Patrick Ness: "I write my best when I'm frightened"

Anna Walker

We spoke to Patrick Ness, author of Monsters of Men, A Monster Calls and the Chaos Walking trilogy about sex, school and his writing his most autobiographical book yet

“The journey from childhood into adulthood is, I think, a journey into complexity,” Patrick Ness muses.

“That’s what loss of innocence is. It isn’t anything bad; it’s just that you learn that you’re complex, and that you have contradictions. Being an adult is figuring out how you’re going to accommodate those contradictions.”

Release book cover
Release is available in the UK from May 5

Patrick is something of an expert on that particular puzzle. Twice the winner of the Carnegie Medal, which recognises outstanding books for children or young adults, he’s made it his business to write about the battleground of adolescence in a uniquely tender style that’s drawn him fans from across the globe. His Chaos Walking trilogy, set in a dystopian world whose inhabitants can hear each other’s thoughts, established him as one of the most important voices in Young Adult Fiction. Patrick’s latest book, Release, is his most personal yet.

Following a single day in the life of Adam Thorn, a gay teenager growing up closeted in a deeply religious family in isolated Washington, Release is frank. About sex, about friendship, about hard choices, about the ones we love and the ones that break our hearts. 

It’s also about how we learn to define our self-worth and to reject those who tell us we aren't good enough as we are. “That’s one of the big reasons that I wanted to write Release,” Patrick explains, delving into the nuances of his novel as he attempts to feed his cat one handed (otherwise he’ll “meow down the phone”).

“If you’re raised as a gay kid in the closet and you’re constantly told that your love isn’t as good as somebody else’s, what does that mean for the people you think are worthy of loving you? That’s really hard. And that’s a terrible thing that gay kids tell themselves.”

 

 

“It was very important to me to show sex without shame"

 

 

“If I’m responding to a story, then I’m responding to it for a reason and this one’s really clear to me. It’s trying to reject the idea that somehow your love means less.”

Patrick is the first to concede that this novel is somewhat autobiographical. Growing up in Washington, he too was a “closeted gay kid” before moving away to California for college, eventually calling London home in 1999.

“If you’re any kind of writer I think every book you write is emotionally autobiographical because you’re trying to tell a story that matters to you, and that feels it’s demanding to be told by you in particular.”

Though he claims, he doesn’t “write for messages or functions”, Patrick’s desire to provide a healthy model of gay relationships for young teens, in particular, healthy sexual relationships, is palpable in the fervour with which he discusses the subject, one often met with controversy when it appears in Young Adult Fiction.

“It was very important to me to show sex without shame. To show tenderness, and that it’s more than a physical act. That you can be really intimate with somebody and it can still be funny and unexpected and delightfully surprising.”

“If you’re never shown reflections of your own relationships as just as beautiful and complicated as everybody else’s, then what models do you have? If you don’t put it in a book, if you’re not discussing it in an intelligent, thoughtful way, then what are you leaving a young teenager to base their expectations on? What else do they have then except porn? And that’s shocking to me. That’s absolutely shocking. That cannot be a model for closeness and intimacy.”

patrick ness signs books
"If you’re any kind of writer I think every book you write is emotionally autobiographical." Image via Alex Dimopoulos

Release opens with a letter from Patrick to his readers, detailing the influence of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Judy Blume’s Forever on the novel. They’re touchstones he deliberately picked for the challenge they presented.

“I think that I write my best when I’m frightened, because the enemy of creativity is complacency. I was looking for something to challenge me in the right way and take away my safety net.”

“I regard Mrs Dalloway as one of the three greatest novels in English—Middlemarch [by George Eliot] and Beloved [by Toni Morrison] are the other two. And Judy Blume’s Forever really broke the rules about what teenage fiction could be. It was published in 1974 and you would still probably have some trouble getting it published today. God bless her forever, more power to her.” Patrick’s voice is still infused with an irrefutable sense of youngness. The unrelenting pace of his answers reminds me of a gangly teenage boy, running track and never tiring.

“So I took these two books, Mrs Dalloway, which is a work of genius and Forever, which is a work of genius YA and I thought Yeah, let’s embrace them and terrify the hell out of myself, see if I can tell a story out of it.

Scaring himself seems to be a favourite pastime for Patrick. Writing the screenplay for a Hollywood adaptation of his immensely moving book, A Monster Calls, starring Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver and Felicity Jones, left him “nervous and worried in a fruitful way”.

He explains how he’s learned not to “be a snob about where the best stories can be told”, and how he soon realised the process was “all about being afraid, but doing it anyway.”

It’s clearly a challenge he relished having since also written for Doctor Who and an upcoming original screenplay, although he laughs when we discuss the neatness of television storylines. “You can be messier in a book, so why not be a little messy! That’s what life’s like!”

 

 

"It's all about being afraid, but doing it anyway"

 

 

That acceptance of life’s inherent messiness, that insistence that it’s “okay not to be okay”, recurs in all his novels.

“I think that’s very, very important. The Rest of Us Just Live Here is all about how sometimes you will have crappy days, and things will go wrong, and you might have anxiety and you might feel depressed. There’s nothing wrong with that, so don’t feel weak for it.”

“You haven’t failed because you’re having a bad day. You haven’t failed because you feel lonely. That’s not a failure at all. It’s being human. That’s certainly something I would’ve liked to hear more of when I was a teen,” he laughs.

So what books did bring teenage Patrick Ness comfort?

“When I was a teenager—which, incidentally, is a terrible way to start any conversation with a teenager—the YA universe was much smaller so I went straight to reading adult novels like Stephen King. To see that prose could be an adventure, and playful and contradictory was a joy.”

“There’s also a book called Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. I haven’t read it since I was young on purpose. I don’t want to know what it’s like as an adult because it’s so important to me as a teen. For me, a book like Jitterbug Perfume was a story that genuinely reflected how I was feeling.”

“In all fiction, but particularly in teenage fiction, there is a creative tension between ‘is’ and ‘should be’, and you have to have a balance of both. I felt growing up that I was getting far too much ‘should be’ and not enough ‘is’.”


Patrick Ness signing copies of Release for his fans. Image via Alex Dimopoulos

For Patrick, it doesn’t matter what a child is reading, so long as it makes them feel something.

“There was an article in The Times yesterday about a head teacher in Wimbledon who has chucked out things like Alex Rider and Percy Jackson because the children should be reading ‘quality literature’ and that makes me furious! What kind of teacher would take away books that a kid loves? It's outrageous.”

One of Release’s great strengths is its acknowledgement of grey areas in the journey towards Adam’s parents understanding and accepting his sexuality. It’s never as simple as his friends understanding, and his family not, and there are beautiful scenes between Adam and his conservative, preacher father where Ness offers glimmers of hope.

“Grey areas are important to me because people are complicated,” he explains.

“That moment where Adam looks at his dad and he thinks that his dad is about to understand reminds me of what Ken Loach always said about the film Kes. He said he doesn’t think it’s a hopeless movie because even though the bird dies, the boy has still seen the bird. He’s had a few moments with it and so he knows that that possibility is there.”

“If in time Adam’s father doesn’t understand, then that’s his fault and not Adam’s. That’s what I wanted to get across.”

 

Release is available from May 4, from Walker Books, £12.99 

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Feature image via Debbie Smyth