Gilly MacMillan: The Inspiration Behind Burnt Paper Sky

Gilly MacMillan: The Inspiration Behind Burnt Paper Sky

Firstly, and most simply, I wanted to see if I could write a book. I have been an obsessive reader all my life, and I read very widely, so it had always been an ambition to see if I could write a novel.

I’d begun two books already and discarded both. One was far too personal, as it was based on a family story, and the other was taking far too long to research. The moment that things clicked was when I decided to write the kind of book that I love to read: a psychological thriller. I knew instantly that I wanted to write in what is now called the ‘domestic noir’ genre because I’d recently read Linwood Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye and been gripped by its simple premise and domestic setting.

So I asked myself a question: ‘What would your worst nightmare be?’ The answer came swiftly and easily: to lose one of my children and not to know what had happened to them. That thought made me shudder, in fact it still does. I set the opening of the book in Leigh Woods, near Bristol, because I walk my own dogs there frequently, and when you’re on your own in woodland it’s not difficult to have dark imaginings. It felt like a perfect setting.

I hadn’t experienced one my children going missing, apart from a couple of heart-stopping moments that turned out to be false alarms, but I did know how it feels to fear that you will lose your child forever. One of my children suffered cancer as a baby, and although he is well now, you never forget the desperate fear of loss you felt day in, day out, for a very long time and the way the rug can be pulled so completely out from under your feet in an instant.

I chose the child’s mother, Rachel, as my narrator (there are two, the detective who runs the case is the other), partly for that reason, but also because I’d built up a certain amount of outrage when watching reaction in both traditional and social media to missing child cases. It sometimes felt to me as if, at what must be the worst and most vulnerable time in a family’s life, people were not only publicly judging them, but often doing so extremely harshly. This made me wonder: what must it really be like to be at a press conference where you appeal for help when your child is missing? Can you ever be prepared for that moment? What does it take for the press to turn against you? What does all that judgement feel like when before the event you were just another person going about their life? As a mother myself, my sense of outrage at the treatment of some of these families, even if individuals were later found guilt of some kind of wrongdoing, was strong. It certainly inspired me.

My lifelong love of crime novels meant that including the voice of a detective was too difficult to resist.

It’s not just the content of a novel that requires inspiration though. Getting from one end of a book to the other is nothing short of an endurance test at times, and I needed to find inspiration in very practical ways as well.

I had a writing partner, who was also working on her first book, and she really helped me stick to the daily word count requirement. We met up every fortnight to share what we’d written and that gave me a structure, as well as a deadline, and also feedback, that I couldn’t have done without. That was really inspiring, as was reading her progress on her book.

A healthy dose of pragmatism inspired me too. Due to the looming necessity to get a reliable job, since my youngest child had recently started school, I knew that I had one shot at writing this book, and so it was now or never. It’s not a romantic source of inspiration, but it certainly made me get on with it because I knew that once I had a permanent job I would struggle to find time to write at all with a busy family life going on too.

And I also had something to prove to myself. Apart from some part time teaching positions I’d been out of the workplace for years and had lost confidence in that arena as many women do when they’ve taken significant periods of time out to care for their families. Deep down, I wanted to show myself, and my family, that I could write a whole book, and write it as well as I could. That feeling of determination drove me through the days and weeks when I felt like giving up – there are, throughout the course of writing a novel, many of those!

So Burnt Paper Sky is the product of all sorts of things that had emerged as important at that time in my life, a mixture of circumstances, ideas, feelings and experiences, all of which inspired me. It was as if, once I’d found the kind of book I really wanted to write, and thrown myself into it heart and soul, the rest fell naturally into place, and gave the story the momentum it needed to reach those two golden words: ‘The End’.