Four people hide secrets from the world and from 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 on-line flirtation which turns threatening. Dominic is a lost boy, trapped in a life heading for self-destruction. Stefan feels he is a failure. He searches for self-validation through his art alone.
They meet regularly at a life-drawing class, led by sculptor Stefan. All want a life that is 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.
I’ve written before about that little group of authors I hold dear to my heart – where I buy all their books, but never quite get round to reading them? I’m still making inroads into that “must read” pile, but plan to give priority to Life Class, the most recent of Gilli Allan’s three novels recently republished by Accent Press. Her work is receiving such wonderful reviews, I know other reading friends have enjoyed her work, and the book descriptions look so perfectly “me”. I’ll be reading and reviewing this month, but – while waiting very patiently for me to get on with it – I’m delighted to welcome Gilli to Being Anne to talk about her life and her books.
Hello Anne. I suppose the first thing to leap out at me as a way to introduce myself is to confess that I am also – in real life – a Williams. But I was born an Allan. My full name is Gillian and when I first met my husband, before the idea was even a gleam in his eye, I declared I could never marry him as Gillian Williams is too silly a name.
Born in Orpington, Kent, I was the middle child of three. I was always called Gilli – or should I say Jilly, Gilly, Jillie or Gillie. No one, it seemed – even including my parents – could decide or stick to a single spelling of my name. So I took matters into my own hands at art school, and that’s when the new (and absolutely logical) spelling of Gilli was born and, more importantly, forcefully dinned into everyone who knew me. Now I feel it’s a bit coy … and it dates me! But I’m stuck with it.
When I began writing, I considered many different noms de plumes, given the aforementioned silliness of my married name. But what most appealed to me was to picture the surprise and awe of people from my past spotting a name they recalled on the best seller pile in a bookshop. I’m still waiting for an impressed school chum or old boyfriend to contact me!
How long have you had the writing bug? I can see you’ve had a whole range of other jobs, and a career as a commercial artist…
My dad was a designer in advertising; my mum was an amateur painter. Our house was crammed with art books. In my mind, to be an artist was a good thing. I know I surprised my infant school teacher, when she asked the class what we wanted to be when we grew up. Up went my hand – “A commercial artist, Miss Lawrence.” But my ambition wasn’t just down to family influence. Art was the only subject I was good at.
I had started writing ‘novels’ when I was 10. I was copying my older sister. She loved the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer, and decided to write her own. My first effort was only a few pages long, and unfinished. Perhaps it’s fairer to say it was barely started! But once I’d caught the bug – which was essentially the idea that I could write the book I wanted to read – I was forever beginning new novels. My parents didn’t read my pubescent outpourings. Their interest was in the doodles, cartoons and illustrations which embellished them. It was very clear where they thought my future lay. To be honest, it never even occurred to me that writing was a credible career possibility. Writers were clever people, who went to university. I’d managed to get into grammar school, but I was always in the bottom stream. I only just managed to scrape enough exam passes to go on to art school. It was then I reasoned that the time had come to put childish things behind me. I stopped writing.
After a number of increasingly desperate fill-in jobs, I eventually got my job as an illustrator in an advertising design studio but, as time went on, the work became increasingly pressurised. When I became a mother, I enjoyed being at home with my son. It was feasible to continue to work free-lance from home, but it would be far from plain sailing. This was in the days before mass computerisation. I didn’t drive and I’d have had to collect and deliver work in central London, on public transport, with a toddler in tow. The possibility of finding something else to do from home, which might earn me some money, was very appealing.
That’s when the idea of writing re-surfaced. And, thinking it was the easy option, I – like so many before and since – set my sights on Mills & Boon. I now know it’s not at all easy. But amazingly, the first book I completed – Just Before Dawn – was published, as was my second – Desires & Dreams, although not by M & B. But although I now rather complacently saw a new career as a writer stretching ahead of me, the reality rather slapped me in the face.
I’ve been aware of your writing for quite a long time now Gilli – I bought my kindle copy of Torn in 2011 and Life Class in 2013. How have things changed for you since your deal with Accent Press?
