As someone who is frequently mocked for carrying so many pens on her person at any one time (a minimum of four, if you’re interested), there was some serious Alanis-Morissette-style irony in two of them running out during the Patrick Ness event last night, and not being able to find the other two.
Fortunately, a kind fellow attendee offered me her pen before anyone could turn around and shush me for all the rustling around in my bag, so I could continue making frantic notes on the back of my ticket print-out.
Rookie mistake right there, readers! Going to see Patrick Ness without being adequately prepared.
So I’m going to attempt to untangle my semi-legible notes and try convey at least some of the brilliance that was the Patrick Ness event at the Athenaeum Theatre last night – but please bear in mind that my hand was struggling to keep up his awesome and occasionally I’d just forget to write things down because I was starstruck. (Ahem. Totally profesh recap, right here.) Also, some things may be slightly out of order; I’ve tried to group them together for the sake of making this recap semi-logical.
The lovely people at The Wheeler Centre organised this event, a double feature with Carlos Ruiz Zafon, since Ness is in the country for the Sydney Writer’s Festival. He was interviewed by the charming Lili Wilkinson, who opened with praise for Ness’ “darkly complex” writing – which Ness picked up and ran with for the rest of the evening. Patrick Ness is funny, readers. (Also, if you were on your phone – innocently tweeting – or wearing a panda hood, you were fair game).
Following Wilkinson’s introduction, Ness read an excerpt from the beginning his forthcoming YA novel, More Than This, and I’m going to presumptuously speak for everyone in the audience when I say it was epic. You could have heard a pin drop in the silence of 300 collectively held breaths.
“Here is the boy. Drowning.”
I had chills. Actual chills.
The Crane Wife
- Ness confirmed that the Crane Wife was partially inspired by the Japanese folktale of the same name, and partially by The Decemberists’ album. He remarked that many fairy tales or folk stories open with an act of violence, or darkness: a child abandoned in the woods etc. However, it struck him that the Japanese folktale opens with an act of kindness, a very human response.
- Wilkinson asked Ness about the juxtaposition of lyricism and stark realism in the novel – whether this was something he wrote consciously, and strove to balance. Ness replied that it he didn’t think about it as a “balance” as much, but more that the world of a book should be firmly established. A book is a world made of worlds and the things that happen in the book should be possible in that particular world.
- They then spoke about “truth” and the various perceptions of it, which is a theme of the book. Ness related an anecdote of he and a friend being struck by a car while riding their bikes as children and how that story would be different from his perspective, his friend’s perspective, and that of the onlookers who witnessed it. The truth lies somewhere in the coming together of those stories. Telling stories is a vital function of making sense of our existence.
Chaos Walking Trilogy
- Ness knew he wanted to write a book in vernacular. The story came from two ideas – one big idea and one stupid idea. The big one being that of information overload – our world is so full of noise, especially for young people. What would happen if you couldn’t get away from it? Young peole have so little privacy today – what are the consequences of this? The stupid idea was that Ness hates talking dogs. If a dog could talk it would basically just be eating, sleeping and shagging. And how excited they are to see you. Chaos Walking was born out of these two concepts.
- Todd’s voice came first, and Ness knew the novel would be YA once he heard the voice.
- Wilkinson asked Ness about his feelings regarding writing YA versus writing adult fiction. He responded that he was fine with the novel being YA, he thought that was great. There’s no difference in commitment between writing a YA novel and writing an adult novel.
- Ness also noted the importance of writing a book you’d want to read yourself. When a writer is writing for themselves, rather than for a trend, you can sense their joy. It’s arrogant of a writer to ask a reader to laugh, or be moved, if the writer is not laughing or moved themselves.
- He commented that teens are prepared to go further away in terms of the world of a story. They’re not liars, and they’re not snobby. They love plot – Ness thinks a lot of adults read YA because they’re craving plot. Ness believes that teens keep writers honest, they’re very clear about what they like and don’t like.
- Wilkinson then made an observation about the trilogy being critical of evangelical religion, and whether his upbringing influenced this. Ness didn’t necessarily agree with this idea (except in the case of Aaron’s character) – he thought the ideas in the novel were more representative of fascism than just evangelical religion. This led to some discussion of Ness’ upbringing being raised by journalists, and how they try to link this to his writing. Ness stressed that it’s easy to bash people, or for family to be misunderstood. People pounce on family. But people are much more complicated than that. They are layered. It would be unfair of him to write about his family in that way – they didn’t ask to have a novelist in the family. This segued into some conversation about the idea of good people being capable and bad and vice versa, and how the characters in the novel reflect this.
- On the topic of difference, Wilkinson raised how the Spackle and women are treated in the Chaos Walking books. Ness believes it’s short-sighted and dangerous to see difference as “mere” difference, which causes people to look down on others or exploit them. Rather, we need to accommodate difference, without seeing it as “better” or “worse”.
- The infamous Daily Mail comment about Ness’ books being “so violent they need a health warning”. Ness emphatically rejects this, and believes that not engaging with darkness in fiction is abandoning a teenager to face it alone. He spoke about reading what teens write themselves, and the fact that they write much darker things than published adult authors do. There was very much a sense in Ness’ comments here that teens should be respected, not talked down to.
