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