Alex Pearl, author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds

When and why did you begin writing?

I started writing professionally as an advertising copywriter back in 1980. It was something of an accident if I’m honest. I had been at art college and had teamed up with a good friend. We were both interested in creative advertising and at that time the UK was leading the world in this sphere. The likes of Alan Parker and Ridley Scott had cut their teeth in the industry. And some of the most memorable and creative ads were coming out of the UK. My partner in crime at art college was a brilliant draughtsman and my grammatical skills were perhaps a tad more proficient than his, so on this basis, he became the art director and I became the copywriter. While at college we built up a portfolio of ads for various products; everything from diarrhea tablets to baby rusks, and we pestered a lot of people in agencies around London. I can still remember the campaign we created for the diarrhea tablets. One pres add featured holiday snapshots of toilets; one of which was at a jaunty angle and had a caption reading ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’. The headline ran: ‘Tourist spots to avoid this summer’ and the strapline was ‘Don’t let your stomach upset your holiday.’ Once employed and thrown into the deep end, I was learning on my feet and coming into contact with some very talented writers. It was a great training ground for writers and directors, and as a result, I started reading a great deal more than I used to. My first creative director was also a highly literary figure. His name was Ken Mullen and he is, as far as I know, the only copywriter to be quoted in the ‘Oxford Book of Modern Quotations’. If memory serves me right, this was for two headlines he penned for The Times newspaper. These being: ‘our sages know their onions.’ And: ‘No pomp. Just circumstance.’

I didn’t begin to attempt writing fiction until I had children, and at that point I wanted to write a book for them. At that time in around 2010, I was working for a large agency that was going through a global merger with New York’s second-oldest advertising agency Foote Cone and Belding (FCB). This was to drag out for the best part of the year during which work ground to a halt, and it was during this surreal period of having nothing to do that I began to pen my first book. By the time they made me redundant, I had no more to pack up than a bunch of laminated press ads, a Collins English Dictionary, and a tatty manuscript entitled Sleeping with the Blackbirds. A year later it made it into print.

Are you a full-time or part-time writer and how does that affect your writing?

Now that I have retired, I write for pleasure. I’m fortunate in that I don’t write for a living. So I guess I’m a part-time writer, as I’m not terribly disciplined. I go through bouts of writing and then don’t write for some while. So it takes me a while to finish each book. But it also gives me time to think and research, which I did for my recent thriller The Chair Man.

What are some day jobs you have held?

My first ever job was when I was still at school and my parents wanted me to get a summer job. Having spent several miserable weekends traipsing around shops in Ilford where I was brought up, to no avail, someone suggested I try applying for work at the London Passport Office. This was back in the late ’70s, so I duly applied for an interview and was eventually given a time and place in Whitehall for a summer job placement interview. The building was an imposing government edifice. I can’t remember now, but it may well have been part of the Home Office. I was lead to an enormous room with an enormous desk, behind which sat an officious woman in horn-rimmed spectacles with a cut-glass accent. I was fairly terrified by this woman who did little to put me at ease. At the end of this interview, which felt more like an interrogation I was lead to another room in which I had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and was finally informed that I had the job and was given a start date. The job was and remains one of the most baffling and surreal jobs I have ever found myself in. On arriving at the premises, which can only be described as a rabbit warren of corridors lined floor to ceiling with grey filing cabinets, I had to report to a particular department and was informed that I would be one of a large team of ‘Searchers’, and that my valuable role would be to search for passport applications. I still recall all these years later the incessant sound of telephones ringing and utter chaos. I don’t think I ever succeeded in finding one passport application while I was there for the duration of the summer. It was like looking for a needle in the world’s largest haystack. Occasionally I would be sent to the top floor where passports were completed in a conveyor-belt system of desks; each one designated for completing one small section like ‘distinguishing features’. It was a huge room and the only one in the entire place that didn’t boast the cacophony of ringing telephones. Instead, its occupants of aging smokers filled the air with a thick yellow fog of nicotine, which made both breathing and seeing rather challenging. The place was surreal and is indelibly etched in my memory.

Other jobs I held as a student included working in a food warehouse; working as a borough gardener, and working in libraries.

What have you written so far?

I have written Sleeping with the Blackbirds my children’s urban fantasy; Scared to Death, a short story based on the real tale of Thomas Highgate, the first British serviceman to be executed for cowardice during the First World War. This was published in the anthology The Clock Struck War. And finally, I penned my first thriller, The Chair Man last year.

Do you work to an outline or plot sketch, or do you prefer to let a general idea guide your writing?

I rely on a very detailed synopsis. And I have to admit that this is by far the most difficult part of the writing process. I’m quite old-fashioned in that I set out to write a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. And the end for me has to be surprising. And I have to say that this is remarkably difficult. But I’m really pleased that both my books have managed to surprise readers with endings they didn’t see coming.

What are some ways in which you promote your work?

The way I work is far from typical as I’m retired and don’t write for an income. For me the pleasure is getting my books read and enjoyed by strangers. So to that effect, I keep at least one of my books free as an e-book and the other at a very low price. And this strategy certainly seems to work. To give the books publicity, I have used a few marketing newsletters.

The Fussy Librarian has served me pretty well. Every month they include one of my free books in its newsletter and this usually gets around 400 downloads over two days. E-reader News Today is also pretty good, but they won’t accept every submission. I used them once and that resulted in just over 1,000 downloads. Freebooksy is also good but a bit pricier. They also generated about 1,000 downloads. In its first year, my thriller The Chair Man has clocked up over 10,000 downloads on Amazon alone, and this has generated 95 ratings on Amazon. I have also used Voracious Readers, which managed to generate some reviews. My latest activity has revolved around offering author interviews on my website. This struck me as a good way to help out other writers and while also picking up extra traffic. I’m by no means an expert at all this and am just learning as I go.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Don’t be put off by rejection letters from agents. We’ve all received them. But take constructive criticism on board. Don’t try and write to a formula. Be yourself. And above all, enjoy your writing. Because if you don’t, nobody will.

What role does research play in your writing?

When I wrote Sleeping with the Blackbirds I did hardly any research. Everything I created was from my own experience or simply conjured up by my imagination. And because I had already worked out a detailed synopsis the writing was a joy and came easily. Mind you, it was written under very strange circumstances as I mentioned earlier. I was waiting to be made redundant and had no other work to get on with, so I wrote the book as a way of entertaining myself. I’d virtually finished it when I did finally leave the agency. But when I came to write The Chair Man, I knew from the outset that I’d need to do a lot of research.

What do you like to read in your free time?

I’m fairly eclectic in my tastes. I am currently reading John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener. Before that I read The True Adventures of Gidon Lev by Julie Gray, The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott, and Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan.

Want to learn more about Alex Pearl?

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