Welcome Gilli, lovely to have you here at Sally Lunns
Hello, Jo. Thank you for asking me out to tea. I love Bath. It’s only 45 minutes down the road from me, so whenever I visit I always wonder why I don’t do it more often.
My first question as always is to ask a little bit about you.
I’m married, with one son. After art college I did a variety of jobs. I was a shop assistant in several West End department stores, selling wigs, shoes, children’s fashions and accessories. I have also been a beauty consultant and a bar-maid, and once did a job which involved spotting American tourists in London and persuading them to go on a coach tour, that culminated in a free lunch at the Hilton. There they had to endure a high pressure pitch selling real-estate in Florida. I then found my dream job as an illustrator, in advertising. More recently I have been a school governor, a contributor to local newspapers, and a driving force behind the establishment of a community shop in my village. I still regularly attend a life-class.
Gloucestershire seems to be a popular choice for novelists. How long have you lived there and what attracted you to the county?
Gloucestershire is indeed a popular location for novelists. (We are also awash with ‘celebrities’, as well as various members of the royal family. Not that I do any hob-nobbing, you understand!) I live in a village near Stroud, which is situated in the Cotswold Hills, and to name a few writerly names, Jilly Cooper, Mo Hayder and Katie Fforde all live within a few miles of me.
But I didn’t choose to live here. My husband and I both originate from the South East of England. In 1988, when an out-of-the-blue job offer came for my husband, we’d neither of us ever set foot in the county, but it was too good an opportunity to turn down and all these years later we don’t regret the move. We live near the head of a beautiful valley, and we back onto fields where cattle are grazed, and where we often see deer and rabbits. Buzzards glide overhead and our garden is regularly visited by a local pheasant, whom we call Jason (don’t ask), and one morning this week we watched a fox jump over our back wall and nose about for a few minutes.
When did the writing bug first bite?
There are two answers to this question – depending on whether you mean writing as a hobby or writing with the serious intention of being published.
I was ten, or thereabouts, when my fifteen year old sister began to write a Regency Romance. The notion that it was possible to write the story you wanted to read had never before occurred to me, but it truly was a light-bulb moment. My sister actually 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.
But 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. I left at 16 to go to Art College. In my early adult life I stopped writing altogether. My career was in advertising, where I worked as an illustrator. It was only after having my son, when I wanted to find something I could do at home to earn money, that the idea of writing, this time with the serious intent of getting published, resurfaced.
And what was the very first novel you wrote?
Do you mean my very first novel ? The one I started when I was a child, or the one written over twenty years later?
If it ever had a title, I don’t remember it, but my first ‘book’ was set in the olden days (the period was unspecific, but it wasn’t Regency. I recall drawing my female characters in full-skirted frocks, which I preferred to the high-waisted style.) The plot revolved around the visit to a manned lighthouse by a party of ladies. They were trapped there by bad weather. Attempting to secure their boat during the storm, my young hero fell on the rocks. Confined to a chaise longue by his not very serious injuries, he was nursed by my young heroine. At this point my imagination failed. I knew my main protagonists would need to fall in love, and crucially that kissing would be involved, but I couldn’t be bothered to work out how to get them from A to B.
The novel I began, when my son was toddler, is called Just Before Dawn. My original plan – to write a book suitable for Mills & Boon (the Harlequin had yet to be added) – was immediately subverted when I began to work out my plot. My heroine is a young woman whose very first love affair ends in pregnancy. The story opens when she is in hospital and going through a miscarriage. The romance is between her and the Obs & Gynae consultant! When I first had the idea it made me laugh and I dared myself to write it, thinking, “If I can pull this off, I can do anything”. Just Before Dawn was the first novel I ever finished, and it was accepted by a publisher (unsurprisingly it wasn’t Mills & Boon) within 4 months of completion.
A lot of writers seem to stay with a theme when they write – romance, saga, crime etc. Yours are quite individual novels dealing with different issues. Did you deliberately want to avoid writing a certain genre? If not, what inspired your books?
I don’t intentionally avoid a genre, it’s simply that the stories I am drawn to write don’t easily fit into a pre-existing box. I often say that I’ve invented my own genre.
First and foremost, I’m an unapologetic member of the Romantic Novelists Association, and I would defend to the death the fact that all my books are love stories. But I have never been comfortable with the word ‘romance’. With or without ‘category’ preceding it, it has come to mean a very specific style of fiction. I am not entirely averse to reading about alpha heroes. I have nothing against the Cinderella tale, where the beautiful, but downtrodden, heroine transcends her situation and meets and marries her handsome rich and highly successful prince, but I’ve no interest in writing this kind of story. I have always worried that attaching the label ‘romance’ to my books, might lead the potential reader to expect something different from the kind of story she’ll get, if she buys a book of mine.
