Alex Gerlis, what prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?
The Best of Our Spies was the first of my (nine) novels and I wrote it after I covered the 50th Anniversary of D-Day for the BBC in 1994. I spent some time out in Normandy and became fascinated by the story, not least the fact that the Allies victory in the Battle of Normandy owed so much to the extraordinary deception campaign. This was designed to trick the Germans into thinking the Allied invasion would be in the Pas de Calais region rather than Normandy – and is at the heart of the plot of my book. So, in that sense the period chose me.
What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?
I have literally hundreds of books about and relating to the Second World War and they give me ideas for the plots and I also use them for research. If I’m writing about the Allied bombing of the Ruhr for example (the plot of my new novel due out in 2022) then I’ll read at least half a dozen books on that subject, as well as using another dozen or so core research books that I consult all the time. Another important research source for me is maps: I have dozens of them, many being originals and facsimiles from that period. I also have an invaluable set of Baedeker guides from the 1930s covering Germany, Switzerland and France – the three countries I tend to use most as locations in my book. I also try and visit all the major locations featured in my books, or at least I did when travel wasn’t the big deal it has now become.
Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?
Antony Beevor’s The Second World War is a general history that I always come back to and his books on Stalingrad and Berlin are masterpieces. Martin Gilbert’s Second World War books are excellent and Mark Arnold-Forster’s World at War is a very useful concise chronological account of the war – sometimes one wants a summary version of an event rather than too much detail on it. The Holocaust is a theme in most of my books and I’d recommend David Cesarani’s Final Solution and Saul Friedlander’s The Years of Extermination. Marek Edelman’s The Ghetto Fights is a powerful account of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and books like Roger Moorhouse’s Berlin at War give a powerful sense of what the war was like away from the front lines.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?
1: Do your research, which means reading around the subject and try and get a real sense of what life was like for ordinary people. Avoid too much military detail.
2: Find a balance between the factual context of the book and the fictional elements of it – the plot, the characters. You need to establish a subtle dividing line in the book, where the reader understands – subliminally perhaps – what is fact and what is fiction.
3: Try and visit the locations you’re featuring. This has its limitations of course because places change and evolve enormously over time and you’ll be visiting somewhere decades if not longer after the period you’re writing about. But having said that, it does help give you a sense of place which is very important to bring across in any historical novel.
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?
I guess Winston Churchill is too obvious an answer, in which case I’d probably go for Sir Stewart Menzies who took over as the head of MI6 a couple of months into the war in 1939 and remained in charge until 1952 – so throughout the Second World War and well into the Cold War. I’d have plenty of questions but whether he’d answer any of them is another matter.
Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?
I’d choose between one of two ‘liberations’. The first would be the liberation of Paris on 25th August 1944 when General von Choltitz surrendered the city in defiance of Hitler’s orders to destroy it. The city was liberated by units of the French Resistance, Free French forces under General Leclerc and the US 4th Infantry Division. The drama and excitement of that August must have been extraordinary to witness, as would have been what followed it.
The second liberation came five months later and would have been very different and even more dramatic – the liberation of Auschwitz by units of the Red Army on 27th January 1945. Other death camps, like Treblinka and Majdanek, were more or less abandoned by the time the Red Army reached them, but Auschwitz was largely ‘intact’ and around seven thousand prisoners still alive there. One of those was Primo Levi who subsequently wrote about how exhausted the prisoners were and nervous this would be a trap. They only realised they were free when a Jewish Red Army colonel assured them in Yiddish, they’d come to liberate them.
Which other historical novelists do you admire?
The one I admire most is unquestionably Alan Furst. He brilliantly captures the atmosphere and tension of Europe during and just prior to the Second World War. I’ve read all of his novels: The World at Night and Night Soldiers are particularly powerful.
When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?
When I start thinking about a new series, I’m looking first for a couple of strong and interesting characters, ones who’ll be able to sustain the reader’s interest over at least three books. At the same time I’m also thinking about the history and the location and how these characters will fit into that – and often the location will dictate who the character’s are. The plot then follows, but from the very outset I’m striving to look for stories, characters and locations that feel both credible and authentic. That requires a fair amount of planning and a lot of work on the back story and the timelines before I even start the first book.
Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?
Not sure how helpful I’m going to be here because I don’t have a routine as such and nor do I really know other writers or have (or need) a support network. My writing day depends very much on where I am in the process, but broadly speaking the most creative and enjoyable part is writing the first draft and I’d say broadly speaking I start writing around nine thirty and then write for four hours and possibly another three to four hours in the afternoon/evening. I aim to write two to three thousand words/day, though there’ll also be days when I pause and review what I’ve written or plan the next three or four chapters. As far as other writers go, I know a few and that’s very nice but I wouldn’t say that’s essential to the writing process. As for a support network – well, I have my publisher, my agent and my wife (in reverse order, of course) but as for the actually writing I prefer to go it alone, so to speak.
Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?
I’m currently in the middle of a new series for Canelo, The Wolf Pack novels featuring two unlikely but highly effective British spies: Sophia von Naundorf, the wife of an SS officer and Jack Miller, an American sports journalist. Agent in Berlin was published in November 2021 and the second in the series has just gone to my publisher and is due to be published in June or July 2022. I’m now at the planning and research phase of the third and final one in the series. I like to start that process before the preceding book is finished, in case I need to change dates etc. It’s important to ensure the continuity of the back story, for example, makes sense.
Alex Gerlis is the author of the bestselling Spies series. His latest novel is Agent in Berlin.