A former art historian and photographer, Gilly studied at Bristol University and the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She lives in Bristol, UK, with her husband and three children. Gilly’s novels have appeared on the New York Times, Sunday Times, Globe & Mail and Der Spiegel bestseller lists and have been translated into over 20 languages. Visit her at www.gillymacmillan.com or on Instagram @gillymacmillan
Girly Book Club: How did you get into writing and what inspired you to write your first book?
Gilly MacMillan: I got into writing later in life, after spending years as a stay-at-home mom. I was at a point when my youngest kid had just started school and I needed to get a job, but I decided instead to gamble and sneak a little bit of time to myself before making applications to see if I could write a book. My debut, What She Knew, was the result and was inspired by my love of thrillers and my greatest fear: to lose a child and not know what happened to them.
GBC: What makes a book great, in your opinion? What elements does a great story possess? What elements does a great book possess?
GM: I love any book that keeps me turning pages, whatever the genre, and that usually happens because I’m invested in the characters, plot or both. Any great story must have those two elements working for it. Ideally it will also grip you by being beautifully written, conjuring up a vivid sense of place, having a compelling voice, or more. Ultimately, it’s all interwoven, but plot and character are key.
GBC: When you start writing a new book, what is your goal? What do you aim to invoke in your readers?
GM: I would love it if they could lose themselves in the world of the book as they were reading, if they couldn’t bear to put it down because they wanted to see what happened next. Those are my greatest pleasures as a reader.
GBC: What can you tell our members about your latest release, The Nanny?
GM: The Nanny is a story about families, truth and the fragility of memories, about multigenerational female relationships, loyalty and manipulation. It’s set in an English country house with a Gothic vibe. It asks questions: who loves you more, your parents, or the nanny who disappeared from your life when you were seven? It asks: is the nanny the body in the lake, or the woman at the door?
GBC: Where did the inspiration for The Nanny come from?
GM: My agent and I were discussing how many thrillers use a missing person as a major plot point and we wondered if it would be interesting to flip that idea on its head, and write about someone coming back into the lives of others and causing a shocking upheaval. The idea of that person being a nanny was compelling because nannies have such a distinct and intimate relationship with the families they work for. A nanny might learn family secrets, get inappropriately close or exert influence over the most vulnerable members of a family.
GBC: Do you ever base your characters off individuals from your life or include snippets of your personal life into your novels?
GM: I don’t base my characters wholly on individuals, though I might borrow a personality trait from someone in real life and feed it into a character. Snippets from my personal life have made their way into every novel I’ve written. My family loves pointing them out when they read the books.
GBC: What does your writing process look like? Do you map each story out from start to finish or do you begin with an idea and see where it takes you?
GM: I start each book with a story idea, one or more characters, and a loose sense of where I want it to end up. With that, I start to write and see where the story takes me. It can make for a very messy first draft which needs a lot of editing, but I get my best ideas when I’m writing so it works for me.
GBC: Any advice you can share with the aspiring writers within our community?
GM: The book is more important than you, the writer. Put your ego aside and channel everything you’ve got into making it as good a read as it can possibly be. Hold your nerve and work continually on improving your craft. And, of course, read.