What genre would you say your novels fall into, or do they defy classification?
What made you choose that genre?
These two questions are inextricably linked so, if I may, I will take them together. As a child, the primary reason I began writing was simply to create the story I wanted to read. And this is still my driving force. But when I was in my early thirties and came up with the idea to try to write a publishable novel, I was considering the enterprise as a possible income stream. The subject of the novel was obvious.
In my youth I’d read my share of romance (and, as I’ve already said, had tried to write it). As I grew older, however, I became increasingly impatient with the convention. I found it hard to care about the gorgeous but misunderstood heroine, or how the various obstacles to ultimate union with the equally gorgeous, misunderstood alpha male, would be overcome. (Please take into account I am talking about the old days!) Even though romance was no longer my personal preference, I had zero confidence in my ability to produce anything profound or worthy of critical attention. I’d not gone to university. I’d not even stayed on in school for A levels. So I am surely not the first nor the last to wrongly believe that the easiest route to accessing the writing world was via Mills & Boon.
At the time I began my ill-judged attempt to write ‘category romance’ my reading preference was stories about relatable contemporary women. Women who are not beauties. Women who have to deal with the realities of life. Women with flaws, weaknesses and failings. Women who have objectives other than the search for romantic love. Women who make mistakes.
It is unsurprising that my first book, JUST BEFORE DAWN, very quickly fell off the ‘M & B’ rails, and although it includes many of the expected tropes of a romance - beautiful, innocent heroine, handsome experienced hero - the story about unwanted pregnancy and miscarriage was definitely not a good fit for M & B. Their swift rejection was not unexpected.
But the die was cast. I have continued to write in much same vein, looking to explore the complex real-life dilemmas of my characters. Although the developing relationship between the main protagonists is always the ‘engine’ of the plot, there is so much more which keeps my stories grounded and within a recognisable world. I can do no better than paraphrase the original blurb from my book, 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.
I have invented my own genre. Women’s Contemporary Reality Romantic Fiction.
How long does it take you to write a book?
This has become increasingly unpredictable. When I began, I could write a book in under a year. Then, coincidental with a large upheaval in my personal life, my publisher went out of business - a casualty of the significant changes then afflicting the world of publishing. So, there was a hiatus in my writing life. It has never returned to those speedy, carefree, unselfconscious days.
What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
I am always amazed to hear about the routine and discipline other authors impose on their writing lives. Not a word of my own current WIP has been committed to the computer since last November! There are always excuses I can come up with, other than fear, writer’s block and indolence, but deep down I am not good at making myself do things I don’t want to do.
Even when I am in full-on writing mode, I am not an early riser. The many resolutions made to get up and have several productive hours under my belt by the time that in real life I am only just finishing breakfast, are too many to count. Perhaps it’s time to accept myself?
It is only after I have done my social media duty that I feel I can get on with the proper work of writing my current book. The concentrated creative part of my day can take between 3 and 6 hours. I don’t give myself targets. I stop when I feel I’ve achieved something - and I’m afraid I can’t be any more specific than that because I’m a ‘seat of the pants’ writer. When I’m engaged on the first draft there is no synopsis, no over-arching plan. This means I don’t have specific milestones to achieve or plot elements to tick-off in any writing day. The point at which I draw a line is fluid and variable. It could be as little as 500 words, but never more than 2,500 (because I edit as I go, adding and subtracting).
Writing a first draft begins slowly and very haltingly, but usually (fingers crossed) there comes a moment when the story catches light. The ideas begin to come thick and fast and I’m racing to catch up. Then I can write for many hours at stretch without moving from the desk, and when I eventually stand up my body is locked in a figure S. It can take several painful and creaky minutes to straighten out the kinks. It is during this most productive period when the discipline I need to impose is on the rest of my life to get dressed, wash clothes, prepare food.
Although I edit as I go, I still need to go through my script many times after writing the words ‘The End’. And this is my favourite part of the process. By this time, I have discovered what my book is about – the underlying themes and preoccupations - and I can then refine, polish and tighten the narrative.
Tell me something about yourself your readers might not know.
Some people will know I have a family connection to the Music Hall. My great grandfather John Jamie Allan (stage name J J Dallas) was quite well known in his day. My grandfather, John Jamie Allan (stage name Jamie Dallas) and my grandmother (variously known as Millie Grey and Dorothy Pettit, and perhaps other names I’ve not discovered) also trod the boards, but with less success.
