Your Roving Reporter was delighted to have the excuse last week to be able to quote shamelessly (and endlessly – I have four pages of scrawled notes to be deciphered for this post) from the fabulous author Patrick Ness, who spoke last week at Kidsbooks about his newest novel, The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Vancouverites and those not from Vancouver who braved the commute to Kidsbooks can wave patriotic flags, or perhaps merely fervent banners of fandom, at the side note that this was Ness’s only stop in Canada this tour. (Apparently he hasn’t come to Canada? or perhaps only Vancouver for fifteen years; last time he was nearly run over. Fortunately he managed to escape the country this visit unscathed.)
Patrick Ness kicked off the evening by selecting from among the crowd one avid attendee who would be his interviewer for the evening. When he asked for volunteers, a healthy crop of hands shot up; after a moment of hesitation he chose the one (right at the front, too) that had burst into the air almost before he finished speaking.
His interviewer, Bailey, was seated in a chair facing the audience and handed a script from which to read. I won’t spoil her introduction of Patrick Ness (the introduction was, naturally, written by himself), in case you have the chance to hear it yourself, but she hailed him as the author of The Rest of Us Just Live Here “and many other books of joy and wonder;” noted that Ness is “best known for the Chaos Walking Trilogy* and A Monster Calls,** and for making people cry.***”
“As a person,” [Bailey continued reading,] “he is the very picture of loveliness, no matter what anyone says.”
[Edit From Yash: Or, in this case, he is the somewhat blurry picture of loveliness. I apologize for my shaky little hands.]
For someone who induces tear-shedding in others (even the interviewer broke from the script for a moment: “I’m going to cry,” she said. “I do have that effect on people,” Patrick Ness agreed), and for an author on the last night of a tour (and therefore exhausted), he was in an extremely cheerful mood, and the crowd celebrated as well: The Rest of Us Just Live Here ranked second on the New York Times bestseller list.
“This is genuine chuffedness, genuine smiliness.”
(Your Roving Reporter was chuffed to hear someone actually use that word outside of British books and older relatives.)
So: about the book. The Rest of Us Just Live Here has a dual narrative. The short clippings beneath each chapter heading tell the story of the indie kids (i.e. the Chosen Ones), who are fighting the Immortals. The main story, however, is about Mikey, Mel, Jared, and Henna, who are in grade 12 at their small town’s high school, and who really just want to survive to graduation and get on with their lives. Also they would appreciate it if the school didn’t get blown up.
The author read a passage – not, surprisingly, from the first few chapters – in which Mikey and Mel have been persuaded by their ten year old sister, Meredith, to attend the concert of the country and western boy band Bolts of Fire.
The passage made me laugh. Quite a lot. Actually, almost the whole way through. Ness read well and the material was funny. As your Phenomincal Photographer said, “if I wasn’t crazy about him before, I am now.”
Patrick Ness was asked by the interviewer to talk about the ideas that became the story. The two most difficult parts of being a teenager, he said, were first of all, the initial stage, when a child becomes a teen and begins stepping away from the family and saying, ‘I am not that.’ This is part of declaring an individual identity and is psychologically necessary. But it also means feeling separate and unhappy. Chosen One narratives make these feelings okay by saying that the loneliness and the isolation have a reason.
The other hardest part of being a teen, he continued, is at the end of high school. By that stage teenagers have figured themselves out a bit, and they have some idea of where they want to go and what they want to do…
“except that school is about to end. Everything’s going to change… again.”
The Rest of Us Just Live Here was a way of looking at that second most difficult part of a teenager’s life. And, of course, he had to make it funny. Heroes always have unusual names; in the story, “there are so many Finns, they had to number them.”
He also wanted to write about two things which are common and hard to face but rarely represented – in fact, far more misrepresented – in YA and popular culture: anxiety and OCD.
“I hate the phrase ‘I’m a little OCD.’ If your house is really tidy, you’re just neat. OCD is a cage.”
“A phrase that I absolutely loathe is ‘You’ll grow out of it’. […] I want to take teenagers seriously as complex people.”
Mikey, the protagonist, therefore, has OCD. His sister, Mel, is actually a year older than Mikey but in the same grade because she missed a year of school because of her battle with anorexia at the age of twelve or thirteen. A common feeling, Ness added, is of feeling that of everyone you know, you are the least necessary, that you could drop away and nobody would notice. He wanted to write about that, too, and about
“the exquisitely painful moment when you realize it isn’t true.”
True in books as in life, it isn’t always the tragedy that brings tears, but unexpected kindness.
Then he stepped away from books for a moment to talk about Save the Children. When the photograph of Aylan Kurdi (apologies if I spelt his name wrong; I’ve also seen Alan and Alain used in news sources) hit the papers, Ness was aghast.
“I was on Twitter, and I thought I could do what everyone does on Twitter, which is shout.”
So he set up a page to fundraise for Save the Children at which people could donate, and vowed to match donations up to £10, 000. This was reached in 2 hours. Then other authors came in, offering to match the next 10, 000, and the next. As of the event, £686, 000 had been raised (about 1 million 62 thousand US). All this money has been raised by readers and by YA/CL authors.
“I really think I just got pissed off at the right moment.”
Any advice for aspiring writers?
“Write a book you would want to read yourself, because you would be amazed at how many people don’t [do this]. […] If your joy is in it, that’s what people will respond to.”
“Your story is important because you want to tell it. That’s all the permission you need. Seriously. There’s a voice in your head that says you can’t write that. [That voice is] pernicious. It’s self-censorship.”
What about diversity? Ness supports diversity (as a teen he found that, unhappily, that there were no books about young gay men) and pointed out that we need diversity in stories, and diversity in storytellers.
“If you don’t see yourself in a book, then write that book. People want to red these books.”
Also, he joked, anger and spite are really good motivations for writing.
“If someone tells me I can’t do something, my response is: watch me.”
What about writer’s block? An audience member asked. How do you work around that?
- “Have a hobby that is not writing.” Swim or go for a long bike ride; paint or whatever it is that you love that is not writing.
- “Write about the thing that is blocking you. If your characters are stuck in one place and can’t get to the other place, write about them being stuck in that one place.”
Sometimes, he added, the initial fun idea is not actually where the story needs to go.
A teacher in the audience asked about encouraging students to read (and not sucking the love of books out of them). Patrick Ness responded with what he loved, as a child, about reading.
“The idea of reading as contraband.”
“The idea of reading as slightly dangerous.”
“The idea that there’s also more.”
What about his own writing habits?
Patrick Ness said he usually doesn’t write until things are coming together in his head. The goal is to get the characters talking together. Then the writing is “truly just… listening to them.”
What inspired the Chaos Walking trilogy?
“I think that the world is already a really noisy place.”
“[Especially now with modern social media the world is] information-sharing all the time and you can’t get away from it.”
So he made that information-sharing literal, or rather, audible. The story came from two ideas: one serious and one silly. The serious idea was the loss of privacy. The silly idea? Talking dogs, in stories with talking animals, never spoke the way he thought an actual dog would. So he set out to write a dog that spoke like a dog.
What about A Monster Calls?
The author told the story of how he ended up writing Siobhan Dowd’s fifth story, one interrupted early on by her premature death. The story is about, for him, “anger, submerged anger, and doing the unspeakable, and not realizing it, and having to answer for it.” A Monster Calls was the first book ever illustrated by Jim Kay, who is now working on the official Harry Potter illustrations; Ness praised Kay highly.
The evening closed with book-signings and book-related chatter.
* Very famous and award-winning and, unless this Reporter is mistaken, a favourite of Steph’s.
** A breath-takingly dark, real story; if you haven’t read it, this Reporter urges you to. Immediately.
*** This is not a joke. By the time a reader gets to the end of a Patrick Ness book, the reader is very likely to have used up the facility to cry (from overuse in the previous dozen or so chapters), which is occasionally painful, as the ending may very well demand and require copious weeping as its rightful tribute. Um. But don’t be discouraged. The books are worth it.