Hello Gilly! Thank you so much for agreeing to be on Notes on Bookmarks for an interview! With a brand new release, you must be very busy right now, so I very much appreciate you taking the time for me. I always start out my interviews with the same request and then we’ll go from there: please give us the 2-minute Gilly MacMillan biography and then spill one thing that not many people know about you (a favorite something, a weird human trick, etc).
Hello! Thanks so much for having me on Notes on Bookmarks. It’s a pleasure to answer such thoughtful questions.
I was born in Swindon, Wiltshire in the UK and grew up there until I was in my late teens when my parents moved to Menlo Park, California for a few years, before returning to the UK. I studied History of Art as an undergraduate at the University of Bristol and did a masters at the Courtauld Institute in London. I worked in the art world in London for a few years, including the Hayward Gallery. After starting my family, I spent years as a stay-at-home mum and then eased back into work teaching photography. I did that until I decided to try and write a book!
Something not many people know: one of my sons plays Timothy Turner in the BBC TV series Call the Midwife
We’ll tackle your books chronologically and start with What She Knew. I have been reading about you all over the internet, so I know you based this book on your own worst fear as a mother of three: that one of your children might go missing and you wouldn’t know what had happened to them. As a mom of three myself, I can definitely identify with that fear! In fact, I blame YOUR book for a brief stint in triage at the tail end of my most recent pregnancy! At my standard 36 week prenatal appointment, I had notably high blood pressure when I had been reading What She Knew in the waiting room. I switched books for the two-hour monitoring period and my BP went right back to normal! 😉 As you’ve continued to write (just released a second novel and working on a third), have you used this same “my own worst fears” technique to come up with ideas? Or have you started drawing more on the world at large and news headlines?
I’m so sorry about the BP!!! What She Knew was certainly based on a core personal fear and I think that some of the themes in The Perfect Girl tap into fears of mine too, but I think you naturally begin to draw more on the world at large as you develop more stories, and I’ve certainly done that. The Perfect Girl is based on a real court case I heard about, for example.
Having said that, I try to pick themes that I have an emotional connection to, because I want to make the books resonate emotionally with readers and I believe I need to care about the characters and issues myself to make that work.
You’ve spoken about how What She Knew utilizes social media almost as a character unto itself, but that you weren’t part of social media when you started writing the book. How did you capture that social media spiral so effectively when you weren’t yet part of that world? Or was joining Facebook part of your research for the book?
You’re right, I didn’t join Facebook or Twitter until long after the book was written, and my publishers encouraged me to. I wasn’t a social media user at all while writing What She Knew, in fact I was very ignorant about it, so I put in a lot of research to try to get it right in the book. As I was writing What She Knew there were two shocking real life cases of children disappearing in the UK and I followed them closely online as events unfolded. I looked at the online comments people were making at the end of news articles and anything that was publicly accessible, including dedicated Facebook faces. I was particularly interested in the more extreme, personal reactions, because I thought they would be the thing that could hurt you the most if you were in the position of Rachel, the mother of the abducted boy in What She Knew. Some of what I read was shocking, and very sobering. It was a real education.
In your interview with Huffington Post, you discuss the title of the book a little bit and how What She Knew is really about mother’s intuition. How has your own intuition served you during your time as a mother? Do you think mother’s intuition is given full credit or discounted out of hand?
I think you have to use your intuition every single day when you’re a mother, because there is so much that you have to help your children through, at every single stage. I’ve found it particularly noticeable because I have three children and they’re so very different from each other. Advice I give to one sometimes doesn’t work for the others so you have to fall back on your knowledge of their personalities and strengths and weaknesses when you’re trying to help them.
That’s what I think intuition is built on: knowing them very, very well, possibly better than anybody else. I’m not sure how much a mother’s intuition is given credit. I think that depends who you ask, but I certainly believe it can be a powerful thing.
Finally, with regard to What She Knew, let’s talk about how child abductions are very rare and there’s a whole movement for “Free Range Kids” in this age of the Helicopter/tiger mom. Where do you fall on that free-range/helicopter spectrum (or where were you when you had smaller kids instead of teens)? Did the research for this book make you more protective or worried as a parent? It seems to me like it might be hard not to internalize the narrative a bit?
I fall in the camp of what I would describe as common sense parenting. Children evolve so fast from the very first moment and I believe a huge part of a parent’s job is to prepare them for the real world. That includes introducing them to freedoms as and when they need them. I wouldn’t advocate shoving them out into the world for the sake of it but I would say that the more skills you teach your kids, the better off they’re going to be. That includes independence so, yes, exercise common sense and caution where appropriate but don’t raise them in cotton wool or you’ll create some very dependent adults and that’s not healthy for their emotional development or future success.
I don’t think the research made me more cautious, because I’ve always been a careful parent, and the statistics I read do show how rare stranger abduction is. However, I’ve been told off by many friends who live in Bristol, because they tell me they’re just that little bit more jumpy when they walk in the woods now!
