Tuesday, 21 April 2009

London Book Fair: "There is only text, there is no subtext." Patrick Ness

London (20 April 2008). I was keen to catch Patrick Ness' early morning talk at the London Book Fair yesterday. Patrick is the author of The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking), the first of the Chaos Walking trilogy.

Chaos Walking would have been the perfect title for the opening of the London Book Fair, all those editors and publishers running over each other's toes with their trolley bags. This year, the line-up had a lot to interest an author with a blog to fill, so I got to Earls Court bright and early enough to lose my way looking for the Level One seminar rooms which were labled Level Two and Three.

Which is why my notes are sketchy (I also forgot my pen so I took notes with my mobile phone) and I didn't get close enough to take a photo of the rather cute and personable Ness, who declared on the outset that he wasn't touching anyone anyway - not even a handshake - because he was training for a marathon and didn't want to catch any publishing diseases before the big day.

Ness was in conversation with his editor from Walker, Denise Johnstone-Burt, about the author-editor process of creating the Knife of Never Letting Go. It didn't do any harm that the second of the series, The Ask and the Answer (Chaos Walking) will be out very soon, 10 copies of which was available for sale at the Walker Books stall!

For the past month, Ness has been blogger in residence over at Booktrust - I love his latest tranch of tips for the writer in which he tells the story of spending three years on a novel, chunks of which were told from the point of view of a rhinoceros:
I spent three very hard years working on my first novel, The Crash of Hennington, in which key portions are told from the point of view of a rhinoceros (it makes perfect sense in context). Only to see the wonderful Barbara Gowdy publish The White Bone, a novel told from the point of view of an elephant.

I could have cried. Read You're a Singer, You're Not a Song

The Knife of Never Letting Go is a work of breathtaking ambition on many levels - the voice is of an illiterate boy on the brink of manhood, written in odd spellings that required the services of a talented copyeditor to maintain consistency. But the boy also reported the stories of other characers in straight and sometimes complex language. And then there was Manchee the dog - the conceit of the book is that men and animals could always hear each other's thoughts - whose thoughts can be heard throughout the book. "Poo, Tod? Poo!" It was a winner of an idea (clearly animal voice is a recurring thing in his writing!).

The plot is moved along by a chase and the writing - which Ness says he designed as "a thumping good read" - is so compulsive and pacey that editor Johnstone-Burt urged Ness to insert bits where the reader could pause and gather their thoughts before plunging back into the action again.

Ness describes himself as a finicky writer who refuses to show his work to anyone until it's absolutely primed and shined to his satisfaction. Indeed, Johnstone-Burt says, "When I first read the manuscript, it definitely wasn't a first draught."

Once his editor and agent have seen the script, he allows in other eyes for a test drive. "A book has to be challenged," he said. "It has to withstand the challenge of a reader." But he has been known to "wrangle" with editor and agent over points of disagreement - famously described during one big 'discussion' as "like talking to a fucking brick wall".

But he does listen when it matters, he says. He cites a well known author whose quality dipped as time and fame moved on. "What frightens me most is that I would become so arrogant that I stop listening."

He is often asked if his intention with The Knife of Never Letting Go was to put forward a message about the themes of manhood and fundamentalism.

"I just wanted to write a thumping good read," he says. "I always say there is only text. There is no subtext."


  1. Thanks for the recap, Candy. And for anyone who missed this and would like to see Ness, I'll be interviewing him as part of the Brighton Festival on May 10th. Get tickets soon as many events are already sold out: http://www.brightonfestival.org/Event_Details.aspx?eid=3230

  2. Not that I have a google alert in my name or anything ridiculous like that (perish the thought), but I need to make one important small correction in this otherwise very fair blog: The quote was "You can't write subtext, you can only write text." Meaning you just have to have enough confidence that your subtext will be there, otherwise you're writing a lesson plan and not a novel. I do definitely believe in subtext. Thanks for the rest, though!

  3. Sorry about that, taking notes on one's mobile phone leaves much to be desired. But WOW, Patrick Ness, everyone!

  4. Actually Patrick, my little brain didn't get that re subtext. I thought the message was that you wrote to create a thumping good read and didn't intentionally plant subtext - it emerges from the truth about which you are writing.

    hmm. maybe that's what i should have said. blogging to hurriedly.

  5. Excellent stuff, Candy.
    I loved The Knife of Never Letting Go.

  6. Yep, Candy, that was the message, you got it right (though perhaps my delivery system was a bit muddled). Quite correct. I'm only worried when writers - especially for teens - sit down to write intending to Teach Us Something. Like I say, I think you end up writing a lesson, not a novel. You've got to trust yourself enough that the story you're responding to as a writer will have everything you believe in it anyway, so you just should get out of the way and tell the tale, as thumpingly as possible. If you're good, the thematic stuff'll be there on its own. My 2p anyway.

  7. Patrick Ness isn't just running a marathon. He's running in aid of Shelter and you can sponsor him at JustGiving - http://www.justgiving.com/patrickness

    I've no idea how I know this... apart from I wish I was as good at writing as I am at procrastination.

    Manchee forever!!

  8. i loved the book so much i gave it away as christmas presents. but the boys i gave it to were traumatised by what happened to M (trying not to spoil) - one boy refused to finish it! i was pleased to hear at your talk that Viola was alive!

  9. So excited to hear that the sequel is out soon, absolutely loved The Knife of Never Letting Go, truly a thumping good read.


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