Author interview with Alexander Maskill
Alex Maskill was born in Watford, and grew up both there and in Eastbourne, East Sussex. He's has just completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Leicester and now has a degree in Politics. He hopes to follow this with an MSc in Computer Science.
The Hive Construct is his first novel and won the 2013 Terry Pratchett Prize.
The Hive Construct is his first novel and won the 2013 Terry Pratchett Prize.
Hi Alexander, welcome over to The Book Plank and for taking you time to answer these few questions for us.
AM: Hi, thanks for having me.
BP: First off, could you give us a short introduction as to who Alexander Maskill is? What are you hobbies, likes and dislikes?
AM: I’m 22, I’ve just completed a Bachelor’s degree in Politics and I am currently working on a postgraduate degree in Computer Science at the University of Kent. I write, I compose music and I’m learning to develop video games.
BP: You are currently still in college, how did you come to the idea that you wanted to write a book? Isn’t studying time consuming enough?
AM: The book came about when a friend of mine showed me the announcement for the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award while I was in the second year of my undergraduate degree. I didn’t already have a novel, or even an idea, but seemed like a great opportunity and good motivation to actually write a novel, rather than just assuming I could if I tried and never actually putting anything out there. And yes, studying was also time-consuming – or at least should have been. My grades really dropped that semester. To anyone reading this, don’t write a novel under heavy time constraint while also doing a degree. It’s a really dumb idea. For me, it was a dumb idea that improbably worked out but it was a dumb idea, nonetheless.
BP: The Hive Construct is you first book, what gave you the inspiration behind the story?
AM: The inspiration came mostly from needing a story really fast and needing the substance of the novel to be interesting enough to hold my attention every day for five months. I’m really interested in politics and so from the start I wanted a plot and a perspective that would let me explore the kind of sociopolitical stuff I’m fascinated by, but with the clarity a fully-shaped universe – like a sci-fi setting – grants a writer. The biggest influence – which you can really see in the original title, “The Hive” – was the television series The Wire; the themes explored in the show – of the ways people find themselves shaped by and ultimately trapped in the institutions they inhabit –found their way into my book as well.
BP: Writing a debut must be a daunting task, how did you went about and plan writing The Hive Construct?
AM: To be honest I wasn’t daunted because I’m a massive obnoxious egotist. Rather stupidly, no part of me doubted that I could pull it off.
Everything was done very quickly. The competition had its requirements – over 80 thousand words, some kind of alternate earth setting, a deadline five months after I found out about it – and I worked to meet them. I started with theme, and fleshed things out from there; a plot, a setting, a core conflict, a cast of characters, all in service of the broader ideas I was attempting to look at. Planning took about a week and to be honest I didn’t really deviate much from that plan. Writing was just a matter of finding the time and sitting in front of a computer for hours on end.
BP: In 2013 you won the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award. What did you do first, second and thirdly after you heard you were the winner?
AM: First, I stammered a whole lot in front of a large number of people, which was embarrassing! Then my mum, in all her excitement, tripped over a step and cut her head open, so that was an additional layer of excitement to cap the evening off. She’s a former A&E nurse and she’s never calmer than when she sees blood so she found a first aid kit and patched herself up nicely, but I looked after her while she was doing that. Thirdly I took a train back up to Leicester because I had an exam the very next day.
BP: You are also one of the younger authors that Doubleday is publishing, what went through you when you heard they were publishing The Hive Construct?
AM: Shock and a whole lot of excitement. It’s so weird, knowing that your book is going to have the same imprint on its spine as countless others you’ve read in your life; Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, even Herman Melville. Obviously, that’s not the level most debut authors start out at, so it was all very overwhelming.
BP: The Hive Construct was published back on the 25th of September, if you would have to sell your book with a single sentence, how would it go?
AM: The Hive Construct is a novel about three people – an exiled cybercriminal, a privileged councilor and a desperate military strategist – all trying to get what they can out of a plague-ridden futuristic city state.
BP: The vision of the future that you inspire in The Hive Construct is bold, but when you look at our current society, do you think it is possible in the future that it could just happen?
