Patrick Ness: Author of the YA series Chaos Walking

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image-patrickness200Patrick Ness is an American-born writer now living in London. His latest book is Monsters of Men, the third in his young adult series, Chaos Walking.

The first book in the Chaos Walking series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, was published in 2008 and was awarded the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Booktrust Teenage Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in the UK. In 2009 he published the second book in the trilogy, The Ask and the Answer.

He has also published two books for adults, The Crash of Hennington and a collection of short stories called Topics About Which I Know Nothing. In between writing novels, he reviews books for various publications in England and also teaches creative writing at Oxford University.

Click play to listen. Running time: 29.18

Monsters of Men

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today, Patrick.

Patrick
Thank you for having me.

Valerie
Tell us when did you first realize you actually wanted to write as your profession? Was it something that happened from when you were very young, or something that happened later in life?

Patrick
Well, I like to say, well, the thing I like to say when I talk to schools is that I think all good writers are good readers. I think I really realized that I wanted to be a writer when I was a reader. I would read all the time when I was young- seven, eight, nine, that kind of thing. I would start reading books.

At a certain point I would realize, I would start to think, “I’d do that differently if I had written this book.” Then you start to think, “Well, you know I might actually do it better, it would have been better if they had done it my way,” kind of thing. In all the hubris of a nine year old.

I think that’s where it really began. I realized that I had different ideas than some of the books that I was reading and that if I wanted to tell a story that I would do it in a different way. I think that’s really where it started.

Valerie
Then at university what did you study? And did you study that with the intention to become a writer already at that time?

Patrick
Well, I read English literature. At American universities you get a lot of leeway, you get lots of time, and you can take your time to choose what sort of major you want. I took enough classes to get either a creative writing degree, or an English literature degree.

I probably foolishly, well, not foolishly, but you know slightly embarrassingly looking back I thought, “Well, if I want to get a job an English literature degree probably looks better than a creative writing degree,” and that’s probably not fair to say. I did a literature degree instead, even though I had all the credits for a creative writing degree as well.

Valerie
Then you went into corporate writing I understand, is that correct?

Patrick
I did. I worked for a cable operator, like a cable company operating sort of local cable rather than a channel, in L.A. I did their corporate writing for a number of years. I wrote all their speeches, and their advertising, and their form letters, that sort of thing.

Valerie
Were you writing on the side your fiction work?

Patrick
I was, and I think all first writers when they’re writing their first novel do similar things. You either get up early, which I would do some times, I would get up an hour early and spend an hour writing before going to work.

Or sometimes, I would never actually formally endorse this of course, but sometimes at work you just don’t get quite enough work to fill the day, so you turn your computer screen away from where everyone can see it and, you know, I’d spend some time at work when I had finished all my work for the company… you just find time. It’s really a matter of really dedicating yourself and calling yourself a writer. “Well, I need to find time, because this is my priority.”

Valerie
Yeah, that’s right.

Then you started actually with a novel for adults.

Patrick
I did.

Valerie
Then a couple of books on you’ve moved onto a trilogy for young adults. How did that work? What prompted that interest in changing your demographic?

Patrick
Well, it was as surprising to me as anyone else. I mean I’m a big believer that you can only write the story that’s next in the queue in your head, whatever that story might be, the one that’s sort of nagging to be told. I had just written the adult novel, I had written a short story collection, and I just had an idea that sounded like fun.

It didn’t start as anything, any particular kind of novel. I just wanted to write something in voice, and I had this voice that I was working on trying to get right, and the story kind of evolved and the concerns of the story made themselves clear. I thought, “Well, these are the concerns of a young adult,” about privacy, and information, and so on, and growing up.

I thought, “Oh, well, this for young adults, I think.” And, that’s about kind of where the end of my thinking on the matter went. I didn’t think it was a huge shift, really. I just thought, “OK, instead of writing a novel that I would want to read, I’ll will write a novel that I would have wanted to read as a teenager,” and that was kind of my only criteria.

I find it really liberating, actually, because teenagers- well, they’re not snobs. They’ll follow you anywhere. You have to respect them, but if you respect them they’re more willing to follow you to far off places. I thought, “Well, great. I’ll see how far I can go.”

Valerie
At the time when you wrote the first book in the trilogy did you think it was the first book in a trilogy? Did you plan it that way?

Patrick
I did. I mean I like telling a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. I don’t like sort of trilogies that wear out their welcome, if you know what I mean, with books four and five.

