Exclusive Interview: Best-selling author Patrick Ness on his new book Release, the future of his Doctor Who spinoff Class, and more!

Alex Moreland
Contributor

I was recently lucky enough to chat with the best-selling author Patrick Ness ahead of the publication of his tenth book, Release, his most personal and tender novel yet. You might know him from his Chaos Walking novels, which are set to be adapted into a movie starring Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland; alternatively, you might have seen A Monster Calls, the award-winning movie starring Liam Neeson and Felicity Jones, based on Ness’ book of the same name. Or, perhaps, you’ll have seen Class, the YA Doctor Who spinoff written and created by Patrick Ness. If you’re not familiar with him yet, you’ll soon want to be – he’s one of the most talented novelists in the country.

It’s fair to say that Release is a deeply personal book for you – what was the process of writing the book like?

Well, I suppose my books become more and more personal, and I don’t think that’s necessarily the path that most authors take, but it’s how it works for me. The thing that inspires me about the book is where the story comes from, and it’s all kinds of different places for me. With this one, it was – I wanted to be scared, scared that I might fail.

This is what I try to do with every book. I took away some of my safety nets; I have some little tricks I use, like I always know the last line before I start, and I always know significant scenes. Here I had an idea that had an emotional pull, why not really try and push myself? Take someone else’s first line, and model it on Mrs Dalloway, which is one of the greatest novels in the English language, and really scare yourself that way. With that framework, of an intensely looked at single day, this is a really great way to look at the life of a teenager, and in particular a teenage boy’s life. Not all of these things happened to me, but some of them did. It is a work of fiction, it’s not an autobiography, but it was – it was a more intense and more focused way to write than I usually do.

Do you think that this different way of writing impacted the final book?

The argument I always make about books for teenagers is that I never hold back in any of them – I never hold back on thematic issues, or intellectual efforts, or pouring myself emotionally into the book. Certainly, I never do anything differently to when I write adult books. Hopefully, the end product is still the same, but what I try to do each time is to make sure I haven’t done what I’ve done before.

I think complacency is creative death, so it’s to constantly be shaking at my complacency. Hopefully, because of some of the personal nature of the topic, that helps me to put all of my emotions into it while still succeeding as a story. It always, always still has to be a story first. Does that answer your question at all? [Laughs]

No, it does. That’s a good answer, I like that answer. Now, in the introduction to Release, you talk about that same idea of teenage readers – you say “how do we ever survive our teenage years? Teenagers are miracles.” – do you think that having books like Release, and indeed books in general, can play a part in helping people ‘survive’?

Yes! It’s one the reasons why – I can’t speak for others, but it’s certainly one of the main reasons why I write, because I never saw a book like this when I was a teenager. I always wanted to, and I never thought one could ever possibly exist, so as I write them for teenagers now, the teenager that I’m writing for is actually the teenage me. What did he want, and what did he feel he wasn’t getting in a book? And, what did he really really need to see? Not in a moral lesson kind of way, because if you do that then I think a young reader can smell it a mile off, and nobody wants to read a sermon even if you agree with it. Just watch that, and be as equivalent to their story as someone else’s story; that’s where something like Release comes from.

Something you’ve spoken about before in interviews is about music acts as a sort of emotional inspiration as part of your writing. Could you tell us a little bit about that, and how it influences your writing?

Most of my books will have a song attached to them in my head. It’s not that I’m writing a book about the song, and certainly not writing about the lyrics of the song, it’s more the mood that the song elicits in me, the emotions. I use the song as a kind of touchstone to reach back to, to remind myself that this is how the song makes me feel, and it’s how I want the book to make other people feel. That’s how I tend to use music when I’m writing.

For Release, I didn’t have one. This is such a private and intense book, that I thought that silence would work for this book. It’s the first time I’ve ever done that; every other book has had a kind of a theme song to it. But this one, this one needed silence, I think.

That’s really interesting actually. Do you think that this silence helped to stave off complacency in the same way you spoke about a moment ago?

I hope so. Again, it’s what I was saying about taking away the safety nets; I never want to rely on what I’ve done before, because then I feel like I’ve done it before. I don’t ever want to be lazy and say that – it should never be easy, it should always be difficult. This is a kind of really intense book, where the plot is crammed into a really short space of time, and it’s a lot of memory and flashback. The focus required for that – I don’t know, I felt like, in a particular way, that the focus of it had to come from a specific kind of quiet. If you’re trying to sort out an inwards mind, which are a disorderly place, you need a certain kind of quiet.

