Patrick Ness

Filmed and edited by David Todd

Duration: 12:37

Patrick Ness took some time out of his busy Sydney Writers’ Festival schedule to chat to PRC Officer Tamara Rodgers about his writing process, turning his work into other forms, and why we should read widely.

Back to:

Transcript – Patrick Ness

TAMARA RODGERS: Hi. I'm Tamara Rodgers from the Premier's Reading Challenge. We're here at the Sydney Writer's Festival Secondary Schools Day, hanging out backstage and catching up with some of the great authors on the programme. We're joined by Patrick Ness.


TAMARA RODGERS: How doing, Patrick?


TAMARA RODGERS: So you're enjoying your Writer's Festival?

PATRICK NESS: Yeah, it's good. Really good crowds. Good kids.

TAMARA RODGERS: So The Premier's Reading Challenge started a couple of months ago now, and kids across the state are hopefully discovering some great books to read with some-- from some great authors. What did you read when you were a kid?

PATRICK NESS: I was-- despite having quite a strict upbringing, I was a very unchaperoned reader. And my parents would kind of just drop me off at the library, and I would wander and just pick stuff. And I cannot recommend that enough. I cannot recommend reaching above your 'reading level,' I can't recommend that enough. Trying books that might not even be 'appropriate'-- going to keep doing that-- 'appropriate,' whatever that means, because I read a lot of stuff that was way older than I 'should'-- there it is again-- I should have read. But I think that's great. I think it's great when you try.

And like I read 'The Colour Purple' when I was 14. That's not a book written for 14-year-olds, but it kind of exploded the world a bit, you know? It showed me that there is-- wow, there's so much more out there than just your experience. So read inappropriately. I cannot stress that enough.

TAMARA RODGERS: That's a good piece of advice. Have you revisited some of those inappropriate books that you read when you were a kid as an adult?

PATRICK NESS: Yeah. I mean, yeah, there's one-- the one that really-- there was a book called-- and nobody would have heard of this, it's very obscure-- it's called 'Jitterbug Perfume' by Tom Robbins, and I read that book probably 20, 25 times as a teenager. And I haven't read it since, purposely, because I want to keep that experience of what it was like, you know, I don't want to taint it at all so. So that's OK, there's lots of books to read.


PATRICK NESS: Lots of books out there.

TAMARA RODGERS: So you read fairly widely when you're a kid. Is that still the case now? Or you just read--


TAMARA RODGERS: --anything and everything you can get your hands on?

PATRICK NESS: Well, anything that sounds interesting, because I mean, I think it's so important for any-- especially if you're in any creative industry, if you're a musician, anything, I think the real important thing is a lack of snobbery, because it is 100% true that good stories can exist anywhere. They can exist in your genre, in any age group, in any medium.

And of course, bad stories can too, so don't waste your time on the bad ones. But don't be a snob about a whole section of literature or a whole section of television just because, you know, you think, oh, it's all going to be crap. That's not true. There's good stuff everywhere. Don't be a snob.

TAMARA RODGERS: Nice. Tell me what you're writing process is like when you get a fantastic idea for a story and it's just kind of niggling away in your brain. How do you approach the process of getting that story from your brain into these lovely things that we see before us?

PATRICK NESS: Well, I mean, I think I always-- some advice to give for any writers out there, and I know there are some, is if you get a good idea, maybe wait with it, see what happens, because a good idea will spawn other good ideas. And a really great idea, one that might grow into a book size, will start sprouting other ideas on top of it and other things will stick to it, and that's when you think, ah, maybe this will take me through 300 or 400 pages. And so I tend to let it churn for a while first, just to see. And sometimes that comes very quickly, sometimes it comes slowly. There's no right way about that.

And then there's no one right way to write a book. You know, an author can tell you how they write a book. They can't tell you how you might write a book. I can say what I do.

I do-- like I work to goal, for example, rather than time, because time wouldn't work for me. So I say I want to write 1,000 words today, rather than I want to write for two hours.

TAMARA RODGERS: Because you could sit there for two hours, and get two paragraphs out of that.

PATRICK NESS: Exactly. Yeah. So and that works for me. So find whatever works for you. That's how I do it.

