Today I have a very special guest: writer Gilli Allan. She’s here to talk about her life and her writing journey and to showcase her latest release LIFE CLASS.
Gilli many congratulations on your book deal with Accent. Can we go back to the beginning? How did your writing career start?
I came a little late to reading. Once I’d experienced that light bulb moment – you know the one, where you suddenly realise that reading is not a kind of magic from which you’ve been excluded – I began to hoover up every book within reach. I quickly ran out of books suitable for my rapidly expanding horizons, and began on the adult fiction in the house. At the time Young Adult didn’t exist as genre so, to further feed my habit, I began writing my own ‘books’.
To all intents and purposes I stopped writing when I went to art school, and only started again when I was taking a career break to be at home with my son. Although I found a publisher very quickly and saw two books published in swift succession, I was only able to enjoy my new status for a short time. My publisher ceased trading and I was suddenly a wannabe all over again. From then on I spent many years in the wilderness, trying and failing to find a new publisher. With the launch of the Kindle I eventually went ‘independent’. But self-publishing is not as easy as it looks unless you write in a popular sub-genre, you’ve a lot of chutzpah and media savvy … plus you possess a very thick skin. So, in the summer of 2014 I was extremely happy to be taken on by Accent Press. TORN was published in 2014, and FLY OR FALL earlier this year. LIFE CLASS is the last to be published in the three book deal.
Over the years, I’ve moved from the South East of England to Gloucestershire. My career was as an illustrator in advertising before I began writing seriously. I have been a school governor, a contributor to local newspapers, and an early campaigner for the establishment of a community shop in my village, where I worked as a volunteer for many years. I am still a keen artist, attending art classes*, designing the family Christmas card and, in 2013, producing the narrative illustration for the children’s book, The Tale of King Harald – The Last Viking Adventure. I had never before undertaken book illustration, but this year I followed it up with another small illustration commission.
*LIFE CLASS, published in September, 2015, is a book which draws on my extensive experience of attending life drawing classes.
How did your career as an illustrator come about?
My other hobby, in childhood, was drawing. My parents were both artists – my father, a graphic designer, my mother an enthusiastic amateur painter. Drawing is, of course, something all children do long before they are able to write. And when I began writing my books (or should I say beginning my books, as I never finished anything), doodling in the margins of whatever I was currently engaged in was a good way to fill the thinking time.
The writing was not taken seriously by my parents; they were more interested and amused by my doodles. Even I didn’t take writing seriously. Only girls who were university material could realistically harbour such ambitions. Though I’d managed to get into grammar school, I wasn’t a star pupil. I reasoned that anything I wrote had to be juvenile, trite and soppy. Art was the only subject I was good at. I’d grown up thinking that to be an artist (particularly a commercial artist like my dad) was a “good thing”, and that is where both my parents and I thought I was headed. Feeling very grown up and certain of my future I went to art school, aged 16. Writing books was one of the childish things I put behind me.
When I emerged from college full of optimism, it wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it would be to get a job in the art world. The old chestnut seemed to apply: You couldn’t get a job without experience, but you couldn’t get experience without doing the job. So, to keep body and soul together, I worked as a sales assistant in various West End department stores. I then worked as a beauty consultant (don’t laugh!) and as a bar maid in several pubs. I also did a job which involved picking up US tourists from London hotspots, and offering them a free sightseeing tour and lunch. There was a catch…!
There was no one happier than I when this period of my life came to an end and – through a fluke and a coincidence – I landed the position of junior illustrator in an advertising design studio. It was my dream job and I worked there very contentedly for several years. Eventually I went free-lance, although still within a studio environment. During this time I married and eventually had my son, Tom.
What prompted you to become a writer?
It was only after I’d taken a career break to look after my son, that I began to consider what else I could do to earn a living from home. It was theoretically possible to be a free-lance artist from home, but there were big obstacles. This was a period before the internet – before PCs in fact – I didn’t drive, and we didn’t live near a tube station. The idea of travelling into central London, with a toddler in tow, to pick up and deliver jobs – jobs which were typically wanted first thing the next morning – was very unappealing.
Then I remembered my teenage passion and Gilli Allan, the author, was born.
Is there anything in particular that draws you to the characters and situations you write about?
