Saturday, December 16, 2017

0 YALLFest Interview with Patrick Ness

I'm not gonna lie, when I heard Patrick Ness had agreed to an interview with me at YALLFest, I felt a bit like this:
Excited - because he's the man responsible for A Monster Calls, the Chaos Walking trilogy, my personal favorite The Rest of Us Just Live Here, and the Doctor Who spin-off Class.

Panicked - because see above! Plus he's won two Carnegie Medals. How was I supposed to talk to him without sounding like a babbling idiot?

But there was nothing to be worried about. Patrick was down to earth and funny, and I think I only embarrassed myself once or twice. Check out his interview below for lots of great advice about writing and the writing life.

Patrick, what did your journey to publication look like? 

It was quite a while ago. The thing I always say is that the first thing you need to do if you want to publish a book is to write a book. A lot of people think they’re going to get a deal on a few chapters – that happens once in a while, but 99% of the rest of us have to write the whole thing. So I did, I wrote a whole book. I tried to make it the best book I possibly could.

There’s something in England (even though I’m American, I live in England) called the Writers & Artists Yearbook. There is something similar in the US, and it’s just a list of all the agents. So I got my sample chapters, and did my cover letter, and did my synopsis. Synopses are hell on earth - I hate them. But I did them all, and I sent it off to every single even remotely plausible agent. I think I sent it to like 60 or 65. I think five or six people requested the whole manuscript. And two of them were interested, and I signed with one, and that’s all it takes. And she got that book published. It’s that easy and that difficult. But that was the process.

That was an adult book, and I like to say that it sold in its dozens to friends and family, but that’s okay, I didn’t care, I’d published a book. And that’s how it started. Really, I am nobody special. I’m just a guy from a tiny town outside of Tacoma, and all I did was write a book. I always say that real writers don’t write, they write anyway. So I thought, nobody’s going to ever publish a book, but I’m gonna write one anyway. No one’s ever going to film a screenplay, but I’m gonna write one anyway. So, yeah, just keep going.

You write both YA and adult novels – what’s your favorite thing about each category? Biggest challenge? 

My whole career has been kinda trying to shrug off category. It starts with the principle that a great story can be told anywhere and that snobbery will kill you. It’s gonna kill your art. So don’t be a snob. Don’t be a snob with what you read. Don’t be a snob with what you write.

As a part of a process of trying to put that into practice, I think that stories reveal themselves with more joy because you’re more susceptible. And if I’m willing – not willing, willing sounds more reluctant, it’s not reluctance at all – but if I’m feeling a story and it’s like, “Ah!” Because The Knife of Never Letting Go was my third book, and I was writing in voice and I thought I have this idea and it feels like it should be in voice. It felt like a great challenge because I hadn’t done it before. And as I slowly, slowly got to the voice – and voice is mystical, it’s just suddenly there on the page one day and you don’t know what you did, but there it is – and I thought, “Oh, this is probably for teenagers.” And I thought, “Well then, great. Great!” And I put the exact same amount of effort, the exact same amount of emotional investment, the same amount of intellectual investment.

When I was young I hated books that talked down. I was so happy to reach up. I read The Color Purple when I was about twelve, and I didn’t understand half of it, but I didn’t care. It was like this is what’s possible in literature. And also, you know, what a great shock to the system for a twelve-year-old kid to read The Color Purple. So I thought, nah, there will be kids that wouldn’t want that but that’s what I would have wanted. So I just don’t see a difference. I know it’s helpful for publishing, and I have no problem with that, and I’m not trying to downplay YA at all.

I think my impression has always been like, okay, I’ll take your boundaries. Because I was raised in a really religious family, and so how I rebelled was how can I follow the letter of the law and still get away with murder? So it’s always been my approach to writing. It’s like how can I take your boundaries and still do exactly what I want? So it’s just really what the story needs. And if it’s for teenagers, great. The key thing is don’t be a snob about it. And don’t think it’s going to be easier because it’s one or the other – they’re all hard.

You adapted your own novels into screenplays, which I know is a dream come true for many writers but also very rare. Did that experience change the way you write novels?

You know, if you’d asked me in theory I would have said yes, but what happened in practice is that I wrote A Monster Calls screenplay, I wrote Chaos Walking drafts, I wrote a bunch of other screenplays, I wrote eight episodes of Class, and then I wrote my most internal, smallest timeframe, intense novel, so I don’t know if that’s a reaction against that. So if you’d asked me in theory, I would have said, “Sure! Blah blah blah,” ya know, but maybe not. It’s different muscles. I’m always encouraging other YA writers to like, “Do it, do it do it!” You can tell a story. The rules can be learned.

Yeah, it’s exciting. I’m always looking to be challenged – I’m so afraid of complacency because you can tell a complacent book. I find it insulting and an arrogant assumption of the privilege of writing, so I want to be challenged every time. So Release was a challenge to make that tiny timeframe and really intense focus compared to everything else I’d done up to that point, and so screenplays and teleplays are another way of doing that. Being scared and going, “Ya know, this might be a disaster, but I’m going to give it a try.”

Always a part of my storytelling is pace, and pace doesn’t mean fast, it just means the rate. It can be slow, but it needs to have a heartbeat, I always think. Or rhythm, rhythm is how I always put it. Since screenplays are so beat oriented, it’s interesting – how can I use this? So even in a story where something ostensibly isn’t necessarily going wrong, you’re still making beats and that I think is a really valuable, valuable tool for any writer.