You ask what inspires me. Inspiration is a strange beast, there is never a single idea which inspires a whole book. It is always an amalgam of incidents, memories and reflections which prompt a story and which, so far, thankfully, continue to pop-up, even when in the midst of writing or revising. But as for the inspiration for my style of fiction….?
Maybe I have to go back to my growing-up, to unearth my specific preoccupations. I’ve already said that my sister’s role was pivotal, but after my first foray into historical fiction writing, my instincts and interests drew me to a contemporary world. As I grew older I began to read my sister’s magazines (mainly Honey), which she stored under her bed. I would skim the fashion tips and articles, but avidly devour the fiction. I still remember one serial.
When I say remember, I actually recall very little about it – not the title, the plot, or who it was by – but what has always stayed with me is the atmosphere and my profound response to it. It touched my pubescent emotions and I now wonder if it set the course for my own writing life. The hero was angry, emotionally tortured, self-destructive and hiding some traumatic event from his past. The heroine’s role in the story, I now realise, was to redeem him. Unfortunately, the magazine containing the final episode of this heart-wringing tale was missing. From then on, the many novels I started, throughout my teenage years, were set in a word I had zero first-hand knowledge of. It was a dark, seedy world of delinquency and rebellion. The heroes were always damaged young men, who had survived war, accident or heartbreak. To do a bit of amateur self-psychoanalysis, perhaps my motivation in writing the kind of stories I then wrote was in fact a subconscious attempt to satisfactorily complete that serial in the magazines I’d dragged from under my sister’s bed.
My writing has moved on a bit from those days, but I never feel impelled to write about beautiful, privileged people living glamorous lives. I want my characters to be flawed, to live in a recognisable world and to have real-life dilemmas. Please forgive me for quoting from this lovely review I once had from Sandy Nachlinger, in which she sums up what I’m trying to achieve.
“I enjoyed both TORN and LIFE CLASS, and would rank them among the best books I’ve read in years. The characters are real, their situations are believable, and their stories are messy — just like life! There’s no perfect hair or bodies-to-die-for in these books! I highly recommend them both.”
If you were offered a book deal to write a certain style of books, what would you choose?
In many ways, though I would dearly love to be super-successful and to earn loads of money, this is a nightmare scenario for me. I assume you don’t mean that I might be offered loads of money to carry on doing what I’m doing, although I would even find this scary. I have never had to write to order. But to be offered a big wad of spondulicks to write something else….? Oh, goodness!
I’ve sometimes thought about writing erotica, and I don’t think I’m too bad at the occasional sex scene, but for me they need to be significant to the plot. To have to write sex scene after sex scene, every few pages….? Phew! I don’t think I could sustain it and would get terribly bored. I enjoy crime thrillers and am quite happy to read quite gruesome stuff, but I don’t think I’ve the right kind of brain to first, come up with the clever plotting, or second find the enthusiasm to do the research necessary on police procedures, on injuries and dead bodies. So, although I failed before, I might have a go at the category romance again. I know they’re difficult to get right, but at least they’re fairly short.
Have you a current project underway?
I am currently revising and editing a book which will be published later in the summer (I hope). It is called Fly or Fall, and is about a woman, Eleanor (known as Nell), who dislikes change and has always been risk-averse. She married young when she became pregnant with twins. Life changes and circumstance, compounded by her husband’s impassioned advocacy, conspire to force a move away from London, away from her friends and her safety net, to a totally new environment. Nell finds herself among women who have a totally different view of life to her own. She finds them materialistic and superficial. The fact they are married seems no bar to having adventures and revelling in the fact. The house which Nell and her husband, Trevor, have moved to needs a lot of refurbishment. One of the men working for the building firm they engage to do the work, over a two-year period, is infamous as a local Lothario. So why doesn’t he make a pass at her?
The book begins in 2006, like this:
Fly or Fall
The cartoon rabbit ran straight off the edge of the cliff. He hung, apparently oblivious to his predicament, feet pedalling the empty air. There was a snigger, halfway between laughter and derision, from our twelve-year-old twins.
Perhaps belief is everything, I thought. If you believe you’re still on the same level, that life hasn’t changed, you won’t see the void which has opened beneath your feet. And if you don’t see it, you don’t fall. Inevitably the rabbit did stop running, did look down. I felt with him the nightmare lurch of panic, the sudden plunge downwards as he dropped out of frame. The result was explosive. As the dust cleared a precisely incised, rabbit shaped crater was revealed at the foot of the cliff.
Throughout the drama, the ongoing ‘improvements’ to Nell’s new house can be viewed as a metaphor. Against the low-key backdrop of the financial crisis, which culminated in 2008, the story follows the dismantling of all of Nell’s certainties, her preconceptions and her moral code. Unwelcome truths about her friends, her children, her husband and herself, are gradually revealed. Ultimately Fly or Fall is a love story. And by the end, where I bring the book bang up to date, Nell has rebuilt herself as a different person, a braver person, and she has embarked on a totally transformed life.
