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An interview with Patrick Ness

September 29, 2011

As you all know, I absolutely love A Monster Calls, which was just published a few days ago. So when Candlewick offered me a chance to send some interview questions to Patrick Ness as part of a blog tour*, I jumped at the chance. (Even though I also felt more than a bit intimidated, because, hello, Patrick Ness. He’s brilliant!)

Anyway, for more background information about A Monster Calls, read this interview with Ness at The Mountains of Instead. Here’s my interview:

The Chaos Walking series and A Monster Calls were written for young adults but have earned you a passionate adult fan base as well. Do you have any thoughts about why your books have attracted such ardent adult readers?
I always say that I never write for a particular audience, that I just write for myself. It’s the principle that if I don’t like it, then no one else ever will (you’d be surprised at how many writers don’t do this). And so I have to be the one who’s entertained and who laughs and who cries. If I don’t, then I feel like I’m lying to my reader. The result being, possibly, that since I’m responding to them, maybe other adults do as well? I really do write them for me, though. And then it’s up to the book to find its natural audience. I’m good with that.

There were several occasions in A Monster Calls when the monster said something that I thought could have come straight out of the Chaos Walking books. I’m still not quite sure how to phrase my question here, but mostly I’m curious about whether this was coincidental or a conscious decision, a reflection of some of the same thematic concerns explored in Chaos Walking?
Not necessarily conscious, but I suppose I didn’t change the person I was between each book. The same things still concern me, my beliefs about ambiguity, complexity and redemption remain the same (but also evolving), so any writer’s personal concerns are going to shine through, I think, because those are the types of stories we’re going to keep responding to and want to write. For me, human complexity is our blessing and our curse, and I find it absolutely fascinating, so it’s no wonder it keeps popping up in my stuff.

You touched briefly on emotion vs. sentiment in the interview that’s available on the Candlewick website. Can you expand on this? And, when you are writing, how do you hone the emotion and eliminate the sentiment in your work?
I think sentimentality is mostly a nice lie we tell ourselves, and I’ve always had a real allergy to it. Sometimes it can be nice, sometimes sprinklings of it can improve a story, but I think the real emotions underneath are always far more dangerous (but also more thrilling and deeply felt) than the safety sentimentality lets us feel. And the very last thing I want to do for a character like Conor is to chicken out and not go with him all the way to the hardest places.

I don’t think it’s all that hard to get away from in writing, in that I think writers instinctively know when they’re spinning bullshit. But I also think it’s the writer’s sacred duty to look at something and write about what’s ACTUALLY there, not what we think should be there, not what we expect to be there, not what others have written is there before us, but what we actually see. And that’s never going to be sentiment because what is sentiment except the completely expected? Sentiment is never, ever surprising, and I want the books I read to surprise me.

Also, I think too often sentiment gets confused with being really moved. I just think that the real emotion, in all its ragged toughness, is FAR more moving (and more honest) than the sentimental version. I want to come to a book and really feel. It doesn’t mean comfort is impossible, or hope, or love, just that if you’re honest about the rawness of some things, then when you tell the truth about comfort or hope or love, then maybe they feel even better?

In a recent BBC article, you mention that, in terms of emotion, adults “have a tougher time [with A Monster Calls] than younger readers do.” Did you expect that this would be the case?
Not really, but it makes sense in retrospect. We bring our experiences to a novel in a way that children don’t, we just have to, it’s what makes us us. Which is really interesting, and is also, when you think about it, what makes books so personal. What a great thing that can happen with a reader and the right book. That’s why I keep reading and reading.

In addition to writing novels, you teach creative writing and review books for newspapers. How do teaching and reviewing influence your work as a novelist?
Not directly, but importantly indirectly in that I don’t think writers can just write all the time. Life is more than that. You’ll be a bad writer if that’s all you do. I’m a distance runner, for example, and am currently training for my fourth marathon. Running is just the best exercise for a writer: it’s rhythmic, you do it by yourself, it’s using your body and not your brain. All excellent ways to get good ideas and solve plotting problems. Trust me.

Finally, for readers who haven’t yet read any of Siobhan Dowd’s books, which would you recommend starting with?
Any and all. Bog Child and Swift Pure Cry are excellent for older readers, London Eye Mystery for a little bit younger, but Solace of the Road is also good and that’s all four of them. You won’t regret it.

Thank you so much for Candlewick for giving me the opportunity to interview Patrick Ness. And, of course, to Patrick Ness himself for answering my questions and writing such a beautiful book.

* The full schedule is

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2011 7:27 am

    Awesome questions, Trisha! I can’t wait to read this one–I love both these authors. I’m really envious that he’s able to just write, and not worry about the audience at all. I’m still working on that…🙂

    • September 29, 2011 11:29 am

      Thanks, Sarah! I hope you get a chance to read it soon, because it’s such an amazing and beautiful book.

      I wonder how many authors are able to not worry about their (potential) audience? It’s something I’ve seen/heard other authors say, though I don’t believe it of everyone. But with Patrick Ness, I do believe him.

  2. September 29, 2011 8:19 am

    Yeah, wow. The difference between sentiment and emotion… And he goes so deeply into the sort of psyche of each character, and yet, still has one ear open for the audience, for the reader, to take us with him, gauge our responses…

    However, I am scared to read this book.
    I have heard of too many tears. The Adults ARE having a hard time with it…

    • September 29, 2011 11:43 am

      Don’t be scared! The book earns the tears (or sobs, in my case) honestly. For all the devastating, heartbreaking moments, there’s also such compassion and, in a way, hope.

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