Celtic Connexions is thrilled to welcome author, Gilli Allan, fresh from her interview at Radio Stafford. No need to worry about hyperventilating here, Gilli. This is a really laid back, relaxed place but in case you do, I am prepared.
So we won’t beat around the bush any longer, we’ll get straight to the fire from the frying pan… well sort of. We’ll at least put Gilli on the hot seat.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself and what initially sparked you to write.
I suspect I’ve always been a writer. Long before I was capable of committing more than a few laborious sentences to the page, I routinely developed long and complex stories in my head, peopled typically with fairies, princes and princesses and the sons and daughters of red-Indian chieftains. And at primary school, instead of the usual playground games, I forced my friends to enact these dramas.
The idea that I could write down the story I wanted to read did not occur to me until I was ten or thereabouts. Inspired by Georgette Heyer, my fifteen year old sister had begun to write her own Regency Romance. I copied my big sister. Set in the olden days, my plot revolved around a party of ladies visiting a lighthouse. They were trapped there by bad weather. During the storm, my young hero – the 16 year old son of the lighthouse keeper – fell on the rocks. Confined to a couch by his not too serious injuries, he was nursed by my young heroine. My sister finished her novel, but my imagination and energy failed after only three or four illustrated pages of a small format notebook. But the writing seed had been planted and I continued with the hobby through my teenage.
The ‘love on a lighthouse’ story was a one-off. Although I did enjoy those Regency romances so beloved of my sister, my own writing settled into a more contemporary style, and dwelt in a darker, seedier world – a world I had no experience of. I was a lazy and innocent middle-class teenager. Doubtless I was compensating, through my romantic fantasies, for my lack of a real love life. I had to rely entirely upon my imagination and, unsurprisingly, never finished anything. I’m sure I bored my friends witless by insisting on reading passages out to them in the break times of the girl’s grammar school I attended. An experience which wasn’t enhanced for them by the fact I couldn’t get through more than a few sentences without giggling and getting embarrassed by the rude bits (and by rude I mean nothing more risqué than kissing. I was nothing like the bold, sassy teenagers of today!).
I never took seriously the idea of writing as a profession. After all, writers were clever, educated people. I was neither. I wasn’t a star pupil at school. I wasn’t even particularly outstanding in English. My parents were both artists. They never discouraged my writing, but it was ignored. Their interest in my notebooks was not engaged by my literary pubescent outpourings, but by the doodles and illustrations which lavishly embellished them. It was clear where they thought my talents lay. I left school at 16 with just enough exam passes to get me into art-college. In my early adult life I stopped writing.
My career was in advertising where I worked as an illustrator. When I stopped work to look after my young son, I started writing again.
2. Torn and Life Class aren’t your first two novels. Can you tell us a bit about your earlier works?
The ‘love on a lighthouse’ story was a one-off. Though I loved to read those Regency romances that had inspired my sister, my own writing swiftly settled into a more contemporary style, and dwelt in a darker, seamier world than the writing of Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer inhabited.
When I started to write again, after having my son, Tom, it was with the serious intention of finishing the book and getting it published. The book was a contemporary love story, but although it followed many of the tropes of the category romance (I originally intended it for Mills & Boon), it was unconventional.
My heroine was a young woman whose very first love affair had ended in pregnancy, threatening her budding career. The story opens when she is in hospital and going through a miscarriage. The romance is between her and the OB & GYN consultant! When I first had the idea it made me laugh. I thought: ‘If I can carry this off, I can do anything’. Just Before Dawn was the first novel I ever finished. Given my subsequent experience, I am now astounded it was almost immediately taken on by a publisher, the then new Love Stories.
At the time characterized as the “thinking woman’s Mills & Boon”, Love Stories was a one woman band. Anne Dewe was looking for un-clichéd stories about women and relationships; stories with a love-theme but which need not be conventionally romantic. My book fitted the bill. Just Before Dawn went through its fair share of editing before publication.
Now, feeling full of confidence, I let my hair down and wrote the novel of my heart. Desires & Dreams, also published by Love Stories, revisited the darker world of my teenage imagination. It was still a love story, but it totally subverted the ‘romance’ stereotypes.
The heroine feels suffocated and bored in her relationship. She feels there is something missing. She fantasizes about having an affair with an old boyfriend. On her way to meet him for a lunch-date in London, she’s accosted by a street artist. He flatters and romances her while drawing her portrait and, already subconsciously primed to go off the rails, she becomes enthralled. But the face he shows to ‘punters’ is very different to the real man. Poor, bad-tempered and obsessive, she couldn’t have made a worse choice. But their fatal meeting changes both their lives. This book is not an HEA!