I usually say that my guiding principle is to write what I would like to read. Before I began my own adventure as an author, the kind of story I really wanted to read did not seem to exist. As a young adult I’d read my share of ‘romances’, but I had long since ceased to read them, preferring women’s fiction which did not gloss over inconvenient or unpalatable aspects of contemporary relationships. I enjoyed the romantic element in a story, but I wanted it set within a reality I could recognise. But in those days it seemed to be one thing or the other.
When I was at a home with my son, my serious intention was to be published and to have an income. And so, even though I didn’t particularly enjoy reading category romance, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my abilities. By aiming at Mills & Boon, I was not (in my view) setting the bar too high. Having not read one for years my attitude was unforgiveable and ignorant. And I know I greatly underestimated the difficulties.
Once I’d given myself permission to unleash my imagination, it shot off in a very non M&B
direction. I may have been ignorant, but even I knew I was missing the target. Writing ‘Just Before Dawn’ (a story about a single girl who, right at the start of the story, miscarries an unplanned pregnancy!) was a magical experience, and I found I didn’t care. In my view the story I’d come up with was very romantic; more importantly, it had to be written and I absolutely loved writing it. Because I already knew it was unsuitable for M & B, I wasn’t surprised or let down when they rejected it, and I didn’t try to remodel the story to make it suitable. I simply carried on submitting to other publishers. And I quickly found one.
In retrospect, I was very lucky to have been published. But after bringing out my second book, Desires & Dreams, the demise of my publisher – whose mission statement was to publish unconventional, non-clichéd love stories – is an indication of how difficult it was back then to try to buck the system.
I can’t really come up with an explanation for why I am drawn to stories which examine – without flinching or looking away – the realities of contemporary life, good and bad; stories about ordinary people, and how they deal with love, life, marriage, sex, parenthood and infidelity. There isn’t always a perfect solution to life’s dilemmas; a happy ever after ending isn’t necessarily a credible resolution.
My ideal readers are women like me, women who have grown out of fairy stories and want a 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 ultimately they find peace, and a credible and satisfying, happy-for-now, ending.
Now your three books have been published what’s next for you?
This is a culture clash novel. I have no title but my elevator pitch is Educating Rita meets Time Team. It is about an academic (desk) archaeologist, working in an old university, coming up against an Essex girl (left school at 16) conference and events 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.
Where is your favourite holiday destination and what makes it special?
The last place we went on holiday is almost always my favourite. I went to Yugoslavia when I was twenty, and absolutely LOVED it (nothing to do with the holiday romance with Zoran, of course!). Dubrovnik is absolutely magical. A few years ago I went back again, to celebrate a big birthday, with my husband. It was his first visit to Croatia.
We stayed on the island of Lopud, half an hour off the mainland, and got a boat taxi in to Dubrovnik on several occasions. I still loved it. It’s still beautiful and magical, but…. There were several of those huge cruise ships – like floating blocks of flats – moored up in the commercial harbour, having disgorged thousands into the walled city. So the place was stuffed to the gills with gawping tourists. The shops were all high-end. The restaurants were sophisticated. Where were the street markets I remembered? Where were the ordinary people, their shops, cafes and bars?
Last year we went to the Greek island of Paxos. We stayed in Loggos and it was absolutely the very best place I’ve ever been to, and the best holiday I’ve ever had. It was beautiful and the people were lovely. Perfect. As soon as we got home we began planning to go back. But my mother-in-law was very poorly (she died in the spring of this year) and in the end we didn’t book anything abroad. But next year….? Will be go back to Paxos? I don’t know.
There was a gap of decades between my two visits to Dubrovnik, and so things were bound to have changed, but even so… Perhaps it’s best to go to lovely places only once, in case returning will leave you with that slight sense of disappointment and anti-climax and the feeling “It was better last time….”
And lastly, if you were marooned on a desert island what three ‘must haves’ would you need with you?
Paper and pencils or pens
Solar powered radio (so I could listen to radio 2 for Ken Bruce and pop quiz, and radio 4 for the news, the plays and Sorry I Haven’t a Clue).
SYNOPSIS :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.
ABOUT LIFE CLASS…
About art, life , love and learning lessons
About art, life, love and learning lessons, LIFE CLASS follows four members of an art class, who meet once a week to draw the human figure. All have failed to achieve what they thought they wanted in life. They each come to realise 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 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 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 throw her into a panic. She sees her life 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 is now being offered to him, he has the chance to transform his life.
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.
To connect to her:
LINKS TO HER OTHER BOOKS