It’s with great pleasure that I welcome multi talented artist, author Gilli Allan to the blog. As her biography suggests, the road taken was not a direct one, yet it yielded amazing results. A woman after my own heart. Welcome Gilli.
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. FLY OR FALL is the second book to be published in the three book deal.
FLY or FALL
Eleanor – known as Nell – thinks of herself as a wimp. Even though her life has not been easy, she clings to the safety of the familiar. Married young and dependent on her teacher husband’s wage, Nell has stayed at home, in Battersea, with her children and her increasingly invalid mother. Following the death of her mother the family’s fortunes suddenly change. Trevor, is wildly enthusiastic about their ‘move up in the world’; he plans to give up teaching and move house away from London. Nell, however, is gripped by a nebulous fear of some unknown disaster waiting to trip them all up, but her husband, steamrollers her objections.
Now in her early thirties, and living in an unfamiliar landscape away from old friends, Nell feels cast adrift. She is increasingly aware that Trevor is no longer the man she married, and their young teenage twins, Jonathan and Juliet, are grumpy and difficult. The women she meets, Felicity and Katherine, seem shallow and promiscuous. The new house is unwelcoming and needs modernisation; she’s thrust into a continuing chaos of rubble and renovation. Patrick, one of the men working for the building firm, is infamous as a local Lothario, but he doesn’t make a pass at her. At first she’s grateful – she’s not that kind of woman – but her feelings towards him grow increasingly confused and ambivalent.
When Nell takes a bar job at the local sports club, she is exposed to an overheated atmosphere of flirtation and gossip. Influenced by her new friends and the world in which she now moves, she begins to blossom and to take pleasure in the possibilities which seem to be opening up for her. She meets and forms a deeper friendship with the quirky, new-age Elizabeth, a very different character to her other friends. As Nell begins to enjoy herself and to become enthusiastic about her life, it seems her husband is on a downward trajectory, on the opposite end of a cosmic seesaw. When she is pursued by a beautiful and enigmatic young man, called Angel, she is tempted into behaviour she would never previously have imagined herself capable. The earthquake, felt as a tremor of apprehension at the start of the story, rumbles through her life and the lives of those around her. When the dust settles nothing is as she previously understood it.
FLY OR FALL follows the dismantling of all of Nell’s certainties, her preconceptions and her moral code. Unwelcome truths about her friends, her husband, her teenage children and even herself are revealed. Relationships are not what they seem. The hostility between brothers is exposed and finally explained. And the love that blossoms unexpectedly from the wreckage of her life is doomed, as she acknowledges the hair’s breadth between wishful thinking, self-deception and lies.
By the conclusion of FLY OR FALL everything has altered for Nell, the woman who doesn’t like change. But she has rebuilt herself as a different person, a braver person, and she has embarked with optimism on a totally transformed life, a life that offers the chance of love.
Deep into her book tour, Gilli took time to answer The Proustian Questionnaire…
What are your thoughts on muses and do you have one?
I don’t have an external muse as in an ideal or mythical individual who inspires me. In my understanding, the muse is more associated with visual artists or poets. But I will try to answer this by offering a fictional muse.
When I was fifteen I read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I can’t now say whether this confirmed in me a predilection I already had, or was the original spur to the direction of my writing. The main protagonist of the story, Rodion Raskolnikov, is an impoverished student with a Napoleon complex. Believing that greatness in an individual elevates him above the normal constraints of humanity, Raskolnikov murders a couple of unpleasant, money-lending old crones, partly to steal from them and partly to prove his theory. If he is great, he can do this without guilt or remorse. But extremes of guilt and remorse then pursue and torture him for the rest of the book.
I have never written about an axe wielding hero who feels impelled to prove his superiority in so drastic a fashion! But I have always been fascinated by the tortured or damaged hero. Over and over again I have given my main male protagonist guilt and pain from some unresolved misdeed or loss in his past. Raskolnikov has a lot to answer for.
