When I heard that Patrick Ness was coming to Birmingham to talk about his new book, The Rest of Just Live Here, I had mixed emotions. As a big fan of his work and an aspiring writer, I was keen to go along, particularly in the wake of his successful campaign to raise funds for refugees. But as a working parent, well, it was a busy week: my 11-year-old has just started big school and now my 14-year-old is in year 10 there is a LOT of homework, so I was tempted to sit this one out. But my 14-year-old son – an avid reader but increasingly reluctant to do uncool things (like be me with me) – was surprisingly keen to attend. So despite the complicated home/work travel arrangements this required, we went along to Waterstones in Birmingham to hear Patrick Ness speak.
And as I listened, I found myself reflecting on not just what it meant to be a writer, but what it means to be a parent to a young adult. Here are the seven things that stayed with me from the warm and funny talk that Patrick Ness gave to a bookshop packed with teenagers:
Whose side are you on?
Before uttering a single word, Patrick Ness walked down the aisle to the back of the room, and asked two young children to sit in the middle so that they could see. It was such a small gesture, but for me it summed up the man and his work. He must have been a bit nervous walking out onto the stage, his mind full of the first words that he would say, but as he looked out across the packed bookshop, he saw the world through the eyes of his audience, and realised that two of them couldn’t see.
Seeing through the eyes of children and young adults was a theme that ran throughout his talk. (He never used this awful do-gooder phrase by the way: his talk was just a great example of show don’t tell). After reading a very funny extract from his new book, he spoke movingly about being a teenager, about what it was like to grow up as a gay boy within a Christian evangelical family. The worst thing that an adult can say to a teenager going through a painful experience, he said is, ‘Don’t worry, it will pass/you’ll grow out of it.’ It doesn’t matter if it is technically ‘true’, he argued, because the real truth is the pain that the teenager feels right now. And it is this search for the truth that drives him as he writes. When writing, he constantly challenges himself: ‘Is this true? Does it feel truthful?’
The young people in the audience (the majority) all nodded as he spoke; I hung my head and pretended to take notes. Because sometimes I am guilty of telling my kids to ‘put things in perspective’; of placing their pain within some kind of hierarchy of what ‘really’ matters. Patrick Ness reminded me that there is no ‘big picture’ for kids: if it hurts, it hurts, and even if we can’t fix it, we shouldn’t dismiss it.
It’s all about tenderness
The empathy that Patrick Ness has for young people infused everything that he said about his new book, The Rest of Just Live Here. He spoke about Mikey the main character as if he were a real person, and when asked about why he had ‘given’ him OCD, he was careful to point out that OCD is not an ‘issue’ or an adjective, and that books should be driven by stories not sermons. You don’t need to write issue-driven stories, he argued, because if you write a story that is real, then everything you care about will be in that story. Patrick Ness then shared with us how he too was once an anxious kid, and that he used to wash his hands so often that his hands bled.
‘And when you have a compulsive or obsessive disorder,’ Patrick Ness said, ‘it really doesn’t help if someone tells you it is stupid to keep washing your hands. In fact, it makes it a whole lot worse. Because the thing is, you know it is stupid: that is what makes you hate yourself so much.’
At this point, I had to try not to cry, as my own son – a very anxious 14-year-old, – nodded vigorously beside me. ‘It is only now I am adult,’ continued Patrick Ness, ‘that I have compassion for my sixteen-year-old self.’ And so The Rest of Us Just Live Here, as well as being a funny book about a kid with OCD who is reluctant to be ‘The Chosen One’, is fundamentally a book about tenderness.
Every choice you make is about voice
‘Every book has a voice,’ said Patrick Ness, ‘and as a writer, every choice that you make is about voice.’ I have been writing for several years now, and I am only just beginning to realise how powerful that simple observation is. Where to set the story, who tells it, what you include/exclude, whether to make it funny or sad, for young or old readers: it is all about voice. I have spent a lot of time this year fretting about my authorial voice, but this morning, as I write amongst the discarded cereal bowls, I am wondering what voice is ringing in my children’s ears as they make their way to school? Somewhere along the line, I have reduced parenting to a series of barked out instructions: brush your teeth/put your shoes on/hurry up or you will miss the bus. As Patrick Ness observed, it is just as extraordinary for a character to say ‘I love you’, as it is for them to save the world.
YA is LA
A young girl in the audience asked Patrick Ness how could she convince her tutor that YA books are as good as the adult literature, and he told a great anecdote about growing up in America. New Yorkers look down on LA, he explained. They are always saying how it lacks this and that, and if they meet anyone from LA, they can’t wait to tell them this. But the thing is, people from LA don’t argue back, because they don’t care. They have the sun, the sea – they have LA, so New York is irrelevant to them. YA literature is so robust right now, argued Patrick Ness, that your tutor is basically New York, and YA is LA.
It made me laugh, but like all the best jokes, what he said was so true. Less funny was the realisation that I am now New York, and my kids are LA.
A book will find it’s way into the right hand – regardless of age/rating
There was a discussion about the age appropriateness of books, and whether (as in New Zealand), they should be rated for content. Patrick Ness spoke passionately and convincingly against this, arguing that we should let children and young adults choose what they want to read. He said that he read The Colour of Purple when he was 13, a book full of abuse and swearing and sex, but also about racism and feminism and love – and yes it shocked and appalled and confused him, but also it moved and excited and educated him. No matter what rules and regulations we set up, he argued, a story usually finds a way of getting to the ‘right’ reader, whilst the ‘wrong’ reader probably never realises that that book ever existed.
As a parent of two avid readers, I am guilty of vacillating between hypocrisy and liberalism. I recently agonised over whether to ‘let’ my 14 year-old read Game of Thrones (I did, and he read the whole series in two months). Patrick Ness’s talk was a passionate reminder that I too read The Colour of Purple aged 13, as well as Stephen King and many other ‘inappropriate’ books, and that I should trust the reader and the story to find each other.
Writing is hard
There were lots of questions about the other books that Patrick Ness has written, particularly the Chaos Walking trilogy and A Monster Calls, and he spoke a bit about his writing process. He writes in long hand, and generally aims to cover three pages of A4 a day, about 1,200 words. The first book of the trilogy came out pretty easy, but the third, he said ‘nearly killed me’. Each book is different, but writing, he said is HARD. At one point, he said ‘writing is never fun,’ but he might have been joking. Maybe being a good writer is a bit like being a good parent: it feels hard when you are doing it, but if you get it right, then your reader (or child) won’t see how difficult it was, they’ll just enjoy the experience you’ve created.
A great book is a thin slice of a wider fictional world
Patrick Ness talked about some of his favourite writers and books. I didn’t catch their names, but the point he was trying to make was that a great book makes you feel that the story you are reading is just a thin slice of a wider fictional world. These authors don’t dump in a load of back story or character history, it’s implied or referenced in passing, creating the impression that the story and the characters are real.
It also reminded me that as my children grow, I am becoming a slimmer slice of their world. Both children now leave the house at 7.30am to catch the bus to far-away schools, where friends and teachers shape their day and their lives. There is a whole back story to their ‘what I did today’ narrative that I will probably never, ever know; they are becoming the authors of their own lives now, and I the avid reader.
I am so glad that we made the effort to see Patrick Ness on a Thursday night in Birmingham. I left feeling inspired, not just about writing, but about being a better person. There is a lot of guff talked about role models for children, but he is an example to us all: from the million dollars he raised for refugees, to the two children he made sure could see the event last night. Patrick Ness’s talk was a powerful reminder that the best writers – and perhaps the best parents – are those who remember what it feels like to be young, and who don’t just tell, but show it.