Exploring Themes of Motherhood & Sisterhood in Fiction with Gillian McAllister

Today's guest is Gillian McAllister, a British author best known for her bestselling debut novel Everything But The Truth. Her new US release, The Good Sister, is an electrifying novel about the unyielding bond between two sisters, which is severely tested when one of them is accused of the worst imaginable crime.

Gillian joined me to talk about how her background in law helps illuminate her fiction, writing for the American audience, and how she explores themes of motherhood and sisterhood in her thrillers.

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Mindy:             Welcome to Writer, Writer, Pants On Fire. Where authors talk about things that never happeend to people who don’t exist. We also talk craft, the agent hunt, query trenches, publishing industry, marketing, and more. I'm your host Mindy McGinnis. You can check out my books and social media at www.mindymcginnis.com and make sure to visit the Writer, Writer Pants On Fire blog for additional interviews, query critiques, and more, at www.writerwriterpantsonfire.com If the blog or podcast have been helpful to you or if you just enjoy listening, please consider donating. Visit www.writerwriterpantsonfire.com and click support the blog and podcast in the sidebar.

Mindy:             Today's guest is Gillian McAllister, a British author, best known for her best selling debut, Everything But The Truth. Her new US release, The Good Sister is an electrifying novel about the unyielding bond between two sisters, which is severely tested when one of them is accused of the worst imaginable crime. Gillian joined me today to talk about how her own background in law helps inform her fiction, writing for an American audience and how tapping into universal themes like motherhood and sisterhood were key to her newest release, The Good Sister.

Mindy:             Your new book is called The Good Sister. It is about a sister who has to question everything she thinks she knows about her sibling after the death of her child. So if you could talk a little bit just about what the book is about so listeners can get a feel for what kind of read they're looking at here.

Gillian:             Yes. So The Good Sister really is a character led family drama about two sisters, Martha, who is struggling to balance new brotherhood with being the CEO of a charity she's set up and Becky who she entrusts to look after the new baby while she has to work. Then the unthinkable happens and the book opens on the first day of Becky's trial for murder.

Mindy:             And you are also a trained lawyer, which I'm sure was incredibly helpful to you while writing this book.

Gillian:             Definitely I sort of was, although I wasn't a court lawyer, I was exposed to lots of different cases and I talked about them with lawyers and I was able to research things easily and I sort of know naturally the kind of language used in the law and in courtrooms. So yes, definitely it was a big help.

Mindy:             And when it comes to writing courtroom scenes, I know just because in one of my own novels I had written a courtroom scene that I thought was just riveting and it set my plot perfectly in the way things pan out, was exactly what I was going for. And then I shared it with a friend of mine who was also an author and a lawyer who was like, yeah, this is great for fiction. He's like, what you wrote would never actually fly in a real courtroom.

Mindy:             And the way you have your books set up is really smart structurally because we go back and forth between the past and some of the actions and the interactions between our characters and the actual courtroom scenes. So the vagaries of an actual court process can actually be really dry. A lot of the drama that we see on television and in movies and in books usually isn't the way it would actually go down. So if you could talk about that a little bit and how you kind of mediated the realities of a dry courtroom with the more tense and personal aspects of actual human interaction outside of the courtroom, for the purposes of your plot.

Gillian:             Like you say, for every minute of drama we see, there's hours of adjournments and juries falling asleep and witnesses not showing up. And although I wanted it to be authentic with no sort of shouted objections and no sort of pacing lawyers. In Britain, the courtroom is a little more sedate but no less dramatic. Um, and I think in toning that down, I let the human relationships come to the fore and really the novel structure where you go back to the past and you also get little vignettes of each witness that was born out of like you say, I, I didn't want to write a closed set book that only took place in a courtroom and was just reams and reams and reams of questions. So in The Good Sister, as each witness takes the stand, you get that own chapter in their own voice at the time, what they saw. So you're sort of taken out of the courtroom, via their memories.

Mindy:             And it works very well. I have to say there's a wonderful back and forth where the reader who doesn't know, of course, what actually happens on the day that the child passed away. Every chapter is leading you somewhere that you wouldn't expect, I would think.

Gillian:             Yes, I think that's right. I hope there are a few sort of twists and turns and the reader really is focused on whether or not Becky did it. That is the central question that the novel answers. But it definitely, there were all sorts of red herrings and you know, other suspects and all that that you would expect from a thriller as well as a character led drama.

