Many people who now consider themselves evangelists for Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy initially resisted the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, which is narrated by the illiterate but lovable Todd Hewitt, the last boy in a frontier town on a colonized planet, and features a talking dog. Grammar is incorrect, spellings are phonetic, and there are intermittent passages of scrawled gibberish in various typefaces meant to convey the town's "Noise." A virus on Todd's planet has made everyone's thoughts (including the animals') audible to everyone else—except the women. They are all dead.
"Everybody, including all the kids who have read it, has the same first comment: they are completely disoriented when they start the book," says Kenny Brechner of Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine. "But if they could get 20 pages in, it's all good. From there, they can't put it down."
The boom in dystopian fiction for teens has seen Ness's books raked into a pile with other books-to-read-while-you're-waiting-for-Mockingjay, the final installment in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy. Booksellers and critics say the Chaos Walking series deserves better. Reviewing Ness's third volume, Monsters of Men, Robert Dunbar wrote in the Guardian that it "triumphantly concludes what will almost certainly come to be seen as one of the outstanding literary achievements of the present century, whether viewed as fiction for the young or for a wider readership."
Candlewick will release Monsters in the U.S., but Frazer Dobson, co-owner of Park Road Books in Charlotte, N.C., couldn't wait, ordering a copy for himself from England. "I am relentlessly talking [this series] up to everybody, especially if they tell me they've read The Hunger Games. I did enjoy The Hunger Games, but I don't think it's in the same league with Ness."
Ness, an American living in London, had published an adult novel and a short story collection when his agent, Michelle Kass, approached Denise Johnstone-Burt, publisher of Walker Books, in 2007 with the beginning of what would become Knife.
"I read just the first 40 pages or so, up the point where [Todd] says, ‘It's a girl,' and I just thought it was brilliant. It was a unique voice, and so imaginative," Johnstone-Burt recalls. "I rang up the agent, but there was no more to read. That was all he had written at the time. I bought the trilogy on the strength of that."
Ness subsequently produced three thick books in three years (the second volume, The Ask and the Answer, was published in 2009), though he'd been thinking about "Noise" for several years before he figured out a shape for the story.
"The idea was that the world is already a pretty noisy place," Ness says via telephone from his home in Bromley, on the outskirts of London, "with cellphones, texts, the Internet, but I didn't start writing until I had an idea for Todd's voice, and it emerged slowly." Todd has been called science fiction's Huck Finn, with his endearing naïveté and creative vernacular, a sort of pidgin English that Ness says he struggled with initially.
"Vernacular is a way to communicate a lot in voice without exposition—Todd is smart, but no one's ever had a chance to show him how to write," Ness says. "But the danger of using vernacular is it's a lot more fun to write than to read. I had to keep scaling it back until I found the right amount."
Published in the U.K. in May 2008, Knife was an instant critical success, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal and winning both the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Booktrust Teenage Prize within a few months of its release. Foreign rights were sold in 11 languages. The rather awkward English title of the first book became The Voice of the Knife in French and The Hole in the Noise in Italian. "The Germans call it The Flight, very straightforward," Ness says.
In the U.S., sales have built slowly but steadily. The modest 10,000-copy first print run for Knife was more than doubled for book two. Candlewick is printing 40,000 copies of Monsters, which will bring the U.S. and Canadian editions to 100,000 books in print in hard and softcover—solid numbers for a YA title, except in comparison to a series like the Hunger Games, which has 2.3 million copies in print.
Like Collins, Ness is a military brat, born in 1971 at Fort Belvoir, in northern Virginia. His father was a drill sergeant; the family moved to Hawaii while he was still an infant, then Washington state. Ness considers himself a Westerner, having studied English literature at the University of Southern California. He intended to be a writer; he wrote much of his first novel, The Crash of Hennington (Flamingo, 2003), while working in corporate communications for a cable company. His break came, he says, when the company was bought out and Ness was laid off. "I got a great big severance, moved to England, and finished the novel," he says. In between teaching jobs, writing book reviews, and running marathons, he wrote a short story collection, Topics About Which I Know Nothing (HarperPerennial, 2005). Hennington was not released in the U.S.; Topics is out of print. Neither title—aimed at adults—would suggest that an epic dystopian trilogy for teens would be next on Ness's agenda.
