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Patrick Ness: Write no matter what

By Zac Harding

Patrick NessPatrick Ness’s first young adult book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, was unleashed on the world in 2008, immediately scooping some of the top book prizes, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Book Prize and the Booktrust Teenage Prize. The second part of the trilogy, The Ask and the Answer was equally explosive, and the final book, Monsters of Men, will be released in May 2010.

Born on an army base in the United States, Patrick Ness studied English literature at the University of Southern California and then worked as a corporate writer for a cable TV company, before moving to England. His first story was published in 1997 and he had two books for adults published before the Chaos Walking trilogy.

I caught up with Patrick at the Somerset Festival of Literature at Somerset College on the Gold Coast and talked with him about inspiration, ideas and advice for aspiring authors.

What inspired you to become a writer?
I always wrote and I always read. I got good feedback and I could see that people were responding the way I wanted them to respond. Writing also really suits me, creatively and temperamentally — I love words and I love making words do things.
Where did you get the idea for the Chaos Walking Trilogy?
I like to say that it was two ideas. One serious idea, which was the idea of information overload. The world is so noisy particularly if you’re a teenager — mobile phones, the internet, Youtube, social networking sites — and I though how hard it must be to be young and have so little privacy. The second and stupid idea was that I hate books about talking dogs. They never talk like how I think a dog would talk. So I thought wouldn’t it be funny if there was a dog character who actually said things that dogs were concerned with.
How important are libraries to writers?
Extremely important. Books only ever succeed because other people say, ‘You need to read this book,’ and that’s what libraries do.
Who are your favourite writers?
coverPeter Carey. His books always feel like just a slice of a larger imagined world . His books always feel like there is so much more he could be writing but he is just going to tell this story. Also, there’s an English writer called Nicola Barker, who writes like she’d go crazy if she couldn’t, and I like that feeling. They’re not like anybody else, they’re rude and up your nose, and I like those kinds of books. When I talk to teenagers I talk about the importance of not being a snob with your reading. Pick up anything, you might not like it, but that’s OK.
In The Knife of Never Letting Go, you’ve written one of the most heart-breaking scenes in young adult literature. Was it hard to write this scene (where Todd is faced with a tough choice) or did you know it had to be done to carry on the story?
It was incredibly upsetting to write, rewrite and proof-read, but that’s how I knew the story was working. If I’m not feeling it the reader is never going to feel it. Although it wasn’t done in a mercenary way, it was also a way of saying you’re not safe in this book and it’s not going to be as easy as you think.
coverDid you know how the books would end when you first started writing or did this come to you as you were writing?
I knew the last lines of all the books but I didn’t know how I’d get there. I knew the ending of Book Three (Monsters of Men) ages ago and I’m really happy with it. I plan enough so I don’t feel lost but I leave it loose enough so I can create along the way and can be surprised. Be surprised by the things they do and how they react. Be surprised by new characters, like Wilf, who didn’t show up until the day I wrote that scene. I like to leave room for that kind of invention.
If you could give one piece of advice to budding writers what would it be?
Write no matter what . Write every day and schedule an hour before school or work and don’t let anybody bother you. People will start respecting what you do and respect that closed door. Also, most importantly, write a book that you’d want to read. Books are only successful if the writer is having a good time.

April 2010