AM: Probably not. If it does, it’ll be down to absurd coincidence rather than any virtue of mine. To be honest, showcasing a plausible vision of the future was never a major priority. The setting was made to reflect things I see in the world around us now. I’m not a futurist; no-one’s looking to me for their forecast of the next century. And obviously there are writers who are great at that but it’s really never been about that for me.
BP: Did you encounter any specific problems when you were writing The Hive Construct?
AM: The time limit. The Terry Pratchett First Novel Award was announced in January and ended in December. I found out about it in August, and I wrote the novel for the competition. Keeping up that kind of pace was incredibly hectic, and it was all I could do to maintain it. I didn’t even have a laptop of my own for a month – the keyboard died and I had to send it off for repairs – I had to write a lot of it on University computers. It was a very hectic few months.
BP: What was the hardest part in writing The Hive Construct?
AM: There’s quite a lot of action in the novel and, to be honest, I found that stuff’s very hard to write. Keeping track of geography, keeping the power dynamics between the conflicting forces compelling, making sure the cycle of “danger, risk, safety, danger, risk, safety” isn’t so conspicuous. It’s challenging to get right. Plus, and this is just the observation of a single experience, I feel like within the confines of the novel medium, action scenes have the worst ratio of difficulty-to-payout going. It’s a ton of work to write and it’s not always proportionally rewarding to read. I think that with the help of my awesome editorial team I got to the point where the action worked very well, but it was very hard to break the back of.
BP: Besides the hardest part, which chapter, scene or character did you like writing about the most?
AM: Like writing? As in enjoy? I assure you, every tap of the keyboard that went into this novel was written under only the most severe stress and terror! But I’ve got to say, of the multiple perspective characters, one shouldered most of the plot, which gave me more leeway to explore the character and thematic elements with the other two, so their parts were very rewarding to me.
BP: If you would be given the chance to change one thing to the story of The Hive Construct for a re-issue, would you do so? And if yes, which part and why?
AM: No, I’m done with it. After five months of frenzied writing and about a year of editing, it’s out of the way now. More importantly, that was twenty year-old me’s book. It belongs to him. I’m only twenty-two now but that’s still a lot of time for perspective change and shifting priorities, and I’m not sure I’d be able to write The Hive Construct today. At the very least, it would be a fundamentally different novel.
BP: Now that The Hive Construct is published, do you have any other projects that you wish to pursue in the future? Will you turn it into a series? Or do you have plans to write something completely different?
AM: I know where I would go with a sequel. The Hive Construct ends pretty conclusively, so it can totally be a stand-alone thing, but there are places it can go, and things that could happen. There are bits and pieces I have written or planned out already. That said, there are other projects I’m working on that I’m as enthusiastic about which are completely different. One’s a postmodern farcical comedy of errors; the other’s a very grounded drama about community and isolation in the modern world. I don’t know which, if any, will come next. Beyond that, I’ve got games I’m working on developing, I’m constantly writing music, I’ve got fragments of scripts sitting on my hard drive. I don’t know what my next project is going to end up being.
BP: Everyone enjoys science fiction and fantasy in their own way, what do you like most about it?
AM: I’ve always enjoyed the capacity of science fiction and fantasy to comment on and illuminate broader issues and subjects with relevance to the real world. The escapism side of it has never been that important to me, but the potential to articulate ideas about the real world with a clarity of vision you don’t get with a real-world setting is what really excites me.
BP: If you would have to give your top 5 favorite books, which would they be?
AM: I like books which play with formula and aren’t necessarily what they seem like they’d be at first, so that’s kind of a running theme. It’d have to be Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves”, David Wong’s “John Dies At The End”, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five”, David Simon’s “Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets” and – considering this is a book I actually do own – can I cheat slightly and say H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Complete Works”? Compilations seem like they should be cheating but I feel like there’s a broader “if they’ve bound it, it counts” rule that I can sneak it in on here.
BP: Thank you very much for your time Alexander and good luck with your future writing career!
AM: Thank you very much for having me on your blog!