In 2010 Walker Books announced the forthcoming publication of a new book; Patrick Ness, author of the Chaos Walking trilogy, was to complete a novel that had begun as a fragment and an idea written by Siobhan Dowd, who died of breast cancer before the novel was finished (and who won the 2009 Carnegie Medal posthumously for Bog Child). The fact that the story revolved around how a boy deals with the imminent death of his mother from cancer and finally with the death itself added an extra twist. The completed book was anticipated by many with an eager curiosity about what the creative energy of two such distinguished writers might produce. Here, Patrick Ness and Denise Johnstone Burt, his editor at Walker Books, discuss what went into creating A Monster Calls.
How did this all begin?
Johnstone-Burt: For me, it started with Siobhan Dowd in 2003. I bid for A Swift Pure Cry and I didn’t get it; we came second. But we became friends and she felt she still wanted to do something with us. We’d made a beautiful cover as part of our presentation for the book and she felt we’d publish her well. At the same time, Siobhan’s cancer became terminal but she remained busy writing her books. In 2005 I commissioned her to write a story for younger readers and it was going to be illustrated. She called it Mistress Yew but she also said that wasn’t going to be the title. It was a paean to that ancient tree that was the source of so many drugs against cancer and particularly breast cancer. She started to write the story, she was very excited by it and she was loving writing it. Then she died, I think much more rapidly than had been expected, and she left an opening few pages to this story. She emailed me just before she died, saying, “I want to tell you a bit about this story I’m writing.” It was clearly giving her great joy. After she’d died I received the manuscript, about 1500 words. It was an opening and was structured in such a way that, with her notes, it showed me the characters and how the story was laid out. I felt it was a platform, something somebody might take on because there was a really interesting idea here.
What was your thinking about what kind of author you wanted to take it on? Why Patrick Ness?
Johnstone-Burt: I had talked about the idea with a few people. The usual response was that it should be a woman who took it on. Then one day Patrick was in my office and I suddenly realized that the only thing I could do with this was give it to the best writer I knew, so I gave it to Patrick to think about.”
Did it feel at all opportunistic? Or exploitative of her name or talent?
Johnstone-Burt: Not at all. The amount of material left was small. Also, I felt that Siobhan would have quite liked the idea. She would have found it interesting and seen it as a way of keeping the story alive beyond the page.
Ness: It wasn’t as if it was an undiscovered manuscript draft. She gave it to Denise and I’ve seen the emails which show that she was fully, fully intending to write it and for it to be her next book.
Can you describe the fragment that you read?
Ness: There was this bit of prose which was small but very full, very vivid and very potent. It wasn’t very polished so to me it felt like a first draft, and that’s not an insult. I would never let anyone see my first draft so I felt a writerly sympathy that someone was having a look at it. Then there was the email which explained that the tree figure would tell three stories for which she said she had great ideas although she didn’t write those ideas down. So it was set up – there was Conor with a name, Lily with a name and the mother. And the tree coming to life to speak. But it wasn’t spelt out what it would say. It was a small piece but packed. It needed a lot of unpacking. Everything was laid out with a great sense of love.
From her notes, could you tell what her ambitions for the story were and how did you fulfil them?
Ness: She didn’t say how she saw it ending. That’s the one thing she didn’t say. It was a cracking start with a story laid out with great efficiency which I envy. I really respond to stories within stories and I thought, ‘That has an arc. It can really go somewhere.’ I felt, ‘This is a writer who’s got a story to tell, a great story to tell regardless of impact, regardless of its legacy.’ It was just that she could feel the story coming together. It was all about to fall into place and she was about to begin. That’s why I took it on. It’s a thrilling feeling for any writer.
How did you prepare for it? Specifically, did you read all of Siobhan Dowd’s books?
