The saying “art imitates life” rings true in particular for Gilly MacMillan’s detective thriller, Odd Child Out. Her latest novel has the heavy matter of dealing with immigration and refugees, two subjects that are heavily featured in politics and the news across the globe on a daily basis. Yet, MacMillan takes these controversial topics home, having them play out in the friendship between two boys.
Students of one of Bristol’s elite private schools, Noah and Abdi are inseparable, best friends since day one. They share a love of the same things, despite their wildly different backgrounds: one is the son of a photographer, with a privileged upbringing, and the other is a refugee from Somalia, attending school on a scholarship. But then Noah is found, unconscious, his body floating in the city’s canal, and Abdi isn’t telling anyone what happened. When Detective Inspector Jim Clemo, back from a leave of absence, is assigned the case, he finds that with each question he answers, more questions appear. And when Abdi himself goes missing, Clemo must unravel the lives of two very different families, both trying to save their sons, while tensions and turmoil over race and immigration rise in the city.
Heavy and thought provoking, Odd Child Out is written with a poignant touch, and a true understanding of people – how we love the people around us, how a friendship can grow from a simple meeting to an unbreakable bond; and, how our misunderstandings can turn to fear, and to hate. This latest novel with Detective Jim Clemo is a true masterpiece, and MacMillan’s finest work to date.
Booktrib: You’ve chosen a fairly controversial topic for Odd Child Out – not just by writing about children, but also immigration, and refugees. Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose to write about this?
GM: Immigration and refugees are a topic you cannot avoid in contemporary media. I was struck by the contrast between articles I read demonizing immigrants and refugees and what I witness on the streets of my city, Bristol in the UK, every day, where I see and meet people who have arrived here from many different places and are almost all simply trying to make a new start for their families against difficult odds.
I wanted to look behind the negative and scaremongering views on immigrant and refugee families that politics and the media so often present us with and focus on individuals in a fictional Somali family who have moved to Bristol. Fiction allows us to inhabit other people’s minds in a unique and powerful way, giving us insight that we might not otherwise have, and allowing us to tell very personal stories. The teenage boys at the heart of the book – Noah and Abdi – face extraordinary challenges as the story unfolds. I hope I have treated both boys, and their families, with as much empathy as possible so their story resonates with the reader in a humane way.
Booktrib: Odd Child Out is such an interesting title – was there a reason or a story behind why you chose that title?
GM: Thank you! My titles are the product of discussions between myself, my agent and my editors in the US and UK. We work together to come up with a shortlist before settling on our favorite. The sales, marketing and publicity teams at the publishing houses need to approve our final pick. Odd Child Out won out because we thought it could so well describe both Noah and Abdi and it conveyed a sense of unease appropriate to the thriller element of the book. As my books have all had three-word titles so far, so we also thought it would fit in well with What She Knew and The Perfect Girl.
Booktrib: The characters that you have are so unique – when I finished reading this book it was so amazing to me how individual each person was. What was your writing process like to create personalities and psychologies like this?
GM: Thank you! Developing characters is my favorite part of writing. A compelling character – whether they are good or bad – is one of the main things that keeps me turning pages as a reader. In the past, I’ve started a book based solely on an idea I had for one character. I think about and develop my characters constantly as I work on each book and try to give each of them their own voice. People in real life fascinate me and I try to vividly recreate that experience on the page. Once I’ve cast my story, I place my characters in a situation which will challenge them in compelling and sometimes heart-pounding ways, because I’m interested in how they will respond.
Booktrib: This features the same Detective, Jim Clemo, from What She Knew. Did you already have Odd Child Out in mind when you were writing What She Knew?
GM: Not really! I am a big fan of detective series, so I suppose it was in the back of my mind that a series could be a possibility if all the stars were to align for me, but when I was writing What She Knew I had no idea whether I would be able to find an agent to represent me, let alone a publisher to get the book out into the world. My focus was on making it the best book I could, and developing Jim and the other characters to be as compelling as possible. It has been a real pleasure to be able to bring Jim back in ‘Odd Child Out’ and set him loose on another case.
Booktrib: The relationship with Noah and Abdi was so vivid, and I don’t want to give anything away, but that ending was really like a punch in the gut. Can you tell us about writing their relationship, the letters and that ending?
GM: I adore stories about friendship, whether in books or film, and I think some of the most interesting friendships are the particularly intense ones you can form as a teenager. Abdi and Noah fascinated me because both are troubled by the feeling of being an outsider amongst their peers. It’s a feeling which leads them to develop a fierce bond with one another, but also to harbor a longing to enjoy more mainstream friendships and relationships and to be accepted by their peers. Their friendship is almost an ‘I hate you but I need you’ situation. It’s complicated for them, and intense. The letters at the end of the book give us some extra detail about that and shed light on how our friendships can be limited by our self-obsession. Both these boys are young and vulnerable and dealing with some very adult problems as well as all the usual difficulties of being a teenager. The ending was intended to drive that point home.
Booktrib: Do you have any advice for writers who are just starting out?
GM: Work hard on your craft. There are many elements to a successful novel and you will need to spend time developing each of these. Read as much as you can. Reading good books will teach you just as much if not more than a writing class. I read across many genres as I believe this enriches my writing. Be prepared to listen to and work with other people. It takes a team to produce a novel. Also, hold your nerve. Writing a novel takes a long time and can involve many revisions, some of them painful! Keep going!
For more information on author Gilly MacMillan, please visit her website at gillymacmillan.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gilly Macmillan is the New York Times bestselling author of What She Knew and The Perfect Girl. She trained as an art historian and worked at The Burlington Magazine and the Hayward Gallery before starting a family. Since then she’s worked as a lecturer in photography, and now writes full-time. She resides in Bristol, England.
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