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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

May Blockbusters: Patrick Ness


Last night was Wheeler Centre’s May Blockbuster – a conversation between the supremely talented Patrick Ness and lovely Aussie author, Lili Wilkinson. This much-anticipated event could not be contained to the usual Little Lonsdale Wheeler Centre building, and was instead held at the Athenaeum theatre – the perfect setting for this marvellous event. 

Lili Wilkinson introduced Patrick Ness as a “darkly complex” author who writes quite hard-hitting, sometimes bleak and ridiculously popular books for teenagers. Ness, jokingly, stipulated that he was the “darkly complex” one, not his novels . . . and then officially kicked things off by reading from his forthcoming young adult book, ‘More Than This’ (which certainly held true to his aforementioned “darkly complex” tag – the opening line was; Here is the boy, drowning. . .



Asked how he got into writing, Ness (like so many before him) admitted it all started in school. He said his writing then was more mimicry than creative, but that’s okay – it was a beginning. And what he found was that he could write, and get the reaction he wanted from people – and he loved that affirmation. He likened it to what a singer must feel, when they’ve been able to move an audience or elate them with just the power of their voice (Ness admitted to being a terrible singer, so finds this a very enviable ability). Ness also admitted that he always loved to read, but writing was his “private thing” (many chuckles ensued after he admitted this) he then spoke about bringing his “private thing into the light” . . .  (more chuckling) 

He thanks being made redundant from the universally-despised cable company for helping him to write his first book. While living in America he was corporate writer for a cable company, until he was laid off and suddenly had time to write his first novel. He did the best he could with it – edited and rewrote, until it was the best he had to offer. He sent the manuscript off and found an agent, who then found a publisher – so his first manuscript attempt, ‘The Crash of Hennington’, was his first published novel. Ness stressed that, though his path to publishing sounds remarkable and lucky – this is actually the way it happens for majority authors. They make it the best that they can, and that determination and finessing pays off. 



In talking about his latest adult novel, ‘The Crane Wife’, Ness lamented that none of his adult novels can be pitched to Hollywood and you can’t tweet them. Basically, they’re not easy. ‘The Crane Wife’ has origins in a Japanese folk tale Ness heard from a Japanese-American teacher when he was very young. It is also the name of an album from The Decemberists, which also took much inspiration from the same Japanese tale. What intrigued Ness about this particular tale (and why it stuck with him for so long) is that most fairytales begin with an act of cruelty (two kids being abandoned in the woods, a man being cursed into the form of a beast, the death of a father etc. . . ) but the crane wife begins with an act of kindness. The book begins with a man called George finding a wounded crane in his garden that he then helps . . .  of course, the act of cruelty comes later in the book, but what first attracted Ness was the human-condition kindness in the beginning.

In discussing the fairytale origins of ‘The Crane Wife’, Ness stressed that when he starts writing a book, he never has just one idea. He said ideas have to be like forest fires – one is catching, and it needs to spread. You need more than one idea for a (good) book to work. 

Ness said that he never writes autobiographically (he wants to give his family some privacy) but he made an exception in ‘The Crane Wife’. The book includes an event which really did happen to Ness and a friend of his; when they were eight-years-old, a fluke saved them from being killed when they were hit by a car. The car accident happened across the road from a service station and supermarket; so a lot of people saw what happened. In remembering this incident, Ness got to thinking about how differently those onlookers would tell the story of their near-death experience (Ness himself says a fluke saved him – but those people who were watching a car hit two boys, and were powerless to stop it, would probably have a much more traumatized version of events). He got to thinking about seeing truth from different angles and perspectives (sort of eyewitness memory). Ness said that stories serve a vital function in trying to sort out life – but truth changes everything. 

Seguing from talk of 'truth' . . .  Lili Wilkinson asked how Ness balances fantastical elements with realism in his novels (‘The Crane Wife’ has a talking volcano, for example). Ness replied that he didn’t think a balance was needed, since a book is a world made of words and he sees no ‘realism’ – it’s all fake. He said the trick is establishing a world in which these things could happen. 



Now to the part of the discussion I think most people were hanging out for . . .  his ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy. Ness said that after his adult books were bought “in their dozens by friends and family”; he wanted to write a book in the vernacular. He had one SERIOUS BIG IDEA – which was information overload. He has thought for a long time that people have so much of their lives on the internet now, and today’s teenagers are living in unprecedented times when they have less privacy than any other generation in history. And then he had one STUPID IDEA – which was that he hates books about talking dogs . . . which then led to a very amusing interlude about a possible cat Hell/Purgatory . . . but, seriously, Ness thought that if a dog could talk it would be all about food, shagging, poo and how excited they are to see you all the time. So, after having his SERIOUS BIG IDEA and his STUPID IDEA he merged the two . . . and when Todd’s voice came to him, it all fell into place.