Mindy:             So I want to talk just briefly about the fact that this is your first US release and because it does take place in a courtroom, and there are also other industries like health workers and people that are taking the stand that are speaking about things that they have noticed within the family. And it's not always using the same terminology that we use in the US and I noticed that as well in the courtroom scenes. You said yourself that in the British cart room that it's a little more restrained. The language is slightly different too. So I was just curious if you had any concerns about anything being lost in translation for a courtroom drama for a US audience.

Gillian:             Yeah, I mean I think when you're published internationally, you always hope your fiction will translate well. Whether that is in sort of a different kind of English languages, the States has from the UK or actual literal translations into other foreign countries. I know that Putnam, my publisher at Penguin have used a lot of proofreaders so hopefully they have all sort of, well I know that they will understand it and I think really The Good Sister deals with themes that are universal. So I mean the courtroom is fairly similar that you have witnesses who get cross examined, you have juries, you have the defendant standing there, you have, whether she would have been granted bail or not. There's so many similarities between the British and the American legal system and, but really The Good Sister deals with themes of sort of the price of forgiveness and sisterhood and motherhood. And I think those really are truly universal.

Mindy:             Absolutely. Yeah, they are. And I want to come back to motherhood, which you mentioned. I love how you portray motherhood and it's not all glowing skin and happiness. There are ugly parts to motherhood and you're drawing real women here, you're drawing the actual mother, but also a caretaker. And they're not always the picture of the idolized, happy, glowing mother that is so thrilled to be up at 3:00 AM holding their baby and staring into their face with great love. These are stressed women, these are modern women with modern concerns, but they are still the primary caretakers for an infant and an event and a toddler need constant care and support. So I really liked what you were doing, showing the stresses of motherhood and especially on a mother that is also working and trying to balance their lives. So if you could talk a little bit about that, what your goals were there, and also if you've had any, if you had any sort of concerns about portraying motherhood realistically.

Gillian:             I mean, yeah, I think I always want to write real characters and not a single one of my characters is without flaws. They may not all be completely likable, but it was important to me that they would be real. Like you say, it would be easy to write a novel where somebody loses a child where they were in the idle of motherhood and they were loving 100% every moment of it. But I observed my friends and family who have had children and it just isn't the case. Of course, real life is just more complicated than that.

Gillian:             And motherhood is, from what I can tell, being childless, it seems like a huge life upheaval and you suddenly have to prioritize somebody else when you've had maybe 30 years of prioritizing yourself. And I think it's both fascinating how sort of willingly people manage to do that. When to me it looks so difficult. Um, but also how complex their relationship it really is. And you've created another human and you've got that bond for life and there's nothing like it. So I really just wanted to use the crime as a vehicle to sort of explore that relationship and, and put pressure on it too.

Mindy:             And the other thing you did that I thought was interesting, isn that we're not looking at a cherubic little baby that's always perfect and easy to take care of. None of them are. And I really appreciated that. Like you were showing a colicky baby. You're showing, you know, up in the middle of the night with a baby that won't stop crying and you can't figure out why to the point that it's like, you know, you're, you're understanding why some women do snap. Why that caretaker role is very much as you're saying, putting someone else first. You are second if not last in the consideration.

Gillian:             Yes, totally. I noticed that that is a particular concern for women that some women feel that they do come last in the pecking order. Um, and you know, The Good Sister does definitely explore that hierarchy and that inequality that sometimes women do feel like the martyr of the family and you know, rightly so, in some circumstances. And it was important for me. I see so many crime novels where there is a family but the children just sort of run off, you know, off stage left during important plot moments.

Gillian:             And really The Good Sister is about Layla the baby, and so I wanted to portray her as, even though she was eight weeks, as fully rounded. And I don't know a single person who has a baby who just sleeps in the corner all the time. So I didn't want to write a book where that happened either.

Mindy:             Right, exactly. No, even the baby is a very real character, which is lovely. I want to ask about why the uh, main character, why did you have her as being the head of a nonprofit? I was curious about that choice for her employment.


Gillian:             Well it was born out of a plot problem really, which I spoke to a lot of my friends and my sister who has children and I said, what would compel you to leave an eight week old overnight? And they, they really said family emergencies. Some women may feel comfortable doing that and some not. But I wanted Martha to have an exceptional reason because I knew that her likability would be in question. And I, you know that rightly or wrongly because men do leave their children, generally speaking. I don't want to gender stereotype, but maybe they leave them earlier than than women do. Men might go away for a night earlier. And part of that is biological. I really wanted Martha to have a cast iron reason for doing so because I didn't want the reader to not side with her. So really that was born out of a crime writers plotting problem.

