An Interview with Alex Award Winning Author Gavin Extence
Gavin Extence is the author of The Universe Versus Alex Woods, a 2014 Alex Award winning novel that’s surprising, funny, tragic and poignant all at once as it quirkily portrays the life of teenaged British science nerd Alex Woods. Woods was struck in the head by a meteorite in a freak accident when he was 10 and survived, although he was forever changed by the experience. He develops severe epilepsy and because of this, his life unfolds in unexpected and surprising ways.
I always look forward to seeing which titles are selected each year for the Alex Awards (adult books selected for their demonstrated or probable appeal to the personal reading tastes of young adults). I loved this book and it more than deserves the Alex Award. When I heard that Gavin was willing to be interviewed for The Hub, I jumped at the chance and wasn’t disappointed by his thoughtful answers to my many questions.
Q. Your last name is unusual. What’s its origin?
It originates from Devon in the southwest of England, not that far from where Alex lives. My Grandad told me it came from a group of shipwrecked Spanish pirates. I’m not sure if that story is completely true, but it’s the best answer I have, so I’m sticking to it!
Thank you. Yes, I was very surprised. I had very modest expectations for my book, and never even thought about it being published outside the UK. But obviously I’m thrilled that so many readers have enjoyed it.
Q. Did you write the book you wanted to write or did you have to change anything you were going to include? Since the book covers Alex’s life from ages 10-17, did you ever consider writing this as a YA book or was it always going to be an adult book?
There wasn’t much I changed between the first draft and the last – just minor details, really. But I did a lot of polishing to make the book as good as I could. I always thought I was writing a story for adults, although I also wanted to paint a very clear and immediate picture of adolescence, and I knew I wanted the writing to be fairly straightforward and accessible. But I never really considered the YA audience until my publisher said they wanted to market the book as ‘crossover’. However, it’s wonderful to reach a wide readership. So far the youngest person to have read the book, that I’m aware of, is 10 (too young!) and the oldest is 101.
Q. Your author bio indicates that you are an amateur astronomer. Did that influence your decision to have a meteorite hit Alex to trigger his seizures instead of some other cause? It’s a perfectly strange yet fitting explanation and one of the reasons I love the book so much.
Yes – I actually had that part of Alex’s back-story before I knew what the book was going to be about. One night, I was wondering what the chances were of being hit by a meteor and whether it had ever happened (it’s the sort of thing I worry about late at night). It didn’t seem very likely, but the next day I did some research and found this story about a lady in Alabama who got hit by a four kilogram meteorite back in the 1950s. And that was it: as soon as I knew it was possible, I knew it was the perfect way to start Alex’s story.
Q. Do you have a special interest in epilepsy, since it’s a focus of the book?
No, not epilepsy specifically. But I am very interested in the brain – how it works and what can go wrong with it. Epilepsy is one of the many things that marks Alex out as being different from the other children he knows, but it’s also something that helps him empathize with Mr Peterson’s situation later on in the story. I liked the idea that Alex’s epilepsy – his brain malfunctioning – would in some way mirror and foreshadow what happens to his friend.
Q. You have some insightful things to say about being different. “Most of the things the UN considers crimes are not considered crimes at secondary school. Being cruel is fine. Being brutal is fine. Being obnoxious is fine. Being superficial is especially fine. Explosive acts of violence are fine…. None of these things will hurt your social standing. But being different – that’s unforgivable.” You were a chess prodigy as a child. That had to make you stand out a bit from other kids your age. Were you bullied? If so, do you have any reassuring words of advice for kids and teens who feel like misfits?
As a child, I was definitely like Alex in that I was quite geeky – I loved learning and reading and math and a dozen other things that are in no way cool. But unlike Alex, I really tried to hide these aspects of my personality when I became a teenager. Like most teens, I was desperate to fit in, so I tried very hard to be just like everyone else, and for this reason I wasn’t bullied to the extent that Alex is. However, I did – as is unfortunately very common – experience some bullying at school, and I witnessed much more. So I thought it was really important to be honest and give a realistic picture of how cruel kids that age can be.
My advice to any teens like Alex would be this: it’s fine to be a misfit. Actually, it’s more than fine. Some of the greatest achievements in history have come from people who were not like everybody else, who just had a very different way of looking at the world. Einstein, Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci – you could draw up a pretty impressive list of odd individuals whose contributions to society will last for as long as there are people. Being different is not a crime; it’s an asset – and you’ll find this more and more as you get older.
Q. It’s obvious that you love Kurt Vonnegut and that he was a huge inspiration to you. Alex even starts a book club devoted to Kurt Vonnegut’s books. Your explanation on pages 262-265 about his writing is enlightening. What is it about his writing that you would like to recommend to teens who may have never read him?
