Patrick Ness: Winner of the 2008 Booktrust Teenage Prize
Patrick Ness was pretty sure he wouldn’t win the Booktrust Teenage Prize because he’d already won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, and, he says, people don’t usually win two awards in one year.
But The Knife of Never Letting Go is a very contemporary coming-of-age story whose big themes and memorable narrative voice made it a natural choice to win the prize for the year’s best novel for teenagers.
A fast-paced adventure with elements of science fiction, the novel is narrated by Todd, the last boy in a town made up only of men. He tells the history of Prentisstown, a place where all of the women were killed years ago by a virus that infected the men with Noise, the constant stream of everyone’s thoughts.
But then Todd finds out that the story he has been told is a lie and he must run for his life as he tries to discover the truth. The novel was built around three ideas, Ness explains: Todd’s voice, information overload and talking animals.
One thing was how a bright but illiterate kid would speak if he were in these surroundings. The other two ideas were a serious question and a silly question. The serious question was: there’s so much information in the world with texts and e-mails, mobiles and the internet that it seems like you can’t get away from people talking to you. So what would be the next logical step - what if you couldn’t get away?
'The silly question is that I’ve never liked the way animals talked in books. I thought they could be funny and lovable but still be animals, not just little talking people. So those three things were stirred together.
'When I write I just chuck things into the idea pot and see what sticks together. When I teach I talk about this as well. Fiction eats ideas like a fire eats trees. So you’ve really got to have more than just one thing or it will be way too thin.’
Having privacy is particularly important for teenagers, Ness believes, and this is part of what made him realise that the book he was writing was ideal for a teenage readership.
‘I approached the book from the angle of the importance of private thought: the ability to decide for yourself without everybody knowing, because you can make mistakes in your head and think awful things, but then your actions show you differently.
Particularly for a teenager, the loss of privacy in the most formative years would be horrifying if you were trying to figure out who you were. I sat down and thought “This is an interesting story. There’s lots of stuff here and I want to tell it,” and as I told it, it revealed itself to be for teenagers, and I thought “That’s interesting.”
The book has been described as a dystopian novel, but although it presents the world in a bleak light, its flashes of humour and sheer excitement prevent it from being truly dystopian.
‘If you sit down to say I’m going to write a dystopian novel you’re going to get caught up in the dystopian story of Todd and what happens. I thought instead, “What do I need to tell the story? I need these surroundings.” There are some dystopian conventions and some SF conventions, but the question is: how does this serve the story of Todd? The primary story I’m telling is the story of Todd.’
And Todd’s unique voice is at the heart of the story. It’s a voice that comes from the world that Todd inhabits: one familiar, but not quite like ours, because Todd comes from New World, a place where settlers arrive by spaceship.
Todd’s vocabulary is a hotch potch,’ says Ness. ‘My American publishers wanted to change “ruddy”: they said it was English. They wanted to Americanize it. I said that it’s something English people said in 1950s. It’s as out of synch here as there. It’s to keep the otherness to Todd. He’s had a different upbringing.
It took Ness some time to find Todd’s voice. ‘I would try something to see if it worked. I wrote the first chapter a bunch of times and a bunch of different ways just testing, to see how he would talk. But it wasn’t effortful.
'It was discovering rather than digging up. It’s that magical thing about a voice: it’s not there, it’s not there, it’s not there, and suddenly it’s there. Todd is living in the present because the future is so hopeless. This is how he’s been brought up, this is how he lives, it’s hand to mouth. It made sense to write it in present tense. This is how he sees the world. It just felt right.’
In a town where there have been no women for 13 years, the question of sex and relationships must arise, but although Todd has been raised by two men, Ben and Cillian, Ness, refreshingly, doesn’t feel the need to make an issue of it.
‘Everything we learn is how Todd would say it. If this was how he was raised he would never put a name to it. That rule extends to everything. It’s how the history is told. He assumes that whoever he’s talking to was there as well. That’s how the history gets slowly revealed. I’ve never liked expository dumps, when the character says “This is what happens”.
If Todd assumes a knowledge that readers don’t have, if readers are bright they can infer a lot if you give them the opportunity to do so. It had to be addressed somehow: the women had been gone for 13 years and here are two men who are going to love Todd. He wouldn’t know any other way, so there would be no reason to point it out.
The first in a trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go is long but very fast paced, and readers find that they can’t put it down, which pleases the author.
‘I wanted a really strong narrative grab, to drag you along with it,’ he says. ‘I also wanted to make sure that the danger felt real. When a certain character dies it’s important for the story, and it’s exactly right, but it’s also saying that anything can happen here.’
Ness always envisaged that Todd’s story would be told in a trilogy, because, he says, he had a lot of stories to tell. Some, though, have criticised the first novel’s cliffhanger ending.
‘It is on the one hand part of a big story, but each book is discrete. There’s been a lot of talk about the ending, but in my mind that is a definite ending. It is a cliffhanger, but I think kids these days watch 24 and Lost. They know that questions are answered, but there’s the possibility for more.
'In my mind all three books are discrete. They have very different themes that they deal with. The kids who read it have responded really well to the ending. They seem to know why it works that way. And it is the right ending. I’m absolutely certain of it.’
‘I like a big canvas. I thought here’s an opportunity to write big. Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of There Will Be Blood, made Boogie Nights, and it was a success. Someone told him, “Here’s your moment; here’s your chance to make the movie that you want”. So he made Magnolia, which is three hours. I think it’s a great movie. My thinking was the same.
How many opportunities do you get to publish books? It’s a competitive field, so why not seize the opportunity with both hands? Why not do that every time? And the story fit an arc that big.
Although Ness did not set out to write for teenagers, he’s glad that the book went in the direction it did. Teenage readers, he believes, provide an author with both challenges and opportunities.
‘It’s an audience that makes you earn everything because they’re absolutely paying attention to if you’re trying to fool them. They’re looking for you to cheat or be a bit lazy. I think you really need to be on your game for a teenage audience.
'But the reward is that if you treat a teenager with respect they’re going to be willing to go with you when you take an unexpected path or go somewhere else in the universe. There’s a freedom to it. It’s a challenge, but also a liberation.’
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.