Gillian:             But then it opened up so many interesting questions about the greater good. And Martha's charity is dealing with children who are refugees and so they sort of arguably need her more than her own baby, or at least that's the way it works in Martha's hyper logical mind, although she obviously comes to regret it. And it actually sort of started a really interesting debate with myself about the morality of leaving your own child to care for other people's. Both Becky and Martha actually both do that.

Mindy:             And you're totally right about it being a likeability problem for your reader because you do have to have sympathy on the side of, of Martha in order for the book to work. And it is an unfortunate truth that in our society, a mother that is leaving her young child is automatically going to have a strike against her. She has to have a very good reason for doing that

Gillian:             In the same way that I turned the plot problem of the courtroom being kind of tedious in some ways into what I like best about the book - the witness vignettes - I have turned the plot problem of Martha's likability into something I explored and I actually, I began to address it in the text because I was thinking, well Scott was away that night too, which is Martha's husband. They both left the baby. But Martha is the culpable one in the eyes of society and the press and even the courtroom. And I actually then started to discuss that in the book because I just thought it was so interesting. I mean you see it all the time in the media, you know female sports people asked how, how they balance it with motherhood and men are much more rarely asked and that is something that women are beginning to question in the public eye, which is really brilliant. And it was sort of a way to explore that slight inequality that still exists.

Mindy:             Yes, it absolutely does. Which brings me to Becky who is the sister who is trying to find a way to support herself and the child that she has but having a hard time finding her own path and knowing what she wants. So in some ways you have the same struggle going on with Becky where there's a career need while also being a parent. Her child is older, she has a son, but there is that question again because she is a parent and because she is focused on her own career of likability and of course we have the title of the book, The Good Sister. The assumption is that Martha is the good sister. Becky is the one that has less of a positive trajectory. She doesn't have all of the elements of an upstanding comfortable sort of life that Martha has. So if you want to talk a little bit about that, about the squaring off of the two characters kind of against each other, the way it is used in the court, but then also how the title plays into that.

Gillian:   It was important for me to portray a kind of universal relationship and I think that the older in control, sensible sister versus the younger more volatile sister is such a universal thing and like not just in families but in romantic relationships. That sort of opposite pairing. Definitely. I see it all the time. That dynamic and I was really interested in, you know, if you've always known your younger sister had a little bit of a temper or she wasn't very good at holding a job down, how that looms really large when she's accused of a crime and all those fault lines in your relationship kind of become huge. And with The Good Sister I think. I mean ultimately that there is a strong thread of sibling rivalry running through the novel and I think each sister thinks the other is the good sister and in the conclusion they, I think they kind of come to a little bit of peace about that.

Mindy:             The book is about so many things dealing with female relationships, the sister relationship, the relationship of mothers and also of course they have their own mother who is now in a way torn. Becky is staying with her and Martha is having to kind of juggle that whole idea herself where there is this strain within their family. What do the parents believe? Do they think that Becky did it? Are they on Becky's like quote unquote side? And the parents are trying to have to walk this line between what they should and shouldn't say, what they can even talk about to their own children when there is a court and a media circus around their interpersonal relationships

Gillian:             The parents deserve their own novel don't they? It's such a fascinating kind of moral dilemma. Like what do you do if your child is accused of a crime but the victim is your other child? Um, and I think really they, they try and sort of play it even handedly between the two sisters. Even though part of Becky's bail conditions is that she resides with the parents. They don't take sides. But I think in doing so, both Becky and Martha find it frustrating. Um, but neither parent will kind of come down on one side. I don't know what the answer is in that situation. There is no right answer really. The family is sort of fractured and changed forever regardless of the outcome of the trial.

Mindy:             Things are going to pass in between people that that can't be unsaid and can't be forgotten. When you're in a situation like that, it would change you regardless of the outcome. When you don't know what the outcome will be, you're going to be reacting honestly yet guardedly. What a tricky, tricky situation.

Gillian:             No, exactly. And the parents don't know if Becky... Becky has no alternative explanation only that she didn't do it, which is not a very compelling defense. So I don't think they can do anything but wait and hope that the justice system will provide the truth, which it doesn't always. The justice system answers the question of whether there's enough evidence to convict, which is not the same as the truth.

Mindy:             Very fine distinction. So talk to me a little bit more about Becky. She's also divorced, correct?

Gillian:             She is separated, yes. She's not yet divorced. She's separated from her husband Mark. Yeah.

Mindy:             That plays into then her character, the public assumption in the way that she is read because she is in some ways kind of judged for that. She has a failed relationship. And then we have Martha, who of course is in a marriage- outwardly happy marriage. Again, it plays into the assumptions that people make about, especially women in a situation where they are separated or divorced or there is some sort of non harmonious romantic relationship. And even though the separation is amicable yet perception is that something has gone horribly wrong and that she, Becky is the one that carries the responsibility for that.

