On the publication day of her outstanding new novel Anything You Do Say, Gillian McAllister tells us about the pressures of writing a second book after your debut novel was a Sunday Times bestseller…
I remember the exact moment I had the idea for my second novel, Anything You Do Say. I had wanted to write a Sliding Doors novel for years, and had been brainstorming ideas with my boyfriend. And then – out of nowhere – two ideas came together: what if a novel followed a woman committing a crime on her way home from a night out, and then split, following a strand where she hands herself in and goes to trial for attempted murder, and a strand where she leaves the scene and goes on the run? I thought it was an interesting concept: that a single second could change your life forever, but showing both outcomes.
I emailed my agent, Clare, and she replied immediately, saying I LOVE THIS IDEA.
Two months later, she sold my first novel, Everything But The Truth, to Penguin. Suddenly, I was under contract with a two-book deal, and the big idea I’d been wrestling with would have to be delivered at the end of the year. I was still working full-time as a lawyer, and I had a moment, standing in my kitchen late one night, thinking of the scale of my novel, where I thought: what have I done? I wasn’t sure I was a good enough – or experienced enough – write to pull it off.
I made sure I had a first draft down by the April, but the strand where my protagonist, Joanna, goes on the run needed more work. In the spring, I pasted all of those scenes into a new document, and tried to forget about the rest of the book. I wanted each parallel narrative to stand on its own. It was hot spring/summer, and I spent it re-writing that strand of Anything You Do Say in the the garden, my cat for company.
The characters needed work, too. One of the biggest issues with writing a parallel narrative plot is that there is twice as much character development: in one strand, my heroine is a fugitive, on the run, hiding things from her husband, Reuben. In the other, she’s a defendant, in the justice system. Her husband develops differently in each strand as he faces different problems. Likewise, her best friend makes a different life choice in each version, because what she sees Joanna go through has an impact on her. It took several months to get the characters down. But something still wasn’t working. I remember sitting in my garden one evening, the summer air warm against my legs, and wondering if I was ever going to face up to the fact that there was something wrong with my novel. It seemed too big, somehow, on that July evening. The stakes were too high. I went to bed and hoped it would resolve itself.
In the meantime, while also working full time, I was editing my debut, Everything But The Truth, and beginning to promote it. I could see how distracting that would be, and so I was determined to finish and deliver Anything You Do Say before Everything But The Truth came out.
In the very early autumn, I was talking to my father in my kitchen while we waited for a pot of tea to brew, and he said, ‘really, split narrative novels are about a whole life changing, aren’t they?’ and it was as though everything slotted into place. Of course: the novel shouldn’t end with my heroine’s trial, and with the result of her attempts to cover up the trial: time should move on, and show how her entire life life is affected by the moment, the split-second decision, in the first chapter. Of course.
That night, the weather crisp and cool and the air drifting in through my open spare room window, I wrote a plan for what would become the final third of Anything You Do Say. As I wrote it, I got a very specific feeling: it’s working. It was going to work.
I wrote fast, the nights blurring into one. I wrote in train stations with gloves on, in Halfords while my car had its MOT, and before work in coffee shops. Finally, in the late autumn, it was done.
I had often worried about the tricky second novel, but – as is often the way – it wasn’t tricky for the reasons I expected it might have been. It wasn’t to do with contracts or the pressure of being published, and being read. It was just that particular book; my tricky, sprawling, extra-special second novel. It’s published this week, and I hope you enjoy it if you read it.