- At this point in proceedings (regrettably, right after he spoke about information overload and people having too much of their lives on the internet). . . I looked up from my live-Tweeting to see Patrick Ness looking right at me, and thanking “the girl in the second row for putting her phone away. You think I can’t see you, but I can see you.” OH. MY. GOD. *dies*. My fault; Wheeler Centre had asked us to turn phones off and I flagrantly flaunted that command. I did apologize to Patrick Ness (via Twitter . . . I do like viral irony) and he did reply. 



Though I think his apology his double-edged; either he thought I was mum to the two little kids sitting in front of me (their small stature probably part of the reason he could see my phone antics so easily – dammit!) or he thought I was mum to the two adults I was sitting between. Either way (and no disrespect to mums) but I hope I don’t look like one just yet. 

Ness knew from the beginning that the ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy would be a young adult novel (this is so refreshing from all those YA authors who usually say their publisher/editor told them they had a YA manuscript). Ness was utterly unfazed to be writing a YA novel – he said that it was great, and it’s the same commitment to write a YA novel as it is an adult novel.  

In talking about writing for teens, Ness then stressed that you have to write the book that you want to read yourself. He has never had success in writing for other people (i.e.: writing to win prizes) he’s always found the right path in writing for himself. He reminded the audience that nobody was actively searching for the first ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Twilight’ – those were two books that somebody obviously read the joy in the writer and they grew from there. Ness advised against writing for bandwagons – just because Dystopia is big right now, doesn’t mean you should write it. On that note, he said that if he’s not moved by what he writes, it’d be arrogant of him to ask readers to be moved – you have to be passionate and crazy about what you’re writing, basically.

Lili asked if he found any difference in writing for teens and adults – and he said that there’s no difference in writing for teens (which is probably why he’s found such success in YA – he doesn’t ‘write down’ to them). At this point Ness apologized for using the collective, monolithic “they” in referring to teenagers – they’re not all the same and he hates that lumping together.

Ness admitted that teens are less snobby in their reading habits. They’re willing to go to different places in plot & they're not liars. If they don't like it, they'll tell you!

The question was then asked about the evangelical characters in ‘Chaos Walking’ – which Ness pointed out was perhaps one, and more fascist than evangelical. Here he admitted a discomfort in once admitting he’s the gay son of a tea-party voter . . . because he gets along great with his family, and he hates when people see difference as mere difference.

In discussing the darkness in his novel, it was mentioned that Ness’s books were called out for being too violent in 2008 . . . to which Ness (very amusingly) said he wasn’t attacked by a newspaper, he was attacked by the Daily Mail. He then spoke about how the darkest things he’s ever read have come from the pens of teenagers. He judged a teen short story writing contest and those were some of the most violent, disturbing stories with the highest body count he has ever read. Far darker than his own work. And that darkness should not be dismissed. In all honesty, he tries not to be gratuitous – he always aims for truth. He tries to talk about more than violence and darkness in his books – he also discusses trust, friendship and how mistakes don’t have to define you. Ultimately he’s glad that someone raised the question about his “darkly complex” and violent books, because he has a great rebuttal ready.

The whole evening was SPOILER FREE after a quick show of hands revealed not everyone had read all the ‘Chaos Walking’ books – so Ness and Lili stepped lightly over some plot points in the final book of the trilogy. In addressing ‘Monsters of Men’ Ness cryptically said “It’s how he would have wanted it.” He said he was upset too, but he’s not sorry – he understands and just hopes we don’t hate him.

Having mentioned ‘Monsters of Men’, Lili then asked if he prescribed to the popular thought that YA books should end on a sense of hope (to which Ness replied he hates any question that begins with “should. . . ?”). Rather than happy or sad endings, Ness prefers truthful endings – they don’t necessarily have to be happy, and you can’t always prescribe a happy ending to a story . . . it’s complicated, but it has to be truthful above all else (Hallelujah to that!). 

Lili then asked la question du jour – about the movie adaptation of ‘Chaos Walking’ (much clapping and cheering after she asked this). Ness said the same studio that made ‘The Hunger Games’ has bought the trilogy, and Charlie Kaufman (that epic genius of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and ‘Being John Malkovich’) is writing the screenplay . . . the audience really responded to this bit of news; everyone seemed to agree that Ness’s “darkly complex” books would be a perfect fit with the mad-cap quirk of Kaufman. But he couldn’t say much more beyond that.



Now on to ‘A Monster Calls’ . . . the book that Ness says he inherited from the late, great, Siobhan Dowd (whom he implored us all to read, if we hadn’t already). He admitted that his first response to being offered her novel was an emphatic “No” – because he was afraid it would be more tribute than story. But Dowd’s idea was so good and so potent; the idea clicked for him, and then the writing clicked. Everything seemed to fall into place – especially Jim Kay coming onboard as illustrator. 

Ness pointed out that a common review of ‘A Monster Calls’ is that “it’s not for kids” (however great it may be). He completely rejects this statement, and says kids are savvier than some give them credit for (YES!). But he felt vindicated when the book won the Red House Children's Book Award - the only UK book award voted for entirely by children (it also made the Australian-equivalent shortlist, the Inkys – so there!)



