A side-by-side image of a photograph of Gillian McAllister next to the cover of her book

Lightbulb moments: Gillian McAllister on That Night

The Sunday Times bestselling author talks about her sources of inspiration, her writing process and the origin story of her new book, That Night.

Gillian McAllister is back. The bestselling author of six books, including Everything But The Truth and Anything You Do Say, has another to add to your to-read pile. That Night places an unthinkable question with the reader: how far would you go to protect your family?

That Night revolves around a family trying to cope with a nightmare situation: a road accident abroad that leaves a man dead. A mother faces a stint in prison, leaving her child in another country. Two sisters are left with an impossible choice: can one cover for the other – and just how far will the lies go once the police start probing?

We caught up with McAllister to find out more about where the idea for the book came from.

How did the idea for That Night come about?

Some ideas come fully formed, some are created painstakingly piece by piece, and some – like That Night – come by analogy. The idea actually first came from the mafia. I sometimes become interested in a sort of "crime concept" – my fifth novel, How To Disappear, was about witness protection, and reading about this led me to organised crime and the mafia.

But what interested me about the mafia wasn’t organised crime; it was that mafia stories often involve what I liked to write about: family, love, loyalty. I found myself wondering how and why a family would come to act in a criminal way – to prioritise loyalty over everything else, no matter what? That Night in its final form has no mafia in it whatsoever, of course – though it is set in Italy as a nod to it – but it was the idea of a family who will do anything to cover up a crime that kicked off this novel for me.

What role do moral dilemmas play in inspiring your work?

I’ve never felt consciously drawn to them, but my backlist would tell a different story! I think they arise because I like a novel to ask me what I would do in a certain situation, and I favour provocative fiction where you might sometimes root for perpetrators as well as victims. Character-led fiction, for me, is people making perhaps ill-advised but relatable decisions.

Suspense, too, lies in impossible situations: if I cannot see a way out for the characters when reading, I am hooked. Especially if the author then cleverly finds one.  

'I get pretty much every proof going'

Where else you look for inspiration? 

I am definitely drawn to the gritty, but I like to find humane ways in to it. I might ostensibly be writing about the way a gang behaves, but it isn’t a gang, it’s a perfectly normal family thrown into a situation where they are forced to turn inwards and protect. Likewise, my next novel is about knife crime, but the way in is an intimate exploration of a mother whose son commits an unforgivable act (or is it?).

Inspiration-wise, quite often a subplot that a BBC drama barely lingers on will form the backbone of a novel for me. I also find the news (in non-COVID times of course) interesting, especially any crime longreads. Reading widely within my genre helps too. I get pretty much every proof going and I think a steady diet of marketing hooks through my letterbox has definitely helped to hone my ability to shape one myself. 

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