By Daniel Ford
Gilly Macmillan, whose debut thriller What She Knew promises to be a holiday hit, adds to that tradition by talking to me about her early influences, how she develops her characters, and the inspiration behind What She Knew.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?
Gilly Macmillan: Although I’ve always been a big reader I never had a very clear ambition to become a writer. I’ve always enjoyed writing—whether essays or fiction—and as time went by I suppose became curious as to whether I could actually write a book. I think it was that curiosity which drove me to start What She Knew, and tough it out until I got to the end (it wasn’t the first book I’d started). I think I work best when I’m focused on a project, so completing a book was a good, specific goal for me, and becoming a full-time writer as a result of that has been a wonderful and unexpected bonus.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
GM: The first contemporary crime book I read was Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg and that got me hooked on the genre. As a child I read very widely, and I loved Agatha Christie. I also read a lot of Ruth Rendell, her Inspector Wexford books first, and then the novels she wrote as Barbara Vine. Having said that, I also enjoyed reading in many genres, and still do. I’m very unfussy about genre so long as there is good writing and strong characters. Then you can’t tear me away. So I would also mention Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemmingway, Salman Rushdie, and I could go on and on!
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
GM: I do listen to music, because it allows me to block out all the distractions around me. My playlist is usually geared towards the book that I’m working on. My second book, for example, is about a teenage piano prodigy so I listened non-stop to piano recordings. For What She Knew I had different playlists for each narrator. I listened to a lot of choral music to create Rachel, and that sense of tension that’s always with her in the book, but for Jim Clemo the music was more bullish, and energetic, to match his ambition.
Generally I start writing at around 8:30 in the morning, right after I’ve dropped my kids at school, and that early session is my most productive. I keep going until around 11 a.m. when I break to walk my dogs. After that I work again, but it’s often less creative, depending on the day, so I might check social media, reply to emails, that kind of thing until it’s time to collect my kids from school.
I have a desk in the basement of our house, and that’s where I work when I’m at home but I’m often distracted by all of the domestic stuff that needs doing (I share my space with the laundry!) so I often go out to a café and work there. That’s a nice thing to do as it stops you feeling so lonely, though headphones are essential to stop me tuning into other people’s conversations. Another favourite place to work is the university library in our city.
My planning is a little bit haphazard (editors, look away now!). I tend to follow my gut and develop characters or ideas as they come to me, or as I’m writing. As I write, I have to have such intense concentration when I think myself into the heads of my characters, that I find that that process often sparks ideas much more effectively than a more formal attempt at planning. When I’ve got a good mass of material, and fairly developed characters, and plot lines, I slowly begin to knit it all together in my head. I fill notebooks with ideas and put Post-It notes all over the walls of my office to keep track of plots. Eventually, after what often feels like a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and many words written (and often deleted too) it all comes together, and that’s a wonderful moment.
DF: What inspired your debut thriller What She Knew?
GM: I wanted to write a page-turner, because I love to read them so much, and I wanted a scenario that many people could imagine happening to them so that my story would have to potential to resonate with a wide readership. So, quite simply, was to think of a scenario that would represent my own worst nightmare, and that came to me very quickly: it was the thought that one of my children might go missing and I wouldn’t know what had happened to them, and I knew this would strike a chord with my people. I was also inspired by wondering what it would feel like to be at the center of a high profile case like that, with all of the public, media and police attention that would result. I wanted to give a voice to a character in that situation because when we experience cases such as the one in the book as a member of the public, we almost never get to hear the voices of the people at the center of them, and that intrigues me, because you always wonder, what do they know?
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in What She Knew? How do you develop your characters in general?