Both my books were published in hardback, using my own artwork for the cover designs. Sadly, a few years after publishing Desires & Dreams, Love Stories folded. It was unable to get the promotion, marketing and distribution to gain success for itself or its authors. This was a time when publishing was going through a lot of changes, and moving from a gentlemanly profession to big business. What became important was not bringing on a new writer who was exploring a slightly off-beat and unproved area of romantic fiction, but publishing the latest slam-dunk best seller, or a new writer who could be described as ‘the next Joanna Trollope’ or whoever. My reflections on my lack of success can perhaps be discounted as special pleading, and the truth is – no one liked what I was writing! Whatever the real reason, I’ve been unable to find a new mainstream publisher for any new work, from that that day to this. Thank heaven for digital Indie publishing.
3. Have the rights on your first two novels reverted back to you? If so, would you consider e-publishing them?
Yes they have, many years ago. In fact, after the rights reverted, the books were taken on by a then new, POD publisher who republished them in paperback, again with my own art work for the covers. Sadly I believed what I was told about marketing and distribution. And didn’t understand the amount of work I needed to do to get the books noticed and sold. Also, I think they’d even then passed their sell-by, and were becoming very out of date. They were written in the 1980s before mobile phones and the internet, let alone the twin towers, and the banking collapse. I feel I would need to do an awful lot of work on them if I was going to reset them in the modern world. Or I could leave them as they are, and market them as historicals!
4. You’re a member of the Romantic Novelists Association. Can you tell us what that means to you?
More than anything the RNA provides support and a network of friends who understand what it is to be a writer. Before I joined I knew no other writers. My first two novels were published with no help or guidance from anyone, other than my publisher. I lived then in Coulsdon, a town in Surrey within striking distance of London. It was only after my husband took a job in Cheltenham, and we moved to Gloucestershire, that I first found out about the Romantic Novelists Association. I joined immediately and I’m very glad I did. Apart from anything else, it provides an important component of my social life.
I have never been able to profit from the RNA’s wonderful New Writers Scheme because I was already a published author when I joined. And I have to admit, it has been a slightly galling experience to meet so many unpublished writers in those early days, people like Katie Fforde (who lives just 2 or 3 miles away from me as the crow flies) and to watch them find publishers, sign contracts and go from nowhere to bestsellers, while I languished – the years steadily piling up since my flash-in-the-pan ‘success’.
5. In addition to the RNA, are you a member of any other writing groups/platforms?
I contribute to several on-line discussion platforms: ROMNA, the on-line newsgroup of the RNA, British Romance Fiction and Post Chick Lit, and I’m a member of the collection of Indie writers, Famous Five plus. The last two are Facebook sites. I also post regularly on several other groups. I don’t belong to a real-life writing group. Maybe I should but there’s not enough time in the world.
6. Can you tell us about Torn? And Life Class?
You can escape your old life, but can you ever escape yourself?
Jessica Avery is a woman in her early thirties with a three year old son, Rory. She has made a series of wrong choices in her life – job, men and life-style. Her job came to a disastrous conclusion. The men in her life have let her down and her life-style involved too many pills, parties and promiscuity. But she believes that by quitting her old relationship and moving from London to the country, she has escaped all that. Her choice now is to live a steady, responsible life in a tranquil new environment, putting her son’s needs and her role as mother as her number one priority.
But she finds country life less serene and bucolic than she expected. Her ex-partner tracks her down and assaults her as she leaves a local pub. Luckily, a witness to the encounter steps in and helps to defuse the situation, but she is left badly shaken. As an in-comer – and even worse, an ex-investment banker – Jessica is not made very welcome by the local mothers. Then there is the management of the rural landscape – the interests of commerce versus the preservation of the environment – which begins to engage her interest and concern. She wonders if leaving London was the right move.
The narrative is played out against the low-key background story of a proposed by-pass to the local town. Initially Jessica favours a new road until she realizes the route it might take, tearing through the landscape she’s come to love. She is torn between the pragmatic and the romantic decision. The friends Jess makes represent the differing positions. There is Danny Bowman, the counter-culture shepherd; his employer, James Warwick, affluent widowed farmer and father to three year old daughter, Sasha; Gilda Warwick, James’s match-making mother; and Sheila, the feminist nursery school owner.
The title – ‘Torn’ – can also be understood as referring to the personal choices which confront Jessica. Despite vowing she wants no emotional entanglements in her life, she is attracted to two very different men. She finds, to her cost, that in the face of temptation it is not so easy to throw off old habits and responses. She is a woman who claims she has never been in love. Eventually she is prompted to re-evaluate this stance and to admit to herself, that beyond an undeniable physical attraction, she has indeed fallen in love, but with which one – the suitable man or the unsuitable boy?