With your books in general, I know you’ve said you don’t tend to plan them in a huge amount of detail, but they often have quite intricate worldbuilding – Prentisstown in Chaos Walking, and so on. Is that something you work out as you go along, that sort of setting detail?

It’s a slightly different philosophical place, which I sought from the place that there’s no such thing as a realistic novel, because there isn’t. Even if it’s set in contemporary London, it’s still made up – the characters are fictionalised, who are arcing towards a destination, there are coincidences and plot structures and so on. I thought that if you could embrace that, that every book is a kind of fantasy, all that needs to happen is that the story takes place in a kind of world where that story could happen.

That’s literally it. In a way, all the stories are quote unquote “realistic” to the world that they take place in – so that’s how I think of worldbuilding. I don’t actually set out to build a world first, I just think where would this story be real, and where would it be true, and if you take notice of the extraordinary things that are happening, what kind of place would it be? The writing comes from that, and I always think if you can do that, if you can take the story where it would be real…

It’s a writer called Peter Carey, who I admire, that coined this, and what he does that I love so much is that they feel like a smaller slice of a larger and magic world. That’s what I always try to do; you can achieve so much with just a small reference that a reader can fill in with their own imagination, and capture the feeling that they’re taking a glimpse of this world that is larger than the story. That’s what I’m really after, and that’s how I approach the worldbuilding. What if this were a real place, and you were writing a book as an inhabitant of that place? You would treat all those things as normal.

Now, I understand that you’ve previously taught creative writing classes at Oxford – I don’t know if you still do – but do you draw on those ideas, from within your own writing, for the lessons? How do you approach teaching writing?

Well, it’s my feeling that – I don’t teach anymore at Oxford – but it’s my feeling that writing can’t be taught, it can only be practised. I always thought that the greatest thing a writing course can do is a kind of permission giving; saying why can’t you try writing this outside of what makes you comfortable, why can’t you write it in vernacular, why don’t you take an experimental approach? That’s how I always looked at teaching writing. Why can’t you? Try this, try that – forcing them to write things they might find uncomfortable at first, just to prove that they could do it. I suppose that is how I approach writing – nobody should tell the writer what to write except the writer.

All of my books up to now have been, as you say, quite intricately plotted, and I thought okay, let’s take that away – let’s have one that’s set over the course of a day, that’s more focused and intense and about an emotional journey, rather than a physical one. That’s it – refusing to leave any ink off my palette. I’m not going to disallow anything, and I’m willing to try anything.

Have you ever re-read any of your earlier books, with the distance of time and more practice as you were saying, and thought you might do things differently now?

[Laughs] I tend to try not to, because hopefully, you do keep growing, and you do keep developing, and you do keep getting better. It’s not that I’m in any way embarrassed, at all, because they’re the best I could do at the time, but I tend to think of it like raising a child. You send it out into the world, and you love it for everything about it, for what works and what doesn’t. They are who they are, and you’re proud of them for what they are. So, I try not to look back in that way; I’m proud of them, but I’m always trusting and hoping that I get better. I know what you mean, but I try not to.

I’d also like to talk to you about Class, your Doctor Who spin-off. Did you find you needed to adapt your writing style particularly for screenplays and for television?

Oh, definitely! On the one hand, it’s all storytelling; you’re doing the same thing in each one, putting one thing after another in the right way! But for film and TV it’s quite different, because you’re following different rules – but I quite like that, I think how can I follow the letter of the rule, while still getting away with murder? How can I tell the story I want to tell, within these restrictions? They’re restrictions that exist for a reason – they’re not arbitrary.

It’s a lot more puzzle solving, but really satisfying puzzle solving. Within television, when you have an exact amount of time to do something, you have 45 minutes, you have to do it in a certain way – it is different, and it is a challenge, but it’s a really enjoyable one.

Did you write Class in the same order you do with your novels – beginning to end, episode one, two, three and so on?

I did, yeah. I prefer that sort of build, where I can weave things in as I’m going – obviously, I knew how it would end, so I could plan stuff and I could seed stuff. I knew how Class season one would end before I started writing it, so I knew that that was out there. I do like writing from A-Z, because then that way the characters can grow in front of me, and I can see how they might change the story later on. So, yeah, I do write them A-Z, and I did write the episodes one to eight.

You’ve said on Twitter that in writing Class, you learned a lot – what lessons from Class will you take forward and apply to your future work, do you think?

