“We want to remember what it feels like when things mattered that much, because we want them to matter that much to us now.”
Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
1:37 am, New Year’s Day 2014 I’m lying in bed quietly dripping tears, wondering whether this bodes ill or well for the coming year. I don’t really believe in omens or resolutions or whatever, but still, in that moment, in the dark, it all seems weirdly significant and profound. I feel like I should fling myself into the new year head-on. I feel like I should be honest and wild and maybe not fearless, but at least bold. I feel like if a monster comes calling for me I want to be the sort of person that would accept the challenge. That’s the power of an extraordinary book, right? That feeling that we’re left with, once we’ve stayed up way too late, turned the last page, exhaled.
Patrick Ness writes extraordinary books, books that are both utterly absorbing in the moment and that linger long after The End. I’m still mulling over the Chaos Walking books years later, and clearly A Monster Calls made quite an impression. Here’s a cool thing, though: I’m pretty sure, despite never having met him, that Patrick Ness is also an extraordinary human being. I did, as usual, a lot of background reading for this interview, and this guy is consistently thoughtful, articulate, creative, kind, and funny on top of it all. (See below for proof.) Plus, instead of watching a too-big-to-tackle disaster unfold before him, he did something and his fundraising to help with the Syrian refugee crisis has been inspiring and–with support from many, many authors, publishers, and readers– has raised a truly amazing amount of money. (More information on his campaign can be found at his fundraising page.) As Rainbow Rowell said, “the people I admire most in this world are the ones who put themselves out there & TRY. It’s so scary to try. It makes you vulnerable.” Not sure I could admire author and all-around extraordinary human Patrick Ness more right now.
His next book, The Rest of Us Just Live Here (October 6) is still a couple weeks away here in the U.S. but I simply couldn’t hold onto this interview any longer–it’s too good not to share. (Notice how I refrained from calling it an “extraordinary interview”? I think it is, but I didn’t want to test your patience by using that word again.) Thank you so much, Patrick, for taking the time to talk with me, for making me cry in the middle of the night and literally laugh out loud (see below), and for putting yourself out there. I think you’re way more than medium nice.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
As complex and contradictory as any teenager. Terribly shy, but also could make any classmate laugh (and they usually got in trouble while I sat there innocently). Super-anxious but keeping it crammed down into my stomach. Always, always, always, always, always with an eye towards getting away to college. Tragic hair. Just… tragic hair.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know that was a possible career at all. I thought, in a sort of twisted logic, that only famous people were authors. I never thought it would happen to me at all. I still got an English degree, but was working as a corporate writer when, to my astonishment, I got a book deal. That was a surprise. A nice one.
What were your high school years like?
High school was… all right, I guess. Could have been a lot worse. I had a seriously sharp tongue on me when I needed, so bullying was almost never a problem, but mostly I was just trying to be friendly, trying to have friends, making huge mistakes, figuring them out.
I had a job as a waiter in a steakhouse in high school (this job reappears in The Rest of Us Just Live Here), which was actually great. Good money, got me out of the house, I could always request the Sunday morning shift so I didn’t have to go to church…
Really, though, high school was a bit of a waiting room. As a gay kid, I was fairly certain my “real” life wouldn’t start until college, so I was biding my time until then. I think that’s becoming less and less true, but not fast enough.
What were some of your passions during that time?
I was a teen during that horrible hair metal period just before Nirvana. My God, the things I’ve seen. But I rebelled by what I called the Holy Depressed British Teenage Trinity: The Cure, The Smiths and Depeche Mode. I wore black. A lot of black. I was probably the preppiest, most hopeless goth suburban Tacoma had ever seen. I’m not sure blond people can be goths.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
I was raised in the scariest, most apocalyptic sort of evangelical church, first Nazarene, then Assembly of God. Now, I still know a lot of the loveliest people in the world from that period, so this isn’t a blanket condemnation, but for a closeted gay kid, being presented with doom every single Sunday (twice, and once on Wednesday) was not the most fun. Lot of writing material I could eventually use! But at the time, pretty much an ongoing battle, external and internal. Definitely shaped my stubbornness and my spite, two extremely valuable gifts for any writer.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
I kissed a boy. And I liked it.
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
“Jesus Christ, just HANG IN THERE. It seriously gets better. There are people who are like you, who love you, who are waiting to welcome you. The sky really is the limit if you just hold on and get to the bit where you’re in charge!”