Ness: The process of writing it was only a little different so I prepared like I do for any book. I let the idea stew. I turned it over in my head, usually when I was running because that’s what I do. I could see where the story was going. There were a couple of things I decided. There was no way I was going to write it in the voice of Siobhan Dowd. I think those things are terrible. I think they fail because they pay attention to the technical aspects of the story so I had to have that freedom. I also had to have the freedom to take the story anyway I wanted to. That’s the same freedom as Siobhan would have given herself. That’s what makes a great story. If it grows naturally, if it surprises naturally. That has to happen or the story dies. And if the story dies, then you’ve written a bad story and that’s the worst possible tribute you could pay. So I set aside it being a tribute, I set aside it being in her voice. I just wanted to think about her, writer to writer. Where could I go with her idea? In the end, that was the best tribute.”
Johnstone-Burt: I wasn’t quite sure how Patrick would take my suggestion when I offered it. I was anxious because it was exposing someone’s work. I didn’t want him just to finish off the idea. After he had ‘stewed’ we had a really good talk about it and that was when he said the things he’s just said. That’s when I really took on board that he was writing a completely new book.
What were the challenges?
Ness: There were challenges: at the outset, I could not have been the most obvious choice. There was always the worry that people would say, ‘What will you do about her voice?’ People get very protective after a writer has died, and rightfully so. But, after I’d set aside any expectations – and that’s what I have to do with any book – that’s very difficult, but vital – I just somehow had to get back to that place like I did when I wrote my first book which is, no one will probably ever read this book so it can go where it wants to go. Then it became a private conversation between me and her story, her idea. It was a fun place to be even though it was sad. I wanted it to be true. Not hopeless, but true. That’s an important part of my writing for teenagers because it was what I wanted as a teenager but rarely got. For me it is really important to have a story with blood in the veins, there are bad tempers and good tempers. It’s visceral, physical and not just one color because that’s not how people are.
Once you’d started writing did you feel empowered or restrained by not having had the very first idea?
Ness: It’s a paradox. Limitations can be hugely creative and hugely inspiring – so long as they are the ones you choose for yourself. I will not allow anyone to take anything off my palette but if I do then within that, I can be creative. I viewed it as, there are limitations because this is the idea but, within that, what can I do? How can I turn it into something? That’s creative and empowering. I had to think, ‘This is what I’ve got. How do I spin it?’ It’s thrilling.
When you read the manuscript of A Monster Calls did it make you think of Patrick Ness or Siobhan Dowd?
Johnstone-Burt: Patrick Ness – but I thought Siobhan would love this. She’d be proud of this.
Ness: That’s what my goal was. Not to write something she would have written but to write something she would have liked.
Johnstone-Burt: And I think it would have made her laugh.
Did it require much editing?
Johnstone-Burt: No. Not much but there was some editing though. In the first draft the monster was visible. I think changing that was a key change.
Ness: I’d argue there was still some ambiguity but yes, it was a change. The story became much more focused on him – on Conor. But I always do make changes. The weave gets tighter and tighter and tighter. The changes were a continuation of the writing.
A Monster Calls has been beautifully published [in the U.K.] in an expensive illustrated edition. Was that decision taken to support the concept or was it what you decided once you had read the manuscript and realized the scope of the book?
Johnstone-Burt: When Patrick agreed to take on the project I felt I then had to tell the world the terms on which I’d made this deal. And the terms were that it was entirely up to him what it wrote. Whatever it was, we would publish it in the very best way possible.
Ness: I think that’s important for all of us. A book cannot apologize for what people may think it should be. It has to be authoritative. That’s what I want as a reader – I want to be confident that the book will do its job.
Jim Kay’s illustrations are magnificent. Incredible, just fantastic.
A Monster Calls has been extremely well received; your own books have also been very highly praised. Is your response to these accolades the same or is there something special about this book or this idea?
Ness: I don’t feel any less or more an owner of this. I feel it’s my book in a particular way. It felt like it is something private between me and Siobhan. Something that no one can touch. People can say what they like but I know how I feel about it and they can’t change that. So yes, it does feel like mine. It’s different from Chaos Walking in a number of ways, not just because the idea came from Siobhan but also because of its view, its length and its focus, so writing it was a creative challenge which I welcomed. So it’s different not just because of Siobhan but for many other reasons. I absolutely believe in it. Writing it was an incredible experience.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. Candlewick, $15.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-7636-5559-4