Adam would have to get the flowers himself.
So begins Patrick Ness’ latest book, Release. If it feels familiar, it’s because it is. It’s an homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, ‘one of the greatest English language novels,’ Ness says firmly. A quirk of Ness’s is that he only begins writing a book when he knows the first and last lines. ‘So I thought for once I’ll use someone else’s and see what that feels like.’
It felt scary. ‘The format – the single day starting in the morning and ending with the party – is such a great way to show what it feels like to be a teenager. I had never done such a contained plot line or a narrative quite that interior, building a life over the course of a day.’ Ness wanted to take away his safety nets, ‘I think complacency is creative death.’
There is death and life in Release, though certainly no complacency. Adam Thorn, the main character, is seventeen and gay in a family of evangelical Christians. There is a candid openness to the love and intimacy and yes, sex, that he is growing up with and it feels fresh and new and mature all at once. Ness acknowledges the influence and inspiration of Forever by Judy Blume.
‘Forever was magnificent then and it’s still magnificent. It’s startling frank, even now, but so joyous, so innocent and so open-eyed. I read that and thought, “there’ll never be a version for me.” Looking back at seventeen, sixteen, fifteen-year-old me, I would have loved that.’
And there are very many young people growing up now who will love it, and need it. Though Ness says he didn’t want to just guess what other people want. ‘I can only really give you a part of myself.’ But he recognises, too, that he has the ability to reach a wide audience. ‘I’ve got some capital, and what’s the point of capital if you don’t spend it? If I’ve got a voice then I might as well sing with it.’
I tell him that I remember reading Forever, borrowing the copy from my rural Galway library and somebody had scratched out the word sex from the back cover blurb because they didn’t want anybody to see it.
‘And that’s shocking in one way,’ Ness says, ‘but it’s kind of cool in another. Books as contraband are a great way for people to read, and you claim ownership of it in a way, when you think it’s a secret and you want to keep it.’
That’s what it felt like.
‘And that’s great,’ he says, ‘that’s great.’
Alongside the reality of Adam’s story runs another, led by the ghost of a murdered girl called Catherine. She draws in characters of another world: a powerful entity called the Queen and a faun. These more mythical elements surprised me initially, but, like Adam, these characters are searching for release. What they all find is a moment of the recognition of humanity, even the Queen, who’s not human at all.
‘That’s always the most moving to me. When you can see someone clearly and without judgement. That’s sort of why I’ve been writing closer and closer to the topic as I’ve gotten older, because I can look back on the seventeen-year-old me, finally, with compassion and with clarity. Not with forgiveness because he didn’t do anything wrong, but to say “yeah, you had a terrible haircut” and “yeah, you made some terrible decisions”, and “yeah, you were kind of goofy”, but so what? You did your best. And that’s what Adam and Catherine do.’
I don’t know if I’ve reached that point yet.
‘It took me a long time. Just keep trying. You’ll get there! You did your best, we all did. And it’s done, it can’t be undone. So love that person. It got you here. If you don’t hate who you are now you can go on that journey.’
I must look like I’m having an epiphany or (more likely) a crisis because Ness adopts a therapist’s voice and says, ‘How does that make you feel?’
I resist the urge to stretch out on the couch.
Release has been called Ness’s most personal book to date and though he says it’s ‘slightly more autobiographical, it’s not directly so.’ (In fact, there’s a note at the end of the book that says, ‘My own father is not in these pages.’)
Ness’s fiction is often speculative, but he’s previously said that all stories are fantasy, that ‘all fiction is falsehood that reveals a truth.’ In Mrs Dalloway there’s a line; ‘it was made up, as one makes up the better part of life … making oneself up,’ and I felt that Adam was doing this, Catherine and the Queen, too.
‘To a very important degree we are the stories we tell ourselves,’ Ness says. If the universe is a meaningless place and if the meaning that it has is what we apply to it – which is kind of what I believe – I think that’