The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the
works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our
past couple of days, I’ve been all over London and the southwest of England
talking to lots of different booksellers about my debut novel.
There are three questions that tend to come up again and again.
1. What’s the book about?
How/why did you decide to write a novel?
Where did the idea come from?
third is the question I most like answering, and it’s the one I’m going to
focus on here.
suppose there’s a certain mystique surrounding creativity, and the more
original or outlandish an idea, the more people want to know where it came
from. (I think of it as The Life of Pi
effect.) However, in my experience, at least 95% of the creative process is
really just a heightened form of logic. You start with an idea of what you want
to achieve (in a paragraph, a chapter, a book) and then you sit down and spend
a lot of time thinking through your
options. It’s the sort of creativity that underpins any real-life
problem-solving exercise. You have to get character X from one side of the
river to the other and he has some sticks, some rope and Z number of hungry
crocodiles to contend with. The only difference with writing is that all the
crocodiles are self-generated.
where does that leave the remaining 5% of the creative process? Because however
much time and machine-like logic you devote to a story, there are still certain
elements that seem to come ‘from nowhere’, that are based on intuition alone. I
have one example that really sticks out in my mind when I think about writing Alex.
its heart, The Universe Versus Alex Woodsis about the friendship between Alex, a geeky, slightly odd teenage boy,
and Mr Peterson, a recluse who lives in his village. I always knew that this
friendship was going to form the emotional core of the story. I also knew it
was going to be quite difficult to write convincingly – mostly because the
reader has to buy into it despite a half-century-plus age-gap.
Peterson was always going to be an ex-serviceman. My grandfather was in the Royal
Air Force during World War Two, and this provided the starting template. But it
never got past the vague-idea phase. For some reason, I just couldn’t make it
work in my head. It never felt natural to me. Then, on what felt at first like
an absolute whim, I decided to make Mr Peterson an American. More specifically,
I made him a foul-tempered Vietnam veteran – and suddenly I could see exactly how his friendship with Alex
would work, despite all the logical problems the decision presented to the
existing plot. (Why would a Vietnam vet be living in a tiny village in the
I thought everything through at length and I could see that there were all
sorts of reasons why the change made perfect sense – but I won’t try to explain
that here. It would probably require another five hundred words. The pertinent
point is that there are some ideas that start life as pure intuition – and
these are the ideas it’s always worth pursuing.
a related note, when I find myself confronting a problem immune to normal
logic, I tend to stop thinking about it and go for a long run. By the time I
get back to my kitchen table, I’ll often have several solutions germinating in