them. But, as a reader, I felt jaded. And then I cracked open Gone Girl and met Amy Dunne.

I think a lot of readers were most likely introduced to Gillian Flynn through this, her third novel. It was, of course, an instant bestseller and lit a fuse that sparked the more popular than ever domestic noir trend. It is a menacing, uncomfortably intimate portrait of a marriage gone awry, and it made me fall in slightly morbid love with a new type of female character: intriguing, intelligent and very, very bad. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I needed to find a scorned and unapologetically calculated woman on the page. And Gillian Flynn delivered. She made me love a female character.

I have since added her older titles to my collection, as well, and her women have continued to enthral me. In Dark Places I found Libby Day, cracked and broken.  “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ,” Libby says. “Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it.” And reading that I knew, that as a flesh-and-blood woman, I have felt that same meanness. I have spent many nights taping over my own cracks in the dark, polishing them to present a flawless delusion to the world. And reading about Libby Day, I felt like just maybe it would be okay to show those cracks sometimes.

In Sharp Objects, Flynn’s debut, I was gut-punched by the dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamic between Adora, Amma and Camille Preaker. Another deeply emotionally unhealthy set of women. There is a line in this novel, which reads to the effect that not all women are fit to be mothers and not all girls are fit to be daughters – and again, I related. I needed to see the lack of motherly instinct, the opposite of what is seen as feminine. And I loved those characters. For being flawed and dangerous, to each other and themselves.

Womanhood is brutal. It’s frightening to be judged and stereotyped. By society, by men, often by ourselves. I think that’s why I appreciate the bravery of painting women in the often unflattering light Gillian Flynn does. I think there’s something necessary in encountering this type of female character, of delving into the darkness and the unthinkable. Perhaps we all need to find our own brand of flawed and dangerous.

Visit the incomparable Ms Flynn’s website here.
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Author Notes – Elizabeth Kostova

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This year, I not only want to write more about the books I have read and loved, but I want to write about the writers behind those stories. About how I came to be introduced to their writing and why I’ve continued to add these authors’ books to my shelf.  Authors who have inspired my own love of words and writing, who have taught me to see the world a bit differently, and who just write so darn well that their stories cause me to neglect my to-do list.

“To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history…”

A couple of years ago, in my hometown, a most splendid event occurred – a bookshop opened. I would later start my bookselling career in that very bookshop, but that is a tale for another time. Back then, I was just another bespectacled bookworm perusing those sacred bookshelves. I had recently finished Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series, was suffering severe Lestat-withdrawal, and needed a quick fang-fix. I stumbled upon something much, much more engrossing: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. This novel introduced me to the legend of Vlad Tepes, triggered an endless fascination with Eastern Europe (a someday-trip still tops my bucket list), taught me to accept that even though a character might readily share an enthralling and intimate narration of her family history, you might still never learn her name, and made me long for a dragon tattoo long before I met Lisbeth Salander. It also made me an instant fan of the author.

Later that same year, I greedily devoured her second novel, The Swan Thieves, a story of art and obsession, whose characters showed me the many facets of that thing we call love. Again, I found her writing and use of language arresting. Her slow burn plots are intriguing and deeply satisfying, perfect fiction fare for a history junkie such as me. And she doesn’t rush a story – as is evident by those impressive page counts – her narratives unfold slowly, but deliberately. She writes characters you long to meet and draws real life places in ways that make you itch to grab your passport. There’s an intelligence and elegance to her story telling that makes it hard to pull yourself away once you start reading. This year, she will release a third novel, The Shadow Land. Needless to say, I am sinfully excited to get my hands on a copy, come April. It has been seven years since the release of The Swan Thieves and I’m aching to return to the folds of Ms Kostova’s creative mind.

Criticism? She might be a bit too slow on the uptake for some readers. Fast-paced, quick reads you will not find in her repertoire. Her books require a reader’s patience and appreciation for the art of storytelling.

If you have a taste for folklore, the nearly forgotten and haunted histories of Europe, and the characters that inhabit them, Elizabeth Kostova should certainly be on your shelf. Best read on a wintry night, with a cup of Turkish coffee in hand and an eerie wind rattling the windows.

 

Author photo: Mike Kepka, The Chronicle