Q&A: Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness is the author of the Chaos Walking trilogy, which includes the award-winning The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008), The Ask and the Answer (2009) and Monsters of Men (2010). Join him on Tuesday, March 9, 6-7.30pm for a unique FREE event at the University of Sydney. Seats are limited, bookings essential. Email your full name and contact number to [email protected]

1. How did you first get the idea for the Chaos Walking books?

I always say they started with a serious idea and a stupid idea. The serious idea was about information overload, that the world is already pretty noisy with mobile phones, the internet, networking sites, etc. The next logical thought was, what if you couldn’t away at all? That’s where Noise came from. And the stupid idea is that I don’t like books about talking dogs because they never talk like an actual dog would talk. So I thought it’d be funny to write one the way I always thought my own dog growing up would talk. It was good fun. And from those two ideas, a story started to form.

2. Did you always intend for the Chaos Walking books to be aimed at a young adult audience, and what is appealing about writing for this demographic?

The story itself kind of told me it was for young adults rather than the other way around, which I think is probably how it should really go. I was as surprised as anyone. What’s appealing is that teenagers aren’t snobs! If you respect them and tell a good story, they’ll follow you anywhere. But you do have to tell that good story, so you’ve got to be on the ball all the time. It’s a great challenge, very liberating, too.

3. Who are some of your favourite young adult books and authors?

There are some excellent young adult writers around, aren’t there? People like Meg Rosoff, Marcus Sedgwick, Terry Pratchett, Siobhan Dowd, Mal Peet, I could go on…

4. I’m intrigued by Noise and how it affects the men of New World. Do they feel disempowered by it? Would New Elizabeth be a safe and happy place if it wasn’t for the Noise?

Well, I tried to show that there could be different reactions to Noise, with Prentisstown being the worst. But as they journey along, Todd and Viola see places like Farbranch where it’s not so bad or Carbonell Downs where it’s less good but plausible. And then there’s Haven, where things are complicated. It’s what you’d ask of any place, I think; safety and happiness are tenuous things that need to be worked for against our natural fears.

5. Mayor Prentiss came to New World as a settler. Were his intentions on setting out to wage war and dominate, or did he start out as a good man?

I suspect the answer’s messier than just one or the other. People never get to power by a single action or intention; there are opportunities along the way that you can take or not take and those build on each other. In fact, it’s the theme of The Ask and the Answer about how you can even take what seem to be a series of small right decisions and still end up possibly doing something terrible. I suppose it’s about how many compromises you’re willing to make before you lose your humanity. As for the Mayor, maybe he had a predisposition, but you still need the circumstances to help you along. I suppose the crux of it is that I don’t think anyone is beyond redemption. You have to have hope for everyone. Now, whether they want to be redeemed is a whole other question…

6. Is Todd the rightful president of New World?

Ah, well, is anyone the “rightful” president of anywhere? It’s that old axiom that wanting to be in power should automatically disqualify you from ever having it. Todd would probably be an excellent president of New World, but he’d never want to be it (which is probably what would make him an excellent president and so on around the circle…)

7. How would you describe the intense relationship between Todd and Viola?

They learn that they really have to rely on one another, in a way far beyond just a simple teen romance.  They’re lost people who found one another, and they may not being able to understand all the depths of that just yet, but I think they’re more than smart enough to know how important the other is to them.  And that’s because they’ve each earned it, through hard circumstance.

8. Your upcoming book tour includes stops in Australia. Have you been to Australia before, and do you have any favourite Australian authors?

My very favourite author of all time is Australian, Peter Carey, and I end up reviewing a lot of Australian fiction for UK newspapers because I’ve read so much of it, like Tim Winton and Murray Bail. I can even reference Patrick White with confidence! Peter Carey is fantastic, especially at implying a larger imagined universe than is just in the particular book. I love that. And I have been to Australia, way back in 1993 when I was a fresh-faced college lad. Can’t wait to get back there.