First, I have to say that I’m slightly concerned by the fact you bought your copy of Torn in 2011, when I first self-published. I was very green in those days, and not very technically competent. The earliest version is full of typos and formatting issues! I re-edited and re-uploaded at least twice before Accent Press took me on in 2014.
But to answer your question – things have changed a lot since I signed with Accent. The titles in the 3 book deal are those I’d already written and published independently – Torn, Fly Or Fall and Life Class. So I have been kept very busy since autumn 2014 re-editing them according to Accent’s guidelines and requirements, and then promoting each as it’s been released. I also try to support my other author friends. Promotion has never been my favourite aspect of publishing (is it anyone’s?), but in this digital age it has to be done. So I find it hard to find the time to settle down and concentrate for any length of time on a new book. Currently it is slow going.
Tell me more about your books – what kind of reader would enjoy them?
The first thing I should make clear is that, despite my initial intention, I don’t write ‘romance’. My first blurb for Torn sums up my style of contemporary story-telling very well.
“[Torn] 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….”
I was a fey, day-dreamy child, who clung to childhood. I didn’t want to let go of princes and princesses, Father Christmas and the possibility of magic. Eventually I had to grow up – probably far later than many of my peers – but oddly, when I did, I felt I’d taken a far longer step forward than they had. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the teenage comics and romances my friends read, but I wasn’t an uncritical sponge. I took them with a large pinch of salt. Perhaps I’m too much of a cynic, but the endlessly regurgitated tale of a hard-done-by heroine, whose extraordinary beauty goes unnoticed by everyone – even herself – until the rich, handsome, toned, maybe a touch arrogant but otherwise impressive (and universally admired) hero, comes along and notices her, seemed a bit soppy to me then, and only annoys me now.
I know there is a great deal more variety in contemporary women’s fiction these days, but the demarcations were far more rigid when I first started writing seriously. If I wanted to write a love story, and have any chance of it being published, I knew I should try to write a typical category romance, but once I’d started it, ‘Just Before Dawn’ took its own, slightly unconventional flight-path. Having found a publisher for it, and feeling undeservedly complacent, I made no attempt to keep my second book – ‘Desires & Dreams’ – within the supposedly acceptable ‘romance’ parameters. I felt I had found my voice. I was aware that I’d been lucky, but not perhaps aware of just how lucky. In retrospect, I can more clearly see how much of a fluke it was to have found a publisher whose own mission statement was to produce intelligent, unconventional love stories. Their demise a few years after their launch is an indication of just how difficult it was then to buck the system.
But despite the ups, and the downs and the disappointments, my guiding principle still remains the same – to write the kind of story I would like to read. I prefer books which confront the realities of contemporary life, good and bad, without flinching or looking away. Stories about how ordinary people deal with life’s inevitable hurdles – love, life, death, marriage, sex, parenthood and infidelity. My ideal readers are women like me, women who have grown out of wanting fairy stories, but want a satisfying, feel-good read, with an unpredictable and unconventional love story at the core. A story in which the flawed characters carry baggage from the past, they don’t always do the right thing, but at the end of the day they find peace and a credible, happy-for-now (and who knows….?) ending.
I’ve enjoyed reading some of the wonderful reviews on Amazon for Torn – I particularly liked “a romance with some meat on its bones, and a set of teeth”! Do you have a favourite quote – and how did it feel to see such praise at long last?
After many years in the wilderness, I could have given up and thrown in the towel. My three books, which have now been republished by Accent, were like yoyos, going back and forth to agents and publishers, but ultimately always bouncing back to me again with a “Sorry – not for us” rejection. I’m sure my friends must have sometimes wondered whether I was just stupidly stubborn or dangerously deluded. So after I self-published, it was a very good feeling, when the positive reviews started coming. I wasn’t mad after all!
