Patrick Ness won the 2008 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize with his first book for teenagers The Knife Of Never Letting Go - the first in the Chaos Walking trilogy. The sequel The Ask and the Answer came out last year and won the 2009 Costa Children’s Book Award. The third and final book in the series Monsters of Men is out in May 2010.
Andrew McDonald spoke to Patrick Ness with ‘Asks and Answers’ about the Chaos Walking trilogy, writing about violence and the question that aspiring writers should be asking.
ASK: The voices in Knife and Ask are so distinctive and strange and absorbing. Is it like method acting when you write from these points of view and do you need to ‘warm up’ before you can write them?
ANSWER: Not ‘warming up’ so much, but they do definitely need finding. I spent a good amount of time having fun finding Todd’s voice. There were times when he was more difficult, less difficult, a bit younger, a bit older, all those things. But I always say that voices are alchemical: you search and you search and you search, and then one day they’re just suddenly there on the page, ready to go. Once I’d found Todd, I was off and running.
ASK: The fact that men’s thoughts can be heard by everyone and women’s thoughts can’t be heard by anyone acts as a powerful metaphor throughout the books. Would you prefer to be born into this world as a man or a woman?
ANSWER: I don’t think either side has it very easy, really. But then, the books are really about how it’s so important to deal with what’s given you in the best way possible, regardless of how hard it is, so maybe that’s the best way to think of it. How would I deal with it if I was born a man? And how would I deal with it if I was a woman? And actually, since I’m the writer, I’d probably be most like Todd and Viola (I’d hope!). It’s a good question to set off a long discussion, though.
ASK: The Knife Of Never Letting Go, book one in the Chaos Walking trilogy, was narrated from the point of view of the boy Todd, whereas book two, The Ask and the Answer, has its narration split between Todd and the girl Viola. Was this a conscious decision to keep the series fresh and can we expect a similar change for book three Monsters of Men?
ANSWER: I always knew it would be that way from the start. I knew book two would get bigger and wider and raise the stakes, and that would need two voices from two sides of a simmering civil war. It certainly did keep me fresh, which is always a good idea when writing a long book, but it also good fun switching between them and how different they are. As for Monsters of Men, I couldn’t possibly give anything away! But just to say that, yes, there are some new things in store. You might be in for a few surprises.
ASK: The Chaos books are quite graphic and gory in places, and violence plays a large part in the depicted world; a world that is undoubtedly a man’s world. Are there scenes like the ones containing violence that you find harder or easier to write?
ANSWER: Well, women aren’t absolved from violence or difficult actions in this world. Mistress Coyle is either a freedom fighter or a terrorist, depending whether you’re on her side or not, so I wouldn’t agree that it’s entirely a man’s world at all. Violence is difficult to write, and it should be. I think if it’s coming easy then there’s not enough at stake. Every scene of violence should contain all the peril and terror as if it were against someone you loved. That has to be the benchmark, otherwise it’s just cheap and exploitative. You have to earn it and it has to mean something. And when it’s those things, yes, definitely it’s hard to write.
ASK: As well as being a writer you’ve also taught creative writing at Oxford University. You must get asked questions by aspiring writers all the time. What’s one question that you think aspiring writers should be asking more often than they currently do?
ANSWER: They should be asking, “Will you please leave me alone so I can write?” Aspiring writers (and I know this from firsthand experience) worry so much that they’re doing it wrong, they can waste all their time asking about the “right” way to do it, when there really is no right way. There’s only a right way for you. And the best way to find that is to shut off the world and get down and do some writing. Talking about writing isn’t going to get anything written.
SPOILER ALERT! Only read the highlighted text of the last question if you’ve finished reading The Knife Of Never Letting Go.
ASK: Do you miss Todd’s dog Manchee as much as everyone else reading the books does?
ANSWER: Oy, spoiler alert! This was kind of like those violent scenes above. I was upset when I wrote Manchee’s great act of bravery, upset when I rewrote it, upset when I edited it, upset when I proofed it… That’s how I knew it was working. But yeah, he was great fun to write. Todd got himself a horse, though, in The Ask and the Answer, as did Viola, and they play very important roles in Monsters of Men. Nothing like a loyal animal.