Warning: This post contains a slight spoiler for Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go. But I’ll give you fair warning so you can skip that paragraph.
I’m sorry it has taken me so long to get around to doing this. When I got back from Cheltenham, the place where your responsibilities and real life things do not exist, I suddenly realised I had a million things to do.
Real life things.
I mentioned earlier the problem I had with this show and the fact that I didn’t write any notes and just sat there, front row, eyes wide, silly smile on my face hanging on to every word the guys said. But I’ve delved into my mind (and lived to tell the tale) and flicked through my notes and the following is what I came up with.
When I eventually found the venue, after wandering around Cheltenham Town Hall for far longer than I would like to admit, I was actually quite impressed at the range of people that turned up. I’m not sure what I was expecting, maybe a gang of literary-inclined teenage boys being pushed into the room by their mums and dads, but there were people of all ages.
And I’m glad I wasn’t the only person who had a silly smile plastered on their face.
So the house lights dimmed and a hush fell on the audience.
But it was only when Jason Wallace and Patrick Ness entered the studio and took their seats did the screaming start.
Don’t worry. This wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction from me.
I was on my best behaviour.
The guy in the pin striped blazer I had seen milling around outside chose that opportunity to start the Punch and Judy show. And the sounds of children screaming bloody murder provided a perfect soundtrack to a talk about darkness, monsters and shadows in teenage fiction.
Both Ness and Wallace have written stories that follow their protagonists through the difficulty journey of that limbo between childhood and adulthood.
In Ness’ A Monster Calls (my review here), thirteen year old Conor is faced with the harrowing prospect of losing his mother to cancer. It is getting rave reviews all across the blogs and pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to has either said it’s one of the best books they’ve ever read or that they haven’t read it but they desperately want to. Wallace’s Out of Shadows (my review here), follows the Robert Jacklin as he grows up in Zimbabwe in 1985 and deals with bullying, racism and family problems. This book isn’t perhaps as well-known as Ness’ stories, but it won the Costa Children’s Book Award in 2010 and the UKLA Children’s Book Award in 2011 and is not only fantastic but a terribly brave book.
What struck with me with both of these authors was how Ness and Wallace cover topics that other authors would avoid like the plague with tact and unflinching honesty. Yes, their books are harrowing, they are often difficult to read and but they are written in such a way that these ‘controversial’ topics don’t swamp and overwhelm the story but add to it and make them completely unforgettable.
Ness explained that one of the difficult parts of writing for teenagers is the way it is the genre where readers are in-between. Teenagers have started gaining responsibilities but they are still not treated as adults and aren’t believed to be able to deal with things that adults can. Ness suggested that when teenagers are only told parts of what is happening around them they are more likely to fill in the blanks themselves. And this has a greater chance of being incorrect and ultimately more damaging than the truth itself.
I think one of the great things about teenage fiction is that it’s a relatively new genre. Ness said that when he was younger there were children’s books and then there were adult books, and there was this huge gaping hole in between. Then he went to describe the time where he strolled into the library and picked up “The Color Purple” and wanted to know what a “happy button” was.
My belly laugh may have reared its ugly head at that point.
A woman in the audience then asked whether they had ever gotten in trouble from their editors and publishers because of their decisions to delve into more controversial subjects.
Wallace said that both he and Ness were lucky at the fact that their publishers (Wallace is with Andersen and Ness is with Walker) are both risk takers and are more open to publishing books that others would shy away from. Ness explained that his editor never had a problem with his subject matter because it was part of the story and it wasn’t just thrown in to cause controversy and a gain brow beating from the Daily Mail. Both he and Wallace seemed to agree that there is nothing worse than when an author tries to be shocking because the result is always terrible.
Wallace said he was surprised when he discovered that his publisher was marketing his book at a teenage audience. He states that when he writes he doesn’t do so with a specific age group in mind. I really loved this idea because one of my pet hates is when YA authors talk down to their audience, but by just writing the book as he wanted and allowing the reader to decide whether it was suitable for them or not. Although he did say that he read a review written by a nine year old and rated Out of Shadows 1/10!
On The Chaos Walking trilogy, Ness stated that he was looking to write a “secret book” that children would read knowing their parents wouldn’t want them to read! I don’t know about that… I’m pretty sure a lot of parents wouldn’t think twice about stealing that series off their kids when their back was turned!
