I’m going to do my best to capture the highlights of what was said, but before I start I want to say how much fun it was to simply be there — Patrick Ness was friendly and very often hilarious, everyone laughed together, we were all jointly and contagiously excited about More Than This, and the atmosphere was really great. Also, what I said when I went to Edinburgh two years ago remains true: he’s absolutely fantastic with young people, and seeing him interact with his teen readers never fails to make me happy. I love how he always addresses the young writers in the audience in a way that validates their desire to write and takes it absolutely seriously — which should be common enough to be unremarkable, but unfortunately isn’t. I know that just this simple thing — having a writer I admire take it for granted that this was a thing I too could do — would have meant the world to me when I was young.
Patrick Ness and chair Nicolette Jones
Patrick Ness and Nicolette Jones began by saying that because this was a launch event, they would attempt to discuss the themes in More Than This without giving away too many plot details. I think they did a really good job, and for the rest of this post I’ll attempt to follow suit. Ness described the structure of the book as follows: the first part poses questions about what might be going on, the second provides an explanation, and the third asks, “Are you sure?”. He also said he wanted to take the metaphorical dystopia and use it to pose a different set of questions than the ones you usually get.
More Than This began with his desire to tell a story about someone who wakes up in an empty world. This is something he’s always wanted to do, and he felt there was a lot of potential for real emotional resonance behind that premise. The dominant emotion of being young, he feels, is yearning — wanting more, desperately aching to find your place in the world, feeling that there has to be more to life than what you currently know. The blessing and the curse of being young, however, is that whatever you’re feeling takes up your whole world. This is true of the good and the bad, but the problem is that with the bad you often end up feeling that it will never pass. If you’re going through a rough time, that emotional state becomes all there is.
If Chaos Walking and A Monster Calls were about the end of the world, about how you carry on when the absolute worst has happened, then More Than This and The Crane Wife are about living in the present; about learning to go through life day after day without knowing what the future will bring — which is really all you can do. This becomes a little easier if you trust that there’s more, and that you just have to hold on until you get to it. It doesn’t mean that the universe will reward you for getting through bad times, or even that something great will eventually come along. It just means that change is inevitable: both good times and bad times eventually pass; life changes and you get away. There’s more to life than whatever’s happening to you at a particular point in time.
Ness feels that his responsibility as a storyteller is to tell the truth, rather than to be hopeful or inspirational. However, he believes that if you tell the truth about the bad young people will trust you when you tell the truth about the good, because they know you haven’t lied to them before. Life has both ups and downs, and there’s something hopeful about fiction that acknowledges both. More Than This, he said, is probably the most hopeful book he’s written so far. It’s not an inspirational tract or a Pollyanna sort of book, but there’s hope in the acknowledgement that there’s always more to you and to the outside world than what you feel in a given moment.
The following is slightly spoilery, but I’ll try to keep it as vague as possible: when answering a question about Seth’s guilt in More Than This, he said that the stories you tell yourself about your experiences, the stories you believe to be true, end up shaping your life. However, there’s often more to the story than the bits you choose to include in your narrative — another way to look at it that doesn’t require you to punish yourself, for example. No one’s defined by a single thing; a single awful event is never the sum of who you are, even if the awfulness of some experiences is inescapable. But that awfulness can be true at the same time as more positive elements, and so it’s important to tell stories that don’t leave them out.
Regarding Seth and Gudmund in More Than This, Ness said he wanted to feature gay teens and not have it be a big deal or the point of the story — just take it for granted that they exist, because that’s what you get in life (there was already some of this in Chaos Walking, which I absolutely loved). He also added that he wanted their story to capture the fact that there are universal elements to any romance, gay or straight: for example, Seth’s desire for secrecy, for keeping what he and Gudmund have to himself because it’s so vulnerable and precious and his, comes from much more than just external pressure to be closeted (more on this tomorrow when I review the book).
When asked about writing books for young people so full of complex ideas (not my favourite question, I have to say), Ness said he doesn’t think it at all matter if kids read “above” their level — they can miss stuff, or look it up, or misunderstand it, or whatever, and maybe one day they’ll come back to it and see it in another way. Kids are great self-censors: if they’re not ready for a book, they’ll put it down. As a young reader, he liked being asked to think and to challenge himself, so he assumes the same is true of his readers today.
There was also a question about how he balances “message” and plot, to which he said, a little like Atwood, that he doesn’t think about it in those terms at all. His advice to aspiring writers is: just trust the story, and everything else you care about will find its way there. If you’re excited about your story, your reader will be able to tell, and the rest will follow. Also, you don’t need to know your themes yourself until you’re done: they’ll emerge organically and become clear in retrospect. (He said lots more sensible stuff about writing throughout the evening, including that there’s no wrong way to do it, there’s only what works for you. Nobody can tell you how to write; they can only tell you how they write.)
Finally, my favourite moment was when (big spoiler for The Knife of Never Letting Go ahoy, though if you’ve managed to avoid it so far I’ll be impressed) someone in the audience asked, “Why did you kill Manchee?” He immediately said, “I make no apologies”. He knew it would happen from the very start, and though it was a difficult scene to write (when asked if he was as upset as his readers he said, “What kind of a dick would I be otherwise?”), it serves a function in the story: it tells people that he’s not messing around. If that could happen, then pretty much anything could, and that’s an important feeling for a series like Chaos Walking: readers needed to know that the characters they cared about weren’t necessarily safe. He then asked the audience, “Who here has a dog?” When the question was met with a very reluctant show of hands he added, “Oh, come on, I’m not going to kill it!” To which I say: well, YOU NEVER KNOW, DO YOU? Once a dog murderer, always a dog murderer. In a more serious note, he added that those of us with dogs will know that this is how they’d want to go — trying to save us.
There was a signing at the end, and although unlike in Edinburgh I didn’t work up the courage to say “oh hai, I’m a Twitter person you occasionally interact with and are probably vaguely aware of”, I did get him to sign my Kindle, which means it’s now been completed — hooray! He was very pleased to be in the company of Neil Gaiman and John and Hank Green, which I suspected might be the case. We also, unexpectedly and kind of hilariously, ended up talking about the one aspect of More Than This that didn’t quite work for me. I can’t say more for now because it’s pretty spoilery, but it was a good conversation and he listened with interest (not that I’d have expected anything else).
That’s it for my recap — I had a wonderful time and am glad to have made it. More (lots more) on the book itself tomorrow!
Almost too pretty to eat.