Patrick Ness: An Exclusive Interview on A Monster Calls

Patrick Ness: An Exclusive Interview on A Monster Calls

Hi Patrick! Thanks for speaking with us. How did you find the process of taking Siobhan’s ideas and blending them with your own work? Were there many changes along the way? Did you know how things would play out before you started writing?

My publisher at Walker Books came to me after Siobhan’s death and said that she had this idea she’d been hoping to write. My editor really loved it and didn’t want it to disappear, so she brought it to me and asked if I would consider turning it into a book, in memory of a very, very fine writer who left us too soon.

There was this bit of prose called Mistress Yew which was small but very full, very vivid and very potent. Then there was an 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 or where the story would go. It was a small piece but packed, potent and full of ideas.

The first idea I got myself was at the end of the second tale, where Conor comes out of it to discover he’s destroyed his grandma’s sitting room. I thought, “That’s it. That’s the power of the book. All his anger, and the transgressiveness of it.” That’s when I thought I could maybe turn it into a book.

What was it like getting to know Conor? What qualities did you enjoy exploring in him?

Conor is caught between childhood and adulthood. The journey into adulthood is in some ways a journey from innocence into knowledge, and his experiences in the story are hopefully true and powerful. His realization that he can think two contradictory things at the same time – to me, that’s a step into adulthood.

Who was your favourite character to write aside from Conor and why?

The grandmother. I’m sorry to say, she’s probably the most like me! I kind of deal with hard stuff by growing increasingly tidy and stern. There’s a heart beating in there, though. Definitely.

Honesty and truth are important themes in A Monster Calls, why did you choose to explore these in your book?

I wanted the story to be true. Not hopeless, not at all, but true. That’s an important part of my writing 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 colour because that’s not how people are.

I think humans are amazing messes and I love us for our mess. And Conor is just realizing, okay, I’m a bit of a mess, but it doesn’t make me bad and it doesn’t make me wrong. It just makes me human. And if I’m honest with what I’m feeling, I’ll be okay.

The fantastical invades Conor’s reality in this story. Was it a challenge to bring the two together?

I actually don’t believe there’s any such thing as a realistic story. Even if it’s set it what looks like our reality, it’s still made up, still got characters arcing towards their destinies, etc, etc. And I feel that if I can accept that, then letting fantastical and “realistic” elements bleed together is easier. And fun! There are so many ways to tell a story. Why limit yourself with just reality, eh?

Where did the idea for the monster come from? Did you have any other ideas for how it should be?

Siobhan had the idea that the tree would come to life and speak. I took this idea, added my own stuff to it, and then when the illustrator Jim Kay started working on the book – the first edition of the book was illustrated throughout – I had some thoughts about how the monster would look. I didn’t want it to look too thin or insect-like.

Mostly, though, I thought the Monster should be kind but not nice. There’s a difference. He doesn’t care that he gets Conor into trouble and he’s often properly scary. But when it comes to it, he’s trying to do a kind thing. And kindness can be the hardest thing to take of all. He really has to convince Conor he’s worth accepting it. I find that really moving and human.

The monster stresses the importance of stories in this book. What importance do stories hold for you?

Stories are how we make sense of an inexplicable reality. We have to tell stories about it or we couldn’t live in it. We do it all the time, every day, about our situations, about ourselves. And that’s so effective and powerful for us. But sometimes we tell ourselves the wrong stories, and that’s something to watch out for. The book is constantly saying that a story has more than one meaning, that it’ll change depending on who tells it, that there’s always a before the story and an after the story. Don’t limit yourself to just one. Keep on telling them.

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

There was always the worry that people would say, “What will you do about Siobhan’s 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. That was fun, but getting there was always a challenge.

Did you have an idea of how emotionally people would respond to your story when you were writing?

When I finished working on the book, I felt it was something we could all be very proud of. If people responded to it, great, but either way, we’d really all put our hearts and souls into it. Then kaboom! I had no idea that people would respond in the way they did – I hoped people might, but I never thought they would, certainly not in the way that they have. I am just delighted that they did – delighted and amazed that it could have been on this kind of scale. And also, the way they share their stories with me. It’s so incredible and so personal. It’s been an amazing book to be a part of.

What did Jim Kay’s illustrations add to the story for you?

Jim Kay’s illustrations are magnificent. Incredible, just fantastic. It’s when collaboration works at its absolute best: when I bring something and he brings something and the result is bigger than the two of us put together. He brought stuff I would never have thought of. Plus, he’s the nicest man in the universe. If you met him, you’d fall in love with him.

How have you found the process of adapting the book to film?

I’ll always consider myself a novelist because in a novel, for good or ill, all the choices are yours. You’re in charge of it and it’s one hundred per cent an expression of you. That’s a great freedom and a great responsibility and a great challenge – the tyranny of all that choice! It’s hard, but really rewarding, and I love it.

Screenplays, on the other hand, are kind of like puzzles: a movie at best is a long short story, so how do you take the essence of your story and communicate everything in it in a shorter space? That kind of creative challenge can spur you on. I’ve always found limitations can be a great spur to creativity. The formats are quite strict – the scene, layout and so on – so how do you follow that and give Hollywood all the things it thinks it wants, without sacrificing any power and really getting to the punch at the end? I really enjoyed the challenge and the input from the director J.A. Bayona.

What books would you recommend for someone who enjoyed A Monster Calls?

Weirdly, I never recommend books. I find them so personal, I never know if someone will respond the way I responded. So all I recommend is just to not be a snob, try everything, put it down if it isn’t for you, and bring on the next one.

What’s next for you?

I’ve been busy working on the Doctor Who spin-off, Class, for the BBC, which is out now on BBC iPlayer. My next novel is called Release and it will publish in May 2017. It’s by far the most personal novel I’ve ever written. The one I wanted to read when I was a teen and never got. The two novels that inspired it are Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Forever by Judy Blume. Like I say, you might as well shoot for the moon. You might not hit it, but you’re bound to hit something interesting along the way.

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