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Interview with Gilly MacMillan 2016

Gilly MacMillan  promo image

It has been quite a year for Gilly MacMillan. Her debut novel, Burnt, Paper, Sky, was published last August to such great acclaim it has been nominated for an International Thriller Writers Award. Now Gilly is publishing her second novel, The Perfect Girl, which is a very different novel that covers – to some extent – family values and whow we perceive our children’s abilities. Here Gilly speaks to Chris High about the book and the past twelve months.

With Burnt Paper Sky and now The Perfect Girl being so well received, the last 12 months have been pretty special. What has surprised you most?

So much has surprised me and there has been so much to learn over the past 12 months, but I think the biggest surprise of all has been the success of Burnt Paper Sky in the US (under its American title What She Knew), where it recently hit the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists.  That felt like an impossible dream coming true.

The Perfect Girl book coverThe Perfect Girl takes place across a fractured timeline. How difficult did you find it to hold all of the strands of the story together?

Extremely difficult! I don’t plan very far ahead when I write (although I usually have a broad idea of the ending) so I had to keep a close eye on what the characters were doing at all times, and inch the story forward very carefully to make sure that the tension levels remained high and everybody’s actions and reactions were dovetailing and remaining true to their personalities and motives.  The use of multiple narrators complicated it further.

Zoe is a complex mixture of characteristics, who has been somehow developmentally restricted through the time she has spent in a young children’s institution. How much research did you have to undertake to develop the necessary layers?

I read or watched videos of as many first hand accounts from previously incarcerated young offenders as I could, as well as studying official inspections of young offenders institutions, and any other material available on the subject.  I also visited an adult prison.  Zoe’s musical background was more straightforward to research as one of my children is an extremely good musician so I have some first hand knowledge of what that world is like, and two of my children are teenagers so I’m no stranger to that age group in general.

This is also very much a story of family values, or lack of them, with everybody involved having an input into the outcome. As a result, this atmosphere is incredibly tense and quite dark. How did writing the novel affect you as a writer and mother?

That’s a very interesting question.  As a writer, the book was something of a technical challenge as I very much wanted to write a character-driven drama, where the actions of one person triggers a series of reactions from others that builds the action and tension until the story reaches an unbearable climax.   It meant I had to immerse myself in each character in turn, at every stage of the novel, to ensure the action kept driving forward and was believable.  There was no room for error. 

As a mother, I was hoping to explore what happens when a family cannot remain coherent, when external appearances and ambition take precedence over family relationships.  It’s the toxic side of family life and it’s the opposite of what I want my family to be.  Writing the book reminded me that I would rather leave ambition, pride, achievement, appearances, conformity and a myriad of other so-called ‘aspirational’ qualities by the roadside, than ever risk my own children feeling lonely and unloved.

The novel also has a very “filmic” quality. How much did your experience as a photographer (An A-Level lecturer in the subject) help develop – no pun intended –
this skill that you have?

‘Filmic’ is a wonderful description!  I’ve always had a very visual imagination. Before I taught photography I trained as an art historian, where much of what you do is learning how to translate visual experience into words, so it’s part of my writing DNA. 

Photography certainly helped to develop my eye for visual detail, and my understanding of how important what we select to include in an image is, because every choice affects the final impact and meaning of the work.  I’ve found both those skills transferable to fiction.  I’m also a huge fan of film.  I often think of the action in my books as scenes that might take place on screen.

There is also a bit of script writing going on in The Perfect Girl. What made you decide to use this as a means of conveying Lucas’ story?

I wanted to find a way to tell his backstory that was appropriate for Lucas.  He’s a quiet, deep-thinking, talented boy but shy and wary of speaking out.  To write a script fits his interest in film and I felt would be a way in which he might be able to cope with telling a story that’s painful for him.

How did you find writing the script sections and are there any plans to go down the stage / screen writing route?

I found the script sections very challenging at first, because writing for screen is such a different skill from writing fiction.  You have to be extremely disciplined.  You can’t rely on description or introspection; it’s all action and dialogue.  After a bit of practice, though, I really enjoyed it, and it was definitely beneficial to my prose. 

I would love to write a script for stage or screen one day – screen probably appeals more as I have spent some time on TV sets so I have a better understanding of how the script translates into the finished product than with stage – it’s just a matter of finding time!  

Zoe and Lucas only listen to classical music. What do you listen to and how does it affect your writing?

I often listen to classical music when I’m writing as the lack of lyrics helps me shut out the rest of the world and find the concentration that I need.  For The Perfect Girl I listened to a particular Chopin Ballade over and over again.  It’s a very dramatic piece of music, calm and introspective at one moment and highly tense and emotive at others and it really helped me get into the story. 

For Burnt Paper Sky I listened to choral music to help me with the pure, emotional tone of Rachel’s narrative and Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros amongst other things when I was writing Jim, to help give his voice a more punchy energy.   When I’m not writing I listen to a wide variety of music. 

At the moment, it’s a playlist that my kids put together for me.  There are three of them and they’ve all contributed so it’s really varied.  Everything from the Grateful Dead, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and My Chemical Romance to Hollywood Jazz with a bit of Edith Piaf thrown in and there might even be an Abba number in there somewhere!

What are you looking forward to over the next 12 months?

I’m really looking forward to the publication of The Perfect Girl this autumn.  I can’t wait to get my third book finished, and get started on my fourth.  I’m going to New York in July for the International Thriller Writers Awards as Burnt Paper Sky (under its American title What She Knew) is a finalist for Best Debut, so that will be very exciting.

What’s next?

Book 3 is well underway and is a sequel to Burnt Paper Sky in which we’ll see the return of Detective Inspector Jim Clemo.  After that there’ll be another standalone novel, which I’m really looking forward to writing as I’ve got loads of ideas for that percolating already.

See also: interview with Gilly MacMillan by Chris High in 2015


If you would like to comment on this interview with Gilly MacMillan in 2016, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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