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Gilly Macmillan

Gilly Macmillan: Photographer to Novelist and Her New Novel

Gilly Macmillan was in her forties when she became a bestselling author.

Macmillan’s latest novel, The Nanny (paid link) comes out today in the U.S. (It was published in the UK earlier this year.)

Gilly Macmillan
Gilly Macmillan Photo by Céline Nieszawer/Leextra

In The Nanny, seven-year-old Jocelyn Holt’s nanny disappears without a trace. The experience scarred Holt. And then, 30 years later, human remains are uncovered on the estate where Holt grew up.

The discovery causes Holt, according to the book’s blurb, “to question everything she thought she knew.”

The Nanny is Macmillan’s fifth novel. Earlier in her career worked as an art historian and then a photographer. In the interview below, she talks about why and how she switched to being a writer.

Gilly Macmillan lives in Bristol, Wales.

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Q&A with Gilly Macmillan

How and when did you make the transition from art historian and professional photographer to novelist?

I loved both those jobs, but they were difficult to sustain while I was raising my family and especially after a move to the countryside when the kids were little.

I made the transition to being a novelist when I was in my forties, once my kids had all started school. I knew I needed to get a reliable job because we needed the money, but I figured that before I committed to that I could steal a few months to try to write.

Gilly Macmillan quote: "I set a goal of writing 1,000 words a day, five days a week."

The challenge I set myself was to see if I could write a whole book. I had no tuition, just a lifelong passion for reading, so in that sense, I started from nothing and had nothing to lose apart from time. I set a goal of writing 1,000 words a day, five days a week.

I didn’t manage it every day, because I had to fit it around my family, and sometimes I managed a few less words and sometimes a few more, but I recorded my word count faithfully each time I wrote and watched it grow until I reached 100K.

I didn’t really know what to do with it then, so I put it in a drawer for a while but got it out a few months later and worked hard to improve the first three chapters. I sent those to a few agents, and they attracted the attention of my first agent.

She and I worked on the book for a year before she submitted it to publishers, at which point we were lucky enough that it sold widely and to my great surprise I found myself in my mid-forties with a brand-new career.

Were there any experiences or skills from being a photographer and working in an art gallery that carried over into your writing?

Absolutely. When you work in the visual arts you learn to notice detail and to consider carefully how a picture communicates with the person looking at it. I use both those skills in relation to my prose.

I am always aware that I am writing for readers, and not for myself. I am also a very visual writer so I see scenes and action in my mind as I write.

Gilly Macmillan on Research and Writing

What research did you do before writing The Nanny?

I went to visit Great Chalfield Manor, a beautiful and very old country house in the South West of England, near to where I live. It’s often used in film and tv productions. If you’ve seen Wolf Hall you’ll have seen it used as Thomas Cromwell’s childhood home, Austin Friars.

It was perfect for providing me with inspiration for Lake Hall, which is a location that’s absolutely central to The Nanny, and probably as important as any of the characters in the novel.

Cover of The Nanny
Paid link

Were there any challenges you encountered while writing The Nanny that were new to you?

Writing from the point of view of someone from the English upper classes was a new experience for me. I have met a fair number of people like that but never tried to create one.

I was nervous when I began to write Lady Virginia Holt but once I’d found her voice, she fast became one my favourite characters that I’ve ever written. I absolutely love her complexity, intelligence and her feisty nature.

When you’re writing a book, do you take into account linguistic and cultural differences between British and American readers?

I don’t, on the whole, because I think I’d start second guessing myself continually if I did. The copyedit process is where we consider which aspects of my language might be difficult for a North American audience and we make any necessary changes.

What’s your typical writing process?

I begin my books with a broad idea of my characters and set up. Sometimes I have an opening scene in mind that I’m dying to write, and I always know loosely how I want things to end up for my main characters. After that, I just start to write.

I have tried to outline in advance on many occasions, but it doesn’t work for me and I believe I have many of my best ideas once I’m deep into the book. It’s a nerve-wracking way to work, for sure, and can lead to a lot of editing in later drafts, but I believe the nerves help me write to the best of my ability.

Many of your books, including The Nanny, involve a sudden loss or disappearance. Is that pure imagination and storytelling, or are you mining something, such as a personal fear or experience?

Gilly Macmillan quote: "I have never forgotten the fear of losing him, and I don’t believe I ever will."

One of my children was gravely ill with cancer as a baby. He recovered, thankfully, and if you met him now, you’d never know he’d been unwell, but I have never forgotten the fear of losing him, and I don’t believe I ever will. 

Who and What Macmillan Reads

Who are some writers that you admire?

James Lee Burke, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Hilary Mantel, Cormac McCarthy, Donna Tartt, Rachel Cusk, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Tana French, Alice Sebold, and so many more!

Have you read any good books lately?

I just finished A Nearly Normal Family by M.T. Edvardsson. I thought it was superb.

Thank you to Gilly Macmillan for this interview. You, too, could be featured on this blog. Use this website’s contact form to reach out. 

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