- Wilkinson had put the call out on twitter earlier for questions and they were overwhelming about one thing (if you’ve read The Knife of Never Letting Go, you know what that thing is). So as not to spoil audience members who hadn’t read the books (Seriously, what’s wrong with you!? Go read them!?) Ness said the following things: “It’s how he would have wanted it” (*cue gasps of shock and horror from the audience*.) “It’s the only way it could have happened, if you think about it.” “I’m not sorry, but I do understand” and “I’m sad too”. Aww.
- Some people define YA by the fact that the endings all have a sense of hope. Ness doesn’t necessarily agree with this, but he does think truthful endings are important.
- Chaos Walking movie! Ness confirmed that it has been picked up by the studio that did the Hunger Games movie, and that it is being written by Charlie Kaufman (*cue sounds of wild approval from audience*).
Connor / Todd
- Ness and Wilkinson spoke about how teens are complicated. Adolescence is a conflicted and transitional time, a loss of innocence is some senses. It’s a realisation that mistakes don’t have to define you. You are not a single thing, you are many things.
A Monster Calls
- Ness had some trepidation about writing this – he didn’t want it to be a tribute, rather than a story – and the worst tribute is a bad story.
- He doesn’t know if he can write something like that again. It just clicked, and he views it as a very special part of his career. Jim Kay’s illustrations are better than anything he could have possibly imagined.
- When asked whether adults and teens respond differently to A Monster Calls, Ness spoke about how in some reviews, adults suggested that “kids wouldn’t get it.” This is doing them a disservice, kids are more emotionally savvy than they are given credit for.
- Ness has written a Dr Who e-short (out this week, if I recall correctly). Ness believes the 5th Doctor is the one who looks most like he’d be a novelist, he’s an observer.
I have to mention here that the teens who came out to the event and got up to ask questions were incredible – so insightful and interesting.
I’ll paraphrase the questions as best as I remember below.
Q You’ve been compared to another nerdy life-ruiner, Joss Whedon – is he an inspiration?
A. They have a “nerdy life ruiner’s club”. Ness considers Buffy a work of genius – so fearless, true, emotional and funny.
Q. In the Chaos Walking books, a lot things are said, but not specifically described. (e.g. Todd telling us that Viola has a look on her face, but not telling us exactly what the look is.) This was powerful, but was it a conscious decision?
A. Yes. Ness wanted the reader to fill in the blanks. Also, regarding things such as physical appearance, race, he wanted the books to be inclusive, so readers could imagine what they wanted. However, this raises the problem of inadvertently making them exclusive depending on the readers’ default setting, so he did describe some characters – for example, Bradley – to be clear on the diversity. Mainly the choice not to describe things (e.g. clothes etc) was to do with Todd’s voice. Todd assumes he is telling the story to someone familiar with the world, so he wouldn’t describe things they would already knew. This also removed the problem of having a lot of info-dumping in the story.
Q. My feelings towards Mayor Prentiss changed throughout the books. Was he based on a historical figure?
A. No specific historical figure, though figures like him can be found throughout history. One dimensional characters are boring. Villains don’t think they are villains. Mayor Prentiss has a point of view, a plan, he doesn’t think he’s wrong. Is he redeemed? That’s left open-ended for the reader to decide. Above all, Ness wanted him to be understandable.
Q. Did reviews (as in feedback on drafts) make you change anything?
A. No. No one reads the firsts drafts. He wants them to be as unselfconscious as possible, to keep them private and protected. Novels are not a crowd-sourced art form, and he doesn’t write them for people’s approval. He spoke about good ideas often arriving late in the writing and then having to go back and re-write and pretending you had the good idea all along.
Q. What are you scared of?
A. Cockroaches. And open water. (This answer was longer but I didn’t write enough to give you a better idea of how funny it was, sorry!)
Q. Which of your books is your favourite?
Ness: Which one is your favourite?
Audience member: [pause] Well I just started reading The..
Ness: SIT DOWN!
A. That’s like asking a parent which of their children is their favourite. You know they have one but they’re not going to say. Ness loves them all for different reasons. That said, he is content that they are done and out in the world.
Q. So much loss and heartbreak in the books – which part broke your heart the most?
A. Obviously, there’s MANCHEE. But also Davy. Ness really felt for Davy, really understood him. And it was sad that he was so close, he was almost there!
[I think this was my favourite part of the Q&A – Ness’s response to the question was so moving]
Lili Wilkinson asked about a comment Ness made previously about writers being singers, not songwriters. This is something Ness firmly believes. He spoke about “compare and despair” – when you’re write a novel, get 60,000 words through, then someone publishes a story with the exact same plot. It happens all the time. But a book is not a song, a book is performance of a song. It’s a delivery system for ideas. No one else can perform it like you can.
This concluded the Patrick Ness portion of the presentation and was met with a fairly thundery applause. I got my copy of The Knife of Never Letting Go signed – Ness was really lovely and very engaged with his fans. (Though while in line, I overheard someone completely spoil someone else who hadn’t read it! Whoops.)
Totally worth braving the inclement weather. If you ever get a chance to see Patrick Ness speak, I can not recommend enough that you drop everything and do it.
No doubt I’ve missed loads of detail, so please also check out Danielle’s excellent recap over at Alpha Reader.