Posted in Writing

Tuesday Talk chats to writer Gilli Allan about her writing pathway, celebrity diners and what she’s currently working on…

meGood morning Gilli and welcome.

Hello Jo, thank you so much for inviting me over for a chat on a Tuesday.

Can I begin by asking what you did before you became a novelist?

At that precise moment, I was ironing. Sounds like I’m being facetious, but I’m not … or only a bit.
From an arty family, I was told from my earliest memory that I was good at art. My father worked in advertising as a graphic designer, so all my life I knew that ‘being an artist’ did not necessarily mean beret, palette, and canvas, or starving in a garret. Earning a living as a commercial artist was a perfectly possible and pragmatic proposition. My career was as an illustrator in advertising. In those days – and I’m sure the febrile atmosphere hasn’t changed even if the technology has – advertising was a very high pressure industry. I enjoyed what I did. What I didn’t enjoy was idling the day away, only to be asked at five o’clock to produce a thirty frame storyboard by the next morning!

How did your writing journey begin?

Back to that moment standing in my kitchen doing the ironing…..
I’d worked in a design studio, and then free-lance renting desk space. Eventually, after marrying and having our son, my husband and I moved further out of London. For our son’s first few years I pretty much gave up work. I enjoyed being at home so much that I began to wonder if I could work from home. But even if I’d wanted to continue in the same field, there would be technical difficulties. This was before the internet, remember, and in those days I didn’t drive. It would have involved me travelling into central London on public transport to pick up a job, taking it home to the suburbs to complete and get back, all to a tight deadline and with a toddler in tow! But I didn’t know what else to do.
More than art (and pop music) my only other enthusiasm through my teenage years, had been writing. In truth it was more of a compulsion than a hobby. But the idea that I could aspire to becoming a published novelist was beyond imaginable. I wasn’t clever enough. The only subject I was good at was art. The fact I struggled to achieve the minimum 5 ‘O’ level passes – required to get me to Art College at sixteen, tells its own story.
So there I was, a young mum, doing the ironing – the puzzle of my future paid employment, forever agitating beneath the surface of my thoughts. I was listening to the radio and programme about Mills & Boon came on and with it my light bulb moment! “I’m sure I could do that!” I thought.
Here I need to apologise. I did not read Mills & Boon romances and had a totally clichéd and reductive view of the brand. Forgive me, but in those days I had the insulting idea that the bar to writing a Mills & Boon Romance would be lower. And rightly or wrongly, it was that moment of ignorance mixed with optimism, which gave birth to Gilli Allan the author. *

*NB: A word of warning. I admit that my springboard to writing was the desire to make money. But … writing as a route to riches? It may happen for some people, but they are few and far between. My ambition even just to contribute to the family income, was almost immediately subsumed by my infatuation with the process. And once I’d fallen in love with writing fiction, with creating a world that had not existed until I began committing it to paper, it no longer mattered whether or not it was an occupation that was going to make me rich.
I would still love to earn loads of money from my books; at the very least it would prove that loads of people were buying and reading them! But seriously (wags finger!), you should only write if you love writing

What draws you to the characters and situations you write about?

The out-of-the-blue idea to “write a romance” had arrived without a plot. I recalled my English teacher’s advice (after I’d submitted some ludicrous flight of fancy as an essay) that writing about what you know is always the best policy. Still standing at the ironing board I reviewed my life. What has happened to me that I could use as the basis for a romantic story?
The life event which had had the most impact on me was not an obvious or even appropriate subject for romance. In the early years of my marriage, before having my son, I had gone through two late miscarriages. On each occasion I had felt a strong urge to write about the experience, but had no vehicle in which to do so. Self-expression through blogs and vlogs did not exist. I was not a journalist or an author.
But … I reminded myself, I have just decided to become an author! Surely there must be a way to incorporate the subject into my plot? I finished ironing, folded up the clothes, put them in the airing cupboard, found a pen and a note book, and began. And that book, JUST BEFORE DAWN, the first full length novel I ever completed, was published two and a half years later, not by Mills & Boon, but by a new publisher – Love Stories.
In many ways, my philosophy towards writing is still the same. If a difficult subject presents itself in the development of a plot I won’t duck it. It is an approach which makes me a bit of a left-field choice for a piece going out on Valentine’s Day. I think my stories are profoundly romantic, but I am not a hearts & flowers type author. Nor do I write books characterised by cafés & cup cakes, or pouty lips & muscled chests. I prefer both to read and to write about a world I recognise and can identify with. I choose to explore the more challenging aspects of life and relationships often glossed over or ignored in mainstream romance fiction.
In real life, sex, if and when it occurs, is not always awesome; it can be awkward and embarrassing, and it has consequences. Morality is not necessarily black or white; if only life was that simple! People are not neatly divided into heroes and villains. In my stories I prefer to follow an unconventional path through the complexities of modern relationships, arriving at a satisfying, sometimes unpredictable, but believable resolution.

