INTERVIEW: Patrick Ness, author of The Rest of Us Just Live Here
By Steph O’Connell
Patrick Ness is the author of the bestselling Chaos Walking trilogy and the prize-winning novel A Monster Calls.
He has won every major prize in children’s fiction, including the Carnegie Medal twice. He lives in London.
Steph: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me about your latest book and about yourself.
Where do you get your ideas, where does the spark come from usually?
Patrick: Gosh, of any book, it’s really different and all over the place. I wish I knew, because if you knew, you could put it in a bottle, and just do it over and over again. Sometimes it’s a question I want to ask myself, sometimes it’s something I’ve been worried about. For this book it was a single image of a character who ended up being the god of cats, healing a cat, and in that moment revealing a secret to someone. I don’t know where that image came from, or why it felt important, but that’s where I started.
Steph: That’s really interesting, because it’s such an important part, but almost a side note of the novel, so that’s really interesting to know.
Personally, at six, my family had to lock me out of the laundry and keep me away from sinks, because I had that handwashing problem myself, so Mikey’s struggles with OCD really spoke to me. Did you do a lot of research on the issues mentioned in this book, or were they all drawn from personal experience?
Patrick: That’s autobiographical, I did the same thing. The OCD was a personal experience. I know how that feels, I mean, you know yourself. The compulsion was terrible, but what I always found worse was the idea in my head that I knew that it was somehow stupid, that it was stupid to wash my hands, but I was going to keep doing it anyway. So I would just yell at myself, over and over again, “What the hell are you doing, you know this is stupid!” And I’d still do it. So to me that was the hardest part. So that’s direct, first hand experience.
Steph: Does that still come into play nowadays? I find it does for me, but in different ways.
Patrick: Different ways, yeah. I’m a lot better, I’ve done a lot of work on it, and for me a chunk of it came down to a kind of acceptance, on some of it, obviously not all of it. But sometimes I’ll just think, “Ok, today, clearly, I need to check that the front door is locked several times, and that’s just okay. That’s what I’m going to have to do to get on with today,” and I can be calm about it. And not make it worse, with the self-hating stuff. It’s gotten better, but I think it’s just something that you live with for your whole life and just try to find a way to manage.
Steph: What was the hardest part about writing The Rest of Us Just Live Here?
Patrick: I loved the challenge of writing a wild, hopefully funny, hopefully warmly satirical book about all the YA tropes while still hopefully having a serious, moving story at the centre of it. The combining of those things is such a hurling challenge. It’s the kind of thing I love to set myself because it’s terrifying to try, but I think writing a little bit scared is a good way to write, that way you are completely there all the time, you are never taking it for granted.
Steph: And your favourite part?
Patrick: Honestly, my favourite part was finally writing a book where I could be a little bit funny now and then, you know, my previous novels haven’t really been a laugh a minute, they’ve been quite serious. And there are very serious parts to this book and hopefully very emotional parts this book, but just to be able to have a character look at the world and see it a little sardonically, and say something funny about it, that was, my god I loved that. I loved that. More of that please.
Steph: Now, I’m not going to ask what your next book is, because rumour has it a book needs privacy… But are there any more adult novels coming up?
Patrick: I don’t have any planned at the minute, but there will almost certainly be. I don’t really separate them in my head. It’s only the story that’s different. Its the same effort, and the same emotional investment, it’s the same joy and agony of writing, so they don’t really feel different for me. I love them both. But my rule is that the only person that can ever tell me what to write is me, I mean that for genres, I mean that for age groups, I mean that for media. I’ve written screen plays; I wrote the screen play for A Monster Calls, which comes out next year. So I reserve the right to write whatever, because you only live once, and why not try all different kinds of things, and flex different kinds of writing muscles? See what works, see what doesn’t.
Steph: Have you read much in the way of Aussie YA?
Patrick: I’ve actually read a tonne of Australian adult literature, and it’s an area of interest of mine, and I often get sent them to review because I’ve read so much of it. You guys are lucky enough to have Margo Lanagan, who is just remarkable, just absolutely remarkable. The wealth is definitely spread all over the planet, you got Margo Lanagan, and that is no small thing.
Steph: Yeah, she’s absolutely one of my favourites, and we have a few new up-and-comers, to keep an eye out for, so it looks like it’s broadening.
What are some of your favourite books and authors?
Patrick: I was on the ABC earlier last week and was asked a slight version of this, and I mentioned Peter Carey, and I felt like such a suck up, but I do love Peter Carey, he’s been a big influence. Particularly with books like Oscar and Lucinda. Yeah, that sort of thing. I love him.
There’s a Scottish writer I love called Ali Smith, she is amazing, she’s just so amazing. So experimental, but so accessible. And that’s kind’ve the gold standard of what I like.
In YA, I was a real, real fan of the late Mal Peet. He died earlier this year. That’s a good set of three.
Steph: Any books that have stuck with you from childhood?
Patrick: I learned to read from Richard Scarry’s Storybook Dictionary, which is a classic illustrated thing. He’s the one with the worms driving the car, cats who are butchers, that kind of thing.
I remember the first book that really blew my mind, I was like “Oh, this book is for me, not for anybody else!” And that’s the great thing about books for kids, is the claiming of ownership. And so the first book that I really claimed ownership of was called The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. It’s a mystery, a really clever mystery, and it made me feel clever, it made me feel like I could figure this out, and it was the first book I read that was just specifically for me. So that was a really formative book, The Westing Game.
Steph: What’s your favourite type of monster?
Patrick: I think mermen are underrated.
Steph: Your favourite word?
Patrick: I don’t think I have one… but I like Murmur. I think murmur is a beautiful word.
Steph: I really like indefatigable.
Patrick: Yeah, it’s obviously not onomatopoeic, but you say it, and you kind’ve know what it is, even if you’ve never heard the definition. Yeah, I’m with you on that.
Steph: Your least favourite?
Patrick: For some reason, and this is a weird one, it’s the term “Muggy”. To describe humid weather, people say it’s muggy. I just hate that. I have no idea why. It makes no sense, but I cannot stand for weather to be described as muggy.
Steph: Three words to describe you?
Patrick: Tall, freckly, awkward.
Steph: I have a couple of friends who are obsessed with sloths, and they would never forgive me if I didn’t ask… Can you tell me about the sloth in your twitter picture?
Patrick: That sloth is from the Budapest Zoo, and they have a sloth exhibit. They have keepers there, so you can’t touch the sloths, but you can walk right up close to them, and that one was just perfectly placed. That day. It was a bit of luck. So they should go to the Zoo in Budapest to see a sloth up close.
Steph: You strike me as the kind of guy who has some fan t-shirts in his closet… What’s your favourite?
Patrick: It’s been a while since I’ve had a fan t-shirt, but the best concert I ever went to was Tina Turner, so I’ll say that. She was the best live performer I’ve ever seen in my life.
Steph: So, did you get a shirt?
Patrick: Ah, I think I did. I always used to buy shirts, but it’s been a while since I’ve been to a gig where I bought a shirt. Usually I just buy a programme, because I’ve gotten to that age. But yeah, I’ve had Pet Shop Boys shirts and Crowded House shirts, but I’d say Tina’s probably the best.
Steph: If you were an indie kid, what would your name and special ability be?
Patrick: The superpower I’ve always wanted was Invisibility, I’d love to be able to do that. I think most writers probably would. And as for a name, gosh, I’d probably get stuck with something like Linus
Steph: I absolutely ADORED the kids in this novel, they broke my heart, but in the best way possible… Thank you for sharing them with “the rest of us”.
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