Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Gillian Philip - Author Interview

Gillian Philip was born in Glasgow and has been writing all her life, starting with short but frenetic novels about Captain Scarlet and The Man From UNCLE (having massive crushes on both). She has worked as a barmaid, theatre usherette, record store assistant, radio presenter, typesetter, and political assistant to a parliamentary candidate. While living in Barbados, where her steadiest job was as a singer in an Irish bar, she took up writing professionally, and wrote many short stories for women’s magazines.

In 2001 she moved back to Scotland, and now lives in Morayshire with her husband Ian, twins Lucy and Jamie and their two dogs, Cluny and Milo.

We had thought of Gillian as a busy writer for some time, but were surprised at how busy when we got the chance to interview her.

Your website talks of Crossing the Line, Bad Faith and the 'Darke Academy' series, but I suspect there are more books that you have written. Am I right and can you tell me anything about them?

I’ve written all four of the Rebel Angels series after Firebrand... but the other three need substantial rewriting! I’m at the editing stage of another book for Bloomsbury, The Opposite of Amber. And I’m about a quarter of the way through another contemporary novel about a politician’s daughter. I’ve written a few short novels for Evans Brothers, some still in the publishing pipeline. But also sitting on my hard drive are three or four romantic novels, from when I tried and completely failed to break into that market. But hey, they were fun to write and it was good practice...

Bad Faith... Maryom feels this is a serious novel about a religious state along the lines of "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood whereas TheMole read it as a semi humorous swipe at the idea of a theocracy. How do you view Bad faith?

Hmm. I’d lean more towards the second interpretation. That’s certainly how I thought of it as I was writing it – though I tried to make the issues subject to the story of the characters – and I think humour is an important weapon against any control-freak state. On the other hand, my feelings about theocracy and state oppression, and the attitudes I wanted to challenge in the book, are absolutely serious.

I understand your father was in the church? Did that inspire or assist you in the writing of Bad Faith? And did this cause any personal impact?

It influenced me for sure – my father was a very liberal Episcopalian priest. I was brought up with the assumption that the church would naturally grow more socially liberal. Me and my sheltered upbringing. The nineties were a shock to my system – a combination of moving to the West Indies and witnessing religious misogyny and homophobia at first hand, and realising that the church hierarchy in the UK would bend over backwards (to use an unfortunate phrase) to accommodate those kind of views.

Church unity had always been presented to me as a good and desirable thing, but I began to wonder. I thought that if the all the sects and denominations did decide to unite, it would likely be at the expense of liberal attitudes, not fundamentalist ones, because the liberals were always so willing to tolerate intolerance – in other religions as well as their own. There are fundamentalist Christians in the US who have a lot of sympathy and common ground with extreme Islamists. That’s not so surprising, but for UK church leaders to excuse some repulsive attitudes as ‘cultural differences’? Oh, please.

I would occasionally wonder if I’d pushed the limits of credibility in Bad Faith; and then, for instance, the Archbishop of Canterbury would suggest that some groups in UK society should have a parallel and equally valid judicial system – sharia, in other words. And I’d decide I hadn’t gone far enough. I never take my western liberal freedoms for granted, not any more. And I would never assume they’re immutable.

My mother’s still very devout, and I did worry I might upset her – I think she was a bit worried too – but as soon as she read the book I think she realised I wasn’t having a go at religion per se, only religion as a political system. And it probably helped that I dedicated the book to my father.

Crossing the Line... A very different book and far more serious than Bad Faith and about a highly topical subject. What gave you the idea of knife crime as a subject for a book as you appear to live in a rural idyll?

I suppose knife crime was in the news a lot at the time. Still is, unfortunately. So far as I remember it wasn’t a deliberate choice, but the natural progression of the plot – I just realised quite early on that Nick carried a knife, and that that was going to have consequences for him and those around him.

I did deliberately choose an urban setting – Bad Faith had such a rural and suburban background that I wanted a change. And I haven’t always lived in the country – I like city life too. My mother still lives in Aberdeen, so when I was writing Crossing The Line I’d go and stay with her and walk for miles around the city, letting scenes and characters pop into my head. Walking combined with location scouting is definitely one of the best sources of ideas.

The subjects of bullying and trauma (as caused by sudden death) are both covered with compassion and understanding. Did you have to research these subjects deeply?

No. I didn’t really want to, because I wanted to come at these topics raw. I didn’t want to take any of my characters from a case study, even by accident, and anyway I don’t know that research is as helpful with this kind of thing as memory, experience, observation. To an extent I used people I know, friends who have lost loved ones, experiences I’ve had. Maybe writers just have a cold spot in their hearts. Some of us, anyway.

At the end there is a slight and subtle twist. Does this reflect any religious views or is there a statement being made?

