Article published on June 22, 2015.
Jade Craddock meets one of her favourite authors . . .
When the opportunity comes up to interview a multi-book, multi-award winning author, not to mention a screenwriter whose first adaptation is set to hit the big screen in October next year with the likes of Liam Neeson and Sigourney Weaver in its cast, it would be somewhat foolish to turn it down. That the author in question is Patrick Ness seals the deal.
The setting for his publicity day is the Hoxton Hotel in Shoreditch, and there’s something very fitting about the venue. The foyer is an impressive mix of old-world grandeur and comfort, with a sizable array of books. But it is as the doors open on the urban chic lifts and I make my way down the third floor to meet Patrick that publicist Paul Black hits the nail on the head: ‘It’s like being inside a spaceship,’ he says of the very insular corridor with its green back lighting and futuristic design. And this otherworldliness, the move between the regular if impressive setting of the foyer and this unexpected inner realm, perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy of Patrick’s latest book, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which follows a group of high-school teens as they go through the very ordinary trials of teen life whilst the high-school heroes are off doing their thing – preventing the Immortals from arriving and saving the world. I kick off by asking Patrick about this very dichotomy and why he decided to do things a bit differently.
‘In YA there’s a lot about being the chosen one and I totally get that, that’s a powerful thing because it explains all those feelings of being a teenager, when you have made your first decisions and said, I am not a child, I am not this thing, I am now this thing, and that’s an important point in someone’s life, so I understand why there are all these books about the chosen one, but I began to wonder what about the ones who just want to have lunch while the chosen ones blow up the high school again. It’s about the unchosen one and what it’s like to have extraordinary things happen in an ordinary life, in an ordinary way. So against the backdrop of this massive YA adventure there’s this ordinary life.’
Despite the book challenging the idea of what makes a protagonist, with Mikey and his friends’ story of making it through to graduation, growing up and falling in love occupying the central narrative, with the story of the chosen ones saving the world condensed to pithy summaries at the start of each chapter in the vein of – ‘Chapter the First, in which the Messenger of the Immortals arrives in a surprising shape, looking for a permanent Vessel; and after being chased by her through the woods, indie kid Finn meets his final fate’ – Patrick admits he worries about using the word hero.
‘If saving the world is heroic then does that lessen something like being brave enough to tell the person that you love the most that you love them without knowing if they’re going to say it back, that’s very very brave and when it is you doing that, it feels unbelievably heroic. Every day that you wake up and you face the world and you say I am going to go out in it and I’m going to live and I’m going to make decisions and I’m going to love my friends and I’m going to maybe make mistakes and I’m going to figure out a little more about who I am, that requires bravery, that’s a hell of a thing, that’s a hell of a human thing.’
For teen readers, this is an incredibly empowering and inspiring notion and I was keen to hear what Patrick thought about the pressures on teens today.
‘I think there are so many pressures on a teenager, so many that we dismiss, that we say it’s not important because you’re young, you’ll grow out of it. I’m not a teenager and I’ll probably grow out of a lot of feelings but I’m still feeling them, so that’s always made me quite cross, the idea that we dismiss just because of youth. And there’s the pressures of social media and the usual pressures of being young, the usual pressures of deciding who you are, and screwing up, and screwing up for the first time in a big way and solving that. So I think there are tremendous pressures on being young and I don’t think we give them quite enough tenderness and quite enough space. Maybe there’s not a way to avoid all of it but we could at least not sneer.’
Patrick speaks passionately here and it’s clear he takes his role as a YA author extremely seriously and when I ask what he thinks of the state of YA fiction, his reaction is unrestrained: ‘YA today is remarkable, it’s vast, it’s a universe, it’s got everything you want, every level of seriousness, every genre, it’s remarkable. That’s why we say it’s not a genre, because it contains all genres, and what a universe to lose yourself in if you’re a young person, what a place to claim as your own. I think that’s the power of it: that teenagers look at it and say this is mine. It’s power for a teenager to choose and to have the universe that varied and that welcoming. It’s so welcoming, everybody is welcome there, everyone, what you look like, what you believe in, your gender identity, your race, everyone is welcome, and what a hell of a thing if you’re fifteen and trying to figure stuff out.’
