Hi Gilli – thanks for being our guest on the Romaniac blog today. Would you like to begin by telling us about your books?
OK. The first thing I need to say is that I don’t write conventional romances. I prefer unpredictability. I put my characters into believable and sometimes quite challenging situations. TORN is a contemporary story, which faces up to the complexities, messiness and absurdities in modern relationships, paraphrased in the blurb on the back like this:
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. It can make the future look daunting….
You can escape your past but can you ever escape yourself?
Jessica Avery is a woman in her early thirties, with a three year old son, Rory. She has made a series of wrong choices in her life – job, men and life-style. Her job came to a disastrous conclusion. The men in her life have let her down and her life-style involved too many pills, parties and promiscuity. But she believes that by quitting her old relationship and moving from London to the country, she has escaped all that. She wants to make a fresh start, to live a steady, responsible life in this tranquil new environment, putting her son’s needs and her role as mother as her number one priority.
But Jessica finds country life less serene than she imagined it would be. Her ex-partner tracks her down and assaults her in the street. As an in-comer – and even worse, an ex-investment banker – she is not made very welcome by the local mothers. And the new friends she makes have hidden and sometimes disturbing agendas.
The narrative is played out against the low-key background story of a proposed by-pass to the local town. Initially Jessica favours a new road until she realises the route it might take, tearing through the landscape she’s come to love. She is torn between the pragmatic and the romantic decision.
The first friends Jess makes represent the differing positions. There is Danny Bowman, the counter-culture shepherd; his employer, James Warwick, affluent widowed farmer and father to three year old daughter, Sasha; Gilda Warwick, James’s match-making mother; and Sheila, the feminist nursery school owner.
The title – ‘Torn’ – can also be understood as referring to the personal choices which confront Jessica. Despite vowing she wants no emotional entanglements in her life, she is attracted to two very different men. She finds, to her cost, that in the face of temptation it is not so easy to throw off old habits and responses. Despite her resolution not to become involved, she immediately falls into bed with one and begins to make a friend of the other.
Jessica is a woman who claims she has never been in love. Eventually she is prompted to re-evaluate and to admit to herself, that beyond an undeniable physical attraction, she has indeed fallen in love, but with which one – the suitable man or the unsuitable boy?
– about art, life, love and learning lessons. (Or the VD lady, the housewife, the sculptor, and the rent boy!).
The story follows four members of the class, who meet once a week to draw the human figure. All have failed to achieve what they thought they wanted in life. They come to realise that it’s not just the naked model they need to study and understand. Their stories are very different, but they all have secrets they hide from the world and from themselves. By uncovering and coming to terms with the past, maybe they can move on to an unimagined future.
Dory (the ‘VD lady’) is a realist, who finds herself chasing a dream.
If asked, Dory always says she works “in the sex trade” and then adds, “the clean-up end”. A scientist by training, she deals with the damage sex can cause. Her job has given her a jaundiced view of men, an attitude confirmed by the disintegration of her own relationship. She ran a private STD clinic with her partner in London. Following the failure of the personal dimension of this relationship, she returns to her hometown. Men don’t figure in her view of the future. She wants to buy a house and start her own business, but what? In the past she’s often done what others expected of her, including terminating a pregnancy. This time, and against her better judgement, it’s her sister, Fran, who’s pushed her into joining the Life Class.
Stefan (the sculptor) is a loner who needs to let other people into his life.
Haunted by the past, Stefan struggles to establish himself as a sculptor. He sees his failure as natural justice for his youthful cruelty to a pregnant girl friend. He takes a part-time teaching job but it’s a decision he quickly comes to repent when faced with a class of people entrenched in their own way of doing things, who’d like their old teacher back. It’s a distraction he doesn’t need. Still determined to make it as a sculptor entirely on his own, he plans to sell the house he’s inherited, using the proceeds to invest in his career.
But plans can go awry, and snap judgements can change. Love is an emotion he long ago closed off – it only leads to regret and shame – but it creeps up on him from more than one direction. Is it time to admit that letting others into his life and accepting help is not defeat?
Fran (the housewife), Dory’s older sister, is a romantic, who needs to take a reality check. On a collision course with her mid-life crisis, wife and stay-at-home mother, Fran, hasn’t enough to keep her occupied. So she tries to organise the lives of everyone around her, not noticing her own is in danger of falling apart.
Fran went to art school but now the Life Class is as much a weekly social event as an opportunity for a bit of recreational drawing. Her husband’s early retirement plans throw her into a panic. And, after disastrous A level results, her daughter, Mel, is going travelling. Fearing the future Fran looks back to the excitement and romance of her youth. An on-line flirtation with an old boyfriend becomes scarily obsessive, putting everything she really loves at risk.
Dom (the rent boy) is an angry child who’s been living dangerously. He knows all about sex but nothing about love.