And my thousand words a day accumulates-- you know, it's not a small amount. It's not too big to be intimidating, but it's not too small so that it can accumulate. And pretty soon, you've got a pretty good chunk of material and you think, OK, this feels like I'm into the book now. So just patience and a good daily goal, that's really worked for me.

TAMARA RODGERS: Can we talk a little bit about process of writing 'A Monster Calls,' which is such a magnificent book. It start life as a story in someone else's head, yeah?

PATRICK NESS: Yeah. Well, it started it was a unique way to get a book idea, because there's-- was a wonderful called Siobhan Dowd-- who everybody should read, you should find her books-- and she-- but she wrote all of four books during that she had cancer and she knew that it was terminal, and this was going to be book number five. She thought she'd have time to write it. She made a very small beginning and then sadly passed away.

And we shared an editor, at that time, at my publisher, and she bought the book to me and said, would you consider turning this into a book. And my first response was probably, no, because I really, really believe a story has to be a story. It can't be anything else but a story. And if it is the truest story you can tell, it's gonna contain all the things you want it to do, so you don't have to worry about those things first, you have to write the story first.

So I didn't want to write a memorial, because that's not what Siobhan Dowd would've done. And so I was kind of on the fence, and then it suggested another idea, which is the gold standard. It's like I just said, it started to grow.

And I thought, oh, there's something here. There's real power here. And so I thought, I'll go for it, why not? Take the risk.

TAMARA RODGERS: Yeah. And it is a book that has extraordinary power. So in my previous life, outside the PRC, I was an English teacher and we would teach this to our kids, and it was that text that just kind of sunk it's claws into kids.

PATRICK NESS: Oh great. Thank you very much.

TAMARA RODGERS: Really amazing. So it's kind of moved on from just a book now. So it's become this beautiful illustrated edition, which is lovely. Also a film. And I believe that you wrote the script for that.

PATRICK NESS: I did, yeah.

TAMARA RODGERS: So what was that experience like? Taking something that you've written as a novel and then turning it into something else.

PATRICK NESS: Well, I mean, I strongly believe that the only person who should tell the writer what to write is the writer. And I don't mean don't take input, because you need input and you need people to ask you questions about yourself. But don't let anybody tell you that if you're a novelist you can't write something else, or that you can only stick to the age group that you chose. You can do anything as a writer, and you're the one who decides what that is.

And so in that spirit, I though, I feel like I know why the book works. There are things that I really believe about the book, and so why don't I at least start the conversation about the movie. And I'm not a filmmaker, just somebody who, you know, I would-- they would need to bring their experience too, because it's just-- I am not pretending that I know everything. But I thought, here's what I believe. I can sort of lay it out and say, here's what I believe and why I believe it, and see if somebody responds to that.

So I wrote the screenplay-- even though there were people interested in making it, I wrote the screenplay without making any kind of deal so that I could have complete freedom. And so it was a risk, and I'm super lucky it turned out. I mean, it could easily have not happened. But yeah, it's kind of that just you choose what to write. You choose where and how you're going to write it, and then find collaborators and they can teach you all kinds of stuff.

TAMARA RODGERS: So where is 'Monster Calls' heading next? I believe that there's something pretty exciting happening.

PATRICK NESS: Yeah. There's going to be-- there's a stage version that's going on in London, and it starts on 31st of May this year, so it's quite quick. And radically different from the film in a really great way. And super clever director, super smart. She's really amazing. So I'm as excited to see it as anybody else.

TAMARA RODGERS: Now, did you have similar input in the development of that for stage or--

PATRICK NESS: It's what's called a devised piece, so that the actors are-- they have a kind of a text, usually mostly with the book, and they're then-- in the rehearsals, they're figuring out how they want to tell the story. It's a really interesting way to get a play, particularly from a text that already exists. So I can just kind of sit back and answer questions and let them find all the stuff that I would never thought of, and that's the great part of collaboration.

TAMARA RODGERS: So you're going through a similar process with Chaos Walking trilogy, which is celebrating 10 years. An amazing, amazing collection of books, but there's a film in the works there too.

PATRICK NESS: Yep. It's got Daisy Ridley, who is Rey in Star Wars, and Tom Holland, who's the new Spider-Man. So I've got Star Wars and an Avenger.

TAMARA RODGERS: That's a pretty incredible cast, right?

PATRICK NESS: This is ridiculous. It's ridiculous. And so yeah, that should be out in 2019.

