Gavin Extence | "It was an epiphany for me when I realised things didn’t necessarily have to be true, they only had to be believable."

When 17-year-old Alex Woods is stopped at Dover Customs with four ounces of cannabis, he is struggling to maintain consciousness, visibly perspiring and listening to classical music full blast. He's driven from Zurich in a car that isn't his, and there is an urn of ashes on the passenger seat. He's had quite the holiday, you might think.

So opens Gavin Extence's début novel, The Universe Versus Alex Woods (Hodder, January). As the reader comes to discover, Alex is far from a typical teenage boy; his episode at Customs is as a result of epilepsy, not intoxication (his mother says he considers drinking alcohol to be a major character defect). It's one of many personality quirks that make him an intriguing, engaging protagonist.

Hodder clearly thinks so too—it is supporting the book's release with a savvy, wide-ranging marketing campaign. A Twitter account has been created to condense Alex's thoughts into 140 characters; a Pinterest board gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the novel's publication; and a dedicated website (alexwoodsbook.co.uk) will launch with playlists, Alex's recommended reads and author videos. This will be supported with a London Underground advertising campaign, and widespread author events.

Unlikely friends

The novel came to fruition, Extence says, following a "weird mixture of desire and fortune and the appalling jobs market". After nine years studying at Sheffield University, which culminated in a PhD, "I literally could not get a job. I was over-educated, under-experienced and everyone was going for every job. For a while I had this sort of void open up, and I thought I would pursue writing."

Alex's rather monumental entry into the public eye comes as a 10-year-old, when a meteorite fragment shatters through the roof of his Glastonbury house and strikes him on the head. It sparks a fascination with science and astronomy that proves to be borderline obsessive. As Extence says, it took a fair amount of research. "I had just finished a PhD, so I had a well-established writing routine. Obviously it was academic writing, but I was used to sitting on my own for eight hours a day just writing. I loved it.

"Some of my research became Alex's within the book. But it was an epiphany for me when I realised things didn't necessarily have to be true, they only had to be believable. So I deviated slightly and took a bit of licence. I played around a bit."

Perhaps the most intriguing character in the novel is Mr Peterson: Vietnam veteran-cum-village recluse, amputee, serial skunk smoker and Kurt Vonnegut fan. His friendship with Alex, which has bizarre beginnings, is arguably the novel's strongest relationship. "It's the lynchpin of the book," Extence says. "It isn't necessarily a natural friendship. I wanted to make it plausible. They both have deep things in common . . . they are both outsiders to an extent, they have been pushed away from society."

Their bond is strained after Mr Peterson is admitted to hospital, and begins to lose the will to live. Thus begins an enthralling roadtrip to Zurich to a euthanasia clinic—something which, like Extence's PhD, has filmic written all over it. But was the area of assisted suicide something of a sticky wicket? "I was coming to the end of a first draft about 18 months ago, when the BBC showed the Terry Pratchett documentary in which he travelled to Zurich [to investigate assisted suicide]. It was incredibly helpful; it made that aspect of the book much easier than I was expecting."

Breakfast with Vonnegut

The thread makes for a compelling climax; while Alex is clearly a principled, moral young man, the bloodthirsty nationwide UK press is quick to paint him as a villain. The tenuousness of their argument (based predominantly on a Blofeldian picture of Alex sneering and stroking a cat) seems to undermine the arguments against euthanasia.

"It's the difference between the law and morality," Extence says. "I would like to think that if you have a moral belief in the sanctity of human life, that's fair enough. I wanted to take the angle that it was a matter of choice. I've had some correspondence from people who are set against euthanasia, and who enjoyed the novel regardless. It's great feedback—I didn't set out to hammer home a point."

Another of the novel's unconventional cast of characters is Vonnegut himself, resuscitated by a reading group Alex organises with an eclectic support cast in Mr Peterson's living room. "I'm a big Vonnegut fan," Extence says. "Breakfast of Champions gave me an idea of the tone I wanted: a mixture of naïveté and understanding of the world, married together in a funny, unusual way. He has an almost childish voice that is very touching, but at the same time so sharp about human nature and politics."

It's a tone that is captured in the novel with skill; Alex alternates between being frustrating, pitiful and puritan. But he is never anything less than entertaining.

Personal file

1982 Born in Boston, Lincolnshire
2000-2009 University of Sheffield; BA in English Literature, followed by an MA and PhD in Film Studies

Book data

Publication 31/01/13
Formats HB/EB
ISBN 9781444765885/ 9781444765908
Rights sold 12 territories, including France, Germany and the US
Editor Kate Howard, Hodder and Stoughton
Agent Mark Stanton, JBA