9. Briefly – what we can expect from Monsters of Men?

Hmmmmm: War, surprises and a killer ending. It may not be what you expect!
 
10. If there was one thing that you wanted your readers to take away from Chaos Walking, what would that be?

I always worry that if I start out thinking in terms like that then I end up writing a lesson rather than a story.  Hopefully, if I pay proper attention to what the story wants to be and try to make it the best story possible, then there will be things in there for the reader to take away anyway.  I think that’s the best way; that way you never preach.  Having said that, looking back on the books now, they’re probably most about how hope lies in the people we love, that if you can find someone to count on and who counts on you, then that’s probably the best meaning life is going to get.  A hopeful message.

Adele’s Best Of 2009: The Ask And The Answer by Patrick Ness

The Ask And The Answer by Patrick Ness

This novel takes off with the speed of NASA spacecraft; the events of the previous title are picked up and tossed over the very able shoulders of Todd and Viola. Having successfully taken over Haven (now New Prentisstown), the noxious President Prentiss has decided to use our two industrious kids to further his political gain with those on the planet and those soon to arrive.

The Ask and the Answer proves that the second title in a trilogy can be a strong one, surpassing the first title in my eyes. The pace is thrilling, the events are breathtaking and the character development is supreme. As the opponents and supporters of Prentiss’ evil plans swell in numbers, it’s less of a good versus evil conflict but more about what one might do to retain a hold on their own morals, identity and life. What happens in New Prentisstown can be read on many levels but the political edge of this novel made this a fascinating read. The Answer, New Prentisstown’s guerrilla movement, could be seen as the French Resistance of this world with Prentiss himself treading the line between genuine horror and charm as the self-determined leader of the planet.

Viola and Todd are immediately separated as the events of The Knife of Never Letting Go take effect. Viola is whisked away to recover while Todd is held captive as he’s the one preventing citizens of Prentisstown (the original) from being whole. Ness has changed this novel up, having the perspective jump between Viola and Todd and it works fantastically. Their allegiance to one another allows the President to work each of them like puppets. While Todd survives by turning in on himself and taking on more responsibility with the Spackles, Viola is left anchorless, watching another tussle for control of the planet through less-than-noble means.

This book has many moments that are genuinely discomforting and horrifying – whether the annihilation of captives, the banding of citizens or the physical and psychological torture inflicted under the dictator’s control. Ness has a great way of making the page and its characters come alive through clear language and the deeper character study that is undertaken makes the world all the more richer. That being said there is a certain repetitiveness, perhaps as I have read both titles uninterrupted. Todd and Viola continue to take turns rescuing one another, calling out each other’s names and stupidly failing to realise they are being lied to over and over again (you would think they would catch on after the third time.) But the alternative perspectives ably assist in showing how different factions are dealing with occupation, assimilation and rebellion.

The Terminator-esque preacher has been done away with and as a result there is larger focus placed upon President Prentiss, his son and the depths people will plunge to in their need to live. The villains are all fantastically portrayed, not as evil incarnate (though that could be argued), but as individuals utter convinced they are doing what is best. Conviction makes the best kind of baddies and this novel has many to choose from. Of particular note, the relationship between Todd and Davy was one that evolved continually throughout the novel. Davy’s arc was one from two-dimensional villain to a friend by the end which boggles the mind and impresses the heck out of me. The characters, old and introduced, are what make this novel.

Terrorism, oppression and dishonesty are a large part of the narrative. Todd struggles to retain a sense of self while making his thoughts private as many take the cure for The Noise. Both Viola and Todd are seen as their self-appointed mentors as leaders and are regarded both respectfully and brutally in their “education” of those fighting for the survival of themselves and their ideals. This is what great dystopia should aim to be. An absolutely thought provoking, entrancing and thrilling read.

Adele Walsh, book blogger of Persnickety Snark fame and trusted reviewer, recently selected her best young-adult reads of 2009.