In 2015, just after pictures were published around the world of the dead body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach, novelist and screenwriter Patrick Ness offered to match donations on the Just Giving website, hoping to raise £20,000 for Save the Children. Fellow bestselling authors followed suit, and in one week thousands of donations raised $1 million to help refugees. “I happened to think of this about 15 seconds before someone else did,” says Ness, but the phenomenal response is not only evidence of the public strength of feeling on the issue, but also a tribute to his power to inspire.
Ness often triggers intense responses. He wrote BBC3’s Doctor Who spin-off series, Class, about teenagers defending the world from aliens, which was quickly a cult hit (eight episodes are still available on iPlayer, and it has recently launched to an enthusiastic reception in the US). His novel A Monster Calls, exploring a boy’s emotions about his mother’s cancer, became a 2016 Hollywood film starring Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson and Sigourney Weaver, for which Ness wrote the screenplay (he has been named as one of Hollywood’s “25 most powerful authors”). And he has a prodigious collection of awards, including two Carnegie Medals, for his books – seven for “young adults” and three for grown-ups.
Ness is 45 but still close to his inner teenager. For all his eloquence and skill, he has a fresh-faced, energetic boyishness, both on paper and on screen. When he speaks, teenage audiences feel a connection. He believes we are all, always, “all the ages we have ever been”.
His latest book, just published, is Release, about one day in the life of 17-year-old Adam, during which everything changes. There are farewells, and shifts in his relationships, and he comes out to his father, who is an evangelical Christian pastor, with a no-holds-barred candour about his sexual partners. This is fiction, and not Ness’s own experience, but, he says, “emotionally I’m a lot about Adam: the things he feels and the stuff he thinks about”.
Ness is American-born (and now naturalised British), the son of a politically conservative, retired Army drill sergeant who is a devout Christian. But as the acknowledgements in Release insist: “My own father is not in these pages.” Ness did, though, grow up in Washington State, in a church like the one in his book, and the pastor father, “Big Brian Thorn”, is “someone I saw over and over again growing up, and I know very, very well”.
A Monster Calls
Ness, who married his civil partner in 2013, says, “My father and I get along now, but I don’t think me coming out at 17 would have gone so well.” It was, he says, “a different time then –1988. I would have had no safety net, not even a social media community.” He now has 60,000 Twitter followers. “Being raised in that church I never would have spoken about being gay. You have to keep yourself hidden. And that has a cost, which Adam feels.”
Ness hastens to say that his is “not a Christian bashing book – I’m not interested in that at all… All religions are full of terrific individuals”. Neither is the father necessarily a bad man. “He’s just giving in to what he believes, over his son – which is always the wrong decision.”
All fiction, says Ness, is about balancing “is” and “should be”. In his own youth he had too much “should be”: “I never saw myself in a book.” He feels obliged to tell the truth to young people, and also writes to “show compassion for my teenage self”. As for the “should be”, he says, “The best way to change the world is to act as if it has already changed.”
Ness has a vivid memory of his teenage years because it involves “stepping away from your family and deciding who you are”. He is “so different now than how I was brought up” that for him it was “a big reckoning”. He also appreciates how “teenagers take emotion seriously”. It’s this, as much as its candour about sex, that makes Release a novel for adults, too.
The book has two inspirations in particular: Judy Blume’s Forever, first published in 1975 but so frank it would still be hard to publish today, and Mrs Dalloway. Ness borrows (and adapts) Virginia Woolf’s first line, her last line, and her timescale of one day. He also interweaves a second narrative about a murdered teenager, Katherine, whose life touches Adam’s glancingly. “I like a challenge, and how much scarier can you get than trying to emulate Mrs Dalloway, one of the greatest novels of all time?”
Ness doesn’t write “cause fiction”, and his most political actions are personal. “Choosing to be who you are, without shame or regret, is a revolutionary act. Doing so in the face of news like Chechnya [where gay men have been tortured] is even more revolutionary; it’s dangerous. I’ll keep doing it.”
Patrick Ness is on The Wright Stuff on Thursday (9:15am Channel 5) to talk about his book and the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia