Gilly Macmillan explains how her debut novel Burnt Paper Sky became Piatkus’ ‘superlead’ title for summer 2015
I began to write Burnt Paper Sky because I found myself at a point in my life where I had a bit of time on my hands for the first time in years. My children had just all started at school and although I knew I needed to get a job sooner rather than later, I thought I might be able to finally have a go at writing a book. I’d written bits and pieces before but life had always got in the way somehow, preventing me from working on anything large-scale, but the ambition was still with me.
Did you find it difficult to balance writing with the demands of family life and raising young children?
Yes! Raising a family is something that’s always difficult to juggle with other interests, professional or personal. However, writing can fit very nicely with raising a family, especially as my children are not very young any longer. Sitting in the car waiting to pick up children, for example, is time you can use to think about ideas, or read a book for research. I have become very adept at using my time usefully! On the other hand, I think that raising a family teaches you a huge amount, and that experience can be very useful when you’re writing, so it’s a very positive thing to combine the two things, as well as having its challenges.
Did you ever doubt yourself or your novel and, if so, was there anything in particular that helped you to stay motivated?
I doubted myself constantly, and I doubted the book at times, but less so. It was the book itself that kept me going, because I felt that there was a strong story to be told there, and the more I wrote, the more ideas it generated. It sort of got a life of its own. My mantra throughout was simple though: ‘Hold your nerve’. And I’m glad I did.
I got my agent the old-fashioned way, which is to say that once I’d finished the first draft of the book, and polished the first three chapters to within an inch of their lives, I bought a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and sent those chapters off with a covering letter to three agents who were accepting submissions in the psych thriller genre. Two weren’t interested, but Nelle Andrew at PFD asked to see more and signed me on the condition that I work on the manuscript with her to improve it. I absolutely jumped at the chance.
How did your two-book book deal with Piatkus/Little, Brown come about? How did you feel when you realised you were going to be a published author?
The deal came about because very soon after my agent submitted the book to publishers, we heard that Emma Beswetherick, an associate publisher at Piatkus, was interested in purchasing it, and she subsequently made an offer for Burnt Paper Sky and one other book, which I was delighted to accept.
When your book deal was announced last year, Piatkus described Burnt Paper Sky as its ‘superlead’ title for 2015. Could you explain what this means? Is it true that you turned down offers from other publishers and decided against an auction situation because of the ‘superlead’ offer from Piatkus?
My editor, Emma Beswetherick, has an unusual remit in publishing, in that her job is to buy just one book a year, and that is a book which Piatkus think might have ‘bestseller’ potential. That book is called the ‘superlead’ title and is launched every summer with all the publisher’s energy and passion thrown into it. I felt it was an amazing opportunity to be offered, so I did decide against an auction and accepted the offer.
Was the advance enough to change your lifestyle?
The advance was enough to allow me to put off getting a job for a while longer, and work full time firstly on rewriting Burnt Paper Sky and then on Book Two, which was amazing.
Where do you write, and what is your daily writing routine?
The most predictable thing about my daily routine is that I start to write early, as soon as I’ve dropped my children off at school. My most productive time of day is between 8.30 and 11.00 when I have loads of energy and great concentration. That’s when I usually get words down on the page. After that, I’ll walk my dogs and I usually write again in the early afternoon before the children come home but I’m less productive then so it’s often a good time to do research, or edit.
In terms of location, I sometimes write at home, and sometimes go to a café, where I write with a pair of headphones on to cut out distracting conversations. It’s nice to alternate. Occasionally I have to accompany my son to a TV set, as he’s on the cast of BBC’s Call the Midwife and I write there too while I’m waiting for him to film his scenes. So parts of Burnt Paper Sky have been written surrounded by the East End of London in 1950’s, not to mention a TV crew! I think it helps enormously to be able to write anywhere; I don’t think I’d have finished my book if I hadn’t taught myself that skill.
What would you say has been the highlight of your writing career so far?
That would have to be a dinner that I went to this year with my agent and the foreign rights team at PFD and many of Burnt Paper Sky’s editors both from the UK and internationally. We went out together on the eve of London Book Fair 2015 and it was just such a pleasure and a privilege to meet a group of people who were all gunning for my book (my book!) to do well. It was a bit of a dream really.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Listen to advice from people in the industry as they almost certainly know the market better than you do. Always remember your potential readers: you’re writing for them, not for yourself. And, most importantly, hold your nerve!