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Gavin Extence on Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt VonnegutWhen the world loses a literary icon, it can be difficult to imagine that the void can ever be filled again. Of course, we have our book collections to comfort us as we revisit our old favorites, and if we're lucky, we continue to discover new details with each reading. Still we mourn, knowing that nothing truly new will come from them again. Sometimes, however, we stumble upon something that reminds us that while an author's written work lives on for us as readers, it continues to inspire new generations of writers, as well.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods, one of our Best of the Month picks for July, is such a book for me... as it relates to my own all-time favorite storyteller, Kurt Vonnegut.

This debut work by British author Gavin Extence stars an epileptic space-buff outcast; it details the tragedies and hilarities that come with most journeys from boyhood into young adulthood, and then takes it further. Extence makes no attempt to hide -- in fact he makes every attempt to emphasize -- the immense influence that Vonnegut had on him as a reader and as a writer.

In the personal essay that follows, Extence explains his own relationship with Vonnegut's writing and the lessons he's learned about writing as a result.

Gavin Extence It's a rare treat when you find a book that holds you rapt from the first page -- something that isn't merely enjoyable, but touches you on a much deeper and more personal level. For me, one such book was Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions. There was something about Vonnegut's voice -- the sheer oddness of it, I think -- that really spoke to me. My own imagination was set running, and continued to run long after I'd finished reading. I kept thinking about the weird mixture of insight and faux-naivety, the almost childlike quality of Vonnegut's writing, and how this offered such a fresh and funny way of looking at the world.

That reading experience sowed the seed of my debut novel. I knew, long before I had a plot or fleshed-out characters, that my narrator, Alex, was going to be a strange, smart, and rather innocent teenager -- someone who would share the off-kilter point of view I admired so much in Breakfast of Champions. And this was just the beginning. There are many other ways in which Kurt Vonnegut's writing influenced my own -- far too many to list here. Instead, for the sake of my word count, I'll restrict myself to sharing just the following points. These are the key lessons I learned from reading Kurt Vonnegut:

The Universe Versus Alex Woods

1. Don't be afraid of simplicity. Often, the simplest way of saying something is also the best. This is particularly true when dealing with big, 'complicated' ideas. You don't have to be wordy and obscure to say something profound.

2. Explain things -- even the 'obvious'. This is important. Explaining things (characters, events, phenomena) promotes understanding and stops us from taking the 'everyday' for granted. Lots of human behavior seems funny or absurd once you start trying to explain it. 

3. Engage your reader. Talk to your reader directly, as if you're having a conversation. Writing should convey personality.

4. Comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin: humor can be a source of great pathos, and tragic circumstances, viewed from a certain light, can be extremely funny. Use humour to deepen emotion (and vice versa).

5. You don't have to write emotionally to evoke emotion. Sometimes, a much greater poignancy can be achieved by being matter-of-fact. When it comes to death and disaster, less is more.

All creative writing starts as imitation. We learn to speak through mimicry, and I don't think that learning to write is all that different. To create original stories, you first need to understand how others use language to build narrative. Put slightly differently, I believe that the best lessons in creative writing come from reading -- as deeply and widely as possible. Reading teaches you big, important lessons about what makes your own imagination tick, and trying to write the sort of fiction you love to read teaches you even more. It shows you what works for you and what doesn't, what comes naturally and what you struggle with &ndash what you can and can't do. And it is from this process that your own voice starts to emerge.

--Gavin Extence

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