Born into a dysfunctional family Dom was taken into care as a child. He has recently dropped out of the care system and, though he enjoyed art at school, he has also dropped out of education. When he meets Stefan he is making a living by selling sex. The older man encourages Dom to join the Life Class as a route to art school. Although he wants to do it, his personal life is chaotic and full of risky temptations. Would finding his mother enable him to make sense of his past? But perhaps it is a doomed quest and it’s time to look to the future? If he can grow up enough to accept the help and love that’s on offer here and now, he has the chance to transform his life.
Like you, I went to art college, studying design and illustration – what made you change from visual to literary arts as your main creative outlet? Do you find you need to balance the two?
My parents were both artists. My dad worked in advertising and my mum was an amateur painter. Our house was crammed with art books. So I grew up thinking that to be an artist was “a good thing”. I know I surprised my teacher, in infant school, when she was asking the class what they wanted to be when they grew up, and I said “A commercial artist”. But my ambition wasn’t just down to family influence. I was good at art. It was the only subject I excelled at.
I had started writing “novels” when I was 10. I was copying my sister, who loved the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer and, at around the age of fifteen, decided to write her own. My first effort was only a few pages long, but once I’d caught the bug – which was essentially the idea that I could write the book I wanted to read – I was forever beginning new novels. My parent’s interest in my notebooks was not engaged by my pubescent literary outpourings, but by the doodles and illustrations which embellished them. It was clear where they thought my future lay.
I managed to get into grammar school but I was always in the bottom stream. I always felt that I was intelligent – as intelligent as anyone – but my memory was tricksy and I was also a bit lazy, and just couldn’t ever seem to get the top marks, even in English. So although I was forever writing as a hobby, it never occurred to me that I could do it as a career. Writers were clever people who went to university. I managed to scrape enough ‘O’ levels to get into art school at 16, and felt it was time to put away childish things. So I stopped writing.
My career – after a few fill-in jobs – was as an illustrator in advertising, but it was quite stressful work. Typically jobs would come in late in the afternoon wanted for first thing the next morning. When I was at home with my young son I enjoyed not having this constant pressure. Even though it was theoretically possible to continue to work at home free-lance, it wasn’t going to be easy emotionally, physically or practically. Remember this was in the days before mass computerisation. I didn’t drive and even without those over-night jobs, I’d still have had to collect and deliver work in central London, with a toddler in tow. The possibility of finding something else to do at home, which might earn some money, began to seem appealing.
That’s when the idea of writing re-surfaced. And I, like so many before and since, set my sights on Mills & Boon (the Harlequin had yet to be added) thinking it would be easy.
So, I’m sorry, this has been a rather long answer, to the question. And yes, I have always kept an interest in art and have attended a weekly life class forever it seems. I continue to do small art jobs if I’m asked and I design a yearly family Christmas card.
I know you’ve had a long writing career – can you tell us about your journey to publication?
As I’ve already explained, I only started writing – with a view to getting published – when my son was a toddler. In fact I started just after he started playgroup. Just Before Dawn, was the first novel I ever finished. After being roundly rejected by Mills & Boon, which wasn’t a surprise as I’d been unable to keep the plot within their guidelines, I very quickly (and I mean 4 months from completing the manuscript) found a newly established publisher called “Love Stories”. Their aim was to publish intelligent, unconventional novels which had a love story at their heart, but which avoided the romance clichés. Just Before Dawn fitted their brief perfectly and within a year of its publication, my second novel, Desires and Dreams also came out under the LS imprint. And I was able to design my own covers. I felt I had made it. But sadly, the publisher was small and it folded within a few years, having failed to achieve the marketing, promotion and distribution necessary to achieve success for itself or for its authors.
After the demise of my publisher, I was confident I would be able to find another with no trouble. I was still writing the same kind of book, stories that not only faced up to the downsides and the pitfalls in modern relationships but were a subversion of the romance stereo-types. Maybe I’m a bit slow-witted but it took me too long to realise that the world of publishing was changing and that new rules now applied.
First – I should only send the first 3 chapters, second – I should try to find a literary agent rather than submitting directly to publishers, and third – the book I was trying to sell was a dead horse which I should stop flogging. (And by flogging I mean the endless round of sending out and it bouncing back, followed by re-editing and adding and re-writing, and then sending it out again.) I at last accepted that I had to put the mangled corpse of my horse on the shelf and write a new book.
After a very similar, although not quite so extended process, I accepted that even the new book I’d then written wasn’t setting the world alight. It also failed to find an agent or a publisher. I think you’ll be able to see a pattern emerging here. Maybe I have too much self-belief (although this, along with persistence, is a quality you need to possess to make it in this business) but I always found it almost impossible to accept that my most recent, although frequently rejected, baby was really no good. So, despite the lumps on my head from all those brick walls I kept bashing it against, I continued to hang on in there.
I’d had so many near misses with a particular (and regularly renamed) book, that when Amazon launched Kindle, I felt confident enough, or perhaps I should say brazen (after all, what had I got to lose?) to take up the e-publishing opportunity. I self-published TORN in April, 2011. A year later, I self-published LIFE CLASS.
