INTERVIEW winner of the Terry Pratchett award 2013

Alex Maskill, the young winner of the 2013 Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now First Novel Prize, speaks to SFX

The second Terry Pratchett prize for first novel, which sees the recipient picking up a £20,000 publishing contract, was won by 21-year-old Alexander Maskill last month. Maskill is currently studying for a politics degree at the University of Leicester and he wrote this novel – The Hive – in just five months. After the dust settled we quizzed him about this extraordinary opportunity, and about meeting the great author himself at the awards ceremony…

SFX: Now that some weeks have passed since the announcement, has the news sunk in that your first novel will be published?
Alex Maskill:
In bits and pieces, yes. Every so often there’ll be a new chunk of realization, like I’ll be looking at the fiction section of my university bookshop and suddenly I’ll be aware that my book might be there soon, alongside all the other real books. Actually, I suppose that’s one way in which is hasn’t sunk in, I’m still at the point where I feel like I’ve bumbled my way into this whole thing, and that at any moment I’ll get found out and exposed as not being a “real” author.

SFX: What was the first thing you remember thinking when it was announced you’d won?
Maskill:
I remember being really confused that the words the announcer said sounded really similar to my name and the title of my novel, and how odd it was that I’d lost to someone with such a similar name. Then I realized I’d won, and at that point it all became sort of a blur. I remember utterly failing to put together the speech people seemed to be expecting, and I remember Terry Pratchett telling me that if I play my cards right, I might not have to ever get a real job, which was very cool.

SFX: Were you a fan of his work before you entered the competition?
Maskill:
A few years ago, a relative bought me a battered second-hand copy of Reaper Man when we were in a book shop, and I loved that. I read The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic as well, and loved them.

SFX: Which other authors are influences on you?
Maskill:
It’s hard to say, because I’ve only written one long-form prose work and the conscious thematic influences on The HiveThe Wire, Ghost In The Shell and Mass Effect all spring to mind in various ways – aren’t literature. If we’re talking writers I would want to have informing my perspective as a writer, Neil Gaiman, David Simon, Mark Z Danielewski and, of course, Sir Terry all spring to mind, but I’m not sure whether that comes across in the text. I also read a lot of horror, so there’s probably quite a bit of Stephen King and Clive Barker mixed in there.

SFX: How did the idea behind The Hive come to you?
Maskill:
Mostly from using the theme of the award as a writing prompt. I mean it when I say it took five months – nothing about The Hive existed in my mind before last August. The plot and setting were all extrapolated from the themes I wanted to explore, first and foremost. I was really interested in writing about the processes of dehumanization and depersonalization as political and social processes, how people turn themselves into, or are turned into, cogs in larger institutions and how those institutions can take good people and make them fight and demonize one another. Given those themes, a setting where people are becoming less “human” and more integrated into external systems in a physical, visceral way seemed the way to go.

SFX: Did writing it interfere with your university studies? Were your lecturers aware of your writing?
Maskill:
I definitely kept quiet about the whole process. My housemates and close friends knew, mostly because for a month during the writing process the keyboard on my laptop died and I borrowed their computers while it was off for repairs. When most people hear “I’m writing a novel!” they roll their eyes and dread a future of the aspiring novelist positioning themselves as some debonair sophisticate despite never actually writing anything of quality, if anything at all, right? I mean, I’m now an award-winning author getting published by a pretty major company and I’m still worried people will get sick of me talking about it. As for my university studies, they still went fine. I found time for everything. Really the ability to manage your time and consistently hit goals is the most important thing. It’s like Stephen King says, if you write 300 words a night, which isn’t much, by the end of the year you’ll have a novel. I was just working at a slightly more accelerated pace.

SFX: How will you feel if you get to be an author as a full time profession? Has it been a long time ambition?
Maskill:
I wouldn’t have called it an ambition; I always assumed the odds were too long. I thought aspiring to a career as an author was like aspiring to a career as a lottery winner, so I always kind of relegated that to being “the dream that’ll never actually happen” and focused on getting some other kind of job. If I’m being completely honest, there’s still some ways to go yet – this award isn’t a career being handed to me, it’s an opportunity, and I still have to capitalize on it as best I can. I can’t afford to rest on my laurels.

SFX: Do you have plans for further novels? Would they set in the same universe as The Hive?
Maskill:
I have a pretty firm grasp on where the story of The Hive goes next, yes. I mean, it’s not a setting that really exists for its own sake; it is the way it is because it lets me explore ideas and themes I find interesting, and there’s plenty more still there to be mined. Beyond that, there’s plans and ideas for loads of other works knocking around in my head, in all sorts of different mediums; there’s novels, short stories, scripts, music. I’ve even been learning to write computer code recently – technology’s come back around to the point where one person can make a videogame if they apply themselves, and that’s something I’ve got ideas for. I don’t know if I’m overstepping my bounds with that kind of jack-of-all-trades approach, but then I didn’t know if I was overstepping them when I was writing The Hive, and that turned out pretty well, so we’ll see.

SFX: Thanks Alex, and congratulations again.

You can find out more about the prize at Terry Pratchett’s website. The full announcement about Alex Maskill’s win is also available there. Alex and Sir Terry’s publisher is Transworld. Read more interviews with authors as well as book reviews every month in SFX, and especially at the moment while our Summer Of SF Reading campaign is under way.

Interview by Jonny Wilkes.