Gillian:             Yeah. I mean I think I wanted to probe the sort of notion that Martha really has it all. She's a CEO of a charity, so she's a working mother. She, she had a baby a couple of years into marriage. Um, she sort of did it all in the traditional way, whereas Becky got pregnant, I think she was 19. She'd just gone to university so she dropped out and then she's a single mom and she's never really held a job down. But actually if you look at who's happier - taking out the tragedy - Becky sort of says in in one of the flashback scenes where she's still with Mark when they were hanging the wallpaper in anticipation of their baby being born. She actually said, I shouldn't be happy at 19 and pregnant and dropped out of university, but I'm so happy with this man. And I think it's so interesting the sort of stories we tell ourselves about how our life has to appear to the outside world versus the messy truth with it and where you can be completely happy within chaos.

Mindy:             And chaos is a good word for Becky's life. I particularly like her opening scene where she is running around trying to acquire a particular print of fabric for a chair that is needed for a TV set and they need it tomorrow. And so she's running around just insanely trying to make things come together and she's stressed and she's upset and she's calling Martha and saying, I can't believe my life. It's ridiculous. But at the same time, even though she does end up leaving that life, she's kind of thriving on it. She does enjoy it to a degree. It just becomes too much.

Gillian:             Exactly. She, she thrives on adrenaline or drama if you, if you want to kind of be slightly more judgmental about it. But Becky would tell you that she's a failure and she, oh, she can't secure the right sets for her job and she needs Martha's support. But actually what Becky can't see is that she's so resourceful. She found the zebra print at 11 o'clock at night. She found the chair, she went home and covered it. And Becky's real problem of her own self esteem and her own self perception. And I think Becky's great if only Becky could see it. I have a lot of sympathy for that character. I think she's my favorite character I've ever written.

Mindy:             Yeah. Oh Becky is fascinating and so much fun to read about. I think what you're saying about the problem of self esteem is also true of Martha to a degree.

Gillian:             Yeah. And in some ways that's why the title, I think it's quite good because they both think the other is the good sister and neither of them can see that own qualities. And because they're so opposite, they wish they were the other. But if only they could sort of see that they're perfectly adequate themselves.

Mindy:             And that's kind of true of all women I would assume. I mean, unfortunately part of society, how this works is that we're always measuring ourselves against one another, be it a sibling or a friend or even an enemy. We're trying to figure out who is better looking, who is more successful, who has the more uh, attractive spouse or the more successful spouse, whose children are smarter. Like all of those things. We weigh those against one another and it all ends up being about you and whether you have succeeded or failed as a woman and a mother and a wife and all of the different hats that women have to wear.

Gillian:             Exactly. And particularly, you know, with the modern invention of social media, I think we do constantly compare our, our interior to peoples exterior, when actually it just, it makes us all kind of feel bad about ourselves really. So I was kind of, I was also writing about that like you know, comparison is the thief of joy and all of that.

Mindy:             Either we suffer by comparison or even if we are quote unquote winning at the comparison. I think especially as women because we're always taught to be nice and kind, we then judge ourselves for comparing in the first place.

Gillian:             There's no joy really in winning a competition that you've set up because you feel insecure. And I think the, the healthy mental health point to get to is the point where you just please yourself and when we talk about, you know, wanting to appear like you have it all or whatever, I think is like the kind of comeback to that is, well, in whose judgment? Because everybody will have a different idea of the perfect life and really you can only please yourself. That's definitely the way to wisdom whether or not any of us achieve that is another question.

Mindy:             Very true. All right. Anything lastly that you want to say about the book or anything related to the characters or your writing process for it?

Gillian:             Well, I just really hope people enjoy it. You know, I'm a UK bestseller and this is my American debut and it's, it's such a privilege to have an access to such a wide audience and I'm just, I'm thrilled and I really hope people enjoy it. And if they want to get in touch with me, I'm on Twitter as at GillianMAuthor and Instagram, actually as GillianMAuthor and on Facebook as Gillian McAllister, author.

Mindy:             Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire is produced by Mindy McGinnis. Music by Jack Korbel. Don't forget to check out the blog for additional interviews, writing advice and publication tips at www.writerwriterapantsonfire.com If the blog or podcast have been helpful to you, or if you just enjoy listening, please consider donating. Visit www.writerwriterpantsonfire.com and click support the blog and podcast in the sidebar.

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