Gilly Macmillan wrote her first novel, What She Knew, as a challenge to herself. Sitting down with a goal of 1,000 words a day, she spent time extracting her story day after day after day—without any formal education. But, Gilly believed in herself and gave the task everything she could. A handful of queries later, and just as she was about to move on from this particular ambition, she received an email from an agent, and that relationship turned into a New York Times bestseller.
Gilly’s story is the stuff of dreams. In today’s interview, we speak with her about her newest novel, Odd Child Out, and her creative career that’s taken her from selling contemporary art in a commercial art gallery to working on the staff of a historic art history publication. We also discuss that “finished book” feeling, why she prefers writing in the morning and her advice as to what can really make someone a better writer.
Holding my nerve is my biggest challenge. Writing is a famously solitary profession and it can sometimes be difficult to keep your confidence levels up. That’s when a good agent is gold dust.
You started your career as a historian. Can you explain your career path since then?
I did my first degree, followed by a master’s degree, in art history. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’m now convinced studying paintings, sculpture and architecture taught me how to write. My degrees were essentially a four-year masterclass in how to translate and interpret what you see in front of you into words on a page. It’s not a million miles away from what I do when I write my novels.
After graduation, I worked for a commercial art gallery selling contemporary art and then a magazine called The Burlington Magazine, a very well respected and historic art history publication. It was and still is based in a building that looks out onto a lovely, old, cobbled London street. You could sometimes feel as if you were in a different century. Staff would joke that the magazine had more footnotes than subscribers. My job was to support the editorial staff and organize book reviews. I loved it.
My next job was in the Exhibitions Department in London’s Hayward Gallery. That was thrilling. I worked for the Head of Exhibitions and was involved in some big shows, including Francis Bacon and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Once I’d had my daughter, I took some years out to raise my family and eased back into work after the birth of my third child by teaching photography part-time. I lost that job after a short while as one of my children was diagnosed with a very serious illness, but once he recovered I decided I might try to write. It turned out to be a great decision in the end, although I wasn’t to know that at the time, and I felt embarrassed by it at first because it seemed like such a cliché! I was motivated to keep going because I had lost a lot of confidence in my abilities in the professional workplace after spending so much time at home, and writing seemed like a good way back into taking myself seriously and applying myself to something.
Did you ever think you would end up being a writer full-time?
No. I had done my research and knew how difficult it can be to get an agent, let alone a publisher. I wrote my first novel, What She Knew, almost as a challenge to myself. I had small window of time before financial pressures meant I had to get a ‘real’ job, and I wanted to see if I could produce a whole book in that time. I took the task seriously and worked hard to get that first draft written, with a goal of 1,000 words each day. As I worked on it, I had to pack away my doubts on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, and get on with it. It wasn’t always easy, because our family circumstances made it difficult to do a creative writing course so I had to teach myself some of the essentials of novel-writing by reading and analyzing books I loved. I never dared to dream it would work out the way it has.
Your novel, What She Knew, is what introduced me to your work. I read it in less than two days! What inspired you to write it?
I’m so pleased to hear it! It’s my goal to get people turning pages. I chose to write a thriller because I love reading them. I read very widely, but nothing gets my heart and mind racing like a good thriller.
Because I was short of time when I planned the first draft of What She Knew, I had to make a swift decision on what to write about, so I asked myself: ‘What is your worst nightmare?’ The answer was simple: for one of my children to disappear without a trace. I went with it because I felt confident I could write the story from the point of view of the child’s mother. The detective character, who co-narrates the novel, was written into a later draft, partly because I felt the book needed another voice, and partly because I love detective fiction.
Your latest novel, Odd Child Out, was recently released. What was the writing process for you like?
My writing process is more chaotic than I would like. I read with envy about writers who can plan their books in advance. I start my novels with a single scene, character or idea in mind and I work out the rest as I’m writing. The act of writing makes me concentrate very intensely, which in turn makes plot ideas flow. Any other attempts to plan find me staring blankly at a blinking cursor on an empty page.
Odd Child Out began as an idea about a friendship (I love friendship stories) and I had an intense idea for the very first scene where two best friends are involved in an incident, leaving one of them mute and the other in the coma. Then it was a matter of asking myself some of the questions the book sets out to answer. The first of those were as follows: Who are the boys? What were they doing in a scrapyard beside a canal at midnight? Why did one of them get so badly injured hurt? Some of the characters in Odd Child Out are from a refugee family and this posed an enormous challenge. I spent huge amounts of time researching Somali culture and refugee experiences to try to portray the experiences of my characters with as much empathy and accuracy as I possibly could.
The first drafts of my books can be an exploration process and I develop both plot and characters as I work. Odd Child Out was no different, so it subsequently went through a thorough editing process before publication.
Can you explain to us the process you went through to get an agent and get your first book published?