I’ll definitely apply it to future screenwriting work, because writing a novel and a screenplay are opposite kinds of writing. In a novel, you do a lot of work to paint a smaller picture; on television, you use very very few words to paint a picture. The efficiency of television writing, and what you realise, is how much you can tell a story with visuals; it’s really exciting for a prose writer, because we’ve got to do every bit of it with words.

So, I loved that, and I loved learning that this scene doesn’t need to be two pages, it could be a third of a page and still work – so that’s exciting, to learn how you can rely on visual storytelling. To trust that it’ll work just as much, and carry the emotional weight of the story, and the comedy and the excitement just as much as words do. But then I turned around and wrote my most interior and internal book, so overall, it’s hard to say how much it influenced things! I tend to be quite stubborn and bloody minded about what I write anyway.

I’m not sure if you’re aware, but something I’ve noticed that the BBC are doing is really encouraging Class fanfiction on their website mixital. How does it feel to get that level of engagement with your work?

Oh, it’s a huge compliment. It means that fans really care, that they’re claiming ownership over these characters – which is the most exciting thing that can happen in television or in books, when a young reader says “this is mine”. Again, that’s what I wanted as a teenager, and I think that’s why books – The Hunger Games and Harry Potter and so on – do so well, and why people respond to them greatly is because ownership has been taken. This is for me, it’s not for you, it’s for me. That’s fanfiction all over – it’s somebody saying they love these characters so much that I’m going to take ownership of some part of them and put them in my own story. So, that’s a huge compliment.

Why do you think Class resonates so well with young people?

I hope that it takes their concerns seriously – not overly seriously, but seriously. I hope it shows them as human beings, as more than one-dimensional human beings – they fight, they squabble, they love and they care and they’re brave and they’re frightened. The same kind of complexity that we always see in adults in drama – and again, that’s something I always wanted to see as a teenager, I felt like I was only seeing one kind of teen on screen.

Class is a real effort to make them fully rounded, and full of contradictions, and making their own choices – driving the action, they make the choices, it’s not a show about a bunch of young people sitting around watching adults make all the choices. They’re the ones that drive the plot forward, and it matters because they’re doing it. So, hopefully, it’s that – it’s paying a teenager the compliment of saying you’re a fully rounded human being.

I love that line where Tanya says to Ram “Is this bad that we can tell an adult, or bad that we have to deal with ourselves?”, which sums that up entirely, doesn’t it?

That’s the contradiction of being a teenager – you know adults should be the people that you turn to for help, but you know just sometimes they’re not gonna be useful for that. Sometimes they are, but sometimes they’re just not going to believe you, or not going to take your problems with the same seriousness that you do. That’s kind of an allegorical feeling – as soon as you say that line, they’ll absolutely know the difference immediately.

On a broader scale, then, in terms of the general public – how did you feel about the reception to the show?

Really really pleased – it’s always so hard to do a spin-off, and particularly one that’s set in the Doctor Who universe. It’s so storied, turning 54 years old this year, and people have so many opinions on it; it’s always a treat that teens have responded so well to it, but also that Doctor Who fans also really liked it. That was a genuine sort of double pleasure; they’re protective of their universe, and they should be, so to get such a good response from Doctor Who fans was a real joy. I’m pretty pleased about that.

Well, I’m a huge Doctor Who fan myself, and I’ve got to say I think Class was a great addition to it all.

Thank you so much, that’s really kind, thank you.

Are you feeling nervous about the American broadcast of the show? [This interview took place a few days before the American debut of Class on 15th April.]

Well, not really. My work is done, you know? It’s like sending your kid off to college in a way – I’ve done everything I can do, and I’m proud of the show. I worked on it for so long, so closely, that I feel like I have a relationship with it. I hope people love it, I hope people watch it, and I hope people really keep on identifying with the characters and loving them – but I will always have my relationship with them.

I know how I feel about it, and I’m in a really good place with how it comes across. By the end of season one, we’re just flying with these characters and their stories, the things that are possible, and I’m really really proud of it. So, that’s where I sit – it makes me less nervous, because I’m really proud of it, and that’s all anyone can ever be. The reception and response is out of my hands; I’m hopeful, but I’m proud of it, and that’s about as best as I can get to, I think.

What you were just saying there, about having a particular relationship with the characters – to what extent do the characters in your mind have a backstory? Do you know all the details of their lives, outside of what we saw on the screen?

