Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Q&A with writer Alex Gerlis

Alex Gerlis
Alex Gerlis, who worked for the BBC for 27 years, including serving as the head of training in the BBC College of Journalism, is the author of The Best of Our Spies, a novel. He lives in London.
Q: How did you come up with the concept for the novel and what inspired the main characters?

A: The origins of The Best of Our Spies go back to Normandy in 1994, when I was helping to run the BBC’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of D-Day.  I was so intrigued by the D-Day story that I began to think about writing a novel based around it.  

The characters and the plot came a few years later when I was on holiday in France and out of the blue, these lines just came to me:  “Owen Quinn woke with a start from a deep sleep on the morning of that first Tuesday in June. He would not sleep properly again for the next eight months.” Originally they were the opening lines of the book, but now appear at the start of Chapter 18. 

The plot and the characters flowed from those two sentences.   Owen Quinn is a young Royal Navy officer and he is the main character, along with his French wife, Nathalie. The book is an espionage thriller based on real events and explores how individuals become drawn into wider events and how they behave in those circumstances.

Q: What type of research did you do on World War II and D-Day, and also on espionage during that period?

A: I knew the basics of D-Day well enough, but until I began researching the story in more detail I had not really appreciated two essential and often overlooked elements of it: the fact that the Battle of Normandy lasted far longer and was much harder fought than Eisenhower had originally envisaged; and the extent to which the Allies’ deception operation fooled the Germans into thinking that the Allies would land further up the French coast in the Pas de Calais area.   

Even after the landings this deception operation still managed to persuade them for a few more vital weeks that the Normandy landings were a feint. The effect of this was to keep the German 15th Army tied up in the Pas de Calais. Had it moved into Normandy sooner than it did the outcome of the Battle of Normandy and maybe even of the war could have been very different.   

This deception is at the heart of my novel. I visited all the main locations of the book, in France, England and Germany, interviewed people from the time (including a member of the French Resistance) and did some original research at the National Archives in London.

Q: Your book was published under a special arrangement by Curtis Brown and Amazon. How did that come to be, and will we see more such arrangements in future?

A: I am represented by Curtis Brown, which is one of the largest literary agencies in London. At the end of last year they facilitated the publication of a number of their authors through Amazon and certainly from my point of view, it has been a very satisfactory arrangement indeed.   

I am sure that this will be very much the way publishing goes: the current model of conventional publishing will probably be seen as one of a number of routes by which books are published. I think that conventional publishers are still very important, their ability to market and distribute books is second to none, but the growth of e-books means that increasingly authors and agents will increasingly look at a variety of ways for readers to find their books.

Q: What are your favorite spy novels?

A: I enjoy the genre described as ‘literary espionage fiction’. My favourite writers in this genre include John le CarrĂ©, Ian McEwan and Graham Greene, but perhaps my favourite writer of spy novels now is the American novelist Alan Furst.  

His novels are set in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s and he manages to evoke the atmosphere of those times in an extraordinary way. The World at Night is my favourite Alan Furst novel and as far as John le Carré goes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a masterpiece.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My second novel, which also has a Second World War theme but the plot extends into more recent times.  I am probably about halfway through the novel, although there is still a lot of structuring work to do on it, not least because the narrative is a mixture of first person and third person. The novel will be about a group of young recruits to the SS late in the war and what happens to them afterwards.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I know that the word ‘spies’ in the title of the book would seem to indicate that it is aimed at a male readership, but please don’t be misled by that. In fact, the book is as much a story about relationships and human behaviour as anything else and I think that the book has appealed to all kinds of readers, including those who do not normally read espionage.  

I would also say one other thing for aspiring writers: my advice is if you think you have a story to tell, just write it. Don’t worry too much about the process of writing and publication, just concentrate on writing a good story with a strong plot and credible characters and then worry about the rest.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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