Characters have a great capacity to love, yet they’re starved. Why do you think this happens in fiction and in real life?
A lot of people are self-defeating when it comes to love. I know I was when I was young. At heart I think I was frightened of a relationship with a real, flesh and blood man, so I only ever set my sights on men who were unavailable to me. They were either gay, already engaged or married, or were womanisers who already had a bevy of more sophisticated, glamorous and experienced girlfriends. Added to this, I only ever fell for men who were very attractive and, despite being asked, refused to go out with those who fell short of my ideal, so I further limited the options open to me.
In fiction it is far more interesting to follow characters who fail to find love until the final pages – to follow their ups and downs, and their travails. If they meet near the beginning of the book, realise they are in love and consummate their passion straight away, where is the story?
Without giving spoilers, would you say you’re a “happy ending” writer?
I already had two books mainstream published when I joined the Romantic Novelists Association (the British equivalent of the Romance Writers of America). The RNA is a broad church; it covers a very wide range of women’s fiction from historical, through category romance and chick-lit, to erotica. Even though the membership writes in a wide variety of different traditions, it is very clear that the great majority of readers – and writers – of romantic fiction prefer the ‘Happy Ever After’ resolution to a story. Readers can feel cheated, and even become angry (and leave bad reviews!) if they are disappointed.
When I started out, my understanding of all this was pretty close to zero, but I wanted to be published. In my first book, Just Before Dawn, I followed many of the tropes of romantic fiction – including the HEA. Because I found a publisher swiftly for that book, I blithely felt ‘let off the leash’ when I came to start my second novel. In Desires & Dreams I simply wrote the story that was unfolding in my imagination, and I’m afraid I killed off my hero. I still say there was no way he could have survived. To stay true to the story and the characters, he had to commit suicide. But it was not an entirely doom laden ending. There was the strong implication that my heroine would grow, and become more independent and proactive about the direction her life was taking. I still defend my belief that that book WAS a love story and, more importantly … my publisher loved it!
Since those days, and knowing what I now know, I have never been so cavalier. I do not write the flurry of confetti and wedding bells type of ending, and my stories might not resolve exactly as every reader wants them to, but they are upbeat and offer the chance of future happiness.
If you could dine with any historical figure living or dead, who would it be and why?
I write contemporary relationship fiction, but I’ve always been fascinated by Richard III. He would be my guest and I’d feed him a dose of truth drug in his dinner so that I could get the ‘once and for all’ low-down on what really happened to the princes in the Tower.
Past, present or future? Where does your mind dwell?
Although I have a good visual memory, my memory is poor for facts and figures, names and dates. I don’t dwell much in the past. I envy those who can call up the detail of past adventures, and match faces to the names of old schoolmates, teachers and colleagues. I recall the headline facts of my life and, of course, there are individuals who stand out, but I can’t relive past events in any detail. That is one aspect of ageing I’m quite looking forward to. I hope to be able to call up passages from my life that at the moment are lost to me, or are only an impressionistic blur.
I do sometimes worry that I wish my life away. I don’t absorb and enjoy ‘the now’ sufficiently.
So I have to admit that I am always thinking to the future. What if….? What next….? Supposing…?
What informs your writing most?
The best way I can answer you is to try and explain why I write what I write. When I first started down this road, I was driven by the desire to write the story I wanted to read. I was ten and ‘my book’, written in a small form notepad, copiously illustrated, was only a few pages long. In my teenage years YA books did not exist and writing the book I wanted to read was the driving force that continued to impel me.
Now I read across a range of genres and I can find lots of books I enjoy – but there is still a gap (fortunately a narrowing gap) in women’s fiction. I enjoy contemporary fiction with a developing love story at its heart, and this is what I write, but I need something broader and more involving than the central relationship. In my own writing I try to honestly reflect the world I live in. Relationships are not straightforward – there are problems and issues which can challenge the most committed relationship.
To paraphrase the original blurb from my book TORN, I like 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. You don’t always fall for Mr Right, even if he falls for you. And realising you’re in love is not always good news.
