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Wed, 24 Jul 2013 12:06
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Patrick Ness is the author of The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Crash of Hennington and a short-story collection, Topics About Which I Know Nothing. He has written for Radio 4 and Radio 3, taught creative writing at Oxford University, and is a literary critic for the Guardian.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for The Knife of Never Letting Go?
Patrick Ness: Well, feeling a bit sensitive one day when the mobile kept ringing and the texts kept coming and the emails kept piling up, I thought this is what life’s become: a non-stop torrent of information, whether you want it or not. So I started playing with the idea: What if you really couldn’t get away? What if you were a slightly sensitive, private person but there was nowhere to hide. How would you really know who you were? And how would you handle it? That’s where the story started, and that’s where Todd and the voice of Todd came from.
MT: How long did it take you to write your novel? Is this the normal speed for you!?
PN: Once I started the fingers-to-keyboard process, it probably took about six months to get a good first draft and then another six months to work out a second, third and fourth draft. Then, as you start writing the next book, you’re still polishing the previous one in more and more detail to make it as shiny as possible.
BUT I thought about the idea for at least two years before that, letting it stew and form, letting ideas latch on to one another. Todd’s voice is very particular: he’s very smart but uneducated, and his speech reflects his surroundings and upbringing. I worked on that for a good long time to get it right before I was ready to start the actual writing of the novel.
A year is really fast for me. But I’m just finishing the follow-up, and that’s taken about a year, too, so I guess it’s now become my normal speed! I could use a long holiday...
MT: This is your first book for young adults. Did you approach the writing differently to your preceding novels?
PN: No, and I think this is a really important point, actually. I’ve never (and I mean never) had any success when I tried to write for a particular audience or expectation. No one ever likes it, not even me, really. The only work of mine that’s ever been embraced by others are things that I’ve written just to entertain myself. I think that’s because when you do that, your own love and enthusiasm and excitement are all over it, and that’s probably the elusive spark that people want when they read something. If I’m spending time wondering what someone else might like, then everything gets a bit thin.
So, for The Knife of Never Letting Go, I still wrote the book I wanted to read. I did a little adjusting and thought about the kind of book I wanted to read when I was a teen, but it wasn’t much different than what I want to read now: exciting, interesting, doesn’t insult my intelligence. So I just sort of shrugged and went ahead and wrote exactly what I wanted anyway. I genuinely believe that’s the only way you have a chance to end up with a good book.
MT: What was the biggest challenge in writing your book? How did you overcome it?
PN: Todd’s voice. Like I said, he’s a smart and resourceful hero, but he’s had a rough time growing up. All the women in his town have died in a disastrous incident in the past, so his town is slowly disappearing. He’s the youngest one there, everyone’s just trying to survive, and there’s no real space for him to learn anything, like how to read well. And since Todd’s the narrator, the biggest challenge was getting his voice exactly right. I tried a bunch of different approaches just to see where he might be, until I finally settled on one that abuses grammar and spelling pretty appallingly but is still true and smart and committed and interesting. It’s almost an alchemy thing: he’s not there, he’s not there, he’s not there, so you keep working at it, and suddenly, there he is.
MT: There is no privacy in Prentisstown -- a sly critique of Modern Life then!?
PN: Absolutely, and not just in the avalanche of info-technology I was talking about before. I was also thinking of regimes like the Stasi in East Germany, where you had no privacy because your neighbor could always report everything you did to the government. And then I realized, it’s not too far off what happens with the tabloids here. No one’s allowed a private life, because even your friends might sell you to the papers if you’ve done something allegedly “shocking”. And with camera phones and facebook, suddenly every action, even ones meant for just close friends, can be broadcast to the entire world. That’s happened to people I know, when work colleagues found out things they were better off not knowing.
I think it’s robbing us of something. Fiction writers, for example, have to have rich internal lives or we’re not worth anything. And it’s a question of identity, too; you have to form who you are as you grow up and some of that absolutely has to happen with your peers, but there are other parts that have to be formed in privacy, with just you looking at your own soul. I’m being ponderous, but I think an entirely public person is only half a human being.
MT: Todd's voice reminded me a little of Huckleberry Finn -- did you model him on anyone in particular?
PN: Yes, there’s definite elements of Huck Finn in Todd, though Huck probably smiled more often. Todd’s very serious, which is often quite funny. I also used Russell Hoban’s brilliant Riddley Walker as an inspiration. That’s a work of genius, very difficult, very particular, about a young man in post-apocalyptic Kent (of all places) where language has broken down. Todd’s voice is far simpler than that, but the idea is the same, that you create your own world out of words (especially in a book!)
MT: What do you do in your spare time?
PN: Spare time? What’s that? No, seriously, I’m a huge reader, as I think every writer has to be, but I’m also a big runner. I’ve run a few marathons, belong to a running club (I’m currently treasurer), and I’m a big advocate of pounding the pavement. It’s meditative and surprisingly good for your brain. I solve all of my most difficult plotting questions while out running.
MT: What are you working on now?
PN: I’m deep in the process of the follow-up to The Knife of Never Letting Go, well into the third draft stage of things. After that, I start working on the follow-up to that. No rest for the wicked, but I guarantee there are some exciting and shocking things on the horizon in next book. You won’t be disappointed.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
PN: My favourite writer is probably Peter Carey, for his amazing command of language and voice. He sounds like nobody else while also never being ostentatiously shoving himself on you either. The best writer around at disappearing into a character. My favourite books by him are probably Oscar & Lucinda, Illywhacker, Theft, and his under-rated The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, which was also an inspiration on Knife.
MT: What are your top tips for the aspiring writer!?
PN: Being in danger of repeating myself, the top tip has to be to write a book you want to read. If you try to go after a formula or something marketable or whatever, chances are you’re going to write a book like a thousand others that publishers see every day. If you’re really a writer and really have a voice, believe in it, follow it, and write a book that fires all of your artistic jets. That’s the only way it’s going to stand out in the crowd.
The other thing is to actually write that novel. My brother has a good line about people saying they want to be writers, when what they really mean is they just want to be published. You can’t do one without the other, so write the whole novel first. That way, you’ve got something to prove you mean business to agents and publishers.
MT: Anything else you would like to say?
PN: Just that I’ve got no snobbery about the division between adult and young adult writing. I really believe in The Knife of Never Letting Go and think it’s for adults, too. Probably the best thing I’ve ever written, a circumstance so strange to a writer that I’ve no idea how it happened or how to repeat it. But I’ll carry on regardless.
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