It’s always disappinting when a book that I think I’ll love comes along and my TBR pile is so huge I haven’t had time to fit it in. Life Class by Gilli Allan is one of those books, especially since it has just won A Chill With A Book award (here). Life Class was published by Accent Press and is available for purchase by following the links here.
Until I have time to read Life Class, I thought I’d find out a bit more from Gilli Allan and luckily she agreed to be interviewed for Linda’s Book Bag.
Four people hide secrets from the world and themselves. Dory is disillusioned by men and relationships, having seen the damage sex can do. Fran deals with her mid-life crisis by pursuing an online flirtation which turns threatening. Stefan feels he is a failure and searches for self-validation through his art. Dominic is a lost boy, heading for self-destruction.
They meet regularly at a life-drawing class, led by sculptor Stefan. They all want a life different from the one they have, but all have made mistakes they know they cannot escape. They must uncover the past – and the truths that come with it – before they can make sense of the present and navigate a new path into the future.
An Interview with Gilli Allan
Hi Gilli. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing.
Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
I am obstinate, persistent and optimistic. The middle child of three, my given name is Gillian, but I was always called Jilly, Gilly, Jillie or Gillie! No one – not even my parents – could decide on, or stick to, a consistent spelling. I took matters into my own hands when I went to art school age sixteen. That’s when the absolutely logical, spelling of Gilli was born, and forcefully dinned into everyone who knew me.
On leaving (or rather dropping out of) art school it proved impossible to get a job in the art world. So I worked at various, and increasingly desperate, fill-in jobs – shop assistant, barmaid, beauty consultant, and a job which involved identifying and ‘picking up’ American tourists in London and offering them a free sight-seeing tour, followed by lunch at the Hilton. Of course there was a catch; they were then subjected to a high pressure sales pitch, to persuade them to buy building plots in Florida. I hated it, only lasted a month, and spent most of that time weeping in cafés. It was a wake-up call. I knew I had to do something about my life, and my obstinacy prompted me to have another go at finding an art job. This time I managed it, although I got the job through a complete fluke – I happened to have my art specimens with me at a crucial moment.
I am married and have one son, and live in the Cotswolds – near Stroud, in Gloucestershire.
When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?
The idea that you could write the book you wanted to read first occurred to me when I was ten or thereabouts, when my fifteen year old sister began her own, Georgette Heyer inspired, Regency romance. My imagination and energy failed after only three or four illustrated pages of a small notepad. Even though that ‘novel’ and the three or four which followed, were never finished, the writing seed had been planted.
Once her novel was finished, my sister did not embark on any further recreational writing, until she retired, but as a young teenager I continued with the hobby. It was a time when Young Adult did not exist as a genre. The choice was between children’s or adult fiction. So the stories I embarked upon as an author were again a way of creating the books I wanted to read – usually about pop singers, clubs, drugs, and motorbikes. The prime purpose of each plot was to provide a scenario for love. My experience of the world I imagined was zero, as was my experience of romantic love. My characters never progressed beyond gazing longingly, and kissing.
But I never took seriously the idea of writing as a profession. Writers were clever, educated people. Although I went to Grammar school I was not a star pupil; I wasn’t even outstanding at English. As art was the only subject in which I had a demonstrable talent, I left school as soon as possible, after achieving the minimum number of exam passes required to get me into art-college.
In my early adult life I stopped writing. My career was as an illustrator in an advertising design studio. It was only when I stopped work to look after my young son that I started writing again. This time it was with the serious intention of finishing a book and seeing if I could get it published. I have to confess, however, the decision to put pen to paper on that first day was purely an economic one; I wanted to earn money at home. I was hopelessly misguided about the money-making potential, but the decision to restart writing was crucial to the rest of my life. The process was magical and deeply fulfilling, and I fell back in love with writing. More importantly, I became convinced that not only was I capable of finishing a book, but that what I was writing was publishable.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I can’t describe my routine. There isn’t one. As I have got older, I have become less and less disciplined. Although I spend the majority of most of my days in the study, the actual creative writing time is fluid and dictated by my mood, how excited or depressed I am by the story I’m trying to tell, and by the pressures or distractions of social media.
