CILIP CARNEGIE MEDAL WINNER 2011
Patrick Ness was born near Alexandria, Virginia on an army base called Fort Belvoir. His father was a drill sergeant in the US Army, though "much nicer than that makes him sound", says Patrick. The family moved to Hawaii when Patrick was still an infant, and lived there until he was six – he still remembers his kindergarten field trips to the beach, where he says he "once made the mistake of picking up a sea urchin with my bare hand. Don't do that." From there, his family moved to the state of Washington, where he went to junior high and high school.
He was an eager reader from an early age and says he was very much a child that libraries built: "I was both an avid and wildly unchaperoned reader. I would wander into the local public library and just blithely pick up any old thing – young, old, fiction, non-fiction - whatever looked interesting. I read some of the strangest and occasionally most "inappropriate" things you can imagine, but it gave me the vital feeling that reading was something exciting and personal and possibly even dangerous and risky"
Now when he talks to young people about writing he tells them to read, read, read. "You just can't write a good book without having read hundreds and hundreds of other books. And the important thing about what you read is not to be a snob. Read everything. The classics, definitely; contemporary books, absolutely; but you should also read trash. Read the stuff that your parents and teachers aren't wildly keen about you reading. Because how else are you going to find out what's important to you? I tried to read everything. And slowly, I started to find out what I liked and didn't like, and my own writing voice began to emerge."
Early Writing Career
Patrick Ness took a degree in English Literature at the University of Southern California, before getting a job as a corporate writer at a cable company in Los Angeles. He published short stories in magazines, but it was being made redundant from the cable company job that really boosted his writing career. He used his redundancy money to move to England in 1999 and finished writing his first book for adults, a novel titled "The Crash of Hennington". This got him an agent and a publishing deal. He went on to publish an acclaimed collection of short stories, "Topics About Which I Know Nothing."
More than ten years later, he's still living in England and in fact became a British Citizen in 2005. In that time, he's become a regular reviewer for the Guardian newspaper, written plays for Radio 4 and Radio 3, and for three years, he taught on the Creative Writing Master's course at Oxford University.
Established Writer & Creator
It is his children's books however that have garnered Patrick Ness the highest praise and established him as one of the most original, daring and exciting writers of today.
His first children's book, "The Knife of Never Letting Go" - part one in the "Walking Chaos" trilogy that concludes with "Monsters of Men" - was published in 2008. It won the Guardian Children's Fiction Award and the Booktrust Teenage Prize and was short-listed for the CILIP Carnegie Medal. Reviews praised the book for its inventiveness, and fellow CILIP Carnegie Medal winner Frank Cottrell Boyce likened it to "The Handmaid's Tale" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn".
The second book in the trilogy, "The Ask and the Answer", published in 2009, won the Costa Children's Book Award and was once again shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal. The inclusion of "Monsters of Men" on this year's list meant that every book in the trilogy has been shortlisted.
A Striking Achievement
By winning the CLIP Carnegie Medal for "Monsters of Men", Patrick Ness joins a very select band of children's authors who have won the prestigious Medal plus the Costa/Whitbread and Guardian Awards. Only five others have achieved this: Leon Garfield, Peter Dickinson, Anne Fine, Geraldine McCaughrean and Philip Pullman.
"Monsters of Men"
The "Chaos Walking" trilogy compellingly charts the epic power struggles between the inhabitants of a world where all thoughts are audible, and the relationship which develops between Todd and Viola, his young main characters. In "Monsters of Men" the action reaches a climax with Todd and Viola trapped between three armies, each ready to fight to the death to defend their people.
It is a book about war, and how nations and individuals behave during wartime. The genesis for the book, says Patrick, was seeing "All Quiet on the Western Front" as a boy. "I was probably 14, and I was halfway through the film before I really clocked the incredible fact that it's about German soldiers. Not British ones, not American ones, but Germans. The so-called "enemy". And it was a revelation about what bothers me the most about war, the worst thing we do in war, which is that we de-humanize our enemies, because that makes them easier to kill. But they stay human, no matter how much we want them not to".
"And so "Monsters of Men" came from wanting to explore that terrible, terrible contradiction. Wanting to de-humanize the enemy but being unable to; it's about the ambiguity and messiness of war."
Third time Lucky: On Finally Winning the CILIP Carnegie Medal
"Having each of the "Chaos Walking" books shortlisted in succession felt for me like reward enough," says Patrick. "I am such a huge believer in the brilliant Carnegie Shadowing Scheme that this truly is the one award where the shortlisting is an incredible thing on its own. To have all those fantastic young readers arguing about your books is brilliant for an author. I always say that I think the Shadowing Scheme is a moral good, so I was just happy to have my books included in that again. But actually winning turns out to be rather nice, too."
"Chaos Walking" is remarkable, and "Monsters of Men" a triumph. Does Ness concur with the judges that the third book deserved the Medal above the others? "You can never really ask an author that," he says with a smile. "It's like having to choose between your children. I like all three books for different reasons. I love the energy of "The Knife of Never Letting Go". I like the issues explored in "The Ask and the Answer", which poses really tough questions about complicity and radicalisation. And I really like the raising of the stakes in "Monsters of Men", the issues of war; and I had grown to care so much about the characters by that point that it was desperately important that it reached its proper ending."
Writing for Teens
Though his first books were for adults, and the trilogy for teenagers, Ness still claims to write for no-one but himself. "If I don't want to read it myself," he says, "why would I ever think anyone else would?" He does state however that teenagers are "the best readers in the world."
"They're very demanding - the book has to respect them and hold their attention - but if you can do that, then they're far more willing to go to far off places than an adult reader. I love that about writing for young readers. It's amazingly liberating."
He adds, "My website is flooded with comments from young readers about the trilogy, and interestingly enough, the things they mention most are the characters. They love Todd and Viola, and they've got all kinds of opinions about the Mayor. And this really confirms something I believe about writing, particularly for younger readers: The best way possible to discuss difficult issues and challenging topics is via a cracking good story and characters that you love. If you can get that right - and boy, is that a hard order - then all those things you care about and want to write about are going to find their natural home inside. I get lots of questions about the issues in the books - war and radicalisation and difficult choices - but they're always through the prism of the characters and the story, which is exactly how I'd want it."
Walker Books have just published Ness's most recent book, "A Monster Calls". The book creates a tale from the final idea of the late Siobhan Dowd, herself a CILIP Carnegie Medal winner. It is already receiving more excellent reviews, with the Times calling it "gripping, moving and brilliantly crafted" and the Independent saying it is "brave and beautiful, full of compassion."
Patrick refuses to be drawn on what will come after that. "I'm a firm believer that first drafts and early ideas need the strongest sort of protection. They have to have the freedom to grow and stumble and make mistakes away from the eyes of anyone else. So I'm definitely working, but even my agent and editor don't know more than that. It looks to be for young adults again, but that's all I can say. . . "
Patrick Ness on Libraries
"I owe most of my breadth of my reading to libraries, and particularly to librarians who were happy to look the other way while an eager young reader possibly over-reached with the occasional adult book. What better way for reading to seem dangerous and risky? What better place to have space to figure out who I was and what mattered to me? There's so much proscription in the life of young people, and it's so vital to have a place that says, look, here are doors onto the world and you're free to choose any one you like."
23 June 2011