In the Seventies, school kids were encouraged to think globally and act locally. Have you ever flirted with this philosophy?
I’m not much of a joiner and I can’t say I was particularly active in any way. I was aware very early of the ecological problems the world faces, and the over-use of the world’s resources. On the local level, I hate litter and have been known to pick it up when I’m on a walk and bring it home to dispose of. I’m tolerant and broadminded and hate religious, sexual or race prejudice. I stood with a crowd outside the South African embassy in London once, to protest against apartheid and wouldn’t buy South African produce. I supported Women’s Liberation but never actively campaigned for it.
Guilty pleasures: we all have them. What is yours?
When I was young my guilty pleasure was definitely pickles. Preferably pickled onions or the sour ‘cocktail’ type gherkins. And mustard pickle came in a close second behind those two. Pickles were a guilty pleasure because I would help myself to whatever was in the larder when I was at home on my own. I would even concoct what I called a pickle mess – a helping from every jar of pickles, sauces, vinegar, mayo and ketchup. Sounds revolting now, but I liked it.
Reading the books of Ethel M Dell – English Edwardian lady novelist, who is arguably the first ‘romance writer’. They are very very funny.
Through my young adulthood I was always trying to lose weight. I don’t have a very sweet tooth, but the moment I embarked on a diet I instantly craved doughnuts – all varieties – cream, jam, custard et al.
Now, I suppose, it is alcohol. I am always trying to drink a little less and feel vaguely guilty when I don’t stick to the new regime I’ve set myself.
Your greatest victory?
Having my son. I lost two babies before he arrived. So that was a momentous event, one I had to work at – a surgical intervention, a long period of hospitalisation and then living very quiet life.
Second to that is having the first novel I ever completed, published.
Tell us about the one that got away. Person, place or thing.
Different aspects of the ones that got away appear in every one of my books. More than that I’m not prepared to say.
What are some of the overriding themes in your work? Do you have a favorite?
I think this is answered in the above questions.
Who do you admire and why?
An impossible question. I could name so many, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Emily Pankhurst, but they all sound a bit pious. So I’m going to plump for my own ‘cockney’ grandmother, who we all called Nan. Louisa Jane Routley was a small woman, but she was feisty and she was determined; in other words, a force to be reckoned with.
Born into a working class family in the east end of London, she wasn’t from a totally impoverished background but she had a poor and humble beginning in life. She was her father’s only child; he died in the Boer war before her birth in 1899 and her mother then married his brother. Nan’s memories of her stepfather were of a man who became violent and abusive when drunk. She had several younger half brothers and sisters.
She was fourteen, when her eighteen year old boyfriend, Jim Kelsey, went to fight in WW1. He was fortunate to be wounded badly enough to be invalided home from the Somme, but not so badly he didn’t make a full recovery. After recuperating, he spent the rest of the war in Ireland. They married and doubtless at her instigation, my grandfather (Pops) joined the Post Office – a respectable white collar job. This was the beginning of their move up in the world. They married and had two daughters – the eldest, my mother – and moved house twice, to finally settle in the respectable outer London suburb of Orpington. She was the only one from her generation in the family, to manage this step up out of the class she’d been born into.
Nan’s incredible drive, energy and ambition were something to admire. Her house was always spotless. Pops loved his garden, and Nan cooked, pickled, bottled and made jam. My salivary glands still respond when I think of her steak and kidney pudding and her apple pie. She was widowed when she was only in her 60s. Although devastated by the death of her quiet, kind, and dependable husband, she went on to live another 35 years, until she was nearly 104, still in possession of her faculties and of her fiery and indomitable spirit.
Are writers fully formed works of art or works in progress?
Definitely works in progress, I also believe that writers are born not made. In my view, having been put on this earth with the impulse to write is not the same as being a good writer. You may have the embryonic instincts and drive to tell stories, but you have to work at your craft. I know I am an immeasurably better writer now than I was when I had my first book published.
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