It was a different time when I started out. There was no ‘online world’ clamouring for attention. Then the process of writing a book was predictable. I started in January, writing while my son was at nursery or infant school, and writing some more in the evenings after he’d gone to bed. I would reach a final draft by the end of the year and start the next book the following January. But life changed after three books. My mother died, my husband was head-hunted, we moved house from Surrey to Gloucestershire, and my publisher went out of business. I felt bereaved and abandoned in a place where I knew no one, without the comfort blanket of having a publisher. The idea of starting a new book became more and more resistible.
(That sounds a very challenging time in your life Gilli.)
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
Given my previous answer, you won’t be surprised to read that for me, beginning a new book is the most difficult part of the writing process. It’s like carving a block of granite with a teaspoon. I try to plan but nothing reveals itself to me beyond the main characters, their back stories, and the scenario in which they come together. I may have a few elements of the story in mind, but other than this handful of building blocks, my ideas about the plot will be nebulous and ill-defined. What I have to do is make myself sit down at the computer and start. It’s an approach aptly described ‘as into the mist’.
Fortunately, once I have persuaded myself to bite the bullet, a new story will eventually come alive. The when and where in the process is unpredictable, but it’s this that makes writing worthwhile. The story catches fire and races off, with me trying to catch up and get it all down. This is where I need to introduce routine and discipline in order to cope with the fundamentals of life, like getting dressed, buying food and washing clothes. But it is also scary; I often have no idea how a story will resolve, until the finishing post comes in sight.
My favourite, and the easiest part of the process for me, is knocking the finished text into shape. Once I no longer have to dredge the story out of the murky depths of my imagination, I am far happier. I can see what I’ve got, and I can see how to improve, cut or even add to it. Because I find the editing so much fun – I am capable of polishing, tinkering, and restructuring it forever – I eventually need to be ruthless with myself and let it go.
(That’s really interesting, as many authors tell me they hate the editing stage.)
You frequently write about ‘the messiness of life’. What is the fascination for you of ordinary lives?
My first forays into writing were to create the book I wanted to read, and it’s the same impulse that motivates me now. It’s been said that some people read fiction to escape the reality of life, but others read to identify with the characters and their dilemmas. There is a curmudgeonly part of me that’s impatient with impossibly beautiful heroines, and rich, powerful, handsome but a little bit arrogant heroes. I find that I can’t care about characters whose flaws and failings are negligible, and whose journey from hate to love is implausible. (And I don’t like Sci Fi or Fantasy for that matter.) But it’s my personal taste. I am not opposed to escapist literature, and I don’t decry those who write it, or those who want to read it. I simply fall into the ‘identify’ camp. To remain committed to reading fiction I need to believe in the scenario – to recognise it, if you like.
I am an unapologetic member of the Romantic Novelists Association, however, and I would defend to the death the fact that all of my books are love stories, but I prefer to write about life and love in an honest way, not ignoring or glossing over its uncomfortable or difficult aspects. The original blurb for my book, Torn, sums up my approach. “[It] is a contemporary story, which faces up to the complexities, messiness and absurdities in modern relationships. Life is not a fairy tale; it can be confusing and difficult. Sex is not always awesome; it can be awkward and embarrassing, and it has consequences. You don’t always fall for Mr Right, even if he falls for you. And realising you’re in love is not always good news. It can make the future look daunting….”
Your books are available in e-book and paperback. Which do you prefer to read and why?
It depends on what I’m reading and where. Ebooks are very transportable, easy to read in a variety of locations, and the books themselves are usually cheaper and easy to obtain. The majority of my reading these days is on my kindle, but…. I do, deep down, prefer real books. I am given books as presents, and these will usually be ‘keepers’. I like the smell, the feel, the heft, the physicality; there is nothing better than sitting up in bed with a new book in my lap.
(Oh, I couldn’t agree more Gilli.)
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I don’t read a lot of women’s romantic fiction. Since I began to write it seriously, I have found it hard to relax and immerse myself in it, probably because I’m unable to switch off my inner editor. Either I find fault, and nit-pick over style and plot, or I find myself cast into a depression because I will never be that good. ‘Frothy’ just doesn’t appeal to me, so if I have to pick favourite women’s fiction authors, I would say Jo Jo Moyes, Lisa Jewell, Marian Keyes – writers who often choose to explore more muscular and unconventional themes.