It doesn’t reflect any religious belief and no, I wasn’t trying to make any kind of statement. It was just one of those plot elements that grows on you. I didn’t know when I started writing that things were going to turn out like that – if I can put it that way! I could add that I’ve heard too many convincing stories to dismiss this kind of phenomenon. And I find that quite reassuring, not frightening.

You write for young adults, Do you have to 'dumb down' the language or content at all?

I certainly don’t dumb down my language or vocabulary – I write as I would for adults. With language and content I feel I have to be thoughtful, but nothing is off-limits. I use obscenities, but I don’t feel I can pepper the dialogue with them. In fact I usually swear a lot in my first draft, then on a rewrite I’ll go through it and delete nine out of ten, and tone others down. It’s almost invariably stronger for it, and the real profanity has more impact. I think one of the strongest aspects of YA lit is the fact that we have to think about every word, every act of violence, every sex scene. Nothing’s gratuitous.

The other difference though is in style – I’d say that is a big difference between YA and adult books. You can’t mess around with too much introspection or description; you can’t waste a word; you have to get right to the heart of the action and keep it moving.

Are there other subjects you would like to write about that are either not appropriate for young adults or that publishers want to steer clear of?

I honestly can’t think of any that they’d try to discourage. For instance, my friend Tabitha Suzuma has just written a wonderful novel about incestuous love between a brother and a sister, Forbidden. My latest – The Opposite of Amber – is about a prostitute, and my publishers didn’t bat an eye about the subject matter.

I imagine, though, that any publisher would want to be very careful how a dangerous subject was approached. Which is fair enough. In YA literature as in children’s, there are gatekeepers in the form of parents, librarians and teachers, and that has to be taken into account.

The two book covers Bad Faith and Crossing the Line have a lot in common although they were from different publishers. Was this deliberate as the cover for Firebrand is far different and more exciting and still published by Strident?

No, there was no consultation between the publishers at all! It’s a fantastic coincidence. I loved both the covers, and when I saw the cover for Crossing The Line I was enormously chuffed that it matched Bad Faith so beautifully. I still hold them up together at talks to show them off.

And now we come to Firebrand which is published very soon on 13th August. A very different style and a very different subject. Is this return to fantasy, because Darke Academy was also fantasy, something you have looked forward to?

Firebrand actually predates the Darke Academy series (which I write as a collaborative project with Hothouse Fiction). It had a very tortuous beginning – when I decided to focus on Young Adult fiction, my first attempt was a fantasy book called Rebel Angels. It wasn’t very good, and I rewrote it many times, but I’d got hooked by the characters and the story and by this time I was writing the sequel.

The trouble was, the whole story was taken over by its villain, who appealed to me more than any of the other characters. To get him out of my system I decided I had to tell his ‘origin’ story – and that was the book that became Firebrand. I’d intended it as a ‘prequel’, but it became the heart of the story, and getting Seth out of my system just hadn’t worked – he was still the guy pulling my (heart)strings. So Seth became an antihero rather than a villain, and Firebrand became Book 1 of a Rebel Angels series – and all the others are being rewritten in the light of that story, including the original Rebel Angels, which is now Book 2 and called Bloodstone. If you’re still with me!

But to answer your other question – yes, I have looked forward to getting back to this series, and I’m really excited about the rewrites. I think the books will be much improved and I like spending time with the characters.

We have both read and enjoyed tremendously Firebrand can you tell us about the rest of the series at all?

Thank you! I truly was delighted that you both liked Firebrand. In Book 2, Bloodstone, the story takes a substantial leap forward in time to the present day. Because of the Sithe’s longevity, though, we’re still with the characters from Firebrand. Conal and Seth are still defying Kate and moving between the worlds – and this has huge and disastrous consequences for the family. Thereafter – well, there are new characters, of course, from past and present, and from both worlds. And there will be war, and rebellion, and some intense romances, and death. And there’s fatal treachery from an unexpected quarter. And that’s all I’m saying!

Thanks so much for a great interview!

And many thanks for finding the time to answer our questions, it was most revealing.

Gillian can be followed on Facebook, Twitter and she blogs at and at

Gillian also has a website : which currently has a minor bug, but ignore this (it is not a virus or anything, just a little rogue code) - it is being looked at.

Read our reviews of Firebrand :- Maryom's and TheMole's
Read our reviews of Bad Faith :- Maryom's and TheMole's
Read our reviews of Crossing The Line:- Maryom's

Firebrand (Rebel Angels Series) is published on 13th August 2010 and can be purchased from Amazon amongst many other outlets.
Bad Faith and Crossing the Line can also be be purchased from Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview, the point about subject matter is particularly interesting. I often think YA deals with difficult, really difficult subjects better than adult fiction - I may be biased but some of the most challenging and thought provoking texts I've read have been YA.

    Can't wait to read Firebrad.