It’s kind of like worldbuilding, you know – I know a more fully fleshed version, but I was trying to drop enough hints so that you could guess at it in an engaging way, to be able to say that’s why April reacts that way, when you see the calls from her dad in later episodes, or why her mother’s in a wheelchair. You don’t have to spell it out, but that’s just acting; if you can understand that she’s been a caregiver, and lots of teenagers are caregivers, then it does affect how you view the universe and how you view yourself. So it’s more things like that – I try to bring in hints, without banging everybody over the head about it. I do know a lot about them, but hopefully I put in enough clues that you can too.

I know it’s all a bit tentative at the moment, but is there anything you can tell us about the likelihood of a possible second series?

Still hopeful, still really really hopeful! I know BBC America is very excited, airing it alongside the new season of Doctor Who; they love the show, and so fingers crossed! Fingers crossed that it’s well received in America. There’s lots to come, and there’s lot of stories to be told, and I’ve got lots of evil plans, so I would love another shot at it.

Do you have much of it worked out, about where you might take Class next? You left things on a bit of a cliffhanger there!

I do, I do in fact – but I’m not gonna tell you! [Laughs]

Fair enough! Do you have any idea when we might hear the good news that it’s coming back?

I’m not sure. We have to see how America responds, and some other territories respond. Usually Doctor Who airs simultaneously, but we’ve been in this weird position where Class did not, and so we’ve had to wait in this weird purgatory, which Doctor Who never had, of being shown in the UK and now waiting to be shown in America before we can get the kind of assessment that Doctor Who gets immediately. It’s been a bit of a wait, I’m glad it’s finally here.

Now, I was going to ask you about the name of the series. I wish I could lay claim to this, but I can’t – something that someone’s pointed out is that the title has this interesting thematic resonance, where the show deals with different class structures. Was that a conscious thematic angle you were exploring?

Not so much exploring; part of it was that I like an ambiguous title, I like one that rings without spelling everything out. I’ve lived in England for about eighteen years, and the way the English talk about class is the way that Americans talk about race, which is an interesting thing, because it certainly reveals a lot about what they understand about themselves, and how they think about themselves, and how they view the world.

So that’s interesting to me, and I wanted the word there to be a slightly uncomfortable title, to say that this is something that’s always at least on the subconscious. It’s about the people who live here, and how you relate to each other in terms of their class, what you perceive about them because of that word. It’s a tricky word, and that’s why I liked it.

Building from that, then – over the past few months, you’ve spoken out a lot about the political climate of the world on twitter. Is that something you’ll ever try and engage with, directly or indirectly, in your storytelling?

I think there’s no such thing as an apolitical show or an apolitical story, because it all takes place in the exact time that the writer wrote it. Science fiction is never about the future, it’s always about now. Not explicitly, because again I think that creeps very, very quickly into didacticism, and I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in preaching – but I am interested in asking questions.

The cast look like they do because that’s what London looks like, and anything else would be a lie. Tanya feels left out, and there’s a number of reasons for that besides her age; the size of her brain, she’s the only black member of the group, and that is just something that a contemporary teenager would be aware of, because they are. Teenagers are engaged, and they’re interested in the world around them. So, I have her say lines referring to that here and there – so I suppose in that way. Never explicitly, because that dates it very quickly, and so it’s really just about trying to get into what the life of a teenager is like now, and what London looks like now.

Just to draw everything to a close, then – what’s the most important message to take from your work?

I really, really try to avoid answering that question, because I think that – books especially, but really any fictional narrative – is going to be a personal experience, and your response to it is going to be predicated on who you are and how you feel when you watch it. I never want to say this is what you should learn, or this is what you should take away – I just try to say these are the things I care about, and hopefully I make enough of an invitation and enough of a space for a reader or a viewer to be able to fit inside that.

I think that’s the best thing that teen fiction and science fiction can do, to invite the reader in, and to say how would you react, who would you be here? I think that’s the most I’d ever want to force on a reader or a viewer, to say how would you react? Where would you fit? From that, it’s down to them, in the best and happiest way, to what the reader wants and who they are. If I’ve made a space for them there then great, I got the job done.

Thank you very much, Patrick!

You can find out more about Patrick on his website, and purchase Release here. Every episode of the Doctor Who spinoff Class is free to watch on BBC iPlayer, and is currently airing on BBC America. 

Related:

Why you should be watching the YA Doctor Who spinoff Class

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