LIFE CLASS was a title waiting for a book. The only problem? I didn’t have a plot, or characters … or anything. I had attended a ‘life class’ (drawing or painting a nude model) for many years, and had thought it would be a great title for a novel for almost as long (way before Pat Barker published hers). Not only did I know about the subject, but the title could also serve as a metaphor. I could tell the story of some of the people who come together at a class, who, through the unfolding narrative, re-evaluate their pasts, re-examine their attitudes and move forward with a different mind-set. All well and good, but where was my story? One of the only things I was sure about was that there would be four main characters – two women and two men. I began by thinking about the jobs I might give my main protagonists.
For reasons too longwinded and complex to go into, I decided to make the life class tutor, a sculptor. I had dabbled in modelling with clay, but never pursued it seriously. I felt I needed to improve my understanding of the discipline. By chance, I had met a local sculptor, Ian Rank-Broadley. I talked to him at length about his art and his attitude to it. Also, through the Romantic Novelists Association, I know the author, Linda Mitchelmore. Her daughter-in-law, Elisabeth Hadley, is a sculptor. I was able to attend a sculpting workshop, with Elisabeth, which further broadened my understanding of the practicalities of the discipline. These two sources gave me plenty to think about regarding the mindset of a serious artist, and the difficulties of making a name and/or a living as a sculptor.
One of my friends worked at the time as a lab technician in a sexual health clinic. Not only was it an unusual job for a heroine but it occurred to me that someone in an occupation like hers could easily make damaging assumptions about the clients who come into the clinic. But in giving my heroine (whom I’d decided to call Dory) a science, rather than an arts, background, I’d created a plot problem. Why would she decide to attend a life class? The answer came to me when I had the brainwave to make her, and the other main female character in the story, sisters. It is Dory’s bossy, older sister, Fran – a stay at home mum – who has the arts background. Fran has attended the class for years. When Dory returns from London to live, her sister, Fran, nags, cajoles and pushes her sister into joining it.
Lastly I had to create the character most likely to need a sexual health check. And Dominic, the damaged teenage street kid, whose only enthusiasm is art, was born. It is his attendance at the clinic where Dory works that provides the catalyst to much of the subsequent plot.
It was only once I had established these four characters in my mind, and given each their own back story, that real inspiration – or what if? – began to happen. I was then able to begin weaving my threads together into the story that became Life Class – a story about love in its various guises.
About art, life, love and learning lessons
Four members of an art class, meet once a week to draw the human figure.
Stefan, the tutor, is a single-minded loner, whose overriding ambition is to make a living from his sculpture. So how the hell did he find himself facing a class of adults who want their old teacher back? If he can sell the big old house he’s inherited, he’ll be able to concentrate on his work and maybe give up this part-time teaching job. 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 is not defeat?
Dory says she works in the sex trade, the clean-up end. 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. The time seems right to pursue what she really wants in life, if she can work out what that is. She moves back from London to the country town where she grew up and where her sister still lives, yet she remains undecided whether to make it a permanent move. She’s always been clear eyed realist ̶ love doesn’t figure in her view of the future – yet she finds herself chasing a dream.
Fran ̶ Dory’s older sister ̶ is a wife and stay-at-home mother without enough to keep her occupied. Her husband’s early retirement plans throw her into a panic. She sees her life narrowing into staid middle-age. On a collision course with her mid-life crisis, Fran craves the romance and excitement of her youth. An on-line flirtation with an old boyfriend becomes scarily obsessive, putting everything she really loves at risk.
Dominic is a damaged child. He has lived his life knowing all about sex but nothing about love. If he can only find his mother perhaps he can 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 is now being offered to him, he has the chance to transform his life.
It is the collision of these four individuals, and the interweaving of their lives, which forms the story. Through the gradual unravelling of the narrative, they each 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. It is only by uncovering and coming to terms with the past, that they can free themselves to move on.
By the conclusion of LIFE CLASS its four main protagonists have failed to achieve what they thought they wanted, but they all realise they’ve been pursuing the wrong goals. It’s time to recognise and appreciate what life is offering them.
To connect to me:
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. LIFE CLASS is the third book to be published in the three book deal.