When Gillian Philip watches television

Gillian Philip

Another week. Another blog tour. I’m grateful not to be on the road, and quite possibly so is Gillian Philip. She has a fair bit of road to go when she travels. Just as I said I felt a bit iffy about the subject of The Opposite of Amber, I suspected that hearing more (she told me some of it in the interview last summer) about the inspiration behind the book might also get me down. But I have to say that Gillian handled even that really nicely. Over to Ms Philip:

“I don’t often remember the exact moment a story got its roots into my brain, but this one is very clear. It was all at the expense of another book – though it was entirely that book’s fault for playing hard to get.

I like to work at night – sometimes really quite late into the night. (I’m not a morning person in any way whatsoever; yes, I have done the school run with a coat over my pyjamas.) But that’s when it’s going well: when the characters are essentially doing my work for me, while I pour another glass of wine and put my feet on the desk. This lot, on this occasion, wouldn’t cooperate. I’d been beating my brains for weeks. The title wasn’t right; the characters’ names weren’t right; the prologue was tosh that had little to do with the actual story; and worst of all, of course, no-one would tell me what was going to happen. Over and over I read the first four chapters, hoping to get a sort of ski-jump effect into the plot development; over and over again I crashed face-first into a blank page.

So what else was I going to do? I threw a silent tantrum, poured another wine, and went to watch TV.

I switched it on, and very nearly switched channels. The last thing I was in the mood for was a depressing background piece about real-life murders. Of course I didn’t turn over, because this was no ordinary documentary; this was a Cutting Edge documentary on Channel Four. (Since that night I have never missed Cutting Edge. Each one’s as good as the last.)

I confess I’m as morbidly fascinated as the next person by crime stories; it’s why I read them and why I write them. I get that uncomfortable, voyeuristic feeling when a true story on the news becomes addictive, but it rarely stops me watching.

This wasn’t like that. The Cutting Edge story about five deaths in Ipswich in 2006 (Killer In a Small Town) had no interest in the motive behind the murders (if there was one); it had no interest in the police investigation, or how the women had been killed, or the thought patterns of their scarily ordinary killer. It was entirely concerned with the women themselves: with their lives, their families, the people they loved and left behind. It followed their individual stories as they drifted into a way of life they’d never planned, one that some of them were trying hard to leave.

(As an aside, there’s another thing I remember about those original Ipswich stories, and that’s the way the media, print and broadcast, referred repeatedly to the dead women as ‘prostitutes’. It was as if they were somehow a separate species. They weren’t murdered women or girls, they weren’t even murdered human beings… At least, that’s how it was in the early reports. I was too lazy in my anger to do anything about it, but plenty of other people did. Gradually the letters spot on Radio 4 filled up with listeners complaining about that pejorative terminology, and quite quickly the news reports changed. Which was good. And rather reassuring. And rather shaming, since I hadn’t written in myself.)

So that’s how Jinn and Ruby first took root in my head; not that they were those women, or meant to represent them. I don’t like writing true crime, and I’m perfectly sure I’d be no good at it, but I wanted to write about someone like those women, someone who – quite without meaning to – had ended up in the same place. I knew nothing about either of my girls to start with, but I found their house in a seaside town near me, and a bad boy turned up (as one always does) and barged into their story, and the tale grew from there. Irritatingly, Ruby wanted to narrate, despite being practically mute. This didn’t exactly make it easy to tell her story and her sister’s, but fortunately, though she didn’t speak much, she thought plenty.

Well, having shaken the story out of monosyllabic Ruby, I feel I can go back to those other characters, the original abandoned ones, the ones who thought they were safe and left alone. If I can get a story out of a virtual mute, I can take Piper Kyloe by the throat and shake a plot out of her, and her smooth father, and his political adviser, and the eccentric aunt… Ah, it’s started already. Two years late, but they’ve been idle long enough, and they owe me a plot.

Before I start, I’ll just see what’s on TV…”

Yes, you do that, Gillian. We could do with something more to read. Not too sure about Ms Kyloe… Might her name be the problem?

One response to “When Gillian Philip watches television

  1. I loved The Opposite of Amber but have to admit, before starting I was a bit worried about the subject matter. But it was all handled beautifully and with such sensitivity that it did exactly what you set out to do, to tell the story of how a young woman- who could have been any of us – ended up this way.
    I used to shake my fist at the radio when they talked about ‘murdered prostitutes’ too. I’m so glad you got Ruby talking…her voice is wonderful 🙂

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