By Leslie Lindsay
Set in Bristol, in the southwest corner of England, a beautiful young piano prodigy (Zoe) is living a privileged Second Chance Life with her blended family, consisting of her mother, step-father, step-brother (also a pianist) and new baby (half) sister, Grace. Lurking under the surface, however are some dark secrets Zoe Maisey and her mother are harboring. Though she has a genius IQ and can play the piano darn well, moments from the past continue to haunt both she and her mother, events so tragic the mother hasn’t even told her new husband–demanding Zoe to do the same. But the cat is out of the bag fairly early in the book when someone from Zoe’s past shows up at performance at a local church.Twenty-four hours later, her mother is dead. Macmillan’s writing is razor-sharp, blending suspense and a compelling plot, told by various POVs as the aftermath of Zoe’s mother’s death unfold. I flipped the pages at a frantic pace as I wanted—demanded—to know what really happened. Macmillan does a fine job of breathing breath into different characters and highlighting blended families, domestic violence, infidelity, substance abuse, moving forward with one’s life, and the extent to which we go to maintain our secrets, and perhaps, even our innocence.
So, join me as I sit down with Gilly and chat all things writing and THE PERFECT GIRL.
Leslie Lindsay: Gilly, thrilled to have you back to discuss your second book. Thank you for taking the time to pop by. I had a tough time putting this one down. I was reading with a frantic clip and I’m curious, was it that way for you too, as you were writing? What ultimately inspired this story?
Gilly Macmillan: Thank you so much for having me! I’m thrilled to be back and delighted to hear that you enjoyed THE PERFECT GIRL. You’re right, I did write it at a bit of a frantic clip. I think it was partly because it’s such a claustrophobic set-up in the book, and set over such a short time-frame, that it rewarded that kind of immersive approach to the writing.
The inspiration behind the story was a real-life case that I heard about a few years ago. It concerned a teenage girl who was sent to jail after being convicted of causing the death of some friends in a car crash, just like Zoe in the book. This girl served her time, but never got back on track after that, in spite of having a loving and supportive family. I was so saddened by the story, and by the idea that a foolish teenage mistake could result in such a devastating life-altering outcome. The idea for the book took off when I began to wonder what might happen if you tried to move on after that: who would you become, and how would you make a future?
L.L.: I’ve heard some second-and –third-time authors lament about how challenging subsequent books can be to write. WHAT SHE KNEW thundered out of the gates and seemed to become an over-night success. Can you give a little glimpse into the world of a sophomore novelist? The challenges and also the benefits?
Gilly Macmillan: The world of a sophomore novelist is a strange place. Sometimes thrilling, but often terrifying! The learning curve is steep when your first book goes out into the world. I was advised to write my second novel before the first was published and I was very glad I did because the promotion work and all of the other things that happen around publication can be very distracting and time-consuming.
The challenges of writing my second book included writing to a deadline and for an audience that was wider than just myself and my regular readers (who were my husband and my writing partner) for the first time. I felt under a spotlight in a way that was new and threatened to feel uncomfortable at first. My solution was to tell myself to hold my nerve (this is my mantra! Sometimes hourly!) and write a book that I would like to read myself. That’s how I got through WHAT SHE KNEW, and it was the key to writing THE PERFECT GIRL as well.
The advantages were many. I had had no instruction on how to write when I started WHAT SHE KNEW so I made a ton of mistakes during the writing process that took a lot of time and patience to correct during edits. However, that rather painful experience meant that I had a much better understanding of structure and pacing and the whole craft of writing a novel right as I worked on THE PERFECT GIRL. It was good to feel that I’d learned a lot and meant that the editing process was much smoother.
“With tightly drawn characters, a fascinating storyline and absolutely exquisite narration, THE PERFECT GIRL is sure to keep readers up at night. Gilly Macmillan proves once again to be a master of the written word and is quickly becoming one of my go-to authors. Literary suspense at its finest.”
—Mary Kubica, New York Times bestselling author of Pretty Baby
L.L.: I have to applaud your attention and sensitivity to emotionally shaken adolescents in THE PERFECT GIRL. In my former life, I was a psych R.N. working in a place quite similar to what you refer to as ‘The Unit.’ Can you talk about how you developed this piece of the narrative and what did your research consist of?
Gilly Macmillan: Thank you. It’s very important to me to try to remain as sensitive as possible to my characters and the situations they find themselves in, so it means a lot to hear that. In terms of research, for starters I read everything I could find about teenage incarceration. The material I found included first-hand accounts of the experience of being incarcerated written by teenagers, interviews with people who had worked with young people in detention units, and government inspection reports of juvenile detention centers. I wanted to try to understand the system from every angle I could so I also did face-to-face research. I interviewed a solicitor friend about how the law might treat teenagers in Zoe’s situation and also spoke to two retired detectives. Additionally, I visited a police custody suite, spent a morning in court, sat in on a police interview with an adult who was under arrest, and visited an adult prison. It was only after I’d done all of that that I felt able to try to imagine what Zoe’s experience might have been like and put it into her words. What I learned during this process made fascinating but also very difficult material and certainly made me feel somewhat desperate about how we treat some of our teenagers and young people who are in detention.