Once I’d finished the first draft of What She Knew, I polished up the first three chapters to the best of my ability and wrote a very short and straightforward query letter for potential agents. I bought The Writers and Artists Yearbook, which is the bible for unpublished writers in the UK. It lists all agents and details the type of work they are looking for. I shortlisted suitable agents and researched them further online. I chose four who accepted online submissions (I wanted to avoid expensive postage costs) and hit the ‘send’ button. I got one rejection within four days and then nothing. Tumbleweed. Christmas came and went and I began to give up hope and peruse the ads for jobs in my local area and think about sending my chapters out more widely.
Just as I was about to crack the spine on my Writers and Artists Yearbook for the second time, I got an email from an agent who asked to see the rest of my manuscript. It was such a shock! I panicked. I was convinced the rest of my book was terrible, so I told a white lie in my reply to this agent. I explained that I was abroad and couldn’t access my manuscript for a week, but would send it to her when I got home. I shut myself in our home office—it was a rare snowy week, so it had a strange quality, and the kids were off school and swarming the house inconveniently—and worked on the book until it was mostly rewritten. It took six days, after which I sent it off, exhausted. The agent got back to me within a few hours. She said I could write, but the book needed work, and if I was agreeable to editing it with her we should meet to discuss representation.
We met, I signed and we spent another year working on the manuscript before it was ready for submission to publishers. That process was smoother, thankfully. After submission, I began getting international offers immediately. It was only then that I finally believed it might happen!
What does your day to day look like?
Mornings are for writing prose, because my brain is fresh and clear. I’m a morning person and I start as early as I can. As soon as the kids have left the house, I settle down in my office or at a local café to write new material or edit. I do this until my concentration ebbs or I reach a natural break in my work. I walk the dogs after that and have some lunch. If I’m fired up, or if there’s a deadline pressing, I’ll write more in the early afternoon, but more often than not I use the afternoon to research, or read or take care of the business side of being a writer. There are always emails and social media obligations to attend to.
How do you stay organized while writing?
I don’t! Or not very well, at least! I start each novel with excellent intentions: a neat new notepad, carefully labeled files on my desktop and laptop computers, a fresh stack of pens, sharpened pencils and post-it notes. By the end of a book, there are notes stuck all over my wall and desktop, multiple computer files representing multiple drafts or scraps of drafts, heaps of disorganized notes in notepads, on yellow legal paper and sometimes on the back of receipts or envelopes.
The one thing I do religiously with each book—and this saves my skin at edit time—is to create a table listing each scene in the book, its narrator, what happens in it and a page number reference. It helps me maintain an overview of the plot, which is especially useful when you’re closely concentrating on one scene or character. It’s easy to lose sight of the whole book otherwise.
What helps you be a better writer?
Reading. In all genres.
What are your thoughts on work/life balance?
It’s great if you can achieve it! I believe it’s important; both for mental health and your partner and/or children if you have them. I don’t manage a balance as often as I’d like, but having said that, I’m very fortunate to have had some professional success. I believe you need to work hard to achieve success and then to make the most of any opportunities created by it. The consequence is unavoidable: hard work can lead to sacrifices. Fortunately, my family is very understanding and supportive.
I believe it’s a good life lesson for my kids to be involved in how we manage the balance. It’s a challenge they will no doubt face themselves one day. We work together to manage the impact on our family when work’s demanding a great deal of my time and to make up for it when the time is right. We’re a pragmatic bunch!
What have been some challenges you’ve faced throughout your career?
Holding my nerve is my biggest challenge. Writing is a famously solitary profession and it can sometimes be difficult to keep your confidence levels up. That’s when a good agent is gold dust—and I’m fortunate to be represented by somebody brilliant.
It’s also difficult to sustain confidence over the months (usually about 12) that it takes to write a novel. It’s a long time to focus solely on one project. I work hard to keep myself in shape physically, because that helps me stay mentally strong enough to go the whole distance, and to not let those nagging doubts own the day too often.
What is an accomplishment on your resume that you’re particularly proud of?
Teaching photography to teenagers. I loved that job. Not much compares to watching young people successfully print their first photographs in a dark room. That’s a great feeling for them and for their teacher.
What advice do you have for other creatives that are pursuing their dreams?
Hold your nerve; put the needs of the work ahead of your own desires editorially; respect your reader/audience; persist.
What is the best part of your job?
Holding a finished copy of your book in your hand for the first time comes high on the list of possible answers, but the very best thing is connecting directly with readers when they get in touch. That’s a wonderful feeling.
I’d love to grab coffee with: Wes Anderson.
The books on my nightstand are: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan and The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
My favorite quote is: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” -Oscar Wilde
My favorite dinner spot is: La Campagnuola. It’s a relaxed family-run Italian restaurant in my neighborhood. We’ve been eating there regularly for a decade. Perfection!
I can’t live without: Falke socks. They are heaven.
My favorite way to unwind is: Watching crime dramas on TV!
I feel my best when: I’ve just got back from a run and the day is ahead of me. All that possibility …