GM: I have put aspects of myself into my main character Rachel, for example I have worked as a photographer, and I am a mother. I also drew on my own experiences to try to imagine the very raw emotions that Rachel goes through after her son disappears. For example, one of my children was dangerously unwell as a baby, and we feared for a long time that we would lose him (though thankfully he recovered fully), but I definitely drew on my memories of that period in our lives to feed into Rachel’s narrative. I think that I’m always observing other people so little bits of people that I know probably do creep into the characters, though I’m very careful not to base any characters closely on real people. That could be very difficult to explain! In general I develop my characters partly through detailed research, partly through observation and partly through gut instinct, by which I mean that once I’ve got a broad idea about a character I try to imagine myself into their situation as deeply as possible to try to work out what they might do or say or feel, and I hope that gives their motivations and behavior some kind of authenticity.
DF: The thriller genre has certain built-in tropes that can deter some writers from taking the plunge. How did you ensure that your tale was original?
GM: That was definitely something that I was very aware of and I think my biggest challenge in that respect was my detective character. To make him feel like an individual, instead of a mash-up of previously existing characters, I met with some real (retired) detectives and listened to what they had to tell me about the realities of their work life. I hoped that examining how working on the case affected my detective might help to bring him to life, and that led to my decision to try and present his narrative in slightly unusual way, by using the transcripts of his therapy sessions as well as his own report of what took place. I also tried to steer clear of some of the more obvious attributes fictional detectives can have, such as a substance addiction of some sort. Having said that, I think it’s important to give readers something of what they expect from the genre so while I took pains to try and ensure the book wasn’t derivative, I also really enjoyed writing in the genre. The thriller genre has the advantage that it includes a wide variety of books and I think its boundaries are very elastic, so I felt very free to try to write as well as I could and present my story in different ways in places, to try to entertain what I think of as very intelligent and passionate readers of the genre. I felt that to be a great challenge, and one I really hope I’ve risen to.
DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?
GM: At the end of my first draft, I felt that I had a strong character in Rachel, the mother of the missing child and there were some passages of prose that I was happy with, but I was also aware that it was very far from resembling a publishable book. There were all kinds of structural problems with the story at that stage, to say the least. I went through a long process of edits once I had an agent, and then again once a publisher had bought it, and that turned the book into something that I was finally comfortable taking to readers. It was very hard work, but I learned so much from going through that process that it was invaluable too, especially when I had to write my second book to a publisher’s deadline.
DF: How long did it take you to land an agent and publish your novel?
GM: I had tried to write several different books for about three or four years, in a very part time sort of way as I raised my family, but really got to work properly on What She Knew about eighteen months before I was confident enough to send the first three chapters of that first draft to four agents. Three weren’t interested, but one of them contacted me after about a month to say that she’d read it and she would like to see more. When I sent over the rest of the book she offered to represent me on condition that we work together to improve it, and that we meet to see if we would get along with one another. We hit it off when we met so I was delighted to agree, and her input and advice were invaluable, even though we didn’t always see eye to eye on everything! After a year of work on the manuscript she was happy to submit it to publishers and I got my first book deal very quickly after that, which was extremely exciting, though the first thing that happened subsequently was more work on the book to improve it further under the guidance of my new editor! It was published in paperback nearly 18 months after that book deal was agreed.
DF: Whose work should aspiring thriller writers be reading right now?
GM: Oh my goodness! There are so many great thriller writers out there that it’s hard to chose. I love the work of very well known and classic writers such as Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke, Benjamin Black, and Georges Simenon. New writers I’ve discovered this year, who don’t necessarily fit precisely into the genre but have nevertheless written complex, thrilling and page-turning books include Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, a quiet, yet compelling mystery surrounding an unexplained death, Jill Essbaum’s chilling portrayal of a psychological collapse in Hausfrau, and Ryan Gattis’s absolutely brilliant, shocking book about the lawless backdrop to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, All Involved. All three felt fresh and exciting to me.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
GM: Be prepared to work very hard, over a very long period of time, and know that there are no guarantees at any stage of the process. Listen carefully to any advice you can get from industry professionals along the way and, most importantly, hold your nerve!
DF: What is one random fact about yourself?
GM: I collect ceramics, they’re a passion of mine. The last thing I bought was a set of four ceramic houses that are chunky, and geometric and remind me of the sort of places you read about in Scandinavian noir thrillers.