Author Interview: Gilly Macmillan

Friday 12 June 2015
Today I am sharing a Q&A with Gilly Macmillan whose brilliant debut Burnt Paper Sky is out now in eBook format and in August in paperback. It really is one of those must read books, and one that I highly recommend. You can read my review here, and I hope you enjoy reading the Q&A.

Can you introduce Burnt Paper Sky for those that don’t know what it’s about? And are you able to reveal how the book got its title?

Burnt Paper Sky is about a mother, Rachel, who takes her son Ben and their dog for a walk in the woods one Sunday afternoon. Rachel allows Ben to run ahead of her, out of her sight, to play on a rope swing and by the time she reaches the swing he has disappeared without a trace. The story follows what happens next, from Rachel’s point of view, from the point of view of one of the police officers on the case, and also via the media storm that ensues.

I had a working title for the book that my agent felt was a bit boring and she suggested I come up with something better before we submit to publishers!  Cue a long night of thinking during which I went back to the manuscript for inspiration. Burnt Paper Sky describes the moment when Rachel looks up through the trees at the white winter sky above and sees that darkness is creeping in around its edges, like a piece of paper in the fire. I loved the sound of the words together and the fact that they relate to this awful, crucial moment in the story.

Where did you get the idea/inspiration to write Burnt Paper Sky?

While my children were young I spent several years trying to write two other books, which didn’t work for one reason or another, so I abandoned both of them. Soon after that I found myself at a point in my life when all the kids had started school, were growing up fast, and I realized it was probably my last chance to have a shot at writing a book before I should get a job, so I decided to have one more go, and this time to write in a genre that I absolutely love: crime.

I’d recently read and been absolutely gripped by the set-up in Linwood Barclay’s ‘No Time for Goodbye’ so I was inspired to try to create a scenario that was similar: an ordinary domestic situation gone very wrong which many people would be able to relate to. I considered what my worst nightmare would be, and it was, simply, for one of my children to disappear and for me to have no idea where they were, or what had happened to them. I still shudder when I think of it. Then I thought of the first scene in the woods, and everything else led from there.

Burnt Paper Sky is an incredibly emotional book in places, was any of it ever difficult for you to write? And how do you unwind after writing difficult scenes?

The emotion in Burnt Paper Sky was very difficult to write, especially as I wanted it to feel as real and truthful as possible (within the confines of a novel of course) so I tried my hardest to imagine myself into Rachel’s situation. It was very important to me that the reader could get an unfiltered view of how her situation feels to Rachel, even when her actions might be considered questionable. The emotions in the ending, too, were difficult to write.

Unwinding is usually a dog walk, or time spent with my family, maybe a bit of gardening or a cup of tea. Simple pleasures that the book always reminded me I was lucky to have.

What feelings and/or thoughts would you like people to take from Burnt Paper Sky?

Oh that’s a difficult question because I’ve already been surprised by the different things that people take from it. I suppose one of the main themes that I had in my head when I was writing was the desire to reflect on how we judge others, and how social media makes it something that’s quick and easy and anonymous to do, even when we don’t or can’t fully understand a situation. I would hope also that people find some honesty in the character portrayal in the book, as I’ve tried to make their journeys as realistic as possible (again, within the confines of a genre where you have try your hardest to keep the pages turning).

It was clear when reading the book just how much research had went into it.  What was the most interesting/fascinating thing you found out during your research?

For the first draft, which was told entirely from Rachel’s point of view, I did no research at all.  It was once that was complete, and before I embarked on the first rewrite, that I spent months reading up about missing children. The thing that stood out to me most was how it was clearly the heroic efforts of parents of missing children worldwide that have led to systems being put into place for law enforcement to help find them. Some of the websites that are cited in the book are well worth visiting to see the incredible work that’s been done in this area, and what more could be done. There were statistical documents too that I found a bit chilling in their directness, as well as enlightening, and I’ve quoted some of these at the beginning of each chapter.

I also spent a fascinating morning chatting to two retired detectives who talked me through all things police related and put me right on a few things. For example, my first draft included a huge and swift first response to Ben being missing – I had helicopters and horses and dogs and men all over the woods within hours – but they explained that the response would have been much slower than that because of the darkness and the logistics, so I had to adjust the time frame significantly.

What was your writing and planning process like for Burnt Paper Sky? It is often told in a quite unique way, with the use of police documents, internet posts, newspaper articles etc so I’m interested to know how and when those fitted into the story.