L.L.: In fact, there’s a lot of issues that pop up in THE PERFECT GIRL: divorce/re-marriage, blended families, infidelity, domestic abuse, substance abuse, and secret-keeping. In fact, I think there’s a line in the book that goes something like, ‘A good lie is one that is very close to the truth.’ When we write about all of the things that make up the world we live in—even these not-so-pretty-things, I think there’s that much truth in our fiction. Can you talk about that, please?
Gilly Macmillan: Truth in fiction is something that I think about a lot, and something that I’m always striving for. It’s one of the reasons I love to write in first person and it’s why I take my research very seriously. I think the best fiction in any genre can tell us something about ourselves and our world, however uncomfortable, and the act of reading gives us time to reflect on those things.
I try very hard to write characters whose predicaments grip us emotionally because there’s something recognizable and true in them. I think there’s room for that in crime and thriller writing, alongside intricate plotting and all of the other devices we can use to pull a story along. If the story isn’t tugging at the reader’s feelings in some way, I don’t think I’ve done my job.
L..L.: In what ways were you influenced by some of the teen culture mentioned in THE PERFECT GIRL?
Gilly Macmillan: My children are teenagers (well, almost, in the case of the youngest) so I’m surrounded by teen culture at home and I’m always surprised at how much of it is based around what’s online. I love it and I loathe it! I think it can be wonderful when they make connections with new people and share recommendations and ideas online. It’s a completely new way of creating and maintaining friendships and experiencing popular culture, and so different from my generation’s experience of being a teenager. Having said that, I’m also afraid of its darker side, as many parents are. I researched some nasty message sites as I was writing THE PERFECT GIRL and was shocked by the severity of some of the bullying that can go on.
Online teen culture felt like a really important part of Zoe’s story, especially as she’s rather shielded from it by her family and perhaps, as a result, a bit more naïve when she encounters it. I think there’s some safety to be found in education around online culture, though it’s probably impossible to protect our teenagers from all of the pitfalls. It’s certainly a rich source of material for psych thriller writers as a result.
L.L.: And since I’ve typed the title a handful of times, I have to ask, what are your thoughts on all of these books coming out in the last four years or so with ‘girl’ in the title? Because at one time, this book was originally called BUTTERFLY IN THE DARK.
Gilly Macmillan: ‘Girl’ titles are definitely a ‘thing’ right now, aren’t they? The book was originally going to come out in the UK under the title BUTTERFLY IN THE DARK but it was decided, rightly, that having different titles here and in the US can be confusing. When THE PERFECT GIRL was first suggested I was pleased because I think it’s a great fit for the book, and for Zoe’s character, regardless of the trend for ‘girl’ titles. I would like to think that ‘girl’ titles have become popular because we’re living in a time when we’re developing (finally!) more positive associations with the word. ‘Girl’ nowadays can mean somebody feisty and brave and smart and engaging, and I think that qualifies it immediately as a potentially interesting title for a book.
L.L.: What are you working on next?
Gilly Macmillan: I’m working on a sequel to WHAT SHE KNEW which sees the return of Detective Inspector Jim Clemo. He has a new case to work on, which involves two teenage boys who are involved in an incident that leaves one dangerously ill after almost drowning and the other so shocked that he’s unable to speak about what happened. It’s been great to return to a character I know so well and am very fond of and it’s an exciting challenge to write a follow on for him.
L.L.: What’s keeping you awake these days? What’s inspiring you? It doesn’t have to be literary, but if it is, then by all means…
Gilly Macmillan: That’s a tough question! I sometimes feel as if my mind will never rest, there’s so much to think about and so much going on the world at the moment. In terms of writing, I was inspired a great deal by a book I read last year called ALL INVOLVED by Ryan Gattis. It’s a brilliant, heart-breaking, raw story of what happens during the LA riots while the police are occupied and some of the gang neighborhoods are left essentially lawless. My third book is the thing that’s keeping me up at night at the moment. I can spend hours fretting over characters or plot points, and even in the small hours I feel compelled to write down any ideas I have right then and there because if I don’t they’re gone by the morning!
L.L.: What question have you been asked a lot lately?
Gilly Macmillan: I’m often asked if I think I’ll be able to keep having ideas for new books. The answer is ‘yes’! I find life, and people, so endlessly fascinating that I’m sure that, all being well, I’ll be finding stories that I’d like to tell and characters that I’d love to explore for a very long time.
L.L.: Gilly, just a pleasure as always! Thank you!
Gilly Macmillan: You’re very welcome, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me!
For more information, or to connect with Gilly on social media, please see:
“Tightly focused and fast-paced. You won’t rest until you really know what happened.”
—Lisa Ballantyne, author of The Guilty One, on What She Knew
Author Bio: Gilly Macmillan is the New York Times bestselling author of What She Knew. She grew up in Swindon, Wiltshire and lived in Northern California in her late teens. 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 photography, and now writes full time. She resides in Bristol, England.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay through these various social media channels:
[Special thanks to L. Truskowski. Cover(s) and author image courtesy of William Morrow and used with permission. Truth and fiction quote by Stephen King image retrieved from on 8.24.16]