I am very happy to be able to introduce Gavin Extence – I read and loved his début novel The Universe Versus Alex Woods (out 12th Feb 2013) – a novel which takes one of the darkest subjects available to a writer, human mortality, and examines it with such grace, intelligence and empathy that we look in the abyss without flinching. Part The World According to Garp, part Sophie’s World this is a book which asks us to venture beyond the safe zone but holds our hand and comforts us as we go.
The Universe Versus Alex Woods is suitable for your thoughtful teen, a lively grandparent and everyone in between. It deserves the kind of success enjoyed by The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
Write what you love
by Gavin Extence
When it comes to début novels, the cliché is that you should ‘write what you know.’ But this is one piece of advice I’ve always been a little sceptical about. At the very least, it’s advice that needs to come with half a dozen caveats attached. The fundamental problem, it seems to me, is that it prescribes a very limited and limiting scope for a first creative effort. It suggests that the most secure route into writing fiction is to focus first on your own life experience or specific area of expertise. But for me, one of the great joys of fiction – both writing it and reading it – is that it transports you far beyond your everyday experience. It allows you to step out of your own skin and into someone else’s, and to do this you have to enter areas in which you have, at the outset, little or no specialist knowledge.
During the eighteen months I spent writing my first book, I had to learn about plenty of things that lay significantly outside my life experience to that point: the Vietnam War and tarot cards, epilepsy and meteor strikes, cannabis farming and the geography of Zurich. An unusual list, I know, but this, again, is part of the joy of writing fiction. When it’s going well, it feels like a wonderfully limitless endeavour, one where you’re free to roam into whatever regions best serve the story.
So ‘write what you know’ is probably the last dictum I’d be touting to would-be writers. In its place, I’d suggest the following: write what you love. Or, more specifically, write the kind of book you love to read. This may sound ridiculously obvious, but it’s a point worth hammering nonetheless. Writing fiction, and writing a novel, in particular, is a hugely draining, time-consuming, isolating, unsociable affair – and I can’t imagine it working without it being a labour of love. If you don’t feel passionate about the type of book you’re trying to craft, there’s zero chance anyone else will. Furthermore, keeping a part of your mind focused on the literature you love provides a surprising amount of structure. It gives you a tone, an overall feeling that you’re aiming at, and this is really the foundation on which you begin to build a novel. Or that was my experience, at least.
Of course, I’m also aware that my debut novel takes the notion of ‘write what you love’ to something of an extreme. To stick with the building metaphor for a moment, I suppose you could say that I never bothered to cover over my foundations, but chose to leave them exposed. After all, a significant part of the story focuses explicitly on the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, who is, put simply, one of the writers who made me want to be a writer.
So, keeping with the theme of ‘write what you love’, here are the top three things I love about Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction – and three of the things that I kept firmly in mind when writing my debut novel.
1) The simplicity of his style. As adjectives go, ‘simple’ is a bit of a double-edged sword. So let me be clear from the outset: I’m talking about the kind of simplicity that cuts right to the heart of matters. Simplicity can be extremely beautiful, and it can also be profound. And in writing, it’s surprisingly hard to do well – to write something simple that’s also sharp and compelling and elegant.
Vonnegut attributed much of his style to his training as a journalist, where brevity is paramount. But I’d suggest that his scientific background was equally important here (he studied Chemistry at university). Scientists tend to have a great love of simplicity, of finding the simple law or equation that underpins the complicated natural phenomenon. For my money, Vonnegut’s writing has a similar trajectory. He does a lot with a little, and is the master of finding the pithy phrase that describes perfectly a character, trait or situation. Which leads me rather neatly to my next point.
2) The big ideas. Among the many very quotable things Albert Einstein said, the following is my favourite: ‘You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.’ And it’s a quote that makes me think about the relationship between the big ideas and the simple style in Kurt Vonnegut’s writing.
It’s fair to say that Vonnegut was never one to shy away from the big issues, and whether writing about politics or American history, environmental calamity or economic injustice, he has an incredible knack for taking complex, challenging topics and rendering them transparent. I’d go further and say that he makes his subject matter, and the ethical questions surrounding it, seem obvious, without ever being reductive. Again, his is a form of clarity, of simplicity, that gets right to the root of things, that offers an understanding of human behaviour which is much deeper than it first appears.
3) The Vonnegut voice. It’s unmistakable, and it’s probably the number one thing that makes his writing so readable. I’ve heard the Vonnegut voice described as ‘manic depressive’, and there’s certainly something to this. It has an incredible amount of energy married to a very deep and dark sense of despair. It’s frequently over-the-top, and painfully funny (of course), but it never strays too far from pathos – from an immense sympathy for society’s vulnerable, oppressed and powerless. But, then, it also contains a huge allotment of warmth. Most of the time, reading Kurt Vonnegut feels more like being spoken to by a very close friend. There’s an inclusiveness to his writing that draws you in, and his narrative voice is seldom absent from the story for any length of time. Usually, it’s right there in the foreground – direct, involving and extremely idiosyncratic.
And this leads me back to my original theme, because, given what I’ve just said about the idiosyncratic nature of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, I can foresee at least one obvious objection to the advice ‘write what you love.’ Isn’t this approach likely to lead to mere imitation, to pale parody rather than originality? My answer: yes, perhaps. At first. But really, this is just part and parcel of any learning process. We learn to speak through mimicry, and I don’t think that learning to write creatively is at its heart any different. First attempts at fiction inevitably start as imitation. But then, after a few thousand hours of practice, something starts to shift. Your own voice starts to emerge and evolve, as if of its own accord. Because, to my mind, ‘write what you love’ isn’t an instruction that you can simply and instantly follow. It’s more of a mission statement, a way of thinking about the kind of writer you hope, eventually, to be.
Thank you, Gavin, for taking the time to share this with the Booktopia Blog
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.