I had an idea and I thought, “Well, writing a book is such a privilege.” It’s such a big deal to, still, get a book published that why- I try to treat every time as if it might be the last. If every time might be the last, well, why not really go for it every time, if you see what I mean. I thought, “Well, if somebody’s going to want to publish this,” which they did, “why not just shoot the moon?” You know, “Why not really go for it?”

I had big ideas, and I had, I knew the three stories of the trilogy that would make up one larger story, I knew the themes of each book. I thought, “Why not just go for it?” “Why not just really, really go for it?” Because who knows how many opportunities you’ll have to do so?

Valerie
Now the first book in the Chaos Walking series is the Knife of Never Letting Go, and it was very, very successful. Then your second book, The Ask and the Answer, and you’ve more recently released the third book, Monsters of Men, for those people who aren’t yet familiar with the trilogy can you tell us a little bit about it?

Patrick
They start off with Todd Hewitt, who as the first book opened is one month away from the birthday that officially makes him a man in the town where he lives. There will be a ceremony, and it’s a legal category of being a man in this town. But the town isn’t like other towns. There was a war just after Todd was born, which killed half of the men and all of the women so there are no women left. And, so the town is dying, and Todd is the youngest boy in the whole town. He’s the last one who’ll ever be born.

The other thing that happened during the war is that a germ was released, which caused everybody to be able to hear what everybody else was thinking all the time, none stop, whether you want to or not. And they call this ‘the noise’. And it’s a real burden because it’s a constant onslaught of words, and pictures, and thoughts, and feelings, and Todd really suffers under it. And the world is just a really, really noisy place all the time.

As the first book opens he finds outside of town a spot of silence, which should be completely impossible according to everything he’s ever been told, and that turned out, that spot of silence turns out to be a girl, which, again, also impossible. So, it turns out that he’s been lied to about what’s happened and what’s really at stake in the this world, and he has to be on the run, and that kicks off the story.

And it gets bigger and bigger from there, and comes in terrorism, and sides of the civil war, and then all out war in the third book. So, it gets bigger and bigger as it goes along.

Valerie
How in the world did the seed of that get planted?

Patrick
Well, the world is already pretty noisy, especially if you’re a teenager. There is so much information coming at you all the time from mobile phones, from texting, from the internet, from facebook, that it just- it’s hard to live privately anymore, particularly if you’re young. Everything you do goes online. If you make a mistake, it goes online. If you tell somebody a secret, it goes online.

And, I thought, “Well, that’s got to be hard to live with all this information coming at you.” I thought, “Well, what would it be like if the next logical step is that you couldn’t get away? That there was no escape, no switching off the computer, no switching off the phone,” not that anybody does that anyway. But I thought, “What if you couldn’t get away?” And, “What if you couldn’t get away and you were young? What cost would that be to having to no privacy when you were a teenager?”

Everybody talks about disturbance, and I resist the word ‘disterbia’, but everyone talks about disterbia as being about the future, but I don’t they’re really ever about the future. I think they’re about right now. So, to me this book is kind of about right now.

Valerie
Just take us back to when you were writing your first published book, which is a book for adults, The Crash of Hennington. What were you doing at the time? Can you basically tell us the story of how you got it published?

Patrick
I was working at the cable company at the time when I wrote the first half of the book. It took about a year, because that was my first try. I didn’t know what I was doing, really. Then the cable company in the .com boom, it was the late ‘90s, got bought by a larger cable company for way too much money. They gave us really generous severance package, because they didn’t need two corporate writers, for example.

So, I took that money and partner is English, and I thought, “Well, I can live off this money for a little bit if I stretch it out.” We moved back to England, I then spent the year where I was here, which is where I live now, finishing the novel, trying to make it the best novel that I possibly could, and I think that’s a mistake a lot of first time writers make, which is that they only write part of a novel, only write a few chapters. I’m sure that works for some people, but for 99% of us you have to write the whole book and make the best book possible.

Then I just went through- there’s a book here called the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which list every agent in the country. And, I sent off my synopsis, my full synopsis, my sample chapters and my one page pitch letter saying what the book was about, who I was and why they’d love it, to every remotely applicable agent.

A few of them asked to read the whole manuscript, and couple of them were interested and I went and I talked one in particular and she was terrific. She took me on, and then she got the book published. So, it’s really the old fashioned way, I didn’t know anybody.

Valerie
You make it sound so easy.