Given the gravitas with which he views YA, I was keen to see whether Patrick thought YA gets the credit it deserves. ‘I think it does. I think it’s… easy to say that it doesn’t’. But he goes on to add, ‘If people don’t like it, who cares. Who cares? I mean that’s my attitude towards it. I know that it’s valuable, you know that it’s valuable, the readers know that it’s valuable, so who cares if somebody says it’s not, they’re wrong.’
Patrick’s YA fiction at least has got the credit it deserves, having amassed in his career so far, the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the Guardian Childrens’ Fiction Prize, the Tiptree Award, the Costa Book Children’s Book Award and two consecutive Carnegie medals – only Peter Dickinson shares that achievement, in fact only six other authors have won two Carnegie medals – in 2011 for the third part of the Chaos Walking series, Monsters of Men, and in 2012 for A Monster Calls.
So in such an illustrious career, what is he proudest of? Patrick answers without hesitation: ‘A Monster Calls is really special because it came from such an unexpected place, never to be repeated, the culmination of working from Siobhan’s material [author Siobhan Dowd first conceived of the novel’s idea but passed away before completing it] and then Jim Kay coming in and doing the illustrations, it really felt like it’ll never be repeated and I’ll never have another chance like that, another experience like that and the outcome, I’m so proud of the outcome, of the thing that the three of us made. And if that’s the thing I’m known for, how lucky am I?’
But what about the prizes? ‘Prizes are great because they single your book out from the crowd. It’s churlish and false to say it’s not lovely to win a prize, of course it is.’ Although he admits that for him it was the fact of having his books read by thousands as part of the Carnegie shadowing project that was the amazing part. ‘All the books on the shortlist are read by thousands and thousands of young readers and that’s as good as any prize. The last time, I think they had something like 80 or 90,000 reviews of the shortlisted books and that’s incredible.’
Despite his success, there have been some challenges. ‘Before The Knife of Never Letting Go, my adult publisher had closed down and I was new as a writer and I was still figuring out what I wanted, and what I stood for, and that was probably my hardest time as a writer. I struggled a bit trying to figure out, “well, who are you and what do you want to write?” and it became a process of removing every barrier, of saying, “well, why aren’t I allowed to write this, why aren’t I allowing myself to write this” and I had an idea for a story and it seemed to be for teenagers, so I thought, right let’s go for it and that was The Knife of Never Letting Go.’ Although on reflection Patrick admits it was a good process because it got him to a good place.
A very good place, in fact. As Patrick’s not only got the new novel out, The Rest of Us Just Live here, but 2016 sees the release of his big screen debut, A Monster Calls. Patrick is understandably excited about this new venture, but with readers notoriously protective over their books, I was curious as to whether he had any worries.
‘I wrote the screenplay for A Monster Calls to start the conversation of what I think works about the book. But the book remains. The book is mine and the book doesn’t change. And a film is different, a film is a different medium. A film is a much shorter story than a novel, so there have to be changes. So as long as the spirit’s there, I’m happy. But the book remains.’ And as to any future adaptations of his books, Patrick laughs, ‘I think I could see all of them on the big screen.’ But in reality that may not be too far from the truth: ‘The Chaos Walking trilogy is in development at Lions Gate and I’ve had interest in the other books as well. It’s happened for A Monster Calls and it’s happened with Chaos Walking and it looks like it’s happening with More than This and with The Rest of us Just Live Here. I have historically waited until the right thing came along, I’ve never been in a rush to sell anything. It needs to be right, I don’t want to just cash in.’
Similarly with his writing, Patrick admits to not giving into external pressures. ‘I always feel pressure to deliver for my readers but then I always feel like I have to set it aside because whenever I’ve tried to write something for readers, it’s failed because it’s not about me. And that sounds really solipsistic but I mean if I’m not telling a story I desperately want to tell and that I’m interested in reading and I’m interested in writing, you’re never going to be, and it’s arrogant of me to assume you would be, if I’m not interested in it. So I feel like I have to set that aside… I have to write what I love the most and hopefully then my love will be in the story, my joy will be in the story, and that’s what you’ll respond to, so it’s tough, but it has to be done.’
Nor does Patrick want his readers to feel pressured. ‘I am always really hesitant to say what I think a reader should take away from a book because reading a book is so personal, it’s so private. I almost never recommend books for that reason. Because my experience of it may not be yours, it won’t be yours necessarily, so there are things that I like and I feel about the book [The Rest of Us Just Live Here] but I’m more curious as to what a reader will take away. I never want to dictate, I never want to suggest.’
With the majority of his books occupying the YA market, including his new release and his last release – More than This – as well as his prize-winning success as a YA author, it is possible to lose sight of the fact that Patrick is also an accomplished writer of adult fiction – his debut was the novel The Crash of Herrington (2003) which he followed up with the short story collection, Topics About Which I Know Nothing(2005), before his debut children’s novel was published in 2008. But again he dismisses the idea of being restricted in his writing: ‘My rule for writing has always been one hundred per cent I’m the one who decides what I write and nobody tells me, because I have to feel like I’m free to respond to whatever story comes up and so I reserve the right to write whatever I want to write, and if that’s another adult book, yes, and if that’s another YA book, yes, if that’s a screenplay, yes. But for me the important thing is – the only important thing is – to not be a snob about what a story needs to be. If I have an idea and it needs to be YA, fine, great with that and will happily, happily write it and with no reservations and no feeling like I’m doing something less because I really don’t.’
So there’s no saying what Patrick will bring out next. Whilst he admits that he’s always working on something, he was understandably sheepish about discussing any new work. Although talking about his writing goals, he explains: ‘I try to challenge myself in every book because I’m really afraid of boredom most of all. Because if I ever become complacent, if I ever think this is easy, I can knock this out in my sleep, well it’s going to be a book that you’d want to read in your sleep, and so I always try to make myself scared, I always try to change how I do a book each time I do it and it’s mostly worked. I want to keep myself nervous, a good kind of nervous, a productive kind of nervous.’
Yet in terms of writing The Rest of Us Just Live Here, he confesses almost apologetically that it was as ‘easy as writing a book is’.
‘This book was one of those rare experiences I’ve only had once before, that was with The Knife of Never Letting Go where it just went, I started and everything kind of fell into place as it should and that is so rare and so precious and god I wish it was like that every book and it’s just really, really not. In a way it felt like I was just recording it rather than writing it every day. I wish I could repeat it, I wish I knew why that happened, I wish, I wish, I wish. It was a surprising pleasure, I kept being suspicious of it.’
Patrick was undeniably buoyed about The Rest of Us Just Live Here, but after over a decade as an author, I was interested to know whether he still experiences the same excitement and buzz from his work. ‘The moment that is the best for me in writing a book is actually when you hold the final copy in your hand, and that hasn’t changed. I’m delighted it hasn’t changed. Every time it feels great: here it is, here’s the work I’ve done, and here’s the work others have done to make the cover, and to bind it and to put it on paper. And that moment, god it’s great, it’s the best moment of writing books.’
And the work Patrick has done on The Rest of Us Just Live Here is truly great as he takes on convention and tradition and blows it apart. The story of Mikey and the ‘other guys’ attests to the fact that though we may not all be the chosen ones, we all have stories to tell. But what of the writer as artist? Is he the chosen one or the other guy?
‘I was going to say it’s definitely like being the other guy but I’m not so sure. It’s a funny old thing being a writer… I don’t think writers are ever really the chosen ones because we have to report the story, but we’re also reporting on the other guys, on the average ones, so writers are fringe-dwellers that sit at the edges.’ It’s a lovely idea, though slightly disconcerting when he adds: ‘You should never trust a writer because they’re always watching you slightly too closely.’ Oh dear.
But whilst I’m sure I’m not going to crop up in his next book, as for there being much of him in his books, he explains: ‘I’ve never understood an author saying this is a really personal book, because I think what are your other books like then? What are you writing? If I’m not in it every page of the story, at least emotionally invested, then why am I bothering writing it. There are bits of me biographically in the book, but more it’s that I’m everywhere. I’m nowhere and I’m everywhere. If I’m not in every word then who is?’
And therein lies the paradox of the author: to be nowhere and everywhere and to make it seem as if you’re both at the same time. But throughout this interview Patrick has very much been present. An affable and openly warm man, he speaks eloquently and fervently, never imposing or arrogant. And he seems genuinely humbled and honoured by his success. ‘I’m so lucky to make a living out of it, I’m just so lucky to be able to just do writing and nothing else, that’s unbelievably lucky.’
But it takes more than luck to get to where Patrick has got to today and where he seems to be headed in the near-future and beyond. Not least of all talent and skill, which Patrick has in abundance. And although he sees himself as a writer as something of a fringe-dweller, he’s very much at the centre of the fiction universe for many many readers. And next year, who knows, perhaps the centre of the film universe too.
THE VERDICT IS IN: A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale 6