Alex Gerlis was a BBC journalist for over 25 years. He left in 2011 and is now a freelance writer, journalist, and media consultant. His first novel, The Best Of Our Spies, is an espionage thriller based around real events in the Second World War. It was published in 2012 by CB Creative Books with the help of whitefox. Alex’s book can be found on Amazon here.
Your first novel was inspired by your work covering the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994. Was your approach to writing the book influenced by its journalistic inception?
Very much so. I was in charge of the BBC Breakfast News coverage from Normandy on the 50th anniversary. At one level, I thought I knew the story of D-Day rather well but it was only as I researched the story in more detail that I realised that in fact the Battle of Normandy was much more closely fought than is generally realised. For instance, the Allied planners thought that they’d capture the city of Caen within hours: in fact, it fell more than a month later. This is all the more extraordinary when you consider that the Germans had two armies in northern France. The 7th was based in Normandy but they kept the stronger 15th Army in the Pas de Calais area until well after D-Day – and the reason for this was the Allies extraordinarily clever and successful deception operation, which convinced the Germans that the Allies were going to land in the Pas de Calais. It is this deception operation that is at the heart of the book, so you’ll appreciate that I don’t want to say much more here for fear of giving away the plot. You’ll have to buy the book! I would also say that my approach is a very journalistic one: the book is factually based and I took the same amount of care with the factual side of the book as I would have done had I been writing it as a news story. By this I mean that I had more than one source for the non-fiction elements of the story and I even did some primary research myself. I went on a research trip to the Pas de Calais where I interviewed people who had lived in the war, including a former member of the resistance. Luckily my wife is fluent in French and so was able to interpret. There is also a key part of the book set in Paris in 1945: again, I tracked down and interviewed someone who had been part of that particular story.
You worked for the BBC for more than 20 years. How does your new life as a freelancer compare with your experience there?
It’s somewhat different! In my last job at the BBC – running journalism training – I was in charge of a large department, so it was a lot to do with budgets and staff. Now I have the time to be much more creative, certainly with the writing.
Your first book might be called an espionage novel. Some writers in that genre feel that it is sometimes overlooked and perhaps even maligned. Is this something you have found?
To an extent, though it really doesn’t bother me. I write what I write: the subject that most interests me and which I feel I can write about in the best way is the Second World War and especially espionage and events in Europe. Some people do try and make a differentiation between novels and thrillers, their implication being that novels are somehow ‘proper’ literature while thrillers are not. This same view also seems to apply to espionage as a suitable subject matter for fiction. In fact, some of our greatest writers, such as John le Carré and Graham Greene, write in that genre. My personal view is that what is important is good fiction and good fiction has, in my opinion, three essential requirements: a clever and credible plot; authentic characters and being written in an engaging and non-clichéd style.
What drew you to the idea of using a company like whitefox to help publish your book in the US?
Well, it wasn’t quite like that. My literary agents are Curtis Brown and they were looking after the publication of a fiction list through Amazon, both in Kindle and paperback formats. It was Curtis Brown who put me in touch with whitefox and I am very pleased that they did. I used whitefox for two functions; proofreading and cover design. The book did need to be properly proofread as it is almost 170,000 words long. A good cover design was essential. I realise that is, to some extent, stating the obvious. The truth is though that I did not realise quite how important a good cover is. First of all, cover design now needs to take into account the medium through which so many people view the cover, i.e. as a thumbnail on a computer screen. That has all kinds of implications for the design, which would not have occurred to me. Secondly, I did not realise just how many people would comment on the cover design, saying how much they liked it and that, in some cases, it ‘led’ them into the book. My view is that you should employ professionals to do what they are good at. My job is as a writer and I would have had no expertise in the areas for which we used whitefox. I would not have known where to start.
You are currently working on your next, as yet untitled, novel. Since your first book, have any of the disruptive elements happening in the industry affected the way you plan to publish it?
I’ve written about 80,000 words of my second novel (which also has a World War Two theme) and have probably another 50,000 or so to go. However, I suspect that I’ll be re-writing some of the 80,000 so I still have plenty to do. When you talk about disruptive elements in the publishing industry, I’m assuming you mean that it is increasingly hard to get published. The answer is that yes it is, but only through the very conventional model. In fact, publishing is going through a big change and the opportunity to be published through a digital platform also opens it up to more people. Fifty Shades of Grey may not be everyone’s cup of tea, if that’s the right metaphor, but it has been extraordinarily successful and remember, it started off as a series of writings on a fan fiction website. So, the point I’m making is that a writer needs to think outside the box. I am very lucky in that I am represented by very good agents, but I still realise that publishing has changed enormously in recent years and will continue to do so over the next few years. Having said that, I am not someone who thinks that digital publishing is the only way forward. I still think that books and bookshops are vital and so conventional publishers still have a massive role to play. Something else to consider is the fact that publishing is evolving so fast that it is very difficult to predict what the publishing landscape will be like in, say, twelve months time. A writer therefore needs to be very flexible in considering how best to both have their book published and how to market it. I think the latter is a crucial area: I’m quite well connected in social media and managed to directly contact around 1,000 people through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and e-mail, but I’m also aware of the opportunities that are out there beyond social media – such as the fan websites and other book community sites that you really need to tap into.
Find out more about the specific services whitefox provided for Alex here.