Todd's story begins a month before he turns 13 and "become[s] a man," in the eyes of his village. Despite the "Noise," secrets have been effectively kept from Todd—what he knows about his planet is incomplete and even incorrect, and it's from that shifting, uncomfortable perspective that the horrors of Todd's world unfold for readers. Ness's narrative takes on the treatment of indigenous populations, the awfulness of war, the oppression of women, and the difference in the way people reveal themselves.
"There's so much depth," says Brechner, the Maine bookseller, who has been on a "hand-selling bender" since finally responding a few months ago to repeated pleas from his Candlewick rep that he read Knife. "The characters are really complex, it has a historical component, it's a coming-of-age story, he's got a fascinating evil guy in the mayor, there's just a ton to talk about. I mean, how much more do you want out of a book than this one delivers?"
Ness did not tour to support the first two Candlewick editions, but the company will be bringing him to the States in early October for the release of Monsters. Though Candlewick does not have an adult list, the publisher thinks that in the way M.T. Anderson's Octavian Nothing books appealed to adult readers, so, too, could Ness's trilogy.
"We plan to do some crossover marketing to try to get adult readership as well," says Kaylin Adair, the American editor of the series. "But there are teenage readers who need books like this, and not just within the classroom but for pleasure reading. We won't consider it a loss if only teens read it."
Ness is close to submitting his next manuscript (see below)—a middle-grade title—and is under contract with Walker for another young adult series. Moving from adult books to children's has been "outrageously satisfying," he says, admitting to mixed feelings now that his breakout trilogy is finished. "I imagine it's like the feeling you get when you send your kid off to college," Ness says. "You cry, but you're also a bit relieved."
The One That Almost Got Away
Though Patrick Ness never met Siobhan Dowd, he knew her name well. It seemed like every time his first book was nominated for an award, it was competing with one of Dowd's. Both writers had novels on the Carnegie Medal shortlist in 2009 (Dowd won, posthumously, for Bog Child); both were finalists for the 2008 Guardian's Children's Fiction Prize (Ness won for The Knife of Never Letting Go). Now the link will be even tighter: much to his own surprise, Ness is finishing a book based on a fragment left by Dowd, who died from breast cancer in 2007.
"Normally, it wouldn't be anything I would consider doing, because I need to write freely and if I tried to mimic someone else, I think I'd write a bad book," Ness says. "But the idea was so good, I started getting my own ideas about how I would write the story."
The novel, titled A Monster Calls, involves a boy whose mother is ill and centers around the healing powers of the yew tree. The drug Tamoxifen, which is used in many cases to treat breast cancer, is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree.
Walker Books publisher Denise Johnstone-Burt approached Ness with the idea of finishing Dowd's novel, intent on not letting another Dowd manuscript get away. In 2005, she had bid on Dowd's first novel, A Swift Pure Cry, which was won at auction by David Fickling Books. Despite losing the book, the two women hit it off. "We kept in touch with the hope we could work together on something else," Johnstone-Burt says.
Dowd didn't start writing novels in earnest until her 40s, but in the years before her death at age 47, her output was prolific. She produced four complete manuscripts in as many years, writing 1,000 words a day in the attic of her Oxford home—A Swift Pure Cry, The London Eye Mystery, Bog Child, and Solace of the Road.
A year after they first met and aware that her cancer was terminal, Dowd brought the idea for A Monster Calls to Johnstone-Burt. "She had a very detailed premise, but just a few thousand words of prose," Johnstone-Burt recalls. "She just couldn't rally to finish it."
A Monster Calls is slated for publication in May 2011; Candlewick is the U.S. publisher.Ness says he's glad he overcame his initial reservations and signed on: "The whole situation is so exciting. It's like being handed a baton and told to finish the race. I've taken the baton from a really great writer. I want most of all to write a book Siobhan would like."