Riding high on a wave of awards and rave reviews for his first YA science-fiction novel, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness has delivered an equally powerful sequel, The Ask and the Answer, which features a grim, dystopian premise; well-rounded, thorny characters; and a complex, suspenseful plot. Ness spoke with Bookshelf by phone from his home in London.
You’re American-born but have been living in the U.K. for the past decade. Do you feel British yet?
In some ways. I always feel between worlds, between cultures, and I think that’s not necessarily a bad place for a writer to be. Writers are kind of on the fringe anyway, observing, writing things down. I’m still mostly American, but it’s a nice tension.
Your first two books were written for adults. What made you decide to write YA fiction, and how is it different from writing adult fiction?
I was playing around with an idea for a long time. It didn’t originally start as a young adult novel. The voice was an adolescent voice, though, and I thought, “Well, that’s interesting.” I tried to let the material tell me what it was, rather than forcing it to be something. I found it really liberating, actually. Teenagers are a terrific audience. You have to respect them or they’ll put you down immediately. There’s no sentimentality about it; if they don’t like you, they just won’t read you. They’re not snobs about genre, though, or about what happens in a story, so if you can keep their respect and get them to come with you, they’re willing to follow you anywhere, much farther than an adult audience.
How would you describe those first two books, The Crash of Hennington and Topics About Which I Know Nothing?
The Crash of Hennington is a political satire which includes a herd of rhinoceros that have wandered the city for as long as anyone can remember, so they’re just a civic feature. Topics About Which I Know Nothing is a short-story collection—the publishing term is “literary fiction,” which always sounds pompous, but both books are odd in a way that I like.
You’ve also taught creative writing and are a book reviewer. Can you say a little about that?
I taught creative writing for three years at Oxford and I’ve had fellowships at other places as well. Now I mainly review novels for the Guardian. I’ve reviewed a lot of young adult fiction as well lately. That’s really enjoyable. It’s fun being paid to read stuff and air your opinion about it—pretty much a dream job for a writer.
In The Knife of Never Letting Go, volume one of your Chaos Walking trilogy, you postulate a culture where, due to an nightmarish form of telepathy called the Noise, everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts all the time. What was your inspiration for this idea?
I live in England so I take a lot of trains, and you can’t really go anywhere without somebody talking on their mobile phone behind you, forcing you to listen to their conversation. With the Internet, with texting, with networking sites, there’s already information everywhere. The next logical step is, what if you couldn’t get away? How difficult would it be if you could hear what everyone was thinking all of the time? And how much more difficult if you were a teenager, when your thoughts are tumultuous, when privacy is important? I thought this would be pretty awful. So that’s where it started, with the idea of information overload.
Both novels are very dark. In The Ask and the Answer, after New Prentisstown is conquered, an underground forms, but even that organization, contrary to our expectations, turns out to be corrupt. You’ve put your protagonists, Todd and Viola, through all sorts of hell. Why are you so hard on them?
I kept thinking, what would the truth of this place be? Things would be really tough. I don’t know that I’m necessarily so hard on them. I’m just asking the reader the age-old question: how would you stand up to something this difficult? That’s what I hope readers get out of it.
I was also trying to be certain that there were shades of gray, that nothing was as clear as simple good and evil. Particularly when Viola starts working with the Resistance group, I wanted to show how you can make a series of small, seemingly right decisions and end up doing something you would never think of doing, something possibly terrible. And how hard it can be to keep hold of yourself when other strong personalities are trying to drag you in a particular way. I was exploring how you can be radicalized, starting out benevolent, but end up much worse than that.
I recently judged a prize for teenage writing. These were secondary school students and, almost without exception, their stories were really rough, with high body counts, really dark. That’s what being a teenager is. Your emotions and hormones are in turmoil. You have some of the responsibilities of an adult, but hardly any of the rights. It’s a tumultuous time and I’m not at all surprised that teenagers, when they write, write difficult and challenging stuff. I think that they expect it in fiction, but I never want to fall into the trap of writing rough things just for the sake of doing so, like I’ve got to put this in so that teenagers will read it. That’s not telling an appropriate story. I kept asking myself, what’s the truth of this? What would really happen? And can I tell it as much as I can by keeping my eyes wide open and not sugar-coating it? Because then, when good stuff does happen, it feels truer, because you haven’t lied about the difficult stuff.
Both novels have been praised for their innovative depiction of gender roles. Was this a goal when you set out to write the books?
