The Universe Versus Alex Woods by
The Universe Versus Alex Woods
by Alan Averill
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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Gavin Extence,
Author of The Universe Versus Alex Woods
By Diane Slocum

Septmber 2013

From meteorites to marijuana, it seems even the universe is out to get Alex in Gavin Extence’s debut novel. After the meteorite hits Alex in the head at age ten, he spends a year dealing with epilepsy with his fortune-telling mother. When he can return to school, his bookish ways make him the brunt of bully attacks, which then lead him to being wrongly accused of shattering Mr. Peterson’s greenhouse. What starts out as punishment, turns into a friendship with the gruff, reclusive Vietnam Vet that takes Alex to surprising places.


“A lot of the book, I think, is about how human beings cope with universal tragedies . . .”

AUTHORLINK: There’s no person who is the main antagonist (Declan is a problem, but not central to Alex’s battle). How do you make “the universe” the foe?

EXTENCE: I think it’s quite common for teenagers to feel like the whole universe is against them – their parents don’t understand them, the schoolyard is a jungle, the opposite sex a mystery – so in a way, the novel’s title was a play on this idea. I thought it was funny since the universe is also the literal foe in Alex’s story – a fragment of meteor hits him, and that marks the beginning of his misfortune. And I liked the idea that this incident could be both blind chance and (in a sense) entirely predetermined. Beyond this, I think there are other forces in the book – other abstractions – that dramatize the idea of the ‘universe’ as a huge, impersonal enemy: chronic illness, the law, injustice, death, war, and so on. (It’s almost the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.) A lot of the book, I think, is about how human beings cope with universal tragedies – and sometimes come out stronger on the other side.

AUTHORLINK: Another interesting technique you use is that as a narrator, Alex is actually telling us his story. How did you decide on that method?

EXTENCE: I stole it from Kurt Vonnegut and J D Salinger. I love narrators who engage their audience directly, who speak as if they’re having a real-life conversation. There’s something very captivating about that style of narration. It also helped with the structure of the book. I knew from early on that the plot was going to be circular: it would start at the end, in odd and ambiguous circumstances, and then Alex would go back to the beginning and tell his story. The book starts by posing a lot of questions, and ends (I hope) having answered them.

“I spent three months doing research (mostly in the public library) before I started on chapter one. “

AUTHORLINK: Also, while narrating, Alex explains a lot of things to us – anything from the name of his town, Lower Godly, to how the particle accelerator at CERN works. What research did you do to learn the variety of medical, scientific, historic or geographic facts in Alex’s brain?

EXTENCE: I spent three months doing research (mostly in the public library) before I started on chapter one. I read books on epilepsy and meteors and the Vietnam War and tarot, and lots of other really diverse subjects. Luckily, Alex and I share a lot of our interests! For me, that’s one of the real joys of writing a novel – you’re free to follow your interests and learn more about them. Of course, there were also topics it was less fun to research. I spent a fairly grim week reading about various neurodegenerative illnesses, and autobiographies written by sufferers. But that probably felt like the most worthwhile of all the research. I think when you’re dealing with emotive, real-life issues, it’s important to get the details right.

AUTHORLINK: There seem to be quite a few novels lately with geeky or somewhat socially inept central characters. Why do you think they are popular?

EXTENCE: Human beings are social creatures and I think we’re inherently fascinated by everyday social interactions, by what they mean and how they work. Social ineptitude shines a very bright light on these interactions. It shows the mechanics of human relationships at work. And it really plays on our emotions, too. Social awkwardness can be very funny or sad or touching, or sometimes all of these things at once (take a show like The Office, for example.) I also think the geeky or socially inept can offer a fascinating and unusual window on the world. Certainly, with Alex, I was drawn to the idea of a narrator who would have a very unconventional point of view.

AUTHORLINK: You touch on a lot of issues related to how a person lives his life (or doesn’t) and how people relate to each other. What do you hope readers will learn from Alex?

EXTENCE: I’m a bit wary of talking about the ‘message’ of the book, since I’m not a fan of didactic fiction. But I think Alex would be happy if readers took away any of the following from his story: it’s okay to be different; personal freedom should be respected; morality and the law are not always the same thing; and courage comes in many forms.

AUTHORLINK: What did you have to go through to get your first novel published?

EXTENCE: It wasn’t too much of an ordeal. I spent just under two years researching, writing and editing it, then sent it off to four literary agents. Within a day, I had a reply, and within a month I had an offer from a publisher. However, this is really only half the story. I had six or seven rejections, too, and plenty of dark, sleepless nights during the writing process. Writing and publishing a novel is never easy – don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

“I had one other novel that I spent about a year working on before it was rejected by a dozen agents. “

AUTHORLINK: Did you previously write other novels that you couldn’t sell? What made this one different?

EXTENCE: Yes. I had one other novel that I spent about a year working on before it was rejected by a dozen agents. What made ALEX different, really, was that I learned from all the mistakes I’d made the first time round. When I started writing fiction, I was completely ignorant of how the publishing industry works; I didn’t know anything about agents or editors or how books are commissioned. But the second time round, I knew that as a debut writer, you have to make a big impression quickly. You don’t have three hundred pages to prove yourself; more realistically you have three pages, or even less. Agents and commissioning editors can receive dozens of manuscripts every day, so you have to grab their attention. And this was actually a very good lesson in creative writing. Because what’s true of agents and editors is true of readers in general: they want to be hooked into a story as quickly as possible. So I think a ‘failed novel’ can be tremendously instructive. It’s a cliché, but we really do learn more from failure than from success.

About Gavin Extence:

Extence was born in Swineshead, England, and now lives in Sheffield with his wife, daughter and cat. As a child he was a national champion chess player. He is working on his next novel which will be about a girl whose life starts to disintegrate after a bad decision. It will share ALEX’s tone of humor and tragedy.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.