As one of our Mysteries Book a Month 2018 selections, Odd Child Out by Gilly Macmillan transports readers to Bristol, England, where a prank gone wrong leaves one boy in the hospital and his best friend—a Somali refugee in a British community already simmering with tension—in the hot seat. As the suspenseful novel unfolds, both boys’ families are forced to take a hard look at long-suppressed secrets…and face hard truths. This week in the Bluestocking Salon, Gilly Macmillan took a break from her busy writing schedule to chat with us about narrative voice, the importance of fiction in placing readers in the minds of others, and being a visual writer.
Bas Bleu: Your previous books have focused largely on female protagonists. Why did you decide to center Odd Child Out around a friendship between two boys, and how do you think their gender informs their character arcs?
Gilly Macmillan: In my second novel, The Perfect Girl, I wrote an intense story about a teenage girl so when I sat down to plan Odd Child Out, I was curious to try my hand at writing about teenage boys, particularly because I already knew I wanted the book to be about a friendship. I have read a few books about feverish friendships between teenage girls so I thought it would be interesting to inject a similar kind of intensity between two boys, especially with their differing backgrounds. I’m not too sure how gender informs their characters arcs, but perhaps it comes through primarily in what they chose to do together that leads to the incident at the canal. I think girls might perceive it as more risky and less rewarding.
BB: The shifting narrative voices in the novel offer such different perspectives on the same events. Why did you decide to structure the novel this way?
GM: I love reading novels that are narrated from multiple points of view, because they can add layers of tension and complexity to the story, deepening the mystery and letting the reader get into the minds of more than one person. I think of it as like watching a scene in a movie from different angles: it enhances your experience.
BB: Though it’s a crime novel, Odd Child Out tackles head-on issues of racial prejudice and xenophobia, as well as exploring the complexities of immigration. Was it daunting to write about such politically and emotionally charged topics?
GM: It was very daunting. I was extremely sensitive to the shifting political scene as I wrote and the fact that these issues were often front and center in the media. I was even tempted to give up the book at one point, as a result of this, but in the end I stuck with it because I believe novels have an important role in helping us get into the minds of others, and that can only be a good thing at a time when some members of the media and political classes are treating these issues with some very broad strokes, often with the intention of scaremongering. I tried to treat all my characters with empathy and sensitivity and to tell personal, relatable stories.
BB: You write sensitively about the horrors of and ongoing trials of Abdi’s family’s refugee experience. How did you research that? In the same vein, how did you tap into the intense emotions of a family dealing with a terminal illness?
GM: I read as many first-person accounts of the refugee experience as I could find, as well as books about the camps and UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] reports on the camps. I pieced together everything I learned and tried to give as representative an account as I could without having visited a camp myself. The experience of severe illness was easier to depict as one of my children was diagnosed with cancer as a baby. His cancer was not terminal, and he is completely well now, but I remember every moment of what we went through during his treatment, and I drew heavily on that to write the experiences of Noah and his family.
BB: I read that you have a background in art history and photography. Do you think your experience in the visual arts influences your writing at all? How are the mediums similar and different?
GM: I believe studying art history taught me how to write because it teaches you to translate what you see into words. It has fed into my writing process because I often visualize the action and detail in my scenes as I’m writing them. I believe both art history and photography teach you to look for detail and to look carefully. That’s a very useful habit for a writer. Sometimes a small detail makes a scene or brings a character to life. Photography and writing are both largely about telling stories, also. It’s at the core of both disciplines, and in art history you are looking at visual material and extracting both stories and history from it. Photography and writing obviously differ in the building blocks and tools required to make the final product, but their end goal is often the same: to tell a story and to tell it well. I would definitely not be the same writer I am today if I hadn’t had such a strong visual arts influence in my life.
BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
GM: The Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, anything by Enid Blyton, Struwelpeter (a terrifying book of cautionary tales), and anything by Roald Dahl. I was a voracious reader as a child and it would take me forever to list all the books I loved, but I think each and every one I read shaped me in some way.
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers? Who are your favorite authors?
GM: Books I am quick to recommend include: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, A Secret History by Donna Tartt, Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and one I discovered recently, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Other favorite authors include thriller-writers Mary Kubica, Gillian Flynn, and James Lee Burke.
BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?
GM: My new novel I Know You Know will be hitting the shelves in September this year. It’s about a man called Cody Swift who returns to Bristol twenty years after the murder of his two best friends, a crime that has haunted him since he was a child. He plans to re-investigate the case after doubts fall on the original conviction and starts a podcast to record his findings. But there are many people who don’t want the case reopened, not least the mother of one of the murdered boys, who takes things into her own hands. And when another body is uncovered near to where the boys were murdered, the detective on the original case has to reopen his files and decide if the murders are linked. With his career in jeopardy, the clock is ticking and lives are at risk…
I am currently finishing up my fifth novel, The Nanny, which will be out in 2019.
It’s a chilling story about a young woman who returns to her family home widowed and vulnerable with a daughter of her own. Her life is thrown into turmoil when her beloved nanny, Aggie, reappears, having disappeared without a trace thirty years previously. But is it really Aggie, and what does she want now that she’s back?
BB: Thank you, Gilly Macmillan, for sharing your insight with us and for writing such riveting stories!
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