There are various stories I could recount about this branch of the family, but I have decided to talk about one of my great grandfather’s brothers, Walter, a comedian known as Watty Allan. Great great uncle Watty married Sable Fern (! I assume this was a stage name) who performed as a singer from the age of eleven onwards. But their marriage faltered and she apparently had an affair with her accompanist Frank Leo (real name Ernest Peers). Aged only 34, Uncle Watty burst in on them, shot and wounded them both, and then shot and killed himself.
It was known at the time as ‘The Kennington Tragedy’ (but if you Google the term, ‘The Kennington Tragedy’, it is now used to describe the bomb blast which killed those sheltering in the tube station there in WW2). At the time it was a Cause Celebre and Watty’s funeral was a big affair attended by Dan Leno amongst other Music Hall luminaries. Public opinion in England rather turned against Sable and her new husband, Frank Leo, and from then on, they pursued their career by touring together in the US.
When did you write your first book and how old were you?
I was copying my teenage sister who had decided to try her hand at a Regency Romance in the style of her favourite author, Georgette Heyer. My ten-year-old imagination failed a few pages in. I resumed the hobby in my thirteenth year as a response to the powerful up-surge of teenage hormone, but I never finished anything. There was a lull in my writing between starting at art school and becoming a young mum, in my early thirties. The book I began then was the first I ever finished and, although the trigger was mercenary, I very quickly recaptured the magic of creating an imaginary world and with it the self-belief that writing was something I was good at. That book, Just Before Dawn, was mainstream published less than two years later.
What do you like to do when you're not writing?
I read, I walk, I take photographs. I am very interested in current affairs and describe myself as political rather than religious. I have been known to do needlepoint, crochet and appliqué as a pass-time, but not for quite a while. Now, if I’m stuck for something to do, there’s always social media!
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
My answer relates back to your very first questions about genre. I thought that writing a book would be like playing God. I would be the writer, director and producer. I would dream up my cast-list, give them x, y and z personality traits and characteristics, and then move them about on the chess board I had created. This was pretty much how I’d approached the task when I was an adolescent after all, but back then my experience of the process was a never-completed stream of consciousness.
It took me completely by surprise when, after a very few chapters of my first adult attempt to write a conventional ‘category romance’, my characters began to resist me, undermining my intentions and taking me to unexpected places. What was even more surprising was the sense that I had stumbled into a strange kind of magic, as if a spell had been caste over me and for ten months I was in completely in its thrall, following (not directing) the ups and downs of my characters’ lives. And I was far more fascinated by the discovery of their story than I was interested in being published.
How many books have you written?
I have now completed six novels.
Do you Google yourself? What did you find that affected you most (good or bad)?
Hardly ever. If I do, it’s usually because I’m trying to find a particular blogpost or review, and think Googling will prove quicker than trawling back through my haphazard records. Perhaps I haven’t searched hard enough, but I have never come across anything I was not already aware of.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Although writing was a more all-consuming hobby than art, art was the only subject I consistently achieved good marks for at school. I come from an arty family and it was my parents’ expectation - which I agreed with - that I would follow my father into some variety of commercial art. I never for a moment seriously considered the idea of writing as a career. Art College was therefore my short-term ambition. My long-term ambition proved harder but I eventually achieved it, becoming an illustrator in an advertising design studio.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have on your computer?
The one unfinished book on my computer is my current WIP although, as I’ve already said, there’s not a lot of progress going on just at the moment. Up in the loft I have a collection of my juvenilia - several hand-written manuscripts, all highly decorated with doodles and illustrations, and all abandoned. I have one finished unpublished manuscript in a box-file in the study, which I wrote pre personal computers.
Gilli Allan began to write in childhood - a hobby pursued throughout her teenage. Writing was only abandoned when she left home, and real life supplanted the fiction.
After a few false starts she worked longest and most happily as a commercial artist, and only began writing again when she became a mother.
Living in Gloucestershire with her husband Geoff, Gilli is still a keen artist. She draws and paints and has now moved into book illustration.
She is published by Headline/Accent, and each of these three books, Torn, Life Class and Fly or Fall has won a ‘Chill with a Book’ award. Last year she independently published Buried Treasure.
Following in the family tradition, her son, historian Thomas Williams, is also a writer. His books VIKING BRITAIN and VIKING LONDON are published by William Collins
Contact me at:
https://accentpressbooks.com/collections/gilli-allan (Accent is now an inprint within the Headline group)
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