The first draft of Burnt Paper Sky, as I’ve said above, was written entirely from Rachel’s point of view, and was written very quickly. I did 1000 words a day until it was finished and planned nothing. It was very messy as a result but it was, luckily, enough to get me an agent, and following her guidance I began a few months of research which included speaking to the retired detectives, reading everything I could get my hands on about missing children and more. As I did all that I began to think about how these stories are reported in the media too, as that’s how most of us experience them.

The more research I did the more I thought about how it would be interesting to have all these different voices represented in the book and so the idea of putting in the different media came to me, with the intention that the reader can experience the story from every angle: from Rachel’s point of view, from within the police, and also via the usual things that we might access if we’re interested in a story (ie online news reports, social media comment etc).

It was incredibly complicated weaving it all in and I had to learn some serious editing, restructuring and pacing skills at that point.

Did you always know what had happened to Ben and how the story would ultimately conclude? Or did any thing – whether for the story or the characters – change as you wrote?

From the start I always had an idea about Ben’s fate, though the route to get there was long and complicated and the ending was rewritten three times (my first version, a version for my agent and finally another version for the publisher), in the quest to get the right tone and the perfect resolve. I hope the ending as it stands now is as truthful as we could make it, but I expect everyone will have their own view on that.

Some other characters did change along the way, as we tweaked the story, and wove in complications, but Rachel remained more or the less the same throughout.

What was your road to publication like? How long did it take from the idea for the story to the book being actually published?

My road to publication was long, but exciting. The first draft was finished in the summer of 2012 but I put it away in a drawer as I was a bit scared of showing it to anybody. In November 2012, when I was applying for jobs, I dragged it out again and polished up the first three chapters and sent them off to just three agents. I got one immediate rejection and then just tumbleweed. In January 2013, just as I was wondering whether to send it out wider, I got a call out of the blue from Nelle Andrew at PFD. She asked for the rest of the book, read it extraordinarily quickly and then phoned to say that the story had promise, but needed lots of work and if I was willing to work with her she was willing to represent me. That was thrilling and of course I said yes!

Nelle and I worked on it for a year, and during that time I developed it to include Jim’s character and the different media, and Nelle submitted it to publishers in April 2014 around the time of the London Book Fair. Things happened very quickly after that and before I knew it I had an offer from Little, Brown and various auctions and pre-empts happening abroad all at once which was thrilling and overwhelming and totally unexpected. So now, a year and another rewrite for the publishers later, it’s been sold in over 16 territories worldwide and I still can’t really believe it.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?  And what does your writing space look like?

Typically I drop my kids off at school at 8 and am writing by 830. I’m at my most productive in the morning, though often I need to leave my house and go to a café to get away from domestic distractions. I sit in the quietest corner of the café with my laptop and a pair of headphones on and a cup of coffee and work for a couple of hours before going home to walk my dogs. After that I try to do at least one if not two more sessions at home before collecting my youngest from school, after which I stop writing and turn back into a mum. I have learned to work anywhere, as my middle child is in the cast of the TV show ‘Call the Midwife’ so my other job is sometimes to accompany him to set and I’ve learned to write there (which can be anywhere, at any time of day, depending on the scene they’re filming) while I wait for him. I’m quite good at blanking out the rest of the world when I’m really concentrating.

My writing space at home is a large desk, a bookshelf and a sofa tucked into the corner of our basement (which I share with the washing machine). Even if I don’t always do my best writing there I love it because it’s somewhere I can leave all my stuff out knowing nobody will move it, which is important in a family home. The desk and the walls are covered in bits and pieces of research, printouts of the manuscript I’m working on and a picture of the cover of Burnt Paper Sky, and I also have a wall covered in post-it notes to help me plot.

Are you able to reveal what we can expect from you in the future?

I’m working on another psychological thriller, which is also in the domestic noir genre but is quite different from Burnt Paper Sky. It’s set over just two days and it’s incredibly tense and my main character is a teenage girl. I absolutely love the story but like Burnt Paper Sky it gives me palpitations every time I sit down to write it, especially as I’m closing in on the ending as I write this.  It’s currently expected to be published in 2016.

Thanks to Gilly for answering my questions!

About Gilly Macmillan

Gilly Macmillan grew up in Swindon, Wiltshire and also lived in Northern California in her late teens. She studied History of Art at Bristol University and then at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She worked at The Burlington Magazine and the Hayward Gallery before starting a family. Since then she's worked as a part-time lecturer in A Level Photography and a full-time mum.

Gilly lives in Bristol with her husband and three children. This is her first novel.

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