Lady Mitchell Hall, Cambridge, October 24th, 2009
As part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, Patrick Ness, the now prize-winning giant of young adult (YA) fiction, talked about The Knife of Never Letting Go – the first book in his Chaos Walking trilogy – to a disappointingly sparse audience. Nine years on, if he was to be invited back, he would have both kids and adults queuing around the block.
Ness was born in Virginia, where his father was a lieutenant in the US army – a devoutly religious man who would read everything like it was The Bible. “We’re going on a Bear Hunt,” booms Ness, like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
The irresistible and brilliant idea for The Knife of Never Letting Go came from Ness thinking about information overload. The next step, he reasoned, would be to be able to hear “the Noise” of other people’s thoughts. The book is narrated by Todd, a 12 year-old boy with a narrative voice to rival that of Huckleberry Finn and it’s first sentence is up there with the most memorable openings of any work of literature:
THE FIRST THING you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.
Ness says that the best writing happens when you write for yourself, not for other people. Once he had found his voice for the novel, he looked forward to writing Knife. Before he started writing the trilogy he knew the last line of books 1,2 and 3, as well as a few big scenes. “If you’re going to dream,” he says, “why not dream big?”
“Teenagers don’t do Twitter,” he replies to a question about social media. “Twitter is for 40 year-olds who want to be like teenagers.” Ness writes “for a teenage audience of one – who I was when I was a teenager.” Every teenager is different, he says, in the way Harry Potter is ‘different’ because he’s a wizard. “‘I knew there was a reason,’ say 100 million teenagers.”
The key to being a good writer, advises Ness, is knowing who you are and what suits you best. He writes 1,000 words a day, no matter how long it takes, and does not stick to an outline.
His favourite authors include Meg Rosoff, Ali Smith, Nicola Barker, the ‘unfettered’ Terry Pratchett and Mal Peet.
2019 sees the release of the film version, but make sure you read The Knife of Never Letting Go first. As good as the film might be, the book is a treat. See below for a couple of testimonials:
“Furiously paced, terrifying, exhilarating and heartbreaking, it’s a book that haunts your imagination” (Dinah Hall, Sunday Telegraph).
“You only have to read the first sentence to see how fantastic it promises to be … it lives up to the thrill of that first sentence” (Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Guardian).