Gillian Philip lives and writes in the Scottish Highlands and is one of my favorite author interviews. The Aberdeen native began her writing career while living in Barbados, and her YA mystery/thrillers have been written for Hothouse Fiction, a UK book packager.
Gillian, I love your web site quote: “Taking dictation from people who don’t exist.” It sounds as though you give your characters free rein. How much do you know about a book before you begin writing?
Sometimes I know very little for certain, but I have a stew of ideas simmering away, and they won’t be pinned down to the page till they’re nicely cooked (this metaphor is losing its way). I like to have my main characters in place – and named with exactly the right names – even if I don’t know very much about them, or the secrets they’re keeping. So long as they have the right names, I know they’ll talk to me eventually.
And I absolutely have to have a title I like. I’m usually happy to change it eventually, but the story itself needs a name, just like the characters. I can’t relate to a file called ‘Working Title’ or ‘Book’. It’s like calling the dog ‘Dog’.
Why did living in Barbados for twelve years make you decide to write professionally? And what were you writing at that time?
We moved out to Barbados for my husband’s work, so there was no work permit for me. I went to the gym a lot, and went to the beach bar a lot more... and eventually I realised there was no excuse not to give my writing (or my liver) a chance. After all, I could hardly say I was pushed for time. So I wrote a short story, and sent it off to the People’s Friend, a UK story magazine. I was gobsmacked, and thrilled, when they accepted it. I wrote some more, and eventually they accepted another, and then more. I started writing for other magazines too, My Weekly and Woman’s Weekly.
I was happy to be selling stuff but I wasn’t all that happy writing short stories; I wanted to stay with my characters for a whole book. So I tried writing romance, and failed – it’s incredibly hard to get right – but it was all good practice, and it really gave me the novel bug. When we came back to Scotland in 2001, and I was buying children’s books for my new twins, I discovered modern Young Adult novels. And wham bam, I realised what really I wanted to write.
Tell us about your first YA mystery novel, Bad Faith, published last October, which sounds pretty street savvy.
Bad Faith is the story of Cassandra, who lives in a society run by the dictatorial One Church and its violent militias. She’s a privileged girl – her father is a cleric – but she has a dangerously subversive boyfriend, who’s an infidel. It all goes wrong for the pair of them when they discover the corpse of an important bishop, and – for reasons that seem perfectly sensible at the time–decide to hide it.
Meanwhile Cass is finding that her family has terrible secrets: some of them relating to the dead bishop, and some to a serial killer who once terrorised the country. Bad Faith is part murder mystery, part love story, and part political thriller. It was great fun to write – for half the book I was wondering myself whodunnit.
Your latest book, Crossing the Line, is due out this month. Tell us about your protagonist and the setting. And how important is humor?
Like Bad Faith, Crossing the Line is set in an unspecified Scottish town (though I confess that Aberdeen – where I grew up – had a big influence). Nick Geddes is a former bully and thug who’s trying to turn his life round, but it’s complicated. His old gang was responsible for the death of his sister Allie’s boyfriend. Now he not only has to look after the unstable Allie, and deal with his sometimes monstrous family - he’s also in love with the unattainable Orla Mahon, the dead boy’s sister.
I threw an awful lot at Nick, so it’s just as well he turned out to have a sense of humour. I do think the darker the story, the funnier it can be – it’s a matter of balance. I’m happy that Crossing the Line has been called ‘gruesome’ – but also ‘funny and touching’.
Working for a successful book packaging house must be an interesting job. What exactly does your job entail?
Hothouse Fiction is the book packaging company who created the Darkside books, about a parallel London where the children of Jack the Ripper live. The creative guys at Hothouse brainstorm concepts, come up with stories and great characters, and then put the ideas out to various writers, who tender for the books by writing sample chapters.
I’ve been contracted to write a series called Darke Academy. Hothouse gives me an outline and the characters, I write a draft, and then we work on the editing together. For me it’s a really different way of working, and I enjoy it.
With seven-year-old twins, when do you find time to write? What’s your schedule like?
I try to write in the mornings and, if I’m lucky, into the afternoon – even after the kids have come home from school, I’m a bit naughty about letting them sit in front of the Xbox or the television while I finish a chapter. If things are going really well, or I’m up against a deadline, I’ll work in the evenings. I try to keep weekends for family, but I tend to sneak back to the laptop... I confess, though, the writing quite often gets pushed aside for the joys of Facebook. That’s a temptation I really need to resist!
Which mystery sub genres are most popular in Scotland? And how do Agatha Christie’s amateur sleuth novels fare in today’s market?
There still seems to be a big demand for the gritty, ‘tartan noir’ side of crime fiction. I think Val McDermid and Ian Rankin will always be popular. Stuart MacBride is very dark, and he’s huge at the moment. But Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books are popular too, and they are very gentle in subject matter. There’s always room for both, I reckon. Agatha Christie is much more an English writer, of course, but I can’t imagine she will ever fall out of favour. She was featured in a recent episode of "Doctor Who", a wonderful and clever and wildly popular sci-fi series, so I hope that brought her yet another new generation of readers.
Which authors most influenced your own writing and why?
To an extent it depends on what I’m writing. Ruth Rendell is one of my favourite authors in any genre, and when I’m writing about crime I think I’ve been influenced by her non-Wexford novels in subject matter and viewpoint. I’m crazy about Malorie Blackman, a fabulous YA author who can do politics that make you cry. But I write fantasy too, and where that’s concerned, I’m influenced by everything from Alan Garner to the Marvel Comics and graphic novels of my teenage years. I was a huge fan of the X-Men, and I adored Wolverine even before he was Hugh Jackman in black leather (I adore him even more now that he is Hugh Jackman...)
Tell us about the Darke Academy Series that you’re currently writing.
The Hothouse series Darke Academy is about ancient spirits living in the bodies of modern teenagers. The students come from all over the world, and the Academy moves to a different exotic city every term – mostly because things tend to go horribly wrong for pupils who aren’t in on the secret. I’ve had a lot of fun locating adventures in Paris, New York, and (next time) in Istanbul. My heroine Cassie is a girl from a care home who thinks her life is changing when she wins a scholarship to the prestigious school – but she doesn’t realise, of course, just how big the ‘changes’ are going to be.