If money were no object where in the world would your ideal holiday location be and why?

 Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson and Coral Island informed my childhood fantasies. I knew the story of the Bounty mutineers, how they ended up on the Pitcairn islands where they idled their lives away; and I always had my head in my parents’ art books, entranced by Paul Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings. I day-dreamed about the life-style – me in the archetypal grass skirt and necklet (lei?) of flowers; building my own tree house; hunting, gathering and fishing; cooking over an open fire; lolling in a hammock – it all seemed extraordinarily romantic and desirable.
But I’m older and wiser now. I still love the notion of palm fringed beaches, with silver sand and turquoise sea; of living in a house on stilts; of ease and indolence. The idea of swimming in a warm, coral-rimmed lagoon, alongside turtles, is the closest thing to bliss that I can imagine… But, you will have guessed from the kind of books I write that I’m a realist. I don’t want to rough it – to have to build my own shelter, or catch and cook my own food. So perhaps I could have a discreet luxury hotel just out of sight, with food and drink and all the amenities, to fall back on?

Can you tell us something about your current WIP?

I am only three quarters of the way through a book, which I’m currently calling Buried Treasure. I began thinking of this as a culture clash story – a kind of Time Team meets Educating Rita. But original intentions are what they are … intentions. Like people, there is usually more going on beneath the surface of a story, than first meets the eye, and its final destination may be a surprise (even to the author!).

Jane, a Conference and Events organiser, and Theo, an academic archaeologist, are very different people. On the face of it, there is nothing to connect them – not even instant physical attraction – and there is no apparent reason, after their first coincidental meeting, for them to come into contact again. But both have pasts which have marked them, and both have mysteries they need to solve, and their lives become intertwined.

You are holding a dinner party. Choose four celebrity guests and give your reasons for inviting them.

I’m sorry but most of my celebs are dead!
First and foremost, just to answer a question that’s always bugged me, I’d invite Richard III. I’ve always been fascinated by this period in history, and apart from the Shakespeare play, have read many books on the subject of who killed the princes in the Tower. After each I have been utterly convinced. He did it. He didn’t do it. He may have done it. I am now terminally confused.
I was thrilled when his body was discovered, and the speculation that his “hump” was just a nasty rumour put out by the Tudors, was finally resolved. What is still unresolved, and if he came to dinner I could ask him is – Did you do it?

Secondly, for no other reason than that he is a celebrity in my own family, my Great x3 Uncle George W Kitchin.
It was only in 2009, after my father died, that I discovered I had this eminent Victorian in my family tree. G W Kitchin was a polymath – a musician, a writer, a cleric, and a friend of Ruskin and Lewis Caroll with whom he attended Christ Church College Oxford. (His daughter Xie was one of Lewis Caroll’s favourite photographic subjects.) He became a professor of History & Classics at Christ Church, and was tutor to the Crown Prince of Denmark.
G W Kitchin was an early feminist. He was on the committee of the Association for the Higher Education of Women, from which Summerville College resulted. He was Dean of Winchester and later Dean of Durham and the first chancellor of Durham University. His bibliography, publications and correspondence fill a page and a half of densely printed A4. It makes me feel tired just reading all the things he did in his life.

Third, for eye candy, I’d invite the first love of my life, George Harrison – my favourite Beatle. This gives away my age, but what the hell. I’d prefer not to have him from the later period of his celebrity, after he’d converted to Hinduism and become a bit mystical and weird. Not sure I could easily relate to that George. Nor do I want him when he was hardly more than a boy. ‘Revolver’ period George, please.

Fourthly, my only living guest. To make me laugh, please may I invite Andy Hamilton? I listen to BBC radio 4 … a lot. Two of my favourite programmes are The News Quiz and I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue. My absolute favourite panellist is Andy Hamilton, and I get very excited if I know he’s going to be on.
But he’s not just a quick witted stand-up comedian, and radio and TV panellist. Andy Hamilton is scriptwriter. He wrote the seminal TV shows Drop the Dead Donkey, and Outnumbered. He wrote the hilarious radio series, Old Harry’s Game, in which he starred as Satan, and Revolting People, about the American war of independence. And he has written or contributed to many many more hilarious comedy shows going back to the 1970s. He is one of the funniest people I can think of.

Sorry again! My husband has pointed out my lack of diversity, both in gender and ethnicity. But it’s taken me such a long time to come up with these four that I can’t go back to square one. OK – May I have Barack Obama and Cleopatra as first reserves, in case the others don’t pitch up?


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 done some book illustration. Her novels – TORN, LIFE CLASS and FLY OR FALL are now published by Accent Press. All three have won a Chill With a Book Award.

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AMAZON AUTHOR PAGE: (@gilliallan)