Just before question time (when Lili Wilkinson took on the Leslie Knope persona and we all pretended we were at a City Council meeting) Ness mentioned that on Thursday a Doctor Who e-short he wrote will be made available. He has written about the Fifth Doctor (the one, he thinks, who looks most like a novelist).



The first question was likening Patrick Ness to Joss Whedon – and how they have a similar style (they’re both "nerdy life-ruiners") – and asking if he is a fan of Whedon’s, or influenced by his work at all. Ness replied that he is a fan, and Buffy is genius. He said he loved that Whedon fearlessly mixed so much in his TV show – that even though it was a show about vampires a demons, he wasn’t afraid to make you laugh and feel and get invested in those characters.

The next question was about reading between the lines – as someone pointed out, Ness’s writing is often quite sparse, and he leaves a lot up to the reader’s own interpretation and imagination. Ness said that was very deliberate on his part – a conscious decision of voice. He wants his books to be inclusive, so if you’re a black person reading it, you could see yourself in the characters and hopefully not just assume that because he’s a white writer, that all his characters are going to look like him too. 

Someone asked how they were meant to feel about Mayor Prentiss – and if he was based on a real historical/political figure. Ness replied that people should feel about him however they like, that’s for the reader to decide. But he’s not based on any one real person – since you can find him anywhere in history/the world. Ness pointed out that villains don’t think that they’re villains, and redemption is possible.

Another audience member asked Ness if reading reviews or fan opinions changed/influenced his writing of the trilogy – and he said no. Furthermore, nobody reads his first drafts (he prefers to be unselfconscious – and in most writing you have your best idea 60,000 words into the first draft, which means you then have to go back and start again as though you had that idea all along . . .  all writers do this). So he has nobody to influence/comment on his writing while he’s working on it. He finished by saying this: “Novels are not a crowd-sourced art form” – and a hum of approval went through the crowd.

Asked if he was afraid of anything, he admitted a repressed childhood Hawaiian memory meant he was terrified of cockroaches. He’s also afraid of swimming in open water (. . . interesting, after the drowning he read of ‘More Than This’. . . ) but otherwise he’s afraid of everything. He’s an anxious person.

The inevitable question of which one of his novels is his personal favourite; and Ness said authors are like parents when they get asked what their favourite book/child is – you know they have one, but they don’t want to say. He likes his books for different reasons – the energy of ‘Knife’, the ‘Monsters of Men’ ending and the fact that ‘A Monster Calls’ was so different. 

And someone asked which moment of the ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy broke his heart. Again, without spoilering anything, he said “the part to which you are implicitly referring” – but he also said Davy (because he was ‘almost there’ and he really understood him). 

Finally in the wrap-up Lili Wilkinson asked Patrick Ness to explain a quote of his that she found during her internet stalking . . . about authors being singers, not songwriters. Ness is referring to that awful moment when you’re working on a manuscript, and then someone goes and publishes a book that’s exactly like yours. He said that shouldn’t discourage any writer, because he firmly believes that “a book is not a song, it’s a performance of a song.” What’s unique is how you perform it, your interpretation. Furthermore, a book is not just a set of ideas – it’s a delivery of those ideas (he then apologized for likening writers to both delivery-trucks and singers . . .  but we got the idea, and it was beautiful).  

6 comments:

  1. I would have loved to attend both this session and the Carlos Ruiz Zafon but alas I had to pick up my child - apparently you can't just leave them places while you go to book events! Sounds like an amazing session!

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    1. Oh, drats!

      There will be other authors and other sessions though. This is Melbourne, after all :)

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  2. Oh my gosh, Danielle. He called you "the girl in the second row" first so you can't look too much like a mum. Seriously though, I would've died on the spot.

    I love that a Big Idea and a Stupid Idea got together and made something so brilliant and original. I love that he doesn't apologize for his work or crowd source his ideas. (That's such a great line.) And, as if I couldn't love Lili Wilkinson more, she gets her Leslie Knope on!!

    Great recap, Danielle. Thanks for taking one for the team and tweeting during the event too. :)

    -Maggie

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    1. Died is right! I nearly did reach combustible-levels of blushing :)

      He described his thought process and ideas behind the books very beautifully (and he did make it sound very easy and "lightbulb moment" ... for what is actually a very complex and enviable series)

      Glad you enjoyed the recap!

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  3. Wow, what an amazing night that must have been--and what a wonderful even recap! Thank you so much for sharing it with the zillions of people who could not be there.

    I've still only read A Monster Calls by this author (I know, I know, I need to get on Chaos), but he appears to be such a thoughtful writer. That Twitter exchange is hilarious, too, hah. Caught out! but in the best of ways. :)


    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

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    1. Aw, you're welcome :)

      I share the same confession with you ... I've only read 'A Monster Calls' (and *loved* it!). I now have the 'Chaos' trilogy calling to me from my TBR pile, and I'm starting to read 'The Crane Wife'. I may be slow, but I eventually get on that bandwagon!

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