Patrick
Yeah, I know. Of course it isn’t, but that was my process. It’s the old fashioned process. I just wrote the best book I could, then I found an agent through the old fashioned process of seeking one out through the post. And then she took it to publishers and one of them took it on.

Yeah, I know, there’s a lot of luck involved. I did rewrite the book with her, to make it better, to get good questions, and to get good feedback.

Yes, I think it’s a hopeful thing, because like I said I didn’t know anybody in publishing. I didn’t have a secret ‘in’ anywhere. I just did it the old fashioned way.

Valerie
What do you do to make it the best book possible?

Patrick
Well, I do a lot of rewriting. Nobody reads my first drafts, for example, nobody on earth. Let’s put it that way. I have the freedom to make mistakes and to get things wrong, and to try out things that may not work, but then to try out some things that do end up working.

Then I do a big rewrite for the second draft where I go back and get rid of all the stuff that didn’t work, and all of those ideas that I had five pages before the end, I go back and pretend I had them all along, that kind of thing.

Then at the second draft, or sometimes the third draft stage, I get some trusted readers to read it, which are usually my agent and my editor. And then we will talk about it, for hours. It’s not- they don’t sit there and they say, “You need to do ‘this’, you need to do ‘that’.”

What is more helpful to me is they ask me questions. “Why ‘this’?” “Why ‘that’?” “What happens ‘here’?” “What did you mean here?”

That way- I know what I want to get across. The questions they ask me tell me where I haven’t done that as well as I could, where I’ve been misunderstood. Then I take all of that information and I write another draft, and then a few more people read it, all the while I’m working and working and weaving the story closer together.

Yeah, it’s a long arduous process, but a good one. For me, I do view it like a weave that gets tighter and tighter as the drafts go along.

Valerie
How many drafts do you think you would do on average?

Patrick
I do sort of four or five things that I would call drafts, but within those drafts I’m rewriting each page, each chapter over and over again. So, probably, let’s say four usually, with a fifth as a final polish. But within that I’m doing a lot detailed rewriting.

Valerie
As a writer, are you one of those writers that needs to plot it all out first, so that you know what’s going to happen, and then you write? Or, do you just see where it goes?

Patrick
I do a combination of both. I mean- this is a trick question, because I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying that anyone’s process is wrong. If you write a book and you get to the end you’ve done it right. It’s actually finishing that’s the hard part, finishing a novel is the thing that most people don’t do. The thing that writers do is they finish.

I like to know the last line. I call it the exit feeling. It’s not the climax, usually it’s just how I want to leave the reader. I knew the last line of all three books before I started writing book one, for example. I like to know a general voice, how it’s going to sound. I usually set out a rhythm for how the chapters are going to work. I usually know how I’m going to divide up the book, if it’s going to be in parts, if it’s going to be chapters how long the chapters are going to be, because it just gives me a bit of discipline.

But mainly I know three or four big scenes that are important to the book, emotionally important.

That I can’t wait to get to, which isn’t really a structure, just big scenes that I know are going to happen. And then the rest I leave open.

So, I have something to write towards, but it gives me enough freedom along the way to make discoveries and to find surprises.

Valerie
Do those big scenes always make the final cut?

Patrick
Usually, because usually they’re the ones that tell me I’ve got a book. They’re usually the scenes that feel like what the book is about.

In Knife of Never Letting Go it was the death of a certain character. I don’t want to give anything away. But, there’s a very, very sad scene. I knew that it was going to be a sad scene, and a powerful scene. And then when I finally got to it, it was very powerful to write, and very upsetting to write. I knew that it was working because of that.

People write to me about that scene all the time, about how it made them crying and all that. That means it’s working.

So, it’s usually when it’s something that strong, or something that I’m that excited to write about then they usually stay. If they aren’t pulling me along that strong then they don’t belong in the book.

Valerie
What is the rewarding part for you of being a writer?

Patrick
I don’t know. I mean writers are, I think, are control freaks by nature. You know, writing is the one art form, and maybe sculpture, and maybe media composition, where you have entire control over it, where you are in charge. There’s just no- you can get some input, but you’re the final decision maker, and so on. Which is something you don’t get in screenwriting, for example.

So, I’m compelled to tell the story. I enjoy telling stories. Then when you write it all out, and then at the very end of the process you hold the book in your that someone’s published, that’s really the big day for me; not when other people read it, not when it’s in stores, for me, it’s when the first issue comes off the press and I can hold it in my hand, that’s the day. It feels like, “Wow, this is it.”