The genre of fiction I read most is psychological thrillers or crime (but not the cosy variety). Even with this grittier style of writing, I prefer a world I recognise – so I tend to pick British authors who write UK set fiction. A good story is not enough, however. My pleasure is heightened immeasurably by good writing, and there are many superb authors who choose to write crime fiction. I won’t list all of my favourites, but I have recently been delighted to discover the excellent books by Belinda Bauer and Sabine Durrant.
Apart from the above, my fiction ‘habit’ is further fed by authors like Robert Harris, C J Sansom and Hilary Mantel, all enjoyed in ‘proper’ book form. I am currently looking forward to reading the third in Robert Harris’s ‘Cicero’ trilogy – Dictator. It was a present to my husband so I am making myself wait until he’s read it.
Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing?
I have retained an interest in art, particularly in portraiture and the human figure. I am an avid reader. I like photography, though I’ve never been particularly good at it. I’m lucky enough to live in the country, in a beautiful setting. So my love of the natural world and walking is easy to satisfy. I believe that my appreciation of landscape informs my writing.
As a little girl, I won the form project prize in the final year of primary school. The subject I’d chosen, entirely off my own bat, was archaeology. My son is now a historian and a (desk) archaeologist. So my present book is about – guess what? – an archaeologist.
If you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?
My original career was as an illustrator in advertising, but I worked in the sector at a time when finished illustrations were not commonly used in advertisements. My job was to visualise the art director’s ideas. These roughs, or story boards, as the drawings were called, were just to communicate to the client what was being envisaged for the ad or campaign. The final images would be photographic or a filmed commercial. I began writing at a time when I’d rather fallen out of love with advertising. Jobs were typically wanted yesterday, and as I moved further out of London and had my son, the sheer logistics became more difficult. This was a pre-computerised, pre-online world. I wouldn’t want to go back, even if the kind of job I did still exists.
What I would have liked to do, and was able to dabble in, in 2013, was book illustration. My son – Thomas J T Williams – was the project curator of the 2014 ‘Vikings – Life & Legend’ exhibition at the British Museum. He decided to pitch the idea of writing a children’s book about Harald Hardrada. In this country Hardrada is mainly known as the Viking King who fought our own King Harold Godwinson at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, just before the Norman Invasion. The British Museum agreed the book was a good idea, and after looking at my sample illustrations, the project was born. It was fun working with my son on this, but also nerve-wracking – I didn’t want to let him down. The deadline was very tight which meant I didn’t have time to think too much about whether or not I could do it. I just did it! The Tale of King Harald – The Last Viking Adventure was published by British Museum Press in the Spring of 2014, to coincide with the exhibition.
How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic? Have you ever been a life model for example?
I am far too vain ever to take my kit off in front of a group of people, however pure their motives for wanting to study me in the nude. My knowledge of life classes comes not from the model’s point of view, but from the artist’s. I have attended recreational life drawing classes forever, and I always knew one day I was going to write a book entitled Life Class.
I am lazy and shy, and I don’t like the telephone, so I choose subjects that I feel confident of writing about without too much research. In my stories, there is always some real experience – re-imagined, reshaped and embroidered – and events, jobs, and activities I have knowledge of. But… there are always elements of a story, once I’m in the midst of it, that I discover I know nothing about, and I am forced to undertake proper research.
For Life Class, I talked to sculptors, did a sculpting workshop and visited a foundry where bronzes are cast. I also talked at length to a friend of mine who worked as a lab technician in a sexual health clinic.
For Torn, I talked to sheep farmers, spent time observing a nursery class, and called up memories of an incident in Streatham High Road, which I and my husband-to-be, were witness to. I also recalled a story told to me by a friend, of an altercation with a landowner when she was walking with her young children in the woods above my house. I spent a long time talking to an expert on dyslexia. (The outcome of this was surprising as I discovered that I am on the dyslexia spectrum. It made sense of many of the practical difficulties I’ve had in my life – including doing worse than I knew I should, at school.)
For Fly or Fall, I looked back to a particular time in my life when I moved home. I found myself in a very different neighbourhood and social circle, to the one I’d left behind at my old address. We had to have various jobs done on the new house which involved burly builders coming in and out. I also took on an evening job at that time, working in the bar of a local squash club. These various elements provided me with the initiating idea, and the personal experience, which became Fly or Fall.
