Patrick Ness interview: Night of the living dead
The latest work by Patrick Ness is beyond a short story, but not quite a play. Daniel Hahn learns more ...
Sunday 04 August 2013
In total darkness, you are greeted with the words: "So. You're dead. Congratulations and welcome." The voice (it's Christopher Eccleston's) goes on to offer a half-hour immersive induction into the world of death. It's sometimes funny, but also unflinching, and listeners are addressed directly throughout, in the second person. Most unsettling. You're invited to think hard, to confront questions that are bound to make you uncomfortable. This is a "theatrical event", in support of the Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB), bringing to life a new story by Patrick Ness.
I interviewed Patrick Ness for this paper in 2010. He was launching the conclusion to his "Chaos Walking" trilogy, and although a relative newcomer he'd nearly swept the board of prizes available to Young Adult writers – only the Carnegie Medal, the highest accolade, had eluded him. He has used the intervening period to take the Carnegie not once but twice. When we meet again today, three years on, he continues to feel lucky just getting his books read: "I still get surprised when people read them. A world this busy and this crowded with books and with other distractions … I work really hard, and I try to do the very best I can, but still it's amazing that somebody reads your book, that somebody gives you their time – that's a huge privilege."
It's easy to believe that line about working hard, incidentally. Since 2010 he's concluded Chaos Walking, published another stunning book for young readers, A Monster Calls, and an acclaimed adult novel, The Crane Wife; and More Than This, his next teen novel, is out next month. There are also one-off stories, screenplays and more as-yet-confidential things in the pipeline. A taste for variety and novelty – flexing different writing muscles, he says – partly explains his decision to accept this commission from the RNIB. They invited him to write a story which would be given a dramatised reading entirely without visual components, and the challenge appealed.
"It's something I love to do in short stories, give myself an arbitrary limitation, just to see, can I tell this story with one hand tied behind my back? Those limitations can really spur creativity." From this idea was born "something beyond a short story, but not quite a play-script – a narrated monologue, to a group of readers". Or rather, listeners.
Among Ness's Carnegie highlights was being presented with braille editions of his winning books. (Actually, the braille version of Monsters of Men runs to 12 volumes – he got volune one.) Only seven per cent of books are fully accessible to the blind and partially sighted, hence the importance of the RNIB's work. Friday 11 October is Read for RNIB Day, raising awareness and funds for that work; and part of the campaign is Sense Stories, in which Ness's tale will be given multisensory life at the Roundhouse in north London.
The story asks a serious personal question – "what wouldn't you leave behind, even in the face of the worst terror, the biggest threat possible, what would you refuse to let go?" And the characters are guaranteed to be lifelike because, well, they're actually alive, every audience member becomes a character, bringing their own complex responses into the event.
So, essentially, you just round these people up in a room and poke them? "Right – literature should always poke." And how should it feel? "Scary." No – he corrects himself – "I hope unnerving, rather than scary." The story is called, simply, "Now That You've Died".
The afterlife is (perhaps) also the setting for More Than This, Ness's fifth novel for teenagers, which carries all of the challenging and sometimes uncomfortable ideas that his readers expect. (I'm surprised to hear him summarising it with: "The first part of the book asks a question; the second part answers that question." How unlike him, I think! Then I'm reassured when he continues "… and the third part of the book says: 'Are you sure?'") More Than This is the story of a teenage boy, Seth, who dies in the opening pages, only to wake up in some other place, very familiar in memory but somehow changed – now, he's alone. Is it hell?
The book alternates between realities, each more vivid than the other, and the reader is kept constantly unanchored, constantly doubting – not knowing is what the book is all about. If this is a dystopia, it's an altogether new kind, and as potent and ambitious as anything he's written.
So why is the dystopian mode of storytelling so attractive to teenagers? "It's a world where you don't know the rules and you're trying to figure them out and no one will tell you, there's authority that makes no sense, there are divisions in society that are stark and that you want to cross and you're forbidden to, your friends are both loyal and duplicitous, every day the world feels like it's going to end: dystopia is high school. That's why kids like it, it's a barely fictionalised version of their emotional state." Hence, too, the powerful yearning that characterises so much of the teenage experience, the fervent, aching hope that there must, surely, be "more than this".
"Now That You've Died" is surprisingly hopeful. The way it's conveyed is a celebration of the way we surrender to pure story, too. A trust in the power of the story drives everything Ness writes, which helps make those connections to teenage readers – but the books still have much to say even to those of us long past teenage years. If a half-hour of being welcomed to the afterlife by Christopher Eccleston whets your appetite, there's More Than This to look forward to. And then a lot more than that, besides.
'The Independent on Sunday' has three pairs of tickets to Sense in Stories to give away – see Between the Covers
More Than This, By Patrick Ness
Walker Books £12.99 (Published in September)
He can remember the pain of it, can remember the irrevocable snap of the bone breaking. He feels a little sick at the thought, even though his shoulder here, in this place, works fine.
Then he wonders where his body is.
In whatever world this isn't, out there where he died, where is he?
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