Valerie
You mentioned on your website that you write a 1,000 words a day come hell or high water. Is that true? Do you have some kind of writing routine, or process that you follow each day?

Patrick
That’s when I’m doing first drafts, but yes. 1,000 words isn’t all that much, neither is it insignificant, but it’s something that I can do and some days it takes an hour. Some days it takes a couple of hours. Some days it’s a real pain, but that’s OK. Whatever it is, it’s moving the story forward somehow.

So, I write my 1,000 words, then the next day I will go back to the beginning of that 1,000 words and I’ll rewrite it, and then I’ll add 1,000 words on to the end, so that the story is constantly moving and turning in my head, until I get a chapter, or a section, or something. Then I just start over with 1,000 words, and then go back and rewrite a 1,000 on the end.

Yeah, that’s how… writing books is a long, long process. I think in order to do it without feeling like you’re never going to finish doing something like that it’s necessary, because I know that even though it’s 1,000 words a day, I know that at the end of 100 days of writing I’ll have 100,000 words, ideally. There you go, that’s a long first draft that you can work with.

Valerie
Do you ever not get to the 1,000 words?

Patrick
No, if I sit down to write the 1,000 words, I’ll get to 1,000 words.

There are days where I don’t write, where the day slips away from me, or I panic, or I just stay in bed and put the duvet over my head, which a lot of writers do.

But, no, if I sit down to write I’m going to get them, but there are days that I miss and punish myself for.

Valerie
When you moved to England and you worked on the second half of your first book, was that when you basically became a full time writer, or full time author?

Patrick
That was by accident, because I was living off a severance package and I didn’t have permission to work in the UK yet.

Valerie
Ah, right.

Patrick
So, my money ran out just about the time I got permission to work, and I had finished my draft. I found my agent just as I got permission to work. I started doing temp work.

Valerie
Right. Right.

Patrick
While looking for a job. Then while I was doing temp work my agent got me a book deal, which it wasn’t a huge book deal, but it was enough for a while. Yeah, so I quit temping and started writing full time.

Until things got a bit better, this was several years on living on not very much, I also did other writing work. I read scripts for production companies, and wrote coverage. I wrote for the radio. I did work on film script on a radio play I wrote. I did lots of writing work until the kids’ books came out, and have been a nice, surprising hit.

Now, I just do those and I review for The Guardian, here in the UK.

Valerie
Tell me about- so you do book reviews, what’s it like reviewing another person’s work when you yourself, you’re an author, and you’re going to get reviewed as well? Is it hard?

Patrick
Well, I mean, I never thought of it as hard, I mean until people started telling me how hard it was. I mean I’ve reviewed for several years.

On the whole I write- on the whole I really want to champion books. I really want to find books that people want to read. I want to get people reading.

I get debut novels a lot, and I know what it’s like to write a book, so I can see what the writer is doing. I give a lot of benefit of the doubt if maybe it hasn’t worked out so well, but of course the ones that you get remembered for are the negative ones. You know, I’ve written 200 reviews, 190 of which were either positive or mixed, real constructive. I’ve written maybe 10 really bad ones, and those are the ones that people remember.

But the only time that I say this, and it’s true, the only time I write a really, really bad review of someone is if I think they’ve been lazy, because that really makes me cross, because like I said before, writing a book is a privilege. An audience is not a given, so to take them for granted, I think, shows contempt for your reader, and that really makes me angry. So, I have written really negative reviews of authors I think who have been lazy. And, you know, it’s caused me a bit of grief, but, you know, whatever. If you’ve- I need to be truthful, I suppose.

Valerie
Sure.

Patrick
Book reviewing- everyone accuses it of being false and backslapping. If that needs to not be true, which it does, then sometimes you have to risk annoying people.

Valerie
I understand that you’ve also taught creative writing at Oxford University. Is that right?

Patrick
I did. I did that for about three years.

Valerie
Did you enjoy it? If so, what did you enjoy about it? Teaching.

Patrick
I didn’t enjoy the administration of a university. That’s never fun and I think anybody who’s ever worked at an university would agree with me.

But being in front of students is great. I don’t think creative writing can be taught. I think it can be practiced, and I think the thing that most new writers struggle with the most is the needing permission to try things.

Valerie
Right.

Patrick
You’d be really surprised at how many creative writing students won’t try something like vernacular, for example, because they think, “Oh, it’s been done.” You know?

That’s not really the point. Everything’s been done. It’s not- I always tell them, “It’s not the song that people pay for, it’s the singer. It’s how you sing it.” People have done vernacular for centuries, that’s not the issue. It’s how you do it, personally.

