Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Interview with Gilli Allan

Today we have Gilli Allan, known to many of you as a regular at RNA events. Welcome Gilli, and thank you for sparing the time to talk to us today. Gilli started to write in childhood, a hobby pursued throughout her teenage years, although abandoned while at Art College when the make-believe world was over-taken by ‘real life’. She has done a variety of jobs, but worked longest as a commercial artist. Like many of us she began to write again while at home with her young son. Her first two books - JUST BEFORE DAWN and DESIRES & DREAMS - were, she says, unconventional romantic fiction which quickly found a publisher. Since that publisher’s demise, she has been unable to find a new mainstream publisher. TORN was e-published in 2011. Gilli, I know you’ve had some bad luck recently, but tell us about your latest book and how you were inspired to write it. 

I would like to have been able to talk about my new ebook, LIFE CLASS, which was due to be released any time now with Lysandra Press. Sadly, at the beginning of the year I was informed that Lysandra had folded. I hope to be able to self-publish LIFE CLASS to Amazon-Kindle in the next couple of months, but in the meantime I’ll tell you about TORN.

The seed for this story was a momentary impression which imprinted itself like a snapshot in my mind's eye. On a car journey to Somerset I was the passenger. I had just a split second to register a turning on the left and a lane sloping steeply down to the huddled centre of a village. It was apparent that the road we were on had been developed into the main road to by-pass this tiny village. At that instant, the random thought which went through my head was: ‘I bet those villagers were pleased to have the main road re-routed.’ But it was swiftly followed by: ‘Though I doubt the people who lived up here were so delighted!’ I went on to reflect that life is rarely black and white. There are always two or more sides to every question. The whole story grew from there.

TORN ̶ published as an ebook in the Spring of 2011 ̶ is not a muddy tale about road protest, however. The question of if and where a by-pass might be built is a thread in the story, but it’s the background motif ̶ almost a metaphor ̶ to illustrate the differences in attitude between the main characters.
Although ex-city trader, Jessica, is not proud of her past, she’s not ashamed either. How could she be ashamed of behaviour that resulted in her son, Rory? But just when she believed she’d moved on and found stability, life slapped her in the face. To escape the turbulence of her current relationship she moves to the country, where she is convinced she’ll find peace and security. And with no distractions and no temptations, being a good mother will be easy. 

But things are never that simple. She soon finds that country living is not like it’s portrayed in the glossy magazines. It may be different, but there are still challenges and competing demands. If she could only get one aspect of her life right, it would help, but her primary aim ̶ to avoid any kind of relationship with a man ̶ is soon subverted. The friends she makes, the issues she faces, and the two very different men who have come into her life, pull her in opposing directions. 

You found this idea while driving through Somerset, is a sense of place important in your writing? And how do you set about the research?

Sense of place is very important to me. I would go so far as to say the setting becomes a character. But though I use landscapes which are familiar to me, I don’t need to research because I reinvent the specific places in which my books are set. My last two books, TORN and LIFE CLASS, are both set in countryside similar to the area in which I live, but I fictionalise the locations and their environs and play fast and loose with the real-life topography. That way I can place towns and villages, roads and rivers exactly where I want them, and can never be challenged on the detail.

Which do you find the hardest part of the novel to write, and how do you cope when the going gets tough? 

How I wish I was one of those writers who are bubbling geysers of ideas and plots. I am the polar opposite. I have a few vague notions which ... well ... I was going to say ‘swirl’ around in my head, but they don’t even do that; they ‘rumble lumpily’. All I have, when I start, is an out-of-focus scenario and a few character sketches. So for me, the hardest part of writing a novel is simply beginning. Being an ‘in to the mist’ writer is tough. I have to grit my teeth and start, not really sure of where I am going. For the first few weeks of a new book, it can feel like carving granite with a teaspoon, and is just as appealing! The easiest way to cope with this problem is simply to avoid beginning a new book.

But once I have started, and the book has ‘caught fire’, the process is a joy. Ideas about how the plot will unravel start coming, thick and fast. ‘Of course that’s what she does.’ ‘Why didn’t I realise he thinks that?’ I just wish the kindling at the start of a book wasn’t so stubbornly green (apologies for mixed metaphors)!

Do you edit and revise as you write, or after you have completed the first draft? What method works best for you? 

Once I have typed ‘The End’, the first complete edit is my absolute favourite part of the writing process. But I have italicised ‘first’ because it isn’t really the first edit. I edit as I go along. I cannot start work in the morning without refreshing my memory about where I have got to in the story, and in what direction I appear to be going. It is probably an unavoidable part of my ‘walking into the mist’ method. As I don’t have a prescribed plan, I have to constantly make sure that what I am writing is coherent and hangs together. And because I constantly reread, I notice mistakes, repeated words, typos and infelicities. I may even change my mind entirely about a scene or a direction the story has begun to take. So the initial few hours every day are spent editing what I wrote the day before.

Which craft tip has helped you the most?

