Animation by Kayelle Allen at The Author's Secret

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Gilli Allan and the Road to Publication (@Gilliallan)

Another British writer for whom I have great respect is Gilli Allan, who has just signed a book deal with Accent Press.  To coincide with Accent's release of her excellent novel Fly or Fall, I managed to track Gilli down to ask a few probing questions so we might get to know her and her absorbing stories better.

I see your work as dramatic and controversial - about real women and real life.  Does this reflect what you like to read yourself?  Do you find fictional heroines in general to be realistic or over-glamorised?

I've read my share of romance over the years, particularly in my teens and early twenties, about impossibly beautiful and desirable heroines in glamorous jobs, their only flaw - a tendency to be a bit snippy.  Perhaps I've a jealous and spiteful nature (I am a Scorpio, after all) but these perfect creatures, pining after the aloof hero - almost from the start of the book - increasingly annoyed me.  

The only reason for engaging with this kind of story is if you care. I found it hard to care about the drop dead gorgeous, but misunderstood, heroine, and grew less and less willing to invest the time to discover exactly how the obstacle to ultimate happiness - union with the equally gorgeous, misunderstood but rich, alpha male - would be overcome.

I know I'm caricaturising, and of course there are authors who have always written about real women in real life situations - Joanna Trollope, Elizabeth Buchan and Debborah Moggach, to name just a few - but their work could not be called romance, or even, necessarily, overtly romantic.  

The primary reason I began writing, when I was a child, was to create the story I wanted to read. And this is still the driving force behind my writing.  I prefer to read about, and therefore to create, a woman with flaws, weaknesses and failings. A woman who isn't a beauty.  A woman who has to deal with the realities of life.  A woman who has objectives other than the search for love.  A woman who makes mistakes.  A woman like me. (I am still 28 in my head.)

I can do no better than paraphrase the original blurb from TORN. I prefer to face 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. Love is not always convenient or neat; it doesn't manifest when or where or with whom you expect it to.
In recent years, with the loosening of the big publishers’ strangle-hold, it seems there are more authors like me being published, authors who want to set a love story in a more demanding context.

What inspired you to write your first novel and did you always know it would cross different genres, or did it just evolve that way?

In my youth I started writing many stories, but never finished anything, so I’ll talk about my first completed  novel  - Just Before Dawn. I have to confess that the original inspiration for writing this book was mercenary.  I was at home with my young son. As a family we were feeling the pinch.  One evening I was ironing in the kitchen and listening to Radio 4 - a programme was about Mills & Boon, which talked about the money their most successful authors could earn.

 ‘I used to write that sort of thing,’ I thought to myself. ‘I bet I could write and (more importantly) finish one now.’ I now know many aspiring authors have had the very same thought, and few can do it.  I also know that the rewards talked about in this programme were rather overstated, and since those days they've probably decreased in real terms. 

As I stood there ironing, I recalled the advice from English teachers to ‘write about what you know’. I thought back to my own life and an idea sprang out at me.   After I’d folded the clothes and put them in the airing cupboard, I found a notepad and a pen, and began immediately. 

Just Before Dawn, published in 1986, was about a rather innocent country girl who arrives to live and work in London.  Her first real boyfriend is a bit of a lad, and he leaves her pregnant.  She suffers a miscarriage and the story, rather bizarrely, is about a developing relationship between her and the Obs/Gynae consultant. When I first had the idea it actually made me chuckle. I wasn't laughing at miscarriage - I am very well aware it is no laughing matter.  It was the scenario I’d dreamt up which amused me, and my chutzpah at choosing it still astounds me.  ‘If I can pull this off I can write anything,’ I thought at the time. 

Even though I’d included many of the tropes I thought necessary, it wasn't accepted by Mills & Boon, unsurprisingly. But, in writing that book, and, probably more importantly, having it published by a newly established publisher, the die was cast.  A love story, within a real and challenging scenario, was ‘my thing’.  I should mention that the mercenary motive which prompted me to embark on the project was soon subsumed by the sheer magic of creating that book.  And I never actually made much money.  My publisher ceased trading a few years after publishing my second novel, Desires & Dreams

Has any part of yourself crept into the heroines of any of your stories? 