So, for me it’s a process of getting them to try things, and giving them permission to do things, and opening up the possibilities and making the palate bigger. So, that’s really satisfying, because really fun things can come out of that.

In fact, next week I’m doing a teaching week, five day course at the Arvon Foundation, which is a writing foundation in the UK. We’re just going to do that. I’m going make them try new things that they might be too scared to do otherwise. So, that’s fun, that’s really fun.

Valerie
What are you working on now? Are you writing a book now?

Patrick
I am. My publisher has brought me an interesting proposition, when I finished The Cha Walking books, which are very big, very involved, very detailed books.

They brought me something different, which is there is a writer, an English, an English-Irish writer called Siobhan Dowd, who won the Carnegie Medal last year. She actually beat Knife of Never Letting Go. But, unfortunately she won it posthumously, because she had died of breast cancer. My publishers brought me her very, very last project, which was just a premise basically and a couple of thousand words, very, very early words. They said, “Would you consider turning into this into a book?”

It’s a shorter book. It’s going to be illustrated, and I thought about it, and thought about it. That’s not something that I’d normally do. I don’t think you can mimic another writer. I think that would do a disservice to me and to her, and particularly her work. I thought about it and ideas started springing up, and ways that I could tell it. I thought, “This is interesting, and a really different thing than what’s come before.” So, that’s what I’m working on now.

Valerie
That is different. So, is that for young adults, or children?

Patrick
It is for young adults. It’s probably nine, ten plus, but I’m trying to make it for everybody, which is just what would interest me as a reader. You know, it’s short. I don’t want to give anything away about it, but it feels like a really nice challenge, and really the juices are flowing.

Then after that I’ve got sort of big, mischievous, evil ideas for more bigger books for young adults, because it’s just been terrific fun, and really liberating, and really enjoyable. I thought, “Why not?” You know?

Valerie
You mentioned that they’re such big books, and obviously as you’ve mentioned also, it’s a long and it’s a slow process to write a book.

Patrick
Yep.

Valerie
By the time you get to the end and it’s done, do you feel- what do you feel? Do you feel relief? Do you feel lost- that you’ve got nothing to do that day? What do you feel?

Patrick
No, there’s always something to do. Lost, not really. Relief, yes. And, just happy, because I’ve been looking forward to the end, you know, for three years. I knew what the ending was going to be, and I was really happy with what the ending was going to be, and I couldn’t wait to get to it.

Valerie
Right.

Patrick
It’s kind of like sending your kids off to college. You’ve done all the work you can. You’ve done the best that you can do, and now it’s time to send them out into the world.

It’s not really sad, just satisfied, and pleased, and proud, and hopeful, but not lost, not really. It’s ready for it to finish.

Valerie
Right. That’s a great analogy, sending your kids off to college.

Finally for people who are listening, what are your tips for them to improve their writing, to make the best book that they can, and ultimately get published?

Patrick
It sounds like a simple thing, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t do it, which is if you want to write a successful book, one that will get published and one that people want to read, you have to write a book that you would want to read yourself.

You’d be really, really surprised at how many people don’t do that. They think, “Well, if I want to get a book published I have to fulfill a formula.” Or, “I have to adhere to the restrictions of the genre.” “I have to write something that the market wants, or something that has been successful already so I can sell it.” That’s not true. It just isn’t true.

When Harry Potter came out suddenly everybody was writing wizarding books, when nobody was looking for the first Harry Potter. Nobody was looking for. Nobody wanted a book about wizards, but she sat in a coffee shop and wrote this book that just thrilled her. You know? That just excited her.

I think when you do that, I think when you write to please yourself, ignoring all of the outside “need” for publishing, if you ignore all of that, however weird, or specific, or particular your story is, if you love it your joy is going to be in it.

I think that joy is the intangible thing, you know? It’s the thing that the reader will maybe not know they recognize, but they’ll know that something is there. They’ll think, “Oh, oh, I want to follow this story wherever it goes, however strange it is.”

So, I think that’s big advice. Ignore all the things that you’re telling yourself, that, “People won’t like this, because I do, but I’m weird. My tastes are weird. So, why would people want to read what I want to read?” Well, they’ll want to read because you love it.

That’s my big advice. Write a book that you want to read.

Valerie
Wonderful and on that point, thank you very much for your time today Patrick.

Patrick
Oh thank you very much Valerie.


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