Kurt Vonnegut once said that the message of his books was that we should all try to be a little kinder to each other – and I think that’s a message that’s not going to get out-of-date. He’s also very, very funny, and he writes about these huge, important issues in a very simple, incisive and entertaining way. If any of that appeals, give him a go!
Q. Alex’s seizures were so bad that he was confined to his house for a year when he was 11 or so. During that period he reads a lot and lists some of the books he read. Were you a voracious reader when you were younger too? Did you read any YA authors, and if so, who? How have some of the authors you read influenced your writing?
Yes, I always read a lot as a child and teen, but not specifically YA authors. I read mostly fantasy up to the age of about 16 – Tolkien first, and then lots of big US fantasy writers like Terry Brooks and Raymond E Feist and Robert Jordan. Those were the books I really loved growing up, and I think they probably did influence me in some fairly fundamental ways. I still think story is the most important thing in a book – story then character. Everything else is secondary. I also read J.K. Rowling and Phillip Pullman as an adult (from the age of around 20), and really enjoyed both – two more wonderful storytellers. On the whole, I don’t worry too much about the distinction between adult’s books and children’s books anymore: if a book’s well written, it’s worth reading.
Q. I thought it was interesting that as a Brit, you included an American character but didn’t make him a typical “Ugly American” living in a foreign country. Why did you choose to make Mr. Peterson American?
When I first imagined the character he was British, and loosely based on my Grandad who served in the air force in World War Two. But, unfortunately, my Grandad is one of the most gentle and placid men alive, which really didn’t suit the story! So I started changing him a bit – made him much grumpier and gave him a more colorful vocabulary. Then, at some point, I thought it might be interesting if I also made him American and a Vietnam vet – and as soon as I made that decision, his relationship with Alex came alive in my mind. They’re both outsiders – Alex is a pariah and Mr Peterson is a recluse living in exile – and this is what draws them together despite their surface differences. Really, the big emotional arc of the book is all to do with how these very unlikely friends change each other’s lives for the better.
Q. You tackle some tough ethical and legal dilemmas here but deal with them with great humor. Were you worried that people might object to the topic of euthanasia?
No, I don’t think any subject should be out of bounds for fiction. Freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of both art and democracy, and I think it’s really important for writers to tackle difficult questions – because often they’re the questions that politicians prefer to ignore. As for the humor, that just felt like the natural way for me to tell the story. Humor has always been used to approach difficult questions, in both the UK and the US, and I think it’s also a very normal way of getting through tragedy. Sometimes you can only laugh or cry, and it’s often more helpful to do the former.
Q. I think I caught some sly movie references here, right? A nurse’s last name is Fletcher. As in Louise Fletcher’s role as Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Do you think teens will get these references?
I think that particular example was either subconscious or pure chance! But yes, there are quite a few references to other books and films that were very much intentional. But I don’t think it matters too much whether readers get them or not. They’re like Easter eggs on a DVD – fun but not essential.
Q. You’re young for a first-time writer. How long did it take you to write this book and how long did it take to be accepted for publication? What advice can you give to a young person about writing?
It took me one year (working full-time six days a week) to write a first draft, and then another six months to redraft and edit. After that, it was only a month or so before it was accepted for publication. However, that part of the story is actually very misleading. I also spent an additional two years before that writing a whole other book – which was rejected by a dozen literary agents. And really, it was that failed first attempt that taught me all the most valuable lessons about writing. So my main advice to aspiring writers would be: don’t be afraid of failure or rejection. It’s a big part of trying to be a writer and everyone has to go through it (even J.K. Rowling). Additional advice would be: read lots, practise lots, and make sure you enjoy it! Writing should be fun.
Q. Seems like so many authors are inspired to write by listening to music. Is that true for you too? Do you have a playlist for the writing of this book? If Alex was a song, what song would he be?
Yes, but I very rarely listen to music while I’m writing as it’s too much of a distraction. The exception in Alex was the penultimate chapter; I listened to Mozart’s 21st Piano Concerto while writing it – the same piece they listen to in the book – and it really helped me to get a handle on some of the emotions I was trying to evoke.
If Alex were a song, I think he’d be something by Pink Floyd – complicated, slightly weird even, but still tuneful, and way ahead of his time. Possibly ‘Us and Them’ from The Dark Side of the Moon, because the lyrics make a certain amount of sense for him.
Thank you for your great answers, Gavin!
Hub readers, if you haven’t read The Universe Versus Alex Woods, I hope that his interview will encourage you to pick it up. You can count it as part of your reading for the 2014 Hub Reading Challenge, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy it.
-Sharon Rawlins, currently reading Lady Thief by A.C. Gaughen