So many times I thought about just giving up and going for what seemed to be the easier option of what my parents expected of me. But somehow, some miraculous way, I always went back to writing.
Would he listen? Maybe, if I appealed to the stubbornness and spite.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
I would have kissed another specific boy. Who I think would have liked it.
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
Nothing. Maybe the deep fried mozzarella sticks, but pretty much nothing else. Because you take the best with you! I’m still friends with my very oldest friend, who I met when we were twelve. I even officiated her wedding! You take the good stuff, leave the bad stuff behind, and move on into the world.
Every Day I Write the Book
“I need to write about darkness and violence not gratuitously, but as truthfully and respectfully as I can,” you’ve said, and you certainly pull no punches, especially in the Chaos Walking books. (The scene in which Viola is tortured, for example, is harrowing, disturbing, brutal.) And yet you never resort to sexual violence, either on or off page, a choice that seems to me rare and intriguing, given the power disparity between the sexes and the sexual politics of the premise. I definitely didn’t miss the cliché of sexual violence as a catalyst for action or a measure of character. Quite the opposite in fact; I came to feel “safe” over the course of the books, trusting that I wouldn’t be subjected to such a scene unnecessarily, and that if one appeared it would be treated with appropriate gravitas and respect, not simply used as a plot device or for shock value. But its absence is noteworthy, and I wonder if you could talk about your choice to not include explicit or implicit sexual violence in the Chaos Walking books? Was it a conscious decision and if so why?
It was conscious to the extent that I remember watching CSI once and thinking, “My God, if I never see another scene of a woman being sexually terrorized for plot value, it’ll be too soon.” It just feels so cheap and so lazy for that to always be the first thing to fall back on and becomes a kind of sexual violence itself, if you’re not, as you say, treating it with the proper gravitas.
Having said that, it’s a desperately real thing that exists in the world, and I will always insist that a writer has to be able to write about anything or their art is worth nothing. So what do you do? What’s the best way to approach it?
The torture scene is a good, similar case. I feel like torture is so often used cheaply, that I wanted it to be as awful as real torture would be. Everyone who’s tortured is loved by someone. So what if it’s someone we (and Todd) love very much? It’s not a graphic scene, there’s no blood, there’s no (as you say) sexual component. She’s water-boarded. But it’s Viola, for god’s sake. Not so easy to dismiss as a plot device, is it? And why should it be?
Violence – if you’ve ever had any in your life at all (and almost all of us have) – breaks the world. And the cheapening of it in an action story really irks me, sexual violence doubly so. So I always think about it with great care and if there’s not just the best, truest, most genuinely real reason to write about it, I don’t. And, wouldn’t you know it, nobody misses it if it’s not there. Fancy that.
You’ve mentioned on more than one occasion that you must know the last line before you start a book, saying “how you leave the reader is so important – not the climax…[but the] ‘exit feeling.’” At the same time, you’ve described writing multiple drafts during which you ultimately find the right voice, uncover themes, focus the narrative, and pinpoint your audience. Could you talk about your process in between? If you know the last line does that imply that you plot carefully in advance or does it simply mean you have a specific destination in mind and find the path as you go along? As you write and re-write to find the voice and structure that works, does your destination ever change? Have those last words ever changed? If not, how do you revise effectively while keeping that ending in sight?
I almost always have that first and last line, but I usually also have three or four key scenes (big or tiny) that feel amazing and that I can’t wait to write. For me, that’s enough “planning” so I don’t feel lost, but not so much that I feel trapped in an unbreakable outline and can’t create.
For instance, I knew the death of a certain beloved character in the first Chaos Walking, that was one big scene. But another was the herd of creatures singing “here” to each other. Didn’t know where it would go or what it would mean, but it just felt right.
I also don’t write them until I get to them, so I feel like I’m always headed somewhere. That scene of the creatures for example, found its right place, and when I got there, the character of Wilf just showed up on that day. I’d never thought of him before, but there he all of a sudden was. And he turned out to be really important.
For The Rest of Us Just Live Here, however, I wanted to scare myself. I never, ever want to be complacent, so I thought, “You know what, throw away your safety nets and see what happens.” So all I had when I started was a single key scene and I thought, “Let’s see how this goes.” The process was frightening, but felt really right and really good, a new challenge.
