Patrick Ness Q&A

It's always interesting to know what influences our authors and artists. This month jellyellie of LIVE magazine has interviewed Patrick Ness, author of The Knife of Never Letting Go about what motivates his writing and he offers a few tips of his own to aspiring writers. 

1. The Knife of Never Letting Go has quite a mature plot, with the idea that a virus has killed off all the women. What made you decide to write the book specifically for teenagers rather than for adults, like your previous two novels have been?

I genuinely believe, and this is a tip I pass on to every aspiring writer I meet, that if you try to write a book for anyone but yourself (like a publisher or a particular audience), your book’s probably going to be pretty crap because where are you in it? The only success I’ve ever had – and this is true – was when I threw out thinking what everyone else would want and wrote the book I wanted.

And so what happened with Knife was that I was writing the story I’d want to read, watching it take on a life of its own, and I realised the book was making me write it for teenagers, which was even better because I realised I then had so much more freedom to try edgy and difficult and out-there things.

Teenagers (to be a little arse-kissy but true) tend to be more risk-taking and open-minded readers than adults, as long as you don’t insult their intelligence. Which is why I don’t think the mature plot is a problem. I think teenagers handle a lot more difficult things on a regular basis than the plot of a book, so why be condescending and try to soften things up?

2. Did you have to make a continuous conscious effort to adopt a slightly younger style of writing?

Me personally, I think I would have been in trouble if I’d tried. It would have felt self-conscious and false. It’s like what I said about writing for yourself; it’s another way of saying you have to tell the story the way the story demands to be told, no matter what. Todd’s voice is exactly what it would have been if this had been a book for adults. I had to be true to it; no matter what he said or saw or described, it had to be exactly how he would do it and no one else, regardless of a younger style. But it turned out okay!

3. The idea that a virus has left the men and boys able to hear each other’s thoughts sounds like it would be technically difficult to achieve in a book, but you have pulled it off magnificently. What were the hardest parts, and most fun parts, of being able to write about characters hearing each other’s thoughts?

Thanks, yeah, that took a lot of planning, a lot of false starts to get how the Noise (what everyone calls the ability to hear everyone’s thoughts) would actually work. The hardest parts were figuring out how people would lie and how they’d keep secrets, two of the things that make us human, so we’d find a way even if it should be impossible.

But it was fun, too, because if you really try to keep track of how your mind is actually running during the day, it’s a mess! Can you imagine if everything you thought just sort of spilled out everywhere? So the fun part was conjuring up those pages that show what it’s actually like to be buried in everyone’s thinking and all the words blur together in one big tidal wave across the page.

Which isn’t that far off what it’s like to be constantly buried in texts and messaging and emails and mobile phones and on and on, so that’s what the book’s really about, information overload.

4. The one thing I found tricky about getting into The Knife of Never Letting Go was the way in which you made spelling changes like “damnayshun” instead of “damnation”. At first this seemed like a bit of an easy way to try and get across Todd’s personality, but as I read on it was this unusual style that gripped me the most. I guessed that there were ‘mistakes’ like this as Todd didn’t know how to read, but what was your reasoning behind this style of writing?

The key thing about Todd is that he’s very smart but his circumstances have left him vastly under-educated. He lives in a place where even survival is difficult so learning how to read fluently is a luxury he’s never had. So I tried to imagine how the world would “read” to a person like that; he’d do his best, but he’d get it a little bit wrong because he’s never been shown. It just asks the question of how much of ourselves do we create? Todd’s had more work to do creating himself and his world than most, and it shows up in his speech.

5. Many people say you need the life experience of a few decades behind you to write a good novel, but authors like you seem to prove this wrong; especially as you were teaching Creative Writing at Oxford University to students older than yourself for a while. How do you think you will feel about this when you look back on your work in twenty years’ time?

One established novelist (and complete prat, who shall remain nameless) said that exact thing to me before I published my first novel. What you’ve got to do as a writer is say, “Oh yeah? Let me show you what I got.” My first novel got pretty good reviews, so I don’t worry about it anymore.

As for looking back, I already read my early books and think that I’ve gotten better as a writer since then, and thank God for that! If you’re not growing, not always pressing to improve, then why do anything?

A young novelist is going to be full of energy and ideas and world-beating attitude. Why wouldn’t you want to read a novel like that? And then as they get older and push themselves to get better, why wouldn’t you want to keep reading them? I reject the notion of needing a ton of life behind you before you can write. Writing is living, too, and it’s how you find out some really important stuff.

6. Five main steps you’d advise anyone who wants to be published to follow…

1. MOST IMPORTANT – Write a book that YOU want to read. Seriously, even if it’s off the wall or you’re worried that there’s no “market”, it’ll have your enthusiasm and love all over it, which automatically makes it more interesting.

2. SECOND MOST IMPORTANT – But be sure to write the book. For novels especially, agents and publishers won’t want to hear from you unless they know you’re serious. So write your book, all of it. That way, when they ask, you can say, “Here it is. You’re gonna love it.”

3. Find an agent – Buy The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. It’s a list of every agent in town. What’s good to know is that I got my agent just by sending out samples to a whole bunch. I didn’t know anyone or have any connections, so it can happen to you, too.

4. Learn to take criticism – Your first draft won’t be perfect, and it’s damaging to the book to think that it is. Every great book you’ve ever read has been rewritten a dozen times. This is the hardest thing to learn (trust me), but very, very important.

5. Don’t give up – You’ll have setbacks and sometimes it’ll seem like it’s never going to happen. But don’t stop. I’ll say it again, don’t ever stop.

7. Quickfire round:
a. London or Los Angeles? London, no contest.
b. Sea urchin or bee sting? Sea urchin, hurts way more but you’ve got a better story (and I speak from experience).
c. Beach or mountains? Mountains, more privacy, just as much sun.
d. The Crash of Hennington or Topics About Which I Know Nothing? Topics, short and funny.
e. Writing or rewriting? Rewriting, that’s where the real writing happens.
f. Tattoo or piercing? Tattoo, and no you can’t see any of mine.
g. Boris Johnson or Ken Livingstone? Ugh, neither, Ken’s gone all Messianic but Boris would be even worse. Is there a third choice?

Thanks very much Patrick!