Over the years I’ve attended countless workshops and inspirational talks about the writing process. I’ve learnt about plotting, becoming an ideas factory, mind mapping and overcoming writer’s block. I’ve gratefully received tips on how to deal with my saggy middle. I’ve been advised about pacing, how to involve all the senses in scene building and how to create my characters using enneagrams or astrology. After scribbling copious notes and scooping up the hand-outs, I emerge from each session believing that this time I have the Holy Grail. Metaphorically I’m punching the air. YES! But when, eventually, I do reach the finale of the next novel, what have I done with those pearls of wisdom that I’ve collected up greedily over the years? Doh! (clutches hand to head) I forgot!

The one piece of advice which I do constantly bear in mind is ‘Point of View’. I try to be rigorous in this regard. It is not just about staying in one head for a section, but you have also to consider the character’s voice, given that the world is being viewed through his or her eyes. I don’t know how successful I am, but I can hold my hand up and say I try. And now for some lighter questions.

Gilli, all writers are run off their feet with work these days, have you managed to off-load the housework? 

Yes, to a degree. Almost without my noticing it, my dear husband has taken over the bulk of the vacuuming, the dusting, the tidying (as well as the vast majority of the gardening). He also cleans the oven. There is still a demarcation of responsibility. I do the shopping and the cooking, and it’s still down to me to clean the bathrooms (why is that an area where so many men draw the line?), and, without ever making a timetable about who is going to do it and when, we share the ironing.

An accolade or two for hubby then. Now if you could reincarnate yourself as some other author, who would it be?

If asked this question ten years ago, the answer would have been Ruth Rendell. These days I am more conflicted. The peerless Ruth is still up there, but now there are competitors for my reincarnated self. Kate Atkinson, Sophie Hannah and Mark Billingham are contenders. And for historical crime ̶ I have to plump for C J Sansom.  

And now for some less serious questions: 
How do you keep fit? Do you have an exercise routine to help you avoid writers' back? Perhaps out in the country?

I have never been much of an ‘exerciser’, especially not the cardio-vascular variety, but I have had joint and back problems for many years, so, for the last couple of years I have done a half-hour regime of exercises, perhaps 5 or so times a week, to strengthen and stretch my hip joints and my lower back, and to strengthen my shoulder. When I do these exercises regularly I am generally better, more flexible and have less pain. If I take a holiday from them, I end up like an old crock!

Are you a lark or an owl? 
I am an owl. And the older I get the worse I sleep. But it seems that my sleep-cycle kicks in, in the morning. One of these days I’ll turn the pattern totally inside out and be awake all night and asleep all day.

If you could know the future, what would you wish for? 

When I was a child, my favourite reading was fairy stories. I always wondered why, when characters were offered a wish, they didn’t ask for a magic wand. As I grew older, fairy stories gave way to horror stories. I knew the story of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ and was careful what I wished for. My life is blessed, so I won’t wish for an eye-watering advance, a stunning publishing and film deal, and number one slot on the best-seller list. No, (shakes head vehemently) of course I don’t want those things! Sorry to be so prosaic; all I wish for is that my happy life continues.

Thank you so much Gilli for talking to us, and I wish you every success with your new ebooks. To find out more about Gilli’s books, check her out here:

Interviews on the RNA Blog are for RNA members, although we do occasionally take guests. If you are interested in an interview, please contact me: freda@fredalightfoot.co.uk 


Paula Martin said...

Gilli, I can relate to so much of this and felt at times I was reading an interview with myself! I do exactly the same with my settings (especially in the novels I set in the Lake District), and I'm a real pantser too. I try to tell myself I have a 'vague outline', but in reality it's just as you describe, ideas that 'rumble lumpily' (must remember that phrase!). I also start my day's writing by going through and editing what I wrote the day before, and like you, I love the first big edit of a new story. Oh, and I'm a night owl too!
Wishing you all the very best with your latest release.

Lesley Cookman said...

Gilli - what a tidy office! Makes me ashamed. Lovely interview.

Angela Britnell said...

It's good to read about someone else who approaches their writing in a similar way - it often feels I'm the only non-plotter around!Loved the granite and spoon thing - it sums it up perfectly. Good luck with your next book.

Sandy Nachlinger said...

Thanks for this opportunity to get to know Gilli better. I'm a seat-of-the-pants writer too and although it's sometimes frustrating, we seem to be hard-wired that way, don't we? I thoroughly enjoyed Torn, and I'm looking forward to reading Life Class soon.

Barbara Elsborg said...

That was fascinating, Gilli. Like you, I love that first edit stage!!

Gilli Allan said...

Thanks guys.

Jenny Twist said...

Very interesting piece, Gilli. Are you particularly looking for a mainstream publisher for your new novel? If you'd look at a small publisher I can highly recommend Melange Books.

Susan Bergen said...

Left to my own devices, I think I would easily sleep all day and stay up all night. Or move to Australia! Happily (?) the day job prevents it. Lovely interview. Good luck with Life Class.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Lovely interview, Gilli - and I too love getting to the end so I can enjoy redrafting! I do hope Life Class is published soon - love the cover.

Beth Elliott said...

I'm so glad to find another owl... a fascinating post altogether, Gilli. May you write on happily.