Interview with the utterly fab Gilly Macmillan

Gilly Macmillan
© Céline Nieszawer/Leextra

I am a HUGE fan of Gilly Macmillan and her books so I was thrilled when she agreed to answer a few of my questions. I have read all her books and I wait with eager anticipation for her next offering.

If you haven’t read any of her psychological thrillers, you are in for a treat. I would suggest you start with her first one WHAT SHE KNEW (also called BURNT PAPER SKY) and then basically binge read all the rest. It’s the perfect weather for it and with loadshedding, snuggling up in bed with a book is a very good option.

Have you ever visited South Africa and if not, would you like to?

I’ve never visited but I’d love to. My parents travelled in South Africa and took a trip on the Blue Train. They didn’t stop talking about how fantastic it was afterwards, so I’d really like to do the same. I’m an animal and nature lover so I’d be very keen to visit the game parks and take in some of South Africa’s natural beauty. And to drink your wine, of course. (And to appear at one of our book fests! #justsaying)

Did you study creative writing? If so, tell us how your course helped you. If not, how did you wind up writing?

Gilly Macmillan Burnt Paper Sky

No. At the time when I wanted to try to write, in my forties, with a young family, I had neither the time nor funds to take a creative writing course. My kids had just started school and I had a short window of time between caring for them full time and needing to get a job. As a lifelong keen reader, I decided to see if I had it in me to write a book. Once I’d decided to write a thriller (because I love reading them) I dug out my copy of GONE GIRL and wrote a breakdown of its plot and structure to teach myself how it worked.

The whole thing was a crazy gamble and I’m still pinching myself that it paid off. I would say to any aspiring writer that if you can’t access a course, for whatever reason, or you don’t want to, books are the best teachers. And they’re free if you have a good library. Go for it. Obviously courses are a big help to some people, and launch some careers, but you can absolutely do it without them.

Tell us what your latest book is about…

My latest novel, TO TELL YOU THE TRUTH, is about a crime novelist called Lucy Harper, who has talent for invention…
She was nine years old when her brother vanished in the woods near home. As the only witness, Lucy’s story of that night became crucial to the police investigation. Thirty years on, her brother’s whereabouts are still unknown.

Gillys dog Milo with the US edition of the book
Gilly’s dog Milo with the US edition of the book

Now Lucy is a bestselling thriller writer. She has fame, fortune, and an army of adoring fans. But her husband, Dan, has started keeping secrets of his own. Then Dan goes missing and Lucy’s past and present begin to collide…

What inspired you to write this book? [I’m particularly interested in how you felt writing about a thriller writer – was it fun, or did it feel too close to home?]

I was dying to write a book with an unreliable narrator, because I love to read stories about unreliable narrators, and the more I thought about who that character might be, the more it made sense that they could be a writer. Who else spends so much time in a fictional universe? So much time, in fact, that they might begin to blur fantasy and reality. At first it was brilliant writing about a thriller writer, I didn’t need to do any research. But as the book went on, and I had to take some of my very ordinary experiences and twist them into things suitable for a thriller plot, it began to feel pretty creepy.

Tell us about your journey to getting published. Talk us through both your lowest point (when you’ve been ugly crying on the bathroom floor) and your highest point (cracking open the prosecco).

Gilly Macmillan I know you know

The first rejection I had arrived within 24 hours of submission. I felt cheated out of a period of hope. Otherwise, I’ve been pretty lucky. The same first three chapters that were rejected on that occasion landed me a different agent who told me ‘You can write, but your book is a mess.’ We worked on the book for a year and then she sold it to a ton of publishers. It was amazing.

I think low points have cropped up since then. Trying to keep up with writing a book a year, which is what the industry likes, can feel gruelling sometimes, because you want those books to be as good as you can make them which is a challenge when you’re working under deadline pressure. But most of the time I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am.

If you’ve been longlisted/shortlisted/won any awards/had your book optioned for TV/film/achieved bestseller status tell us about it [this is your moment to BRAG].

Gilly Macmillan The Nanny

My books have been on the New York Times, The Sunday Times, Globe & Mail and Der Spiegel bestseller lists. My debut, WHAT SHE KNEW, was shortlisted for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel and an International Thriller Writers Award for Best Paperback Original.

A few of my books have been optioned for screen though no sign yet of any development. But I can dream!

Talk us through your writing process. Do you write thousands of words a day, 200 words a day? How does it all come together for you? Do you have A PLAN?

Gilly Macmillan Odd child out

I’m not a very organised individual but I do work very hard. I think writing is about getting your bum on the seat every working day, no matter what. And that doesn’t have to be in a writer’s sanctum. With a laptop and a pair of earphones I can write pretty much anywhere: hospital waiting rooms, airport lounges, in the car waiting for pick up the kids, and so on. In an ideal world I’ll write 1-2K words a day but sometimes I write a big, fat zero and use the time for thinking, which never feels like work, but is. I don’t plan my novels in advance, though I probably should. My agent would like it if I did.

What’s next for you?

I’ve just handed in a new novel, my seventh, and I’m super excited about it (oooooh, I can’t wait). It’s my pandemic book. I got the idea for it in the early days of lockdown and it’s been my companion for the past year. More news on that coming soon.

Advice to aspiring writers [you may not say ‘go and work in a bank’].

Read, hold your nerve, get the words down and pay attention to the market.

Book recommendations.

MY SISTER THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite

THE GHOST WALL by Sarah Moss

South Africa is now in the third wave of Covid 19. How did you keep sane during the #lockdown?

Gilly Macmillan The Perfect Girl

Working hard kept me sane at first, but it was hard to keep the momentum up over the winter. I struggled when the UK went into our second lockdown in January. But I’ve taken strength from reading, tv, cooking and the outdoors. Simple pleasures, really.

What is the first thing you did when lockdown was lifted in the UK?

I went to the hairdresser!

Where can the fans get your book?

You can order it online or through your usual bookstore.


Thank you so much for taking part in #ReadingMatters! We hope to see you at one of our literary festivals here one day. The Franschhoek Literary Festival is starting up again so who knows? And speaking of FLF, if you want to become a friend and support them, you can do that here:

Happy reading, everyone and stay safe! xxx