I have come to terms with the fact that I don’t write the most popular type of women’s fiction. I don’t write escapism. My books are not light and frothy. They’re not comedies; they’re not stories whose edges have been smoothed. Consequently I don’t have gazillions of reviews. But those I do have are predominantly positive and complimentary. They are obviously from women like me, women who enjoy a more challenging, and yes … meaty, story!
There are many comments I could select which have given me a real “woop woop!” moment when I first read them. And a review like this one, from Lynnette Sofras (The Manic Scribbler) about Life Class, almost moved me to tears. It is a long review, but it concludes:
“This powerful mix of complex characters and their problems seem to leap out of the story and almost physically suck you into it – pulling and tugging this way and that as their stories unfold. They are almost frighteningly realistic. And Ms Allan’s masterful control of the narrative pace kept me spellbound, unable to find a place to stop reading and therefore carrying on long into the night. I love it when a story does that for me and that’s why it has to have five stars. Read it – you will not be disappointed.”
Tell me about your writing days…
My first task is do social media stuff. Ever since I was taken on by Accent last year, this side of things has been fairly intensive as there were 3 books to get out into the world in their new guise. Fortunately Life Class is the last, so I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. As I am a bit OCD, it is only after I have crossed every t and dotted every i that I feel released to get on with proper work, by which I mean writing the next book.
The concentrated writing part of my day is very variable. I don’t give myself targets. I stop when I feel I’ve achieved something. I begin a new book with no over-arching plan. There are rarely milestones or plot elements I need to have reached or achieved in a writing day. And because I edit as I go (disapproved of and warned against by many successful authors, but I absolutely HAVE TO) it could be as little as 500 words, but never more than 2,500.
Writing a first draft begins slowly and haltingly, but there usually comes a moment when the stubborn embers flare into flame. Then the ideas pop up, the connections, the direction, the underlying themes all begin to spring to life. Those are the times when I can write for hours at stretch without moving from the desk. When I eventually stand up my body is locked in a figure S and it can take several painful and creaky minutes to straighten out the kinks.
I tend not to write in the evening, but if I’ve something on my mind preventing sleep, I’ll sometimes come downstairs in the small hours and add a few hundred words.
What writers do you admire? If someone said “her writing reminds me of…”, what comparison would give you the most pleasure?
My lovely reviewer Lynette Sofras, mentioned above, gave me enormous pleasure when, in her review of Fly Or Fall, she said my writing was “reminscent of the excellent Deborah Moggach”. Accent Press sometimes compare me to Joanna Trollope and Jodi Picoult. I compare myself to writers like Linda Gillard, for the depth of emotion and complexity, and Jo Jo Moyes for her willingness to confront issues.
And what’s next? Are you already writing?
This is a culture clash novel. I have no title but my elevator pitch is Educating Rita meets Time Team. It is about the academic (desk) archaeologist, working in an old university, coming up against the Essex girl (left school at 16) conference organiser. But I am only a third of the way in and – given I’m an into the mist type of writer – everything could change. Watch this space.
Thank you so much for joining me on Being Anne, Gilli, and for such excellent answers – I really enjoyed reading it, and I’m sure my followers will too. I’m really looking forward to reading Life Class, and will report back very soon!
About the author
Gilli Allan started to write in childhood, a hobby only abandoned when real life supplanted the fiction. Gilli didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge but, after just enough exam passes to squeak in, she attended Croydon Art College.
She didn’t work on any of the broadsheets, in publishing or television. Instead she was a shop assistant, a beauty consultant and a barmaid before landing her dream job as an illustrator in advertising. It was only when she was at home with her young son that Gilli began writing seriously. Her first two novels were quickly published, but when her publisher ceased to trade, Gilli went independent.
Over the years, Gilli has been a school governor, a contributor to local newspapers, and a driving force behind the community shop in her Gloucestershire village. Still a keen artist, she designs Christmas cards and has begun book illustration. Gilli is particularly delighted to have recently gained a new mainstream publisher – Accent Press. Life Class is the third book to be published in the three book deal.
You can follow Gilli on Twitter, and she has a Facebook author page: she also has an excellent blog.