For my current WIP, title not finalised, but currently known as Human Archaeology, my main protagonists are a desk archaeologist, and an Essex girl. She left school at sixteen, and is now developing a career as an events organiser. They meet because she’s scoping out the university where he teaches, as a conference venue. Neither is who they appear to be at face value. Their histories are slowly revealed throughout the unfolding story.
I have experience, through the company my husband works with, of conference organisation – two a year, held at Queens’ College Cambridge. I have experience, through my son, of the work of an academic archaeologist. The story is partly based in Suffolk. We took a holiday there last autumn, specifically for me to visit various sites and to get a feel for the landscape. I’ve communicated with Moyse’s Hall, the museum in Bury St Edmunds, and with the owner of a leisure boat business. To find out why, you’ll just have to buy the book.
(We will indeed!)
Your novels frequently have a handwritten title. Is that your writing and how do you choose the covers for your books?
When I was an independent I designed my own covers, but I am with Accent Press now, and their design department revamped all of my covers, including the style of the title lettering (so, no, it is not my handwriting). I was able to have some input in the overall design. I chose to have a photographic style of cover, and selected the photographs used in Life Class and Fly or Fall.
It’s a long time since your first book was published. How do you think your writing has evolved over time?
My original plan, when I first took up my pen seriously, was to write a book suitable for Mills & Boon – a plan immediately subverted when I began to work out my plot. At the time I was irritated by the romantic fiction of the time which always ignored contraception, or the possible consequences of unprotected sex. My book, Just Before Dawn, is about a young woman whose very first love affair ends in pregnancy. The story opens when she is in hospital, going through a miscarriage. The romance is between her and the Obs & Gynae consultant.
Although I suspected it was a theme which would not appeal to Mills & Boon, once I’d thought of it, I couldn’t abandon it. I did incorporate many of the tropes of standard romantic fiction in the hope that I was wrong. To become a writer you have to be an optimist. But M & B did reject it, with the comment that it “lacks emotional depth”. I interpreted this as meaning I didn’t have hero and heroine kissing soon enough. Undaunted, I very soon found another publisher, who also took my next book, Desires & Dreams.
These days I believe my writing is improved beyond all recognition and is far deeper and more multi-facetted. But the admittedly unconventional plot of my first published novel does go to suggest that in a very fundamental way, the kind of life-changing situation I prefer to confront in my books hasn’t changed.
One of the reasons I invited you onto Linda’s Book Bag is that you have always so generously tweeted the interviews, review and guest posts I have had for other authors. What role do you see for social media in an author’s life?
The trouble with social media is that it can stop you doing what you should be doing – i.e. writing. But answering emails, reading blogs, commenting, sharing, tweeting and re-tweeting, gives the illusion of working. I can easily spend all day at the computer, but by the end of it, if I’ve achieved anything at all, it will only be a hundred or so words added to my WIP. Consequently, my relationship with social media is love hate. I am not very techie and find using the various websites which ostensibly promote and market books, difficult to navigate and very time-consuming.
Successful best-selling authors, those who have already established their names and their fan base, and had their books adapted for TV or feature film, probably don’t need it so much. But writers like me are trapped on the roundabout, never knowing if any of it is doing any good, but not daring to jump off.
(I think you’ve summed up what many authors feel Gilli.)
If you could choose to be a character from one of your books, who would you be and why?
I wouldn’t want to be any of my characters. I prefer an easy life, and hate having to cope with guilt, worry, struggle and soul-searching. I put all of my protagonists through the mill. There are no easy answers or straightforward roads to travel, for any of them. I am not an ‘up the aisle in a meringue of lace and satin’ style of writer. By the conclusion of my books my main characters will find themselves in a happy, hopeful place, but they’ve always had a struggle to get there. There wouldn’t be a story otherwise.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that a Gilli Allan book should be their next read, what would you say?
They’re unpredictable and unconventional – grown-up love stories, without the froth, or the rose tint.
And I, for one, can’t wait to read them! Thanks so much, Gilli, for answering my questions.
About Gilli Allan
Having written for most of her life, Gilli Allan, originally self-published until securing a contract with Accent Press. Love may be a central theme, but the books she writes are not conventional romances. On the mild end of the dyslexia spectrum, Gilli tries to write honestly, refusing to romanticise the downsides and the pitfalls in modern relationships.