Ness, who is also a writer for the Guardian and acts as a judge for teen writing competitions, says that whenever critics suggest that children can’t deal with dark subject matter he brings up the subjects that they themselves write. “Hopelessness” and “darkness” are the words that he used to describe them, “beyond anything I could write”.
A few more of the questions asked by some of the younger members of the audience who wanted to get to the real nitty gritty and didn’t care about censorship and happy buttons and things like that.
How do you get over writer’s block?
Mr Wallace: People watches and makes things up about their history (God knows what he would have thought if he saw me grinning at him like an idiot). Also, and I loved this so much, he reads passages from books and picks up on a phrase or a word and uses that as inspiration. Apparently it is something his school teacher told them to do and he’s done it ever since.
Mr Ness: He goes running. ALSO, he is currently training for the Dublin one that is coming up soon!
Seeing as I’m 98% sure that I would implode if I ran around my block never mind a marathon, I think I’m going to adopt Wallace’s technique rather than Ness’.
Do you think characters are more important than plot?
JW: He is extremely passionate about his characters and explained that even though he detests some of them (Ivan *shakes fist*), he knows that he’s got it right when they really make his blood boil and get under his skin.
PN: He finds that a lot of people that he meets ask him questions about his characters rather than plot points. I thought this was really interesting (and I’ll go into this in my post about the YA Masterclass) because I do think that teenagers or readers of YA fiction are more interested in characters than the plot. I know I am. I’m more likely to put a book down if the characters are a bit iffy than if the plot is. Anyway, Patrick said that instead of people coming up to him and saying “Oh man, I really loved the Noise” it’s always “I love Manchee!” or “Can I play Todd in the film?” or “Would Viola be interested in being my best friend?”…. the latter being a question I wish I had asked him later.
But I don’t need the answer.
Because Viola and me?
If you were on a desert island what three items would you take with you a why?
Well… this stumped them.
After a few frowns and moments of pause, Mr Wallace said that he would listen to Ray Mears and take a knife, which apparently is the one thing that you need to take if you want to survive. Also, he’d take a big crate of books because he couldn’t live without them.
Then without thinking about it, Mr Ness said that he’d take a boat, an open bar and an iPod with never ending batteries.
Well, I would take some iPhone speakers and some delicious party snacks so between the three of us… I think we’d have a riot.
And then… SPOILERSPOILERSPOILERS look away now if you haven’t read The Knife of Never Letting Go and don’t want it spoilt!!
A boy asked the question that every Nessochist was dying to ask ever since that chapter… you know… you know the one.
Why did you kill Manchee?
You could have heard a pin drop.
I swear it.
But I remember exactly what Patrick Ness said so I’m going to use “quotation marks”.
“Every dog wants to be a hero” and “He would’ve wanted to go that way saving Todd”.
Well, good for Manchee. But what about us?! We didn’t want him to go that way!
It was lovely to hear him say that because Manchee is a hero. But it still doesn’t repair the hole left in my soul.
Also, he said that he knew it was going to happen before he wrote the book.
But it didn’t make it less sad for him to write.
You’re telling ME!
YOU CAN COME BACK NOW. END OF SPOILERS.
It was such a fascinating conversation, both entertaining and informative, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I wish you guys had been there because I don’t think my poor attempt at writing about their discussion did it justice at all.
I just loved how both Patrick Ness and Jason Wallace were friendly, engaging, approachable, but most of all, passionate about what they do and their readers. It was so obvious that they wanted to be there and were enjoying themselves as much as the audience were.
I honestly got the impression that they would have stayed all day if the people with the walkie talkies hadn’t ushered them out.
So then we all had the opportunity to go to the Waterstone’s book tent to meet them and get our books signed.
Even though the queue was out of the door, both Patrick and Jason were happy to chat and sign piles of books.
And my ticket.
Yes, I’m that girl.
Here is a picture of my Out of Shadows book.
And here’s a picture of A Monster Calls book. I’m not sure if you can read it, sorry for the crap quality, but it says “Crying is healing” after I told him how I actually gave myself a headache at how much I was crying when I had finished it.
So now they are on my top shelf with my other signed books where I can’t reach them.
Because I’m a mucky pup.