I have not, by any means, read every buzzworthy book for teens that has been published this year. However, my favorite book of the year so far has been The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. I first blogged about it here.
This book had me almost at a lose for words, and certainly at a loss for objective critique. As I said then, “[n]ormally, this is where I would write some well reasoned thought out critique of the book. However, this time, I want to tell you how this book made me feel. The intensity of this book grabs you and, as the title says, “never lets you go.” It has a relentless pounding pace that matches the feelings of the main character as he travels across country and encounters proof that what he was taught was wrong.” I feel a little bit like teen readers must feel sometimes when they have to write a book report or take a test on a book they really loved. I can’t tell you why I liked it so much, I just did.
Since I first posted that review, Patrick Ness and The Knife of Never Letting Go won the Guardian Prize for Children’s Fiction, a prestigious honor in Great Britain. I hope it is only the first of many awards and accolades that Knife will be garnering this year. When Tracy Miracle, senior publicist at Candlewick, offered me the opportunity to interview Ness for ReadSpace, I jumped at the chance, even though I had never done anything like that before.
Susan: I see from your blog that you have been training for long distance running (a half marathon, perhaps working towards full marathon.) I was wondering what, if any, parallels you see between writing a book and training for a race?
Patrick Ness: I’ll avoid the obvious answer that writing a book is like running a marathon (even though it really, really is, thousands and thousands of little steps adding up to a great big thing that nearly kills you), but I will say that running is about the most brilliant hobby a writer can have. It’s meditative, so it’s good for the brain. It’s rhythmic, so it starts to sort out ideas. And it’s a kind of boring, so you’ve got lots of thinking time where no one will interrupt you. Absolutely true, I’ve solved almost every single sticky plotting problem I’ve had while out running. Also, most writers are obsessives, and it’s a great hobby for obsessives – noticeable improvement, goals to reach. The alternative is golf, and no one wants that.
Susan: I really liked this quote of yours from The Guardian site: “The thing a teenage audience will do for you is that if you don’t insult their intelligence, they will often follow you to strange places, so you can really go for it.” Could you talk about how one goes about not insulting the intelligence of teens? And how you come up with these strange places in your writing?
Patrick Ness: First and foremost, it’s getting rid of the idea that, because you’re writing for teens, you can take any shortcuts, fudge any plotting mistakes, and so on, and think that they won’t notice because they’re teenagers. Wrong. They’ll be the first to notice and the first to ask you very awkward logic questions when they meet you.
Second, it’s this idea that teens need stories that teach them lessons. This is part of my core belief about the art of writing: if you start any story from a point other than the desperate desire to tell that story (e.g. wanting to make a political point, wanting to discuss “an issue”, wanting to teach a lesson), you’re setting out to write a mediocre story. But if you’re true to the story you desperately want to tell and then tell it, at the end, if you’ve listened to your real artistic voice, there are going to be lessons and subtexts and morals and intelligent thoughts all over the place. So when writing for teens, I would have insulted their intelligence by asking a different question than the one I always ask for adults: what’s the story that I want to read? It doesn’t matter if they don’t understand every word or every reference or ever situation; you’re paying them the compliment of allowing them to figure it out.
And third, it’s about writing the world as it is rather than the world as it should be. I remember reading all kinds of stories growing up where, for example, the bullied kid ends up being best friends with the bully, and every time, even aged 11, I would think, “Yeah, right.” The opposite end of this is writing that the world of a teenager is all brutality and hopelessness and assuming that this is the truth. It isn’t that way either. Teenagers know just as much pain and joy as the rest of us, and I think they like to see both on the page just as much as the rest of us do. Just because you don’t end up conquering the bully doesn’t mean that hope isn’t also still possible. But lie to them about how bullies are all really softies on the inside, and why should they believe you about hope?
As for where I come up with my own strange places to take them to, I wish I knew. It’d make writing easier. But I think a lot of teenagers like to escape (I certainly did), and far-off fiction is a great place to do that, as long as it’s not silly or half-thought-through. Fiction is a world made of words, so why not make it the most interesting world you can?
Susan: I know that every reader of Knife is already on pins and needles to find out how the situation at the end of the book will resolve itself in book 2. Do you have any spoilers you can share without giving too much away?
Patrick Ness: Nope, spoilers ruin everything! Well, okay, I can tell you three things. 1) it’s called The Ask & The Answer, 2) I can tell all the Manchee fans out there that there’s a horse, and 3) the first line is, “Your Noise reveals you, Todd Hewitt.”
Susan: Well, I guess we will have to leave it at that and wait (as patiently as possible) for the second book! Many thanks to Patrick for agreeing to be interviewed and to Tracy for setting it up.