Patrick Ness and Jim Kay: A Monster Calls

From A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Walker Books)
1 May 2011

Based on an idea from Siobhan Dowd before she died in 2007 and written by Patrick Ness and illustrated by Jim Kay, A Monster Calls is a powerful novel about a young boy coming to terms with the impending death of his mother who is visited by an ancient Monster who has come to help him face up to his fear and loss.

Patrick - A Monster Calls is from an original idea and notes from Siobhan Dowd. How did you feel when you were first asked to write this novel. Are you able to tell us how much she had already written?

Well, I hesitated at first, perhaps understandably. First of all, I'd never want to be disrespectful to a writer as fantastic as Siobhan, and I never think that projects where one author tries to mimic another are ever successful (and the worst thing that could happen in a project like this is that you write a bad book!).

But she'd left behind almost the perfect amount. Not so much that the story couldn't live and breathe and grow like she would have done with it herself had she been able to write it, but also with ideas so vivid and strong that they immediately started suggesting other ideas about where it might go. Very quickly, I started feeling the urge to write, which is a gift to a writer.

The writing, illustrations and production are of an extremely high quality and work together perfectly to produce a weighty book both in subject matter and physically. Are you both happy with the result?

PN: Jim'll go all modest here, but his illustrations are brilliant, just amazingly good, and unlike anything else out there. I couldn't be happier, truly, great stuff. And Walker have made an amazing-looking book out of it, too - nothing to do with me!  But I'm very, very happy with how it all looks. Amazing.

JK: Now here's an odd thing; most illustrators don't like looking at their own work, as they tend to home in on all the little things they'd like to change. Having said that, I am very proud of this book. The visual appearance and quality of the book are down to buckets of hard work by the Art Director (Ben Norland), I think he had a much tougher job, I just filled in the blank bits!

Patrick - the monster uses four tales to help Conor (the last one he must tell himself). Was this your idea or Siobhan’s? Are these tales original tales or retellings of old ones?

PN: Siobhan had written in an email shortly before her death that the monster would tell Conor three tales, but she didn't, unfortunately, write down what those tales were. It was fun coming up with them. They're not retellings of stories, just things I made up, because I particularly like it when stories misbehave. Folk tales are written to stay within specific guidelines, and I always find myself thinking, well, what really happened? It was good fun to tell the tale, then upend it, because after all, life is messy.

The Monster is depicted as the Green Man from legend. Did you both do much research into the Green Man? Can you tell us about this?

PN: Yeah, I think we both have. He's such an elemental - yet surprisingly little known in some ways - figure in English folklore. Because he's so much more than just a character; in some ways, he is the land, while also an individual, and that kind of duality fits so perfectly with Conor's struggle. I like the ambiguity, too. He's a monster, but maybe also more, but maybe also still a monster.

JK: Lots! Back in 2006 I was working full time at the Library of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew while in the evenings scribbling down my own little stories, just to give me something to illustrate. A gallery curator saw my illustrations and asked me to exhibit one of my own stories. I chose a tale which featured the Green Man, as all through my childhood he'd fascinated me, and the Library at Kew gave me access to wonderful books on folklore. It was that exhibition that gave me my break as a freelance illustrator, so I have the Green Man to thank for that.

When I read Patrick's manuscript, I knew straight away that I really, REALLY wanted to to illustrate it, and luckily they chose me. The Green Man is interesting, because like the character 'Death', he pops up in art and literature in surprising places in all shapes and sizes. And like Death he is timeless, powerful, menacing even - but ultimately just.

Patrick - can you tell us a bit about how you found the voices for Conor and the Monster? Despite the subject matter there is quite a bit of humour in the novel which comes from the juxtaposition of Conor’s voice and the Monster?

I start out with some feelings about voice, but then I just set them talking and see what happens. I love the clash between the ancient Monster and Conor's modern sensibility. I also felt like I really had them when the Monster realises that Conor isn't actually afraid of him, but instead of getting angry, he puts his hands on his hips and basically says, 'Interesting'. That felt like it summed up both of them right there, and I felt I had them and could go on and tell their story.

Patrick - the writing is so powerful – were you writing from personal experience?

I think the novel is about loss, yes, but also about the fear of loss, which is universal, I think. Everyone knows what it's like to lie in bed late at night worrying about if the worst ever happened. Loss, I think, we can handle better than the worry that leads up to it, which can kill us. That's what I was really interested in exploring.

Jim - can you tell us about your illustration technique?

I tend to make the technique fit the brief, and there are usually other factors that dictate what you do. We didn't have much time, also I was working in a flat without central heating, in Scotland, in one of the coldest winters on record - I'll be honest I was in a pretty dark place! All of this I think helped, it kept the work dynamic, it set the mood.

The images were pieced together out of whatever marks or textures I could find. It might be a piece of old material, leather, something pulled from a skip, fingerprints - anything interesting. I inked up three old breadboards, and the prints made from those really helped. To get one seemingly casual ink drawing of a figure, there are usually 50 or 60 failures before the right one arrives. It was extremely intense work, a LOT of mistakes, little sleep, with many biscuits scoffed, and cups of tea quaffed.

Jim - I've seen the different versions of the monster on your blog – can you tell us a bit about how you got to your final version?

With polite nudging from the Art Director! Ben was brilliant, he knew exactly how this book would work, and he would remind me to keep returning to the text. I know that sounds obvious you'd be amazed how quickly illustrators start noodling off in the wrong direction, and some of the monsters I made in the beginning were nothing like Patrick's description. The text is everything, and Ben never lost focus.


Visit Jim Kay's gallery of illustrations

Patrick Ness

Patrick grew up in the US and studied English Literature at the University of Southern California. He moved to London in 1999. Since then he has published four novels. The Knife of Never Letting Go won numerous awards, including the Book Trust Teenage Prize, the Guardian Award, and the 2008 James Tiptree, Jr. Award. In January 2010 he won the 2009 Costa Book Award for the category children's book for The Ask and the Answer. He has also written a novel and a collection of short stories for adults, although he prefers not to categorise his writing in this way.

He taught creative writing at Oxford University and has written and reviewed for The Daily Telegraph, The TLS, The Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian.


Patrick Ness was Book Trust's first-ever online writer in residence.


Read an interview with Patrick

Jim Kay

Jim Kay studied illustration in Edinburgh. After leaving university he worked for two years in the Archives of the Tate Gallery in London, and then worked as Assistant Curator of the Art Collections at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for four years.

He now illustrates children's books and has started writing for children. He currently lives in Northamptonshire.

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