Real writers write anyway: Patrick Ness

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To the person who decided to display a copy of A Monster Calls at the ACU library in 2013, THANK YOU for introducing me to my new favorite author. I stood there flipping through it for half an hour before deciding to check it out, then walked outside to keep reading at a picnic table. Three hours later I drove home, curled up on my couch and sobbed my way through the final chapters.

It took me awhile to pick up another one of his books (because how could the rest of them be that good?) but I finally worked up the courage to sink my teeth into the Chaos Walking trilogy. After that, there was no turning back. I've been evangelizing for Patrick Ness ever since. 

Four years after my discovery, I finally met the author himself at a book signing in Austin. The raw, true, tender man who isn't afraid to address shame and pain and beauty and dysfunction and wholesomeness and cruelty and healing and tenderness in his books for teenagers.

As he writes in A Monster Calls, "Stories are the wildest things of all. Stories chase and bite and hunt." Patrick Ness' stories are my favorite wild creatures.


Here are a few notes from Patrick Ness' talk at BookPeople

On writing.

I know it’s a good idea if it starts to attract other good ideas.

No one can tell you how to write. They can only tell you how THEY write.

I really don’t believe there’s any such thing as a realistic novel. So if I can embrace that, then adding the fantastical element is no problem. All I have to ask is, “Does this world look like a real place where this story could happen?”

I always liked it, I always enjoyed it, I enjoyed it when it was assigned in class. It was always the assignment I looked forward to. I discovered that sometimes if I did a good job people would respond the way I wanted them to respond. That’s an amazing feeling. But I mostly kept it private because I thought it was an embarrassing ambition. It’s not something you say out loud: “I’m going to write a book.” So I kept it private. But I have this saying: “Real writers don’t write, they write anyway.” I never thought I would publish a book. But I wrote one anyway. So that’s my advice, write anyway. And you don’t have to tell anyone.

Convince rather than ask for permission.

On YA fiction.

When you’re 17, every day feels like your whole life.

YA should have a feeling of contraband around it. It should be… dangerous. Because it’s yours, it’s not your parents’. You claim it when you’re young.

I write for YA because I’m writing for that kid who never got the books he wanted. It’s not me at 17 but it’s a book for me at 17.

It’s frank but it’s not at all gratuitous. (Because I think that’s icky.) But I wanted to look with the same clear eyes that Judy Blume does and try to get at the tenderness - the real tenderness. I think teenagers ache for tenderness. There’s so much harshness in YA literature that to have a moment of tenderness… And a moment of awkwardness and humor and joy.

The very best YA has to be for teens first. If it’s great for teens then it can be read by everyone. The worst YA is not for teenagers, it’s for immature adults. Because the author has cheated and not written it for teenagers. And that really pisses me off. I’m happy to throw shade at shitty books. Because writing books is not easy. So if you’re gonna be half-assed about it and dishonest, that really ticks me off.

On Judy Blume.

Forever by Judy Blume is 43 years old and it is startlingly frank in a glorious, non-judgmental, loving, funny, human way. And that is the miracle of Judy Blume. She was genuinely the first person to look at teenagers and report what she saw rather than what she thinks she should see. 

I’ve met a lot of famous people and like to think I stay pretty cool. I have only lost my shit twice - and once was with Judy Blume. No one is as important to you as someone who was important to you when you were young.

Me trying not to lose my shit while meeting Patrick Ness.

Me trying not to lose my shit while meeting Patrick Ness.

On religion.

It’s not the religion, it’s not the belief - it’s how you practice it, it’s what you do with it. There’s always good practice and bad practice.

My brother is an evangelical Christian and he often says, “I wish the people who rail against gay people in the media could just… calmly meet some.” It always lowers the temperature. And that works both ways. Different doesn’t necessarily mean evil. 

On novels v. screenplays.

Novels are very, very hard because you are entirely in charge. And that is the thrill of a novel and that is the terror of a novel. Because it’s a completely blank page and you are in charge of absolutely everything that happens. And if you like to be a bossy little god then that’s a great place to play because it’s just you.

Screenplays necessarily involve a lot of other people.That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a very different thing. A movie is a long short story at best. Screenplays are just this incredibly interesting puzzle. Television can be a novel. 

[Regarding the epilogue in the movie adaptation of A Monster Calls.]
The experience of a book is entirely different. It’s personal, it’s private. And when you’re done with the book, you can close it and breathe for a minute. A movie is a guided storytelling experience and that’s what’s good about it, you immerse yourself in it. But unless you give an audience a space to breathe then they’re not going to have the space on their own. The movie can’t end where the book ends. 


Book/author recommendations:

  • Virginia Woolf - Mrs Dalloway, Middlemarch, Beloved
  • Judy Blume - Forever
  • Will Hill - After the Fire
  • Mal Peet 

When I told Patrick Ness about my worries about the Chaos Walking movie adaptation: “You know, for me... the books remain.”

Maybe, maybe, maybe when your friends say they love you, maybe they mean it. Maybe you’re worth it.