Revising…? I don’t know. I wish there was a good single way. Mostly I know where I want to go, so the revision is making sure the book gets there properly. Sometimes I’m surprised, sometimes things fall together just how I wanted (that’s rare). Every book is different, and in EVERY SINGLE ONE I feel, “Oh, my God, I’ve completely forgotten how to do this.”
“My theory is that a writer doesn’t just think of an idea, they perform them,” you’ve said, likening books to “the performance of a song” rather than to the song itself. In addition to being inspired by specific songs, you’ve also described your inspiration for writing in general as analogous to seeing the response people have to a great singer and the intoxication of having people respond to your writing in the same way. Would you talk a little about your relationship with music, and about why that comparison resonates so strongly when it comes to writing? What music inspires you? Have your tastes changed over the years? Do all your books have “theme songs”?
That quote is more of a paraphrase; what I like to say is “A book is not a song, a book is the performance of a song. So choose a good song, but the reader is paying for how you perform it.” And I really believe that. You’re always going to find similar books to the plot you’re writing, but that happens to everyone. EVERYONE. So just sing it with your own freshest voice. That’s what we want to hear, that’s what we want to be shown: your version of the song. Your version of the world.
Music inspires me on an emotional level. I’ll often pick a theme song not for its lyrics but for how the song makes me feel, because it’s how I want to make the reader feel. I often use them as emotional touchstones. A Monster Calls is “Mercy Street” by Peter Gabriel. Just the beauty and the mood of the song are what I’m trying to get on paper.
For The Rest of Us Just Live Here, there’s a track by Sigur Ros called “Kveikur” which sounds like a really pretty, ominous, end of the world. PERFECT for the brain of my lead character.
So, yeah, not literal inspiration, but emotional ones.
You seem to be extraordinarily sensitive and insightful when it comes to depicting the often confusing, lonely, joyous, and tumultuous experience of being a teen, and take the responsibility seriously, eschewing overt lessons or preaching, while articulating a moral obligation to write truthfully. “I always think that if you don’t write about dark stuff for teenagers…you’re kind of abandoning [them] to face it by themselves. And I think…that’s the immoral position,” you’ve said. You also describe “all books, even if they’re not remotely factually autobiographical” as being “always emotionally autobiographical,” explaining that when you write for teenagers, you’re really writing for your teenage self, the boy who “needed to be taken seriously, at least once in a while.” Could you talk about the books that, as a teen, made you feel taken seriously, that told “the truth about what’s dark” as well as what’s hopeful? How do you remain empathetic and respectful of the teen experience when so many adults seem to suffer from “forced amnesia”?
My theory is that we’re every age we’ve ever been, all the time. I’m still 8 and I’m still 16 and I’m still 29. That’s all in there, and it’s just a matter of being open to feeling it again. I mean, I know a lot of adults do suffer from the forced amnesia you mention, but then again, those same adults flock to YA fiction in droves. So I think it’s more accessible to us than we maybe have told ourselves. We want to remember what it feels like when things mattered that much, because we want them to matter that much to us now. That’s what I think, anyway.
As a teen, I had Judy Blume and that’s it. Really, that was it. And that’s maybe part of it, too; I want to write the books I desperately wanted to read as a teenager and didn’t have.
All I really try to do is write for the teenager that I was/still am. I wanted books that took me seriously, that took my challenges and opinions as real, and that recognized that I was a complex, contradictory person. That’s it, really. If you properly observe a teen who isn’t your offspring or your student, you see they’re just as curious, smart, frustrating, sensitive, compassionate, cruel and wonderful as anyone else. They’re human, in other words, so I really just try to treat them (and the teen still lurking around my heart with his tragic hair) as such.
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from Ernest Cline: Hi Patrick! What sort of activities do you engage in to avoid writing?
The usual: paper-clip replicas of presidents’ wives, teaching the cat to play harmonica, reading Joyce, reiki.
Patrick has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Libba Bray. Watch for an interview with her coming soon!
Patrick Ness is the author of eight novels and a short story collection. He’s best known for his books for young adults, including the Chaos Walking trilogy and More Than This. He won the Carnegie Medal—the highest award for children’s books in the UK—twice in a row, for Monsters of Men and A Monster Calls. A Monster Calls was also the first book ever to simultaneously win the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration. Patrick has taught creative writing at Oxford University, and is a literary critic for the Guardian. Born in Virginia, he lives in London.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik.