An interview with Patrick Ness (2009)
by Noga Applebaum
Patrick Ness was born on Fort Belvoir army base, near Alexandria, Virginia in the United States where his father was a drill sergeant in the Army. He then moved to Hawaii where he lived until he was six, then spent the next ten years Washington state before moving to Los Angeles where he studied English Literature at the University of Southern California. He has lived in the UK for ten years.
He published his first story in Genre magazine in 1997 He has published four novels. His first novel for young adults won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Booktrust Teenage Prize. He is currently writer in residence for Booktrust. Here he talks to Noga Applebaum about his two young adult novels, The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and The Answer.
You said in an interview that The Knife of Never Letting Go was not initially written for teenagers. At what point did you realise that you were writing a teen novel, and how did this realisation come about?
I’m a big believer in listening to what the story is telling you. When I teach I tell my students that if you set off to write a (blank) -novel - a political novel, a women’s novel –anything other than just a story, then you’re setting off to write a mediocre novel. It needs to be a response to a story that has to be told. You have to let it go where it wants to go and be confident enough and relaxed enough to let it do that.
When I first started writing what was to become The Knife of Never Letting Go I had some ideas, and I was working on a really detailed voice, and it just wasn’t working, it was too complicated and the voice wasn’t there. I decided to relax a bit. And then one day suddenly there it was, and it wasn’t what I had expected. It felt like a voice that was going to talk to young adults, though other people could listen too. It was a different story than I had expected, and it was for teenagers.
So was it the age of the character then?
No, rather where he was, how he was talking about his story, and the energy of the narrative. Teenage audiences, if you respect them, would go to farther places. I felt I needed to go to really far off places here, and so this was the natural audience to go with.
So was it you, rather than your agent or publisher, who decided the novel was for teenagers?
Oh yeah, I won’t be told about anything!
Did you have to change anything as a consequence?
I had to curtail my natural inclination to profanity, which I always have to do anyway, but otherwise, no. Teenage novels are pretty tough these days, possibly sometimes gratuitously tough, trying to get away with stuff, which gets in the way of the story. But I think if you’re honest with what is actually happening a teenager can understand it, and won’t be overwhelmed. There’s something very sad that happens in book one, and it was rough for me to write it, knowing people would get upset by it…
Is it about the dog?
It is about the dog. If the readers get to this point, then they have to trust me that I’m doing the right thing, and if they don’t trust me then I have done something really wrong. I have to have the confidence that I’ve done right. So I think if you’ve earned it and if the context is true, not just reaching for context for the sake of writing violence, then I think that’s fine and acceptable because a teenager will understand it. They see much tougher things in their lives anyway. There’s one bad word out of 113,000 in book one, and none in book two because it wasn’t necessary, but there is one point in book one where it really needed the wham.
Todd tries to get around saying the f word throughout…
He does, and I think it’s funny because teenagers like to pretend that they don’t say such words, but when I was a teenager, and I’m sure other people too, you could take paint off the wall with the language I spoke. But of course you can’t encourage it in a book written for teens, so I thought it was a funny device for Todd to talk around the word. Other than that, I didn’t want to change much, because I really wanted the story to tell what it needed to tell.
The trilogy is one of the widely acclaimed Science Fiction releases for teenagers in the past few years. Was it a conscious decision to write in this genre? What characteristics of SF appealed to you the most?
It wasn’t a conscious decision, and I wouldn’t call it entirely Science Fiction. It had a great response from sci-fi readers, which I warmly welcome. So, while this is a colony on another planet, and there’s an alien species, it’s also a Western – set in a frontier town with cowboys and horses and so on. It’s also a chase narrative. My main intention about genre is not to be snobbish about it - snobbish that I won’t do it because it’s genre or snobbish to say that I will only write genre. Both attitudes are limiting. ‘I demand the right’ to use absolutely anything that I can. I’m the one setting the limits. So not a conscious decision, but I thought there’s some good stuff about SF that’s good for the story that I could use.
You mean the idea of setting it on an alien planet?
I set it on another planet because I was raised in the American West in Washington state and Hawaii, where there’s still the feeling of frontier. Sometimes the frontier is a disaster, it’s not a frontier at all, and that’s the feeling I was after. Since there are no longer real frontiers on our planet, it had to be set somewhere else. But the frontier spirit does carry on - people still want to strike out, and make the same mistakes.
You could have invented a fantasy world.
I suppose I could, but I liked this better. Because it is dystpoic, it felt like this was really the end of the line. For Todd it literally is the end of the line, because there are no women and he is the youngest boy. It pushed the future to the end.
You mentioned several times in past interviews that the idea for the trilogy came from ‘information overload’. Is the virus a metaphor for extensive use of technology then?
Certain kinds of technology I suppose. I think it’s a book about privacy. Because I think privacy is important, and we are gradually loosing privacy and not just through things like surveillance, but willingly sacrificing it. There’s the Google street view for example – why do people need to have a look at my house? In New York you can have a Google application on your phone which will send out a signal wherever you are in the world at all times. Of course they pitch this as something fun, but every friendly use has an unfriendly use. Privacy is important. I don’t think you can develop as a person unless you can make private decisions and make private mistakes, and say inside your head all the things that you’d never say out loud, so that you can find out what you should say out loud.
Speaking of technology, your trilogy is set on another planet, colonised for many years by humans, yet although some advanced technology exists – mainly in the form of spaceships and Viola’s medical equipment, the general lifestyle is quite primitive – from guns and knives to fieldwork and herbal medicine. That has to do with wanting to write about a frontier then?
I never wanted to explain it too much because Todd is telling the story and he wouldn’t explain it because he would assume that we know it. The idea is that these people were trying to get away from technology, since the technological lifestyle had more or less ruined where they lived. There are religious overtones to this as well.
Like the Puritans.
Yes, they wanted to get back to what they consider fundamentals – basic farming and growing their own food. The last gasp of the Puritans, I suppose. I don’t mean this in a judgmental way, I have nothing against the Puritans, though of course I’m not one.
How does this serve the story - people having a religious ideology?
I think it’s more interesting if they have an ethos rather then just being random settlers. If they settle for a reason then society can organise itself around this reason. In this particular settlement it’s the Puritan ideal that gives them an identity when they land and which is then challenged by what they find. It is more interesting in dramatic terms and it also allows this history to play out. I think people might really do this, I think they might really say, ‘we are going to have a simpler way of life’ and then be greeted by challenges that they handle badly.
This Puritan-like ethos fails miserably in terms of what comes out of it – is this a semi-religious statement that you are making here?
I have a friend who had the outrageous opinion that eastern Europe was better under communism, and we had a long talk about this and he would say things like ‘the communist ideal of mutual ownership’ etc. and I’d say ‘yes, but..’ and remind him about the Stasi. What it comes down to is that people are wildly imperfect, and when they try to adhere to any perfect ideal it never works because to get to this perfect ideal they will sacrifice their pragmatism. They try to adhere to the certainty of an ideal rather than the uncertainty which will actually help them survive. Idealism is a good thing, but to adhere to it blindly is not.
It’s quite human to search for ideals.
Absolutely. I was raised in religion and I saw lots of good, principled, caring people but I could also see people use religion as an excuse for their own intolerance. Humans do that, not the religion. It’s not the ideal but how we relate to it that is the problem.
The Daily Mail recently quoted The Knife of Never Letting Go as an example of a children book ‘so violent, it needs a health warning’. How do you feel about that?
I responded to it in my Guardian blog. The Daily Mail was paraphrasing a quote from somebody else, so it’s really difficult to address it rationally, because it’s not a rational accusation. Anybody who reads my book or Anthony McGowan’s The Knife that Killed Me, which was also mentioned can see easily the context – there’s nothing gratuitous about the books.
Do you think that children’s literature should have boundaries when it comes to issues such as sex and violence?
Of course you’re not going to write pornography for teenagers, but external guidelines hardly ever work. It’s like age banding: as soon as an 18 rating exists, then film makers start making films for an 18 rating. As soon as an age label exists an author can say, ‘I can get away with a lot more, because my book has an age label on it’, which will then be ignored by all the ten year olds who read it because it’s an adult book.
So you’re against age banding?
I just don’t think it would work. The subversive part of me thinks that if I was ten years old, I would ignore age banding because I would always read the books that were too old for me. Also, if you labelled a book 12, then 15 year olds wouldn’t want to read it, and that’s a shame.
When I went to the Guardian Fiction Prize award, there was a boy who couldn’t have been more than nine who had read my book and I thought ‘too young, it’s too much even for a bright nine years old’. It sounds irresponsible to say that authors should be aware of it and in charge of what we consider appropriate, but no system is perfect and there will always be people who will go too far. I guess you have to decide which imperfect system you want.
But do you believe there should be boundaries, whoever imposes them?
I suppose if a teen book has lots of sex and violence I would want to know why and there might be a good explanation, as with Melvin Burgess’ Junk, for example. I would never want to be the person in charge of saying ‘you can’t do this, you must do that’. The person who does want to should never get that job.
Aren’t publishers and agents the gatekeepers? Don't they insist that you tone things down or make cuts to make the book more palatable for the market?
If they initiate a discussion based on ‘think about it’, then it’s a fruitful discussion and I have no objection to it. With The Knife of Never Letting Go, we a bit about the violence in the book and about some of the language, but we talked about it and it wasn’t along the lines of ‘can a teenager take this’ but more ‘are you giving no hope’.
Do you think it’s the responsibility of an author to offer hope because it’s a young audience?
No! Please don’t say I said that. I will question, however, any author who writes a purely nihilist book for children.
There are some bleak books out there – Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War…
And I suppose Kes - God help us! If you’re genuinely telling the truth, then people can handle the truth. I wouldn’t want somebody telling me what I couldn’t write, but I also accept that I would have to justify what I write. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – I will happily justify what I write. If the question is ‘do I need to?’ - I don’t have a problem with that either.
The Knife of Never Letting Go is told solely from Todd’s perspective. The second volume, The Ask and the Answer, alternates between Viola and Todd. Why did you decide to add Viola as a narrator?
I wanted to open it up. The Knife of Never Letting Go is very much a chase-goal narrative, and The Ask and the Answer is more complicated. It wouldn’t even occur to me to leave it all to Todd – I knew that all the time. Viola is so vital in The Knife, and she needs to also tell the story – it’s a bigger story and they have very different experiences in it and the difference is what’s important. They find themselves on opposite sides, or what seems like opposite sides – it’s a complicated process they go through. I wanted to do both sides of the story to explore the shades of grey.
How did you find the experience of writing in a teenage girl’s voice?
I didn’t find it difficult at all. You know how people say, ‘I never committed murder, but I can write about murder’ so I can write in a girl’s voice. It’s a fictional exercise. I’ve written as women; I’ve written as men. Anything should be available to an author. In any case, I wasn’t writing a girl, I was writing Viola, who I knew. I wouldn’t think of it as ‘what would a girl say’ but rather ‘what would Viola say’, and that was easy.
The gender divide is brought to an extreme in your books, especially The Ask and the Answer, where women and men take opposite sides in the war over the future of the planet. Do you believe that women and men today view the world in such contrasting ways?
No. What I do believe, about all humans, is that there’s an idea of the chain of being. God is at the top, man below him, and everything else is in a hierarchy. This is the thing that could really bring the death of our species, our inability to see difference as difference, as merely different. If something is different, of any kind, we tend almost always to see it as better, in which case it needs to be pulled down, or worse, in which case it can be exploited. I think of wars like Northern Ireland – the religions in Northern Ireland are very close, and the rest of the world couldn’t begin to understand why this conflict is a conflict. The different kinds of Muslims that fight - Shia versus Sunni – narrow differences that the rest of us can’t even see.
In the book it’s the inability to see difference as difference pushed to the absolute extreme. Men’s thoughts could be heard, women’s couldn’t – what in the world would this do in a species as imperfect as ours with our inability to accept that people can be different? Metaphorically it’s the stereotype of the women who baffle men, and men who are too easy to read for women. It’s not particularly a novel about gender but more about human difference. Gender is just the obvious difference, and it brings disastrous consequences.
Having said that, I have never liked novels where there’s a slightly dumber boy and a really clever girl – why can’t they both be brave? Why can’t they both be flawed and make big mistakes? It’s much more interesting. Todd and Viola are both good as well as screwed up.
Although both sides use violence against each other and try to manipulate both Todd and Viola, the healers, most of whom are women, seem to be less inclined towards cruel acts than the Mayor’s army (the treatment of the Spackle and the permanent banding of prisoners for example). The major male exceptions are Ben and Cillian who are implied to be gay, and Lee and Wilf who have very strong loving relationships with female family members. Is there a message here?
That’s interesting you said that. All along the natural sympathy is with the women, particularly with what happened in the town in The Knife, and what happens in the second book. All along the decks are stacked in favour of the women and I thought it interesting to play with that sympathy. The healers do violent things, they are essentially terrorists, and I thought how interesting to take the side that you have natural sympathy with and who seems justified and let them essentially radicalise Viola. She sets off bombs, these are terrorist acts. We are with this side, but do we agree with the things they are doing? There is something very seductive about saying ‘yes, of course they are right’ but are they really? Looked at from Todd’s side, they are killing innocent people. That was interesting to me – how far will you let natural sympathy take you. Will you let it take you to commit acts that you perceive as wrong, like Viola? It all seems perfectly logical that she should act this way, but is it really? I made it slightly uncomfortable.
I can understand the exercise, and it does work, but in the greater scheme of things justice does seem to be more on the side of the women.
In the story,yes. But the question arises are Mistress Coyle and Mayor Prentiss in fact mirrors of one another? When does Mistress Coyle’s pursuit of justice become a pursuit of power? My sympathies are with people like Wilf and Todd and Viola who want peace in the world and are not interested in power. Regarding the men who support the healers – I don’t trust men who are afraid of women. If you aren’t willing to make the leap and see someone as an equal, then the world is not going to keep on existing. My sympathy is with people who will see difference and acknowledge it as merely different. Todd for example doesn’t see Viola as better or worse, he just sees her as Viola.
But he doesn’t have experience.
Todd’s reactions are the ideal human reactions. He makes big mistakes but he is trying to do the best without constantly thinking about it, he acts instinctively.
We mentioned Ben and Cillian, you refrain from spelling out that they are gay. You also refrain from suggesting that Davy’s feelings for Todd are more than brotherly, and lastly, you refrain from presenting other physical relationships between men in Prentisstown, though in the absence of women, such relationships are unavoidable. Why?
That’s interesting what you said about Davy and Todd – I never thought about that interpretation. The main reason why, as far as Ben and Cillian are concerned, is because Todd would know no different, and he wouldn’t think of it as remarkable, so he wouldn’t present it as remarkable to us. But he can hear the thoughts of the rest of the men in the town… There are hints. I possibly toned them down a bit. There were hints particularly in Mr Hammer who becomes a bigger factor in book two. When Todd walks through the town he looks at Todd in a way that Todd does not like at all, but Todd does not tell us what it is. The main thing was that it would be what Todd would tell us, and he’d grown up knowing, seeing all these thoughts of the men (he makes a funny reference when he finally meets women, that they look nothing like the women he saw in the men’s Noise).
In terms of storytelling, I toned it down a little not because of self-censorship but because it can hijack the story. It would pull the narrative away from the direction in which it needed to go. It’s such a powerful potential, but it’s not what I was after.. It sounds like I’m ambivalent about it – I’m genuinely not. I’m not afraid to write about these things but they carry a weight that would have unbalanced the story I needed to tell.
What is the question that your title The Ask and The Answer refers to? What are the major themes you are exploring in this volume?
The Answer is the name of the terrorist group, so the Mayor in his evil political way of thinking calls his officers The Ask. I get really upset reading about things like the Spanish Inquisition. Since I am uncomfortable, it obviously means something to me. It’s always good to explore what makes you uncomfortable when you are writing because there’s power behind it. When I was writing the book Guantanamo Bay was still in the news and I was horrified by the idea of people being forced to answer questions. Information under torture is useless You’ll never get the truth through force, you’ll only get the answer you want, so why do it? To me this is really powerful and disturbing.
On this fictional planet information is the most valuable resource if you can control it. In the case of the Mayor and the cure, he’s been holding it back from everyone. And Mistress Coyle says a couple of times that information is the greatest weapon the Answer has. So that’s what the Ask and the Answer is for – getting and receiving information.
So that’s how the second volume connects to the first, which was about information overload…
Yes, the second volume is about the control of information. You control information, you control people.
Speaking of themes, The Ask and the Answer opens with a quote from Nietzsche ‘battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster’. This is a major theme in the novel, as Todd unwittingly becomes a participant in horrendous acts of violence. Were you not worried that the reader would lose sympathy with Todd as a result, or was that the plan?
You have to take risks. But as with the radicalisation of Viola, it’s the same thing with Todd. Every step seems logical, but it’s taking you to this terrible place – you can understand how he got there; you can be horrified how you might follow the same steps in the same situation, because everything he does seems like a decision he has to make. It feels like the right thing to do even if it’s terrible. He participates because he thinks it’s keeping Viola alive.
Do you think Viola would behave in the same way put in that position?
She would make mistakes but she would make different mistakes because they are different people. I think good drama comes from asking people extreme questions like ‘how would you react’. The thing I keep saying over and over again in book one and book two, is that you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s not the issue. The issue is how you would handle the mistakes that you make.
Todd is not doing so well, I have to say…
He’s struggling. Regarding looking into the abyss and the question of can you really confront a monster without being changed by the confrontation, the answer is no. Is that an acceptable price to pay Yes, sometimes, but you have to watch what happens. Sometimes monsters need to be confronted. There’s always the challenging question for strict pacifists, ‘what do you do about Hitler?’. Sometimes there are monsters in the world (although I do think it’s better to think of Hitler as a human being, because otherwise it lets us off the hook). How do you deal with these monsters? I abhor war, the waste of life – I can’t bare it, but what do you do with someone who is already wasting lives? Is there an answer other than committing to defeating him? I’m simplifying grossly, but that’s what I’m after here. It is dangerous, there can be terrible consequences, which you must accept, but does dangerous means unnecessary? I don’t know the answers to these questions but I’m interested in asking them.
I do hope that the readers won’t lose sympathy with Todd; I hope what he does is understandable. If they do, I hope they stick with him anyway because they know that he is trying.
Both the Mayor and Viola believe that Todd retains his intrinsic innocence despite his morally objectionable actions. Do you yourself believe such coexistence is possible?
I don’t think Todd keeps his innocence, I think he keeps his soul.
The word innocence does come up in the book…
I suppose it does, but under the weight of so much information the biggest danger is that you stop feeling, that you become numb. The key to Todd is that he still feels, that’s what gives him a soul, that’s what makes him compelling and able to still do good. It’s a constant battle to keep feeling, but I think that’s what Todd keeps rather than his innocence. He feels terrible about the things he’s done.
It’s a bit of a dangerous idea, no? He took part in really awful things and to say that we understand because he kept feeling bad about it is slightly taking him off the hook…
No, no, that’s not what I mean. He is completely responsible for what he has done, but he feels that responsibility – that’s what I mean. If you can still feel, you have the capacity to change and you have the capacity to take responsibility for what you have done and genuinely try to fix it. I’m not trying to absolve him of his crimes. Everyone has the potential to commit an evil action. Evil isn’t something you are, it’s something you do. Most of us hold ourselves in check from it. Todd, through this chain of what seems to be rational decisions commits an evil action. I wanted to talk about how he got there, what it costs him and what he can do about it after it happens.
The Mayor is a ruthless character, and seems to have no redeeming features. Where did you get the inspiration for him?
The idea of the warlord turned politician, that’s the inspiration. The one who fights wars and who suddenly becomes the smiling face of rationality – a fascist mostly. It’s a distrust of people who like power. He arranges the war, but he’s not pulling the trigger.
He is evil incarnate then?
I think everybody is potentially redeemable, but will they allow themselves to be redeemed? The Mayor has glimmers of humanity but he is still a man who does these terrible things, and I don’t think he’ll allow himself to be redeemed.
There are quite a lot of twists and turns in the plot of The Ask and the Answer – the reader is never certain– did you plot the book in advance, or did it manage to surprise you too?
I knew how the three books would go. They’re all about different things, but I let the little surprises come. I don’t over plan because that locks too many things in place, but I do have big things that I like to write towards. I had big images that I knew had to be in the book and I knew how it would end. However, I let other stuff come. For example, I had an image of Todd walking surrounded by bodies, and I knew this was important, a watershed moment. I knew it was coming, it needed to be in there, but I didn’t quite know how he’d get there.
And what surprised you?
Lee. I didn’t expect him at all, but there he was saying hello. But that’s great, that’s how it should be – let inspiration come and sometimes it works out very well.
When is the final volume out, and do you plan to write more for teenagers?
The final volume is out next spring, I’m still writing it. I have a title, but it’s a secret. I have other ideas, but we’ll see. I love writing for young adults, I have found it liberating in the extreme. You can explore huge issues, really big ones, with great freedom and interesting consequences.
Thank you Patrick Ness for talking to Write Away