What is your favourite holiday destination?
I am slightly ashamed to admit this, but I am a real baby when it comes to holidays. I may not need the bucket and spade any more, but I love the sand, the sun and the sea. My husband prefers city breaks, history, museums and art galleries. I am an intelligent woman. I can do museums and art galleries. I am particularly fascinated by archaeological remains and can wander around old temples, forums and excavated dwellings with the best, but…..
What I really want from a holiday is a destination that doesn’t take too long to get to, it’s beautiful and there’s peace and quiet, sun, sea, and walks, as well as plenty of little restaurants and bars in which to eat local food and drink beer and wine. In other words TOTAL guilt-free relaxation and the opportunity to read and read and read. In fact, in a few weeks time I am going on such a holiday, to the Greek island of Fourni. I’ll let you know if it ticks all the boxes
And lastly, if you could invite four guests to dinner, who would they be and why would you invite them?
This is a tricky question. I could invite famous wits and raconteurs – Stephen Fry springs to mind – but I know they’d make me feel stupid, tongue-tied and inadequate. It’s why I write. I know I’m fairly intelligent, but I’m not quick-witted, and it takes me time to order my thoughts and to find the perfect words to express myself.
So maybe I could invite attractive actors and celebrities. Richard Armitage, Vigo Mortensen in ‘Aragorn’ guise, and Hugh Jackman possibly, although I’d still be afflicted by the tongue-tied problem, but for different reasons . And I’d be disappointed if they turned out to be vain, self-centred and preening. (However, I do have it on good authority, from someone who knows – no names, no pack drill, – that Hugh Jackman is a regular, very nice and unstarry, bloke!)
But I think I am going back into the past, if I may. I’ve toyed with inviting Prince Rupert (from the English Civil War) because I’ve loved him since I was 12, George Harrison, for pretty much the same reason, Richard 111 to ask him if he really murdered the princes in the tower, and Will Shakespeare, just to put the speculation to bed that he was really the author of the plays ascribed to him, but no…..
Instead I’m going to assemble some characters from my own family tree, if that’s all right. I’ve some fascinating individuals there, from music hall artists to eminent Victorians. My great great great uncle G W Kitchin, for example, was a musician and a writer. He was the tutor to the crown prince of Denmark, was Dean of Winchester, then Dean of Durham and became Chancellor of Durham University. He was a committee member of the Association for the Higher Education of Women – the result of which was Summerville College. And he was a friend of Ruskin and Charles Dodgson. It would be fascinating to meet him.
For more information about Gilli and her work click on the author links below:
LIFE CLASS: A story about art, life, love and learning lessons.
TORN: She may escape her old life but will she ever escape herself?
8 thoughts on “Tea and Talk at Sally Lunn’s with ‘Torn’ Writer Gilli Allan”
Great interview ladies! I love Sally Lunns, although so far my visits have remained virtual only. One of these days…
Thank you so much for buying me tea and buns at Sally Lunn’s, Joanna! I’ve loved our chat. But I am an inveterate editor and always see something I’d like to change.
Apart from a few errant commas, which I won’t bother to mention, it struck me that I might have given a wrong impression when talking about having the idea for the plot of my first published book – Just Before dawn.
My heroine goes through a miscarriage, and I said that I laughed when I imagined a romance between her and the Obs & Gynae consultant. I did laugh. I can’t deny it. But please let me assure anyone reading this piece, I know very well that having a miscarriage is not funny. I have first hand knowledge of this and writing Just Before Dawn, which isn’t a comedy by the way, was almost a way of exorcising the experience.
A lovely interview and to have sat in the famous Sally Lunn’s whilst you talked, amazing. I’ve read Gilli’s Life Class and loved it. No hesitation in recomending it.
Thank you Joanna and Gilli for sharing so much with us.
I’ve read Torn and that too I can highly recommend!
Fab interview, really enjoyed reading it and I wish you lots of success with everything you write. Thanks Jo.
Thank you Melanie, Pauline and Jane. It was a fun interview to do and made me think about the origin of my style of fiction. gx
Excellent interview, Ladies, and excellent venue. Have to admit I am well jealous of where Gilli lives. I might be in Gloucestershire but my on view is of houses and the Mall. Torn and Life Class are in the TBR pile, and having read Gilli’s earlier novels, I know they are going to be excellent. Well done. Great stuff. 🙂
I prefer to write about real people overcoming life’s obstacles, too, Gilli. I certainly like to read about them. Ooh, and I do prefer a flawed hero ( 🙂 ) and herione, come to think of it! Fab interview. Thanks for sharing Gilli, Joanna! xx