As I describe in the previous answer, the initial idea for Just Before Dawn was based on my own experience of miscarriage. Married, and working as a freelance artist in advertising, I was 18 weeks pregnant when I first miscarried a pregnancy.  No explanation was offered.  After an interval of a few months I became pregnant again. This time I lost the baby at 21 weeks.  At the time it was a very emotionally turbulent experience, which I felt I needed to get out of my system somehow.  I seriously considered writing about it - maybe an article or something?   But I was an artist, not a journalist. Where would I send this article? Who would be remotely interested in publishing it?
It was only after I’d successfully been through pregnancy, this time with a minor surgical intervention and a period of hospitalisation,  that I felt I needed a money-making project which would enable me to continue at home with my son (I wanted to avoid going back into the rat race of advertising). It was then that I had the idea of writing my experience into a novel, as described in the previous answer.  The naivet√© and innocence of my heroine reflects something that was true of me in my early romantic escapades.  And what she goes through is something I went through, although in different circumstances.
Incorporating some real experience is something I have done ever since in my books.  But using my own life as trigger for a story does not mean I write autobiographically.  I think of something that maybe I've seen or heard or has happened to me, but then ask myself the question, ‘but what if...?’ And though none of my heroines are *me* there are aspects of me in every one of them.  But then there are aspects of me in most of my characters!  

What is the most unusual characteristic you've bestowed on the hero of any of your books?

I'm a bit stumped by this question. I don’t think I've given any of my heroes a characteristic which is unusual in itself. But do you mean unusual in the romantic lead? I've definitely done that.   I enjoy subverting the romance stereotypes, so several of my heroes are impoverished.  A couple are blondish rather than dark, and one is a bit short.  There are two male leads in TORN.   One is the conventional hero ‘type’, but the other is a dyslexic farm worker, living in a caravan.

And most recently, Patrick, from FLY OR FALL is a compulsive liar. But then everyone in FLY OR FALL has been lying and although his fabrications are the most blatant and obvious, they are, arguably, the least serious.

Fly or Fall blurb:

Wife and mother, Nell, fears change, but it is forced upon her by her manipulative husband, Trevor. Finding herself in a new world of flirtation and casual infidelity, her principles are undermined and she’s tempted. Should she emulate the behaviour of her new friends or stick with the safe and familiar? 

But everything Nell has accepted at face value has a dark side.  Everyone - even her nearest and dearest - has been lying. She’s even deceived herself. The presentiment of disaster, first felt as a tremor at the start of the story, rumbles into a full blown earthquake. When the dust settles, nothing is as it previously seemed. And when an unlikely love blossoms from the wreckage of her life, she believes it is doomed.

The future, for the woman who feared change, is irrevocably altered. But has she been broken, or has she transformed herself?

Do you think you'll always write women's fiction or do you have desires to experiment and if so, in what way?

Who knows?  I keep thinking my life would be easier if I gave up the dream of writing altogether and did something else with my time.  I could go back to art, although I was never the real driven kind artist - beret on head, palette of oil paints on the arm and an easel in front of me. Maybe I should find some other, less self-absorbed and insular hobby.

What I most enjoy reading is crime and thrillers. But I don’t particularly want to write in this genre.  For one thing I'm not clever enough.  The intricate plotting of someone like Sophie Hannah would totally defeat me.  And the idea of all that research - the forensics and the police procedures....! An author like Mark Billingham has obviously built up a network of friends and associates in this world. I’d be launching myself into it from a standing start.  Also, and more seriously, if I wrote in this genre, it would seriously dilute my pleasure in reading it.
I already have a problem losing myself in women’s fiction. When reading it I am either consumed by envy and feelings of inadequacy, or I am highly critical and can’t subdue my internal editor.  (I told you I'm a nasty Scorpio, didn't I?) There seems to be no middle ground where I can simply enjoy a story in this genre. So I kind of feel I'm stuck with what I am writing, although I'm sure my protagonists will eventually grow older. Or I will give up completely, and then I can stop worrying about reviews on Amazon, or online promotion. I know my husband would like it if I spent fewer hours and days with my nose pressed to PC, and more time being sociable. 

You can purchase Fly or Fall by clicking here
Or connect with Gilli here: 


ManicScribbler said...

Fascinating answers, Gilli. Thanks so much for agreeing to be interviewed and giving us so much insight into your writing journey. All the very best for your new venture with Accent Press.

Gilli Allan said...

Thank you so much for inviting me, Lyn. I always enjoy the opportunity to talk about myself! Hope I didn't waffle too much. Gillix

Julie Vince said...

Great interview with ManicScribbler, Gilli, I've just started reading Fly or Fall - and it is absolutely engaging! I am sure I will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Torn. Oh by the way, I love reading thrillers and crime too - but also romance Julie x (writes as Julia Wild)

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