Patrick Ness Q & A

Monsters of Men brings elements of war and terrorism to stunning life, only slightly buffered by the sci-fi setting. Which came first, the decision to explore these themes or the decision to have the story take place in an alternate world? The story always comes first. I think if you start out thinking about themes, then you’re risking writing a book that preaches, and who wants to read that? I always encourage young writers to trust themselves and try to get attuned to what a story is trying to tell them. If the story really, really wants to be written, chances are it’s already going to contain all those important themes you want to write about. Even better, it’ll be in the form of a cracking story, and therefore no preachiness! All I focused on in Monsters of Men was the story wanting to be told, and I tried to stay as true to it as possible. And since war themes concern me, then that’s naturally going to be part of the story I tell, I hope. been faced with the same choice he was just talking about. And Mistress Coyle is also absolutely right in saying that leaders must make difficult — even monstrous — decisions. That’s what makes them leaders. But does knowing that fact ever make them choose monstrously when they may not have needed to? For me, it’s really about making choices with your eyes open. You’re going to get them wrong sometimes, of course, but when you do, it’s important to learn from them and, even more importantly, accept the consequences and not try to pretend it was out of your hands. 

Another important theme seems to be the possibility of redemption for different souls. The Mayor, Todd, Viola, and 1017 are all in need of different types of redemption. Do the varying degrees of redemption they actually find (or don’t) relate more to their innate character, or to the choices they make? Yes, definitely. This is a big one for me. I have to believe that the possibility of redemption exists for everyone, everyone, or what is humanity good for? And I definitely think it comes down to choices. If it came down to character, you’d have to believe that individuals are inherently good or inherently evil, which I think lets us off the hook when it comes to the hard work of being good. Circumstance and upbringing play a part, of course, but every human has the capacity for good or evil, and it’s only choices that make us one or the other. Davy in The Ask and the Answer is the best example. We eventually saw exactly why he was making the bad choices he did, but then ultimately he found a way to make better ones through the influence of Todd. Which is why his death was such a tragedy. Anyone can be redeemed. But first, they have to want it, and second, they have to know that it’s possible.

One of the most dramatic themes of Monsters of Men and the Chaos Walking series as a whole is the impact of choices. Do the two statements below, delivered by Bradley and Mistress Coyle respectively, complement or contradict each other? “ Choices may be unbelievably hard, but they’re never impossible.”   “ Leaders must sometimes make monstrous decisions.” They both complement and contradict each other. Bradley is absolutely right on the one hand, but then a couple sentences later he admits that he doesn’t know what he would have done if he’d

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The title of Book One, The Knife of Never Letting Go, is revealed in Book Three as pertaining to Todd and “the knife in his voice that he cannot put down.” How do you decide on the titles of each book, and when in the writing process do they come to you? Titles are kind of mystical things for me. They tend to just show up and be the right one. For me it’s usually an evocative sound or feeling that signals I’ve got one. The Knife of Never Letting Go is factually accurate, but it’s an odd syntactical construction (and has proven impossible to translate, by the way). But that odd construction gives a feeling of yearning that’s exactly what I wanted for the book. The Ask and the Answer is also on one level just about the two sides of the conflict in the book, but there’s also that pairing of the As and the use of ask rather than question that gives it an unusual flavor. And Monsters of Men, of course, is a quote from each book about how war makes monsters of men. But it’s got a real power to it with the alliterative Ms and just the strength of the word monster. So who knows? For me, they just show up out of nowhere and are correct. I wish I knew how it worked; sometimes it’d be a lot easier!

What are some of your favorite dystopian novels, if any? Did they influence you at all in the writing of the Chaos Walking trilogy? It’s odd to think of it as dystopian, really, but David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is one of my favorite novels ever, and is in fact about a messy future. As for influential, there’s actually a film that I saw years and years ago when I was barely a teenager called The Quiet Earth, about a man who ends up alone on the planet. The imagery of the deserted cities really stayed with me (I have no idea if the film is any good; it’s been so long), but that solitude shows up a lot in the trilogy, even if it’s not directly about being the last man alive.

Why do you think dystopian fiction has become so popular recently? What’s the appeal? Lots of reasons, I think: terrorism physically reaching America, the strain of apocalypse in many popular religions, fear of new technologies. But also, I think, the way the Internet has turned into a great outlet for outrage and has made it oddly more difficult to respectfully disagree. Someone you disagree with isn’t just wrong, he or she is the biggest idiot that ever lived. Know what I mean? In those circumstances, it’s hard not to worry about things coming apart, even if the facts are that we’re mostly fine. It’s a shame, really, and I hate how politicians (among others) play so heavily on manufactured discontent. It’s enough to dent even the brightest optimist!

How have teens reacted to the situations in this series in which no choice leads to a positive outcome? Has there been a difference between teen and adult reactions? Having no choice that leads to a positive outcome is often what being a teenager feels like. I think they understand completely. Sometimes it just feels like you’re trapped, so what I’m trying to show is that yes, you’re inevitably going to make terrible decisions and mistakes, we all do, but it’s how you handle the aftermath of those decisions that’s important. Do you learn or do you sink? Growing up is often just the process of trying not to sink. Adult readers have sometimes thought this tended toward the hopeless, but I don’t think so at all. Sometimes you feel hopeless, but even seemingly impossible situations pass, and you live on. Again, that’s what growing up is all about: living through the feelings of hopelessness and holding on tight to the things that matter, like the right you try to do and the people whom you love.

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