Now, let’s move forward to The Perfect Girl, your new release about a young piano prodigy with a troubled past. We find out early on in the novel that a new horror has entered her life and live through a brutal 24 hours with her. You spoke in an interview with Harper Audio about how Classical music (which you listened to often while you were writing) is almost like a thriller in itself with its peaks and troughs and suspense and periods of rest. Is that a connection you made while you were writing the novel? Or had you thought that beforehand? Do you have any musical background yourself?
When I wrote my first novel, What She Knew, I listened to a lot of choral music to help me to get the tone of Rachel’s narrative, and a sustained sense of her trauma, so it’s certainly something I’ve done before. When I was writing The Perfect Girl I would begin my writing day with Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie to get me started (Haruki Murakami describes that piece quite rightly as the best music for boiling pasta to – it’s so full of energy), and after that I would listen to four Chopin Ballades on a loop. They were just perfect for writing that book. I would also occasionally listen to Pachelbel’s Canon, which is the soundtrack to the opening scene of Ordinary People, a movie that was a big inspiration for The Perfect Girl. It has such a note of sadness through it.
I’m not a musician myself, but my home was filled with Opera while I was growing up – my parents loved it – and one of my sons is a very good pianist. He introduced me to Chopin and lots of other wonderful music.
The protagonist in The Perfect Girl, Zoe, is a flawed genius. Her IQ is off the charts but her emotional life is pretty screwed up. Do you think that her emotional trauma comes mostly from her life experience? Or is it likely, in your view, that most super geniuses have a bit of a less well-rounded personality (this isn’t just you, of course, we see this often as a character in various novels)? Can we be brilliant feelers or can we only REALLY excel at one or the other?
That’s a very interesting question. I think it must come down to how we’re raised, and what we experience, in some ways. As you say, there are certainly some people out there who have very high IQs and are not so good at relating to others, but I think there must be people out there who can do both.
In the book, Zoe’s emotional life is definitely screwed up, but I do think she’s also capable of feeling very astutely – she reads her mother’s emotions well, for example – so I think you’re right to say that her emotional trauma comes mostly (though perhaps not entirely) from her life experiences. Her experiences have been so unusual – the musical brilliance and the contrasting darker worlds of guilt and imprisonment – that she can’t help but struggle to find other people to relate to. When we meet her at the beginning of the book, she’s very lonely as a result of this and that can create a cycle of finding it difficult to relate easily to others. There’s a lot of complicated cause and effect in Zoe’s case and I suspect that’s true of many people.
Since What She Knew was based on your (and my) worst fears as a parent, I can say that The Perfect Girl draws upon another of MY parenting fears (that some sort of injury would befall me, leaving me unable to care for my kids). You say in that same HuffPo interview above that “As safe as we are in our domestic environments, it just takes one moment to tip us over into a very difficult place.” Is that what every thriller preys on, do you think? The fact that one moment can change everything in your life forever? Have you had any personal life-changing moments that led you to be able to write them so well?
I think that particular fear must be one of the things that accounts for the popularity of what people are calling the ‘domestic noir’ genre nowadays. The sense that everything we’ve built for our families is somehow precarious has got to be a visceral fear for many of us.
For our family, that moment was a diagnosis of cancer for one of our children. It changed everything in an instant. At the time, one of our neighbors said to me, ‘It was as if a bolt of lightning came out of nowhere and hit your house.’ It certainly felt like that at the time, though thankfully my son made a full recovery. I’ve never taken anything for granted since then.
Last question: you’ve revealed that DI Jim Clemo will be returning in your third novel, as a kind of sequel to What She Knew. I think he’s a great character and I’m so excited to see him return! This seems like a new tactic for you and a departure from your previous novels: to have a character figured out instead of the suspense plot (you mention having written WSK in entirely Rachel’s point of view for the first draft and then added Clemo’s view later in edits). Is it easier or more difficult to churn out the words/plot in this situation? Or did you decide to bring Clemo back and then develop the plot to insert him into it? Or did you already have the story sorted and decide to bring him back as DI? I’m so curious as to how the writing process works!
I’m so pleased you like him! It’s been really interesting to bring Jim Clemo back, and I’ve enjoyed it hugely, partly because using a character from a previous novel is like meeting an old friend, and partly because it was a real professional challenge to develop him as a character across a new novel. I knew I wanted to bring him back from the outset, and I developed the book so that the story would allow his character to face new tests, both personal and professional. The case Clemo works on in my third book is very different from the one in What She Knew – it involves two teenage boys who are involved in an incident that leaves one of them in a coma and the other unable to speak about what’s happened – but the stakes are similarly high for him. I’ve tried to produce another compelling story, this time about two families whose lives are turned upside down, alongside a new and gripping character arc for Clemo. That’s the idea, anyway! I hope people will enjoy it.
Oh, my goodness, Gilly! I am so thrilled by this interview. It is compelling and interesting and deep in so many ways. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, for taking the time to answer questions for me, in the middle of book deadlines. I appreciate it so very much. Can’t wait for Novel #3!