How difficult was it trying to get attention and reviews?
It was very difficult. To begin with I did nothing after publishing, apart from announcing the fact on as many on-line platforms as I had access to. It took quite a long while to realise and accept that the runaway word-of-mouth best seller that I’d hoped for wasn’t going to happen without some effort. I began to identify likely reviewers. I revived my dormant blog. I was already on Facebook but, over time, I identified and joined a number of other on-line forums, support groups and promotion sites. Slowly the reviews began to come in.
Do you still find time to write – how much time is taken up in promoting your books?
I haven’t written anything new for quite a long time. At the moment I would say that most of my time is taken up with promotion.
What motivates/drives you to keep writing?
I have a need inside me to achieve something, but not only that, to create something. The trouble is that all the stuff I do – answering emails, contributing on forums, commenting on other people’s blogs, writing blog spots, re-editing, preparing and formatting past manuscripts for e-publication or publication in paperback, playing about with designs for new covers – all gives the illusion of “doing something”. I can go to bed at night feeling that I’ve had a full and creative day. So, even when I’ve not written anything new, I have a sense of satisfaction that I’ve actually ticked that box even when not much creativity has been involved.
Do you find it easier to write darker or lighter scenes?
What an interesting question. Thinking about it, it’s probably the darker, more emotionally challenging scenes that I like best, because I like to immerse myself in the drama and the strong emotions of the characters.
How helpful have the RNA been in your writing and publishing journey in terms of support and advice?
I was never able to benefit from the New Writers Scheme as I was already published before I joined. But the help and support I have received from RNA friends, both real and virtual, has been incalculable. It’s precious to have friends with whom you can share your triumphs and disasters, and who understand what you’re going through.
I belong to ROMNA. I would never have been able to e-publish without the technical advice of friends on this loop. I am slightly dyslexic and have problems with instructions of any kind. People who had been through the process were able to filter and distil the necessary steps for me.
I have also kept every email to the group, over the last year or so, on the subject of acquiring an ITIN number. It sounded complicated so I thought I’d wait until I was sure I might have sales in the US. I was pleased to see sales pick up over there recently, after a Free Kindle promo. But, the downside is that I now feel I should put the advice I’ve saved into effect as I’ll be in London for the RNA winter party, and can go to the American Embassy in person.
Looking through the saved emails, I identified some follow-up queries. I emailed a ROMNA friend who seemed particularly well-informed on the subject, and who had been helpful to me in the past. She immediately wrote back with the information I needed.
By the time this interview is published I hope my application will be in the process of being processed, if I can put it like that!
What advice would you give writers just setting out on their journey?
If I had any failsafe tips I’d have employed them myself and be a best-seller by now. The one thing I know is that you’ll not succeed in this business unless you can take the knock-backs and keep coming back for more, like one of those wobbly men. So you have to be persistent to the point of obstinacy, even bloody-minded. You have to believe in yourself. And – this may seem obvious – you’ve got to actually do it. It’s no good thinking about it, talking about it, reading articles about it, going to workshops, but keeping your manuscript in a drawer. Eventually you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is and just do it.
What’s next? Are you working on anything new, or continuing to promote Life Class and Torn?
I continue to promote all the time. But in saying that, I don’t mean that I’m shouting “Buy my book” at every opportunity. It’s to do with building an on-line support group of friends, and helping and supporting them as much as they help and support me.
However, as well as the above which is a continuing process, I have recently published my book TORN in paperback and now I am engaged in preparing Life Class for its paperback debut. Then I have another book, Fly or Fall, to e-publish and subsequently to publish in paperback.
My next book is in my head but I am basically an “into the mist” writer and until I actually start – physically applying my finger tips to the keys – will the plot begin to unravel in front of me. No wonder I avoid it. It’s a horrible process to begin with, like wading through porridge. I know it will catch fire eventually, and once that happens it becomes a joy, but until then……!
I haven’t got a title yet (I find titles fiendishly difficult) but my as yet embryonic ideas can presently be summed up as “Time Team meets Educating Rita.” But there’s every possibility that this strap-line might change. It depends if the story takes me off in a direction I’m not expecting.
Quick fire questions:
Pen and paper or computer? Computer
Apple or Banana? Banana (but only because they’re easier to eat. I did tell you I was lazy?)
Blonde or Brunette? Are we talking male or female? Brunette.
Still life or life model? Life model.
Shoes or Handbags? Shoes.
E-book or paper book? Paper book
Twitter or Facebook? Twitter
Naked or clothes? (Life models, of course…) Naked. You can’t see the architecture of the body properly, otherwise.
Painting or writing? It depends. If I am drawing or designing something (and it’s going well) there is nothing more enthralling. If I am writing (and it’s going well) there is nothing more enthralling. I can only tell you what I do the most of, which, I suppose is an answer in itself, and that’s writing.
Gilli, thank you so much for joining us at Romaniac HQ.