About art, life, love and learning lessons
(chosen as book of the week 1/7/12 on Radio Stafford FM’s Sunday afternoon book programme).
The narrative follows four members of the class, who meet once a week to draw the human figure. All have failed to achieve what they thought they wanted in life. They come to realize that it’s not just the naked model they need to study and understand. Their stories are very different, but they all have secrets they hide from the world and from themselves. By uncovering and coming to terms with the past, maybe they can move on to an unimagined future.
Dory says she works in the sex trade, the clean-up end. She deals with the damage sex can cause. Her job has given her a jaundiced view of men, an attitude confirmed by the disintegration of her own relationships. The time seems right to pursue what she really wants in life, if she can work out what that is. She moves back from London to the country town where she grew up and where her sister still lives, yet she remains undecided whether to make it a permanent move. She’s always been clear eyed realist – love doesn’t figure in her view of the future – and yet she finds herself chasing a dream.
Stefan is a single-minded loner, whose only and overriding ambition is to make a living from his sculpture. So how the hell did he find himself facing a class of adults who want their old teacher back? If he can sell the big old house he’s inherited, he’ll be able to finance himself and concentrate on his work, and maybe give up the part-time teaching job. Love is an emotion he long ago closed off ̶ it only leads to regret and shame ̶ but it creeps up on him from more than one direction. Is it time to admit that letting others into his life is not defeat?
Fran – Dory’s older sister – is a wife and a stay-at-home mother without enough to keep her occupied. Her husband’s early retirement plans throws her into a panic. She sees her life closing down and narrowing into staid middle-age. On a collision course with her mid-life crisis, Fran craves the romance and excitement of her youth. An on-line flirtation with an old boyfriend becomes scarily obsessive, putting everything she really loves at risk.
Dominic is a damaged child. He has lived his life knowing all about sex but nothing about love. If he can only find his mother perhaps he can make sense of his past. But perhaps it is a doomed quest and it’s time to look to the future? If he can grow up enough to accept the help and love that’s on offer here and now, he has the chance to transform his life.
7. Which have your found the most difficult – the actual writing/editing of your novels, or the marketing and promotion?
A hard question to answer. I am not one of those writers who are bubbling geysers of plots and new ideas. In fact I’ve described starting a new book as like carving a block of granite with a teaspoon. I begin with my characters and their back stories, and the scenario in which they come together. I might have a few elements in my mind about the story, but other than those few building blocks it’s always very nebulous and ill-defined. It’s a type of approach aptly described ‘as into the mist’. (I apologize for mixing my granite and my mist metaphors!) In fact, when I was writing TORN I truthfully had NO idea how I was going to resolve it until I was within a couple of chapters of the end. It was good. I feel it made it fresh. If I didn’t know, then the reader didn’t know either.
It’s the characters who tell you what’s going to happen. And it’s wonderful and a bit magical when you suddenly get that ‘Of course!’ moment, and everything slots into place. That’s what makes writing worthwhile – when the story catches fire and races off with you. You’re left running behind, trying to catch up and get it all down. That’s when you need to be disciplined about the other things in life, like getting dressed, and doing the shopping, the washing and the ironing.
So then there’s the promo and marketing. I’m afraid I’m one of those typically English self-effacing types and find all that sort of thing terribly difficult. In some ways it’s easier these days, in that you don’t have to telephone people and persuade them you’re the best thing since sliced bread. You can email. And being digitally published it makes sense to use as many on-line opportunities that I can identify. But I still don’t take advantage of every opportunity or ‘put myself out there’ as much as I could (or should?) For one thing, it all takes so much time. I’m not a natural typist, I don’t think in perfect grammatical sentences, and the right words don’t necessarily come to me immediately. So, even just writing emails, I have to edit and correct far more than some people.
8. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
To become a published writer you need to be resilient, tenacious, obstinate, persistent and obsessive. You even need to have a degree of selfishness. In other you have to be bloody-minded. Think of the ‘wobbly man’ ̶ one of those figures with a heavy rounded base. Though they do fall over if punched, they don’t stay down. They swing around and bob back up again.
And if you truly believe you’ve got what it takes, don’t just talk about it, do it! There are always reasons to put it off. But don’t wait until you have the time, until the children are off your hands, until you’ve gone part-time or you’ve retired. If you procrastinate now, you may never begin, let alone finish. If you really have a book (or books) in you, you will find a way!
Thanks so much for dropping by today, Gilli. It’s been a blast! And you didn’t need your hyperventilating bag.
You can follow Gilli online at the following links:
Writer Cramped. Gilli Allan’s Blog
On Facebook Gilli Allan
On Twitter @gilliallan
And over at Famous Five Plus