This YA Author Just Gave Some Seriously Excellent Advice
"All of my books, in some way or another, ask 'How do you live after the end of the world?'"
This Sunday, the film adaptation A Monster Calls by Carnegie Award-winning author Patrick Ness hits cinemas. BuzzFeed caught up briefly with the writer in London to discuss the film, writing for teenagers, and surviving the end of the world.
A Monster Calls, like many of your other books, folds ideas that teens and children face everyday into conceptual sci-fi and fantasy. How does that help you approach what might be taboo subject matter in contemporary work?
Patrick Ness: In a way, there’s nothing that’s taboo. It’s about how you tell it. Teenagers certainly think about the most difficult things – all you have to do is read what teenagers write. Their own fiction is far darker than anything a YA author would be allowed to publish. I think, fine, that’s a fact, let’s engage with it. [What I write] isn’t the kind of fiction I was getting as a young person myself; I felt like I wasn’t being told the whole truth.
We tell stories to make sense of reality, and there's all sorts of ways you can do that.
I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a realistic story. Even if it’s set in contemporary London it just as fictionalised as contrived – characters arc toward their destinies, just coincidences, et cetera. I feel like if I acknowledge that – that Game of Thrones has the same level of invention as a super hardcore "realistic" novel, then I can relax a little bit. Because the story can do anything, all you have to do is create a world where your story could logically take place. And since it’s fiction that world can be anything – you need to be convincing and then you can go anywhere and i like a story that can do that. We tell stories to make sense of reality and there’s all sort of ways you can do that.
Speaking of making sense of realities – in A Monster Calls this is happening literally, the Monster tells Conor stories that reflect issues he’s having in his own life. What was it like to invent those?
PN: Really really fun. Really challenging. When do you get the opportunity to make a new very tale. And something I always wondered as a kid: what happens after the end of the fairy tale. Do they genuinely live happily ever after?
If the witch is telling the story, Hansel and Gretel ends way differently.
There’s a story I tell – when I was eight years old I was hit by a car in a crosswalk, I was with a friend and I was holding a bike. [The car] backed up and hit me and the bicycle and pushed me along the road, I remember being on my back on the road, then [the driver] got pushed away, total fluke – I should have been crushed. That happened on a crosswalk between a petrol station and a grocery store, so within seconds dozens of adults were running out of each place to help me and my friend. We were okay. That was when I was eight, but it’s an important story in my life. And I've always wonder if those people whose names I’ll never know and who I’ll never meet again, do they ever tell the story about the day the saw a little boy get hit by a car and thought he was going to be killed?
Where’s the truth of this story? I know my memories, but does it match their memory of it? Is the truth in the intersection? Do we both have a kind of truth about it? That to me is where [the Monster's] tales come from. They contain truth. They can also contain other truths, if someone else is telling the story. If the witch is telling the story, Hansel and Gretel ends way differently. And if Conor’s problem if that he’s told this story about himself, that he feels this wish – and it's bad – if he’s told this story about himself, then he’s trapped by it. The tales that the Monster tells him try and turn him around a little, to say "There might be other ways to tell this story".
Do you think that exploring these different truths is one of the major motivations in reading and writing fiction?
PN: I do. I think the most powerful thing about fiction, particularly YA fiction, is identification. It says you're not alone. So that’s why I get a little cross when people talk about why books must be "full of hope”. Well there’s hope, and there’s hope. And a sad book that ends badly, if it’s true, the hope is that someone has told how you feel, that you’re not alone.
I think the most powerful thing about fiction is that it says you're not alone.
When The Bunker Diary won the Carnegie, there was talk about how it’s such a bleak ending. Well yes, but that’s sometimes how you feel. Just to see that someone acknowledges that as truth is in its own way helpful.
What advice can you give to young people who are feeling isolated, alone, marginalised?
The first thing to say is, you are not alone. Sometimes that’s a powerful thing. [After the American election results] I tweeted, almost verbatim to my worried LGBT followers: Know that we're all still here, and we're not going anywhere. There are battles ahead, but I’m still fighting. Like Kate McKinnon said on Saturday Night Live, "I’m not giving up and neither should you". Sometimes that’s the first thing you need to hear.
I think the world ends a lot. Particularly when you’re younger. But somehow you still stand back up, and you engage again.
All of my books, looking back at them, at least in some way or another are about how do you live after the end of the world? Clearly that’s something I worry about. I think the world ends a lot. Particularly when you’re younger. But somehow you still stand back up, and you engage again. So it feels bad, and I'm not in anyway telling someone they can’t feel worried. I'm saying you can feel worried, BUT – but, but, but – there’s hope too. There’s a lot of us still here. A lot of us who aren't going to keep out mouths shut. And you don't have to either.