Not specifically, but there were a couple of guiding rules. I get tired of comedies where there are a bunch of funny guys and a beautiful woman who doesn’t do anything funny. And I don’t like books where there’s a rough-and-tumble boy and a really clever, snotty girl. That’s just not my experience with teenagers. I was just trying to portray a female character who was a real person and not just a plot function.
Both books use innovative typefaces. Can you talk about that?
I’m not the designer behind the typeface, but I did want that. I like books that take chances. Messing around with typefaces doesn’t always work, so we tried to make sure it was not cartoonish or silly. I think that writing a book is a privilege—I mean, how many chances are you going to get? So why not try to shoot for the moon and do something different or interesting? That was part of the thinking behind it. I worked with the designer for Walker, my U.K. publisher, and we talked through what would look really cool. We tried to make sure it wasn’t over the top and made sense.
Although your world seems Earth-like, you often use subtle touches to remind us that we’re on an alien planet. Your animals—labeled turtles, horses, etc.—often do things that their real-world counterparts can’t do. Can you talk about your world-building techniques?
My favorite author is Peter Carey, the Australian writer, and the thing I think he does best is give the feeling that each of his books, even if they’re not fantastical, is just one thin slice of a larger, imagined world, that you have to infer a lot. I just love the subtlety of it, that you can get all this information by inference. So I thought, well, I want to do that. My rule was that Todd, my narrator, is not going to be one of these chatty narrators who just dumps a lot of exposition because we need it. He would only say things that he would actually say. Things that seem perfectly normal to him, he’s not going to comment on. He’s just going to act as if they’re perfectly normal.
So I started thinking, how would settlers really be? What would they really do? I thought that they would take names from Earth and stick them on whatever seemed closest. Some people don’t realize that they’re on another planet for a hundred pages, which I like. Todd has always lived there, so it’s not another planet; it’s home. I really like that kind of world-building.
Mayor Prentiss is a wonderful villain, but is he simply a highly competent and charismatic sociopath, or a genuine madman?
Does he necessarily have to be either? Is evil something you are or something you do? Is he just someone who had a propensity and then was given a lot of little opportunities along the way? I don’t like people who are just monsters. I think that lets us off the hook, because you think, well, I don’t have to worry about him because he’s just a monster and that’s not how a real human would act. I try to keep him as a man who through various circumstances simply went wrong. Basically, I like to believe that everyone can be redeemed. The potential for redemption has to be in everybody, otherwise there’s no hope for us. Now whether he wants to be redeemed, that’s a different question, but the possibility needs to be there. There’s still some humanity in him somewhere. I think that makes him more interesting as well, because a pure psychopath, a pure monster, is fun, but limited.
Tales of human-alien interaction are often symbolic of the West’s subjugation of other races—witness the recent film District Nine. How do your aliens, the Spackle, fit into this equation?
I was raised in the American West. I lived in Hawaii and Washington until I was 17 and then went to California for university, so I knew Native Americans. I’ve read a lot of Australian literature as well. I’ve read about the aboriginals and the founding of Australia. There’s definitely an analog there. Would we keep making these same mistakes and not learn from what we’ve done in the past? It’s pessimistic, but I think that we’d not be that great about it.
Besides Peter Carey, who else do you read for pleasure?
I really like Nicola Barker, who is phenomenally good. Her books are funny and freewheeling, but they’re also astringent and intelligent, and it just feels like she has to write. There’s this Scottish writer, Ali Smith, whom I like a lot. I really liked David Foster Wallace and was upset about his death. I’ve read every Don DeLillo. I like singular voices, people who aren’t afraid to push. I think Terry Pratchett has a great moral sense, and he’s funny and smart and humane.
The third book in the Chaos Walking series, Monsters of Men, is due out in 2010. Can you tell us anything about it?
No [laughter]. The title is taken from a quote that’s used in the first two books, “War makes monsters of men.” You can guess from that what the plot is about. There are surprises. I’m really happy with the ending. It finishes off the trilogy; it’s not going to be one of those trilogies that ends up five or six books long.
Do you know what you’ll be writing after that?
I have some ideas, but ideas are really precious things to me so that’s why I won’t tell you about book three. I want to reserve the right to change whatever I want to change until it’s ready. There are definitely things brewing and I’m as interested to see where they go as anyone else.
The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness. Candlewick, $18.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0763-64490-1