To Tell You the Truth by Gilly Macmillan is a witty, layered novel with a professional crime writer as protagonist. This peep behind the curtain of a successful writer’s life is fascinating – jealous writers, nerve wracking book launches, the book a year stress, obsessive fans, excruciating questions from the public and strained relationships with publishers if you go off-piste. I wondered: do publishers and agents put that much pressure on an author if they decide to kill off a successful character? Do authors earn thatmuch money?
It’s clear Gilly Macmillan had such fun writing this novel but writing about writing – often tortured and self-indulgent – becomes a dazzling high wire act here. The writerly in-jokes come thick and fast. Lucy looks at a coffee spill, “Dark liquid spilled. What crime writer, even a fledging one as I was then, doesn’t, if only for a moment, see that as blood?”
The hopeless Lucy only appears to eat from a hamper sent by her agent and when she’s down to her last fudge for supper we know she’s in trouble.
While picking up on tropes within the thriller genre – woods, tunnels, basements, creepy houses, pagans, gaslighting and murder, there is a solid plot and empathetic protagonist that we absolutely get behind. Despite the humour we are never patronised. Deeper questions about authors living inside story and narrative are subtle.
Lucy has a childhood imaginary friend, Eliza who she places in her novels as lead detective. The fans love Eliza Grey, but after four novels the author decides to step back and kill off her heroine. Why? Because Eliza is showing up in real life and telling Lucy what to do, often speaking for her decisively. Is Lucy insane? If she is then we buy into her version of reality, worry for her as we watch everyone she trusted betray her. Even Eliza is being difficult, failing to help out at times when Lucy needs her most.
This is a smart book, highly recommended for any writer in your life. Here’s a few quotes to tantalise. “this was a technique I’d taught her to use in the books. Dial up the pressure on someone, then retreat, disappear for a while. Let them sweat. It’s very effective.”
“ I was outraged that he would sit here in this house, that he’d bought with my money, and suggest that writing thrillers was any easier than any other kind of novel, that I was a lesser writer because of it. That I was inferior to him. That Eliza was inferior. That my readers were.”
Gilly Macmillan is at Novel Nights on 8th July to discuss her book and answer questions from a live audience. You can buy a copy from Hive Books who support independent bookshops on the UK high street.