TAMARA RODGERS: And so were you involved in the script for that, as well? Or--

[interposing voices]

PATRICK NESS: I've written-- I wrote a couple draughts, because the director has this kind of exploration process, and so he takes the script and he just sort of opens it up and says, let's see where we can go. And I'm writing on it now, so it's a totally different experience from 'Monster Calls,' but it's just different. Not better or worse, just different. So I'm still learning a lot, and which is all I want to do. I want to keep learning and keep growing. And yeah, fingers crossed for the movie next year.

TAMARA RODGERS: Amazing. We'll keep an eye out for it.

My favourite book of yours is the one that's sitting closest to you, 'The Rest of Us Just Live Here.' So I often-- when I read a book or when I watch a show that kind of captivates me, I wonder what's happening to the lives of the rest of the people in that town.


TAMARA RODGERS: That's what you've captured in this book so fantastically. Can you talk to us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book.

PATRICK NESS: Yeah, I mean, there's so many teen books about the chosen one, and they exist for a reason. You know, there's-- long may it live. It gives-- it takes that feeling of being different that every teenager feels and it says, it's OK that you feel this way, because you're a wizard, Harry.


And that's great, you know, it gives a real validation to things you feel.

But there's so many of them now that I begin to wonder, well, what about the kid who doesn't feel that?


PATRICK NESS: Thinks I'm never going to get a letter to Hogwarts, no matter what you say. What is his life like? What is her life like? And so I thought, it's kind of a book for those kids, those kids who are never going to be the big budget heroine, but are still just as brave and just as heroic.


PATRICK NESS: And they live in a town with all the other chosen ones. So that's all going on in the background, and they're just trying to stay alive and live their lives while the chosen one's story is happening.

TAMARA RODGERS: Yeah. And so there's this chosen one story going on with this references to other chosen stories that have come before with [inaudible] ghosts and vampires, but then everything else is very-- it's very normal. It's very much just normal kids trying to live their lives, trying to deal with their own stuff.

PATRICK NESS: They've accepted this alternate reality is happening, and they're like I just want to get on with it.

TAMARA RODGERS: Yeah. Exactly. Oh yeah. Some more vampires, OK, that's cool. How am I going to get to graduation?



If you had to offer one piece of advice to someone who doesn't really like read, who's struggling with their teachers back at school or their librarians saying, you know, you need to read 20 books for the Premier's Reading Challenge.


TAMARA RODGERS: Get on that. But it's not really their thing. What would you say to that kid?

PATRICK NESS: That's OK, you know? There's no-- reading is something that you're taught in school, but it's-- on its own, it is a separate thing from what you learn. It's a part of your life in an entirely different way than how you need to learn it at school. So if your resistance is that it's a school thing, well, it's not always going to be a school thing. It can be something that you can personally bring as part of your life.

And I would also say like a little bit like what I said earlier about I read inappropriately, and I think that is so key. You know, if you are-- I would always say to someone who doesn't like reading, you probably just haven't found the right book for you yet.


PATRICK NESS: And maybe that's because of what people are telling you you should read. And if you disagree with that, there's nothing wrong with that. If you need something different, there is no wrong way to read. There's no wrong book to read. Well, there are a few wrong books to read, but you know what I mean.

So there's probably a book out there. And you can read it in secret. Nobody has to know. It can be entirely yours, and there's nothing wrong with that. But there is a book out there that you will love, I guarantee it.

TAMARA RODGERS: So what's next for you? Are you working on something at the moment?

PATRICK NESS: Yeah, I've been working on a couple film scripts. I've got a book coming out this year called 'And the Ocean Was Our Sky.' It's narrated by a whale, because why not? And I'm working on a book for probably the year after that, because I've got another idea quite quickly, which is a nice surprise.


PATRICK NESS: So yeah, working, working.


PATRICK NESS: [inaudible] Get off my back. I'm working.



Well, we'll keep an eye out for it. I'm certainly looking forward to Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland [inaudible].

PATRICK NESS: Yeah, me too. Me too.

TAMARA RODGERS: So thanks so much for coming backstage, and having a chat with us. It's been really great to catch up with you. Enjoy the rest of your Senior Writer's Festival.

PATRICK NESS: Thank you very much.

TAMARA RODGERS: Pleasure. Happy reading everyone.

End of transcript