Article published on February 2, 2018.
After reading and reviewing (and loving!) Anything You Do Say, Jade Craddock had some questions for author Gillian McAllister:
Jade: Your novel follows two separate narratives as we see the two contrasting paths Joanna’s life takes depending on whether she conceals or reveals the truth, how did this idea come about and how easy was it to execute?
Gillian: I had wanted to write a Sliding Doors style novel for years, but I hadn’t been able to find an angle. One night – as is always the best way – the idea of confessing to a crime, or covering it up, just came to me. After that, it was just a matter of finding the crime. It was a tricky novel to write; really, it is two books in one, and when I started writing it I hadn’t anticipated that each character would have a different development arc in each strand. It was hard to write, but worth every minute of effort.
Jade: Was it Joanna and her particular story that you hit on first or did you have the plot device first and then the character of Joanna and her dilemma came about?
Gillian: The latter: Joanna’s character came about because I wanted to showcase what would happen to somebody indecisive when presented with a tough moral dilemma. I made Joanna avoidant – she hides bank statements under her bed! – because I needed her to be the kind of person who could leave the scene of a crime and compartmentalise it in her mind – or try to. Secondly, I made her a good person, too. The kind who might confess to the police, and the kind who would feel guilty.
Jade: The way Joanna reacts when she believes she’s being followed on the towpath is likely something that readers will be able to understand, how important was it make to Joanna and her crime a sort of everywoman motif?
Gillian: That, really, was absolutely central to what I wanted to write, so I’m very glad you spotted it!
I wanted Joanna to make a mistake – to behave recklessly – but I wanted it to be the kind of mistake anybody could make. I think every woman I know has had a ‘there but for the grace of God’ moment where they have thought somebody might be following them, a car driving slowly by the kerb, a man sitting right next to them on an empty Tube, and I wanted to write about the fears women face every day and whether we are – actually – overreacting if we lash out in fear, or if we are just existing as best we can in the society we live in.
Jade: Joanna’s crime shows up some of the grey areas in the law when it comes to self-defence and motive, with your two separate hats on as lawyer and author, how did you feel about Joanna’s predicament?
Gillian: What an interesting question! Morally, I think Joanna should have been treated more leniently: she made an honest mistake, when she was very frightened, about which she was incredibly remorseful. Legally, I think the position is trickier. She perhaps ought to have checked if she was in any danger before lashing out: arguably she didn’t act reasonably. But do any of us, in a high-stress moment like that?
Jade: Even within the two storylines (Reveal and Conceal) there were many possible routes the narrative could have taken, did you always have a clear sense of the way each storyline was going to progress and the novel’s eventual endpoint?
Gillian: Definitely not! I knew I wanted the strands to re-converge but I didn’t know how to achieve that. Reveal was much easier: there is a system (and therefore a narrative) when you commit a crime and confess. Joanna gets taken into police custody, charged, bailed and goes to trial. Conceal was much more difficult; I re-wrote it three times. My main job was maintaining tension because her worst fear (getting caught) was already happening in Reveal. I therefore decided, in the end, that in trying to get away with it, she should make it much worse for herself…
Jade: I really enjoyed seeing the different ways the characters of Joanna and Reuben develop in the separate storylines, did you see them as separate characters in the two storylines or just different versions of the same character?
Gillian: I definitely see them as different versions of the same character. By the end, they’re different because of their experiences, but they still have the same core values. Reuben still loves Joanna, but also loves doing the right thing, for example: that just manifests in different ways in each strand. I enjoyed contrasting similar scenarios in each version. When Joanna gets home from custody, she reaches out to Reuben, who rejects her. When she gets home from concealing her crime, she rejects Reuben out of guilt. Each action is in keeping with the characters but reflects what’s happening to them in their lives.
Jade: In both storylines we see Joanna undergo two very different processes of punishment and repentance, do you think the circumstances in the Reveal or the Conceal storyline had the most impact on Joanna?
Gillian: I think Conceal just about has the edge on this one, because of the physical problems Joanna encounters. I wanted to show, in a funny way, that sometimes it can seem like punishment happens irrespective of whether a criminal goes through the justice system, and that guilt is a prison of its own.
Jade: Ultimately in Conceal, without giving too much away, did you ever worry about the development and denouement of Joanna’s crime?
Gillian: Yes, I did. That strand could only end one of two ways, and I did worry about there being an apt denouement. I hope what I did – spotlighting her marriage – answered the question.
Jade: ‘It doesn’t go away. I was a criminal. Now I’m an ex-criminal. Nothing’s changed really. I’m free… but I’m not.’ I thought this was a really powerful statement about the struggle of getting used to normal life and carrying that burden of one’s past crimes. Is there such a thing as an ex-criminal or are the crimes of one’s past always part of their present and future, do you think?
Gillian: I would like to hope redemption – and rehabilitation – are possible, but we do live in a society that attaches a huge stigma to prison, and I think Joanna would – unfortunately – carry that around with her. It mostly changed her for the better, so perhaps she would be pleased it had happened.
Jade: At the end of the novel we’re left wondering which path Joanna chooses, did you have in your own mind which path you think Joanna would take? Or perhaps was there even a part of you that felt that Joanna might do everything right this time round?
Gillian: I didn’t, really. I wanted to explore both and leave it up to the reader.
Jade: There’s a real tangible sense in the novel of the value of freedom that many of us take for granted, what would be the one thing you would miss the most if your own freedom was taken away?
Gillian: Definitely baths with books!
Jade: This is your second novel, are there plans for a third? And how do you balance your two careers as a lawyer and an author?
Gillian: My third is written and is coming out in the autumn. It’s called No Further Questions. It’s a courtroom drama about a family torn apart when a baby dies in an aunt’s care and she is accused of murder.
As for balance – it’s easier now I’m part time. But I guess I would say that anybody can find an hour a day to write, if they really want to. Early mornings, lunchtimes, after work. I just sacrifice other things.
Our thanks to Gillian and Jade for this informative Q&A.
Anything You Do Say by Gillian McAllister
Penguin 9781405928274 pbk Jan 2018