You mentioned Class earlier - how much did you geek out at getting the chance to write a Doctor Who companion series?

The thing is I’m American, I was living in England, so it’s not quite the same as if I’d been say - do you want to write for Voyager or something? It didn’t have quite the impact on my childhood. They came and asked if I’d write for Doctor Who, and in the nicest possible way I thought, “Maybe not right now.” Because I feel like I’ve written plenty of stuff for other people because that’s what you do for screenplays, you’re writing for other people. And novels are yours, that’s why I’m a novelist first. And they said, “We’ve got this other idea, maybe a spinoff.” And they told me, and I went, “Ding!”

You never know where a good idea is gonna come from, and if it’s a good idea, run with it wherever it takes you. Celebrate that. I could see in half an hour how I was going to tell the entire series. And that’s rare! That’s rare! So when that happens, you don’t question it, you just run after it as fast as you can. And so I thought, “Okay, I haven’t done this before, but I’m gonna just say, ‘Sure, I can do it!’” And, you know, what the hell. I’m really, really lucky, and I’m really proud of the show.

Has there been an AHA! moment during your publishing adventure where you felt you had the key to writing a novel?

God no. My husband says this – there’s not a single time I’ve written a book where I don’t go, “Oh my God, I’ve completely forgotten how to do this. How did I do this?” And I’ve done ten books. And every time, I’m like, “Oh my God, I’ve completely forgotten.” I think that’s okay. I so worry about complacency. I so worry about taking it for granted. Being scared is unpleasant, but it makes me do good work.

AHA moments come in like micro-moments, like when you write a good sentence, you go “Ah, okay! That feels good.” That makes up for all the days where nothing much happens, when you suddenly hit on something really, “Okay, nobody would have said that like that,” and that’s a nice feeling. And you should be able to embrace that feeling. I have a friend who describes it as ego with a capital E versus ego with a lowercase e – capital E, that’s the problem. But a lowercase e, when you recognize what you can do and sometimes you do it well, that’s okay. The “Ahh!” will keep you going through the next ten days where you’re just writing a bunch of crap. We can all fix it in rewrite.

What do you think your greatest weakness is as a writer, and what have you done to address it.

Well, like all writers, I’m easily distracted. I put things off. But I’ve gotten off Twitter, for example.

I feel like I’m not so great at scene setting. I can feel the world kind of vaguely in my head, and I always trust that if you have it in your head and the characters will speak the right things and they’ll create the universe. Mostly. The best editing advice I can give is that I have my editors and my agent ask me questions. Because they can give me notes, which are useful, but questions I can start to hear, “Ah, I left that out and I left that out.” And that has been very, very useful, that has really helped my weaknesses, where I go, “They’re not getting that, so that’s what I’ve left out, that’s what I haven’t done.”

I suppose the one thing I notice myself that is most irritating is that I’m always worried you’re not getting the point I want to make, so I make it over and over. So I get that note frequently – cut it down, cut it down, your reader is an intelligent reader, they are paying attention.

What are you working on now?

Nothing I can share, but I should have a new book out next year. I try to keep it private, but I can’t wait to tell the world about it. I should be able to tell the world about it soon. It’s kind of a cool thing, so fingers crossed, it should be soon. And I’m trying to work on more movie and TV stuff. I’ve got a movie that I think’s gonna shoot next year called Anya’s Ghost, which is based on a graphic novel by Vera Brosgol. It’s really a wonderful graphic novel, so fingers crossed. Fingers crossed!

We definitely have our fingers crossed and can't wait to find out more about your new projects. Thanks for chatting with me, Patrick!

Readers, have you ever tried writing screenplays? Did it affect your novel writing? Do you always try to challenge yourself with your writing? Do you embrace the micro-moments when you are proud of your writing to help you through the tough times? Share your thoughts about the interview in the comments!

Happy Reading,



by Patrick Ness
Released 9/19/2017

Inspired by Judy Blume’s Forever and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, this novel by award-winning author Patrick Ness is a new classic about teenage relationships, self-acceptance—and what happens when the walls we build start coming down.

Adam Thorn doesn’t know it yet, but today will change his life.

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant ultimatum from his boss, and his own unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart. At least he has two people to keep him sane: his new boyfriend (he does love Linus, doesn’t he?) and his best friend, Angela.

But all day long, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing Adam’s life into chaos. The bindings of his world are coming untied one by one; yet in spite of everything he has to let go, he may also find freedom in the release.

From the New York Times-bestselling author of A Monster Calls comes a raw, darkly funny, and deeply affecting story about the courage it takes to live your truth.

Purchase Release at Amazon
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View Release on Goodreads


Patrick Ness was born in Virginia, lived in Hawaii, and went to junior high and high school in Washington. He then lived in California for college (at USC) and moved to the United Kingdom in 1999, where he’s lived (mostly in London) ever since. He has written nine books: two novels for adults (The Crash of Hennington and The Crane Wife), one short story collection for adults (Topics About Which I Know Nothing), and six novels for young adults (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, Monsters of Men, A Monster Calls, More Than This and The Rest of Us Just Live Here).

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