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In conversation: Patrick Ness
Never meet your heroes, eh? Isabel Popple disagrees after her she spoke to Patrick Ness at last month's YALC.
If I were going to create a top five list of my writing heroes, Patrick Ness would definitely be in there. Everything he writes seems to be made of gold, from the outstanding Chaos Walking Trilogy, the emotionally intense A Monster Calls, the magical The Crane Wife, and now the absolutely mind blowing More Than This.
When I meet him at YALC I’m a little unprepared: walking into the room, I actually don’t know that’s it’s him I’m about to meet (I had a lot of interviews to do that day). So hopefully he’ll forgive me for turning bright red, accidentally throwing my pen at him, and then fluffing some of my questions! It was also pretty much my first ever author interview – with hindsight, I might have asked some different things, but he was charming, considerate, thoughtful, and articulate. If he was just in my top five of writing heroes before, he’s shot straight to the top now.
More Than This is one of the most mind-blowing books I’ve ever read. Where did it begin for you?
I’ve always wanted to write a book about being the only one on the planet. I’d always wanted to do it because as a kid I thought, “Oh how great if you were the only one here and you could do anything.” The idea is an old sci-fi one: there’re lots of stories about being the only person on the planet. And so: I waited, I waited, I waited, until it was right, and then I thought: the feeling behind this, the allegory behind this, feels really good, really strong. There’s something really, really yearning and ‘YA’ [young adult] about it, so I thought maybe now’s the time. And it all came together.
I pretty much want to recommend More Than This to everyone I meet, but its quite hard because I can’t say much about the story without giving it away. How do you describe it to people?
I think there are hundreds of thousands of teens out there who read, who just never get any press.
I say: “It starts with a boy drowning – and then he wakes up.” And that’s it, that’s pretty much all I say!
The book’s kind of divided into three parts for me. Part one of the book is: where is he? What’s this place? Part two of the book gives you an answer: this is this thing you can understand, an explanation that makes sense. It’s an adventure explanation, kind of a YA story explanation. And then part three of the book says, are you sure? I wanted to keep asking the question, are you sure? Does it matter, in a way? Exciting, but philosophical, maybe.
When I was reading it, it was like, “I think I’ve got it!” - and then a whole new layer is revealed, and even when I got to the end I was still asking, is this really what is real?
I love to read that kind of stuff, so that’s what I was trying to do. You’ve got to write a book you want to read yourself, or no-one will ever want to read it; it’s true.
Your style of writing in More Than This feels kind of slow and steady even though there’s a lot of action, and it made me feel like I was viewing the story through a window, which added an extra level of unreality to Seth’s experiences. Was this is a conscious choice, or did it just happen?
Well, I’m going to disagree with you because I bet that that reaction is not the pace; I bet you the reaction is because it’s in third person. A lot of my YA is in first person – YA is the ‘first person’ genre. And I wanted there to be a step back from that. We only ever see what Seth sees, so it is his experience, always, but we’re not exactly in his head. So that was what I was after, and my feeling - I don’t know if I’m right – my guess is that it’s point of view because you’re just a little away from him. That’s what I wanted: I wanted there to always be a slight feeling of alienation. Because that’s how it feels to be sixteen.
Can you tell us a bit about the Driver? Where does the Driver come from and what does the Driver represent in the story for you?
No. No, no, no, no! I don’t like to explain a book, ever - I don’t like to explain any of my books, because I think that if I have to, I feel like I’ve done my job badly! So I hope everything I want to say is there! The Driver is ambiguous. I’ve got an idea of what it could be, but I’m not entirely sure. I think I know, but it might not be what you think. There’s always something inexplicable in the world. At one point in the book the Driver does something completely unexpected, and unexplainable, and you have no idea why the Driver does that. And that’s what life is: there is always something – you go along, you think you know, you think you know, you think you know, and then you just don’t know.
The really interesting question for me is: what do you do about it? How do you live with it? How do you live not knowing? Because we all have to not know, nobody knows the future, so we all have to somehow make a life you can live. So that’s what the Driver is, the Driver is the inexplicable force of the world that you have to face, have to reckon with and have to live around.
Do you think there are any particular challenges in writing for a YA audience?
No… There’s challenges in writing a book, and because I write for adults as well, I get asked a lot about the differences, and the only real difference is that teen books tend to be about finding boundaries and crossing them and figuring out when you end, who you are and what shape you are. Adult books tend to be about already knowing those boundaries and feeling trapped within them. To me, that’s the difference. But otherwise, no. Otherwise it’s the same effort, emotional investment, planning, themes; I take them both equally seriously, I’m equally proud of both of them. Challenges, no - an opportunity is what is, and I love the opportunity.
What do you think is the biggest challenge in getting young people to read for pleasure?
I don’t think it’s as big a challenge as everyone thinks. I think there are hundreds of thousands of teens out there who read, who just never get any press. So I think the only answer for everything is just writing a better book. I’m always, always trying to write a better book than the last one; always, always trying to write a better story. That’s the only way. The movies help because people come to the books through the movies, but YA is booming. So I think it’s a fallacy that teenagers don’t read; I think they do.
Is there any news on the Chaos Walking movie?
Nothing that I can reveal!
Do you think that making a movie of a book changes the readership?
I think it can only expand the readership and I think that’s ok. I get asked a lot because A Monster Calls is becoming a movie as well and people say: what if it’s not any good? All you can do is get the best people you can, and hope. I wrote A Monster Calls, so I wanted to be part of the conversation for that, and I hope it does well, I hope they are good movies. There are good people making it, but whatever happens with the movie, the book will always exist. The book will always be there, the book will always be mine. However people come to the book – if people come to the book through the movie, great. Great! Because it’s more different experiences for people to have reading the book, and I’m very, very happy about that.
Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman has talked about incorporating technologies into reading experiences to help encourage reading. What are your thoughts on this?
It’s funny because people have talked about this for years - when people talked about ebooks, they all talked about, “Well, it’s an opportunity! Books that you can interact with!” And its funny how nobody really did that and nobody really wanted that. Books just stayed books. Like, “No, no, we’d like them to stay books please.” What I like about technology is that there are nine bajillion book lovers who are constantly, constantly talking about books. That’s how any good art is shared, that’s how anything becomes a hit, how anything becomes owned and prized, not by what an author says, not by what a reviewer says, it’s not by a movie, nothing. Its one person saying I love this book, you should read it to another reader and there’s so many book lovers out there and all they ever do is talk about what they love, and that, to me, that’s great, that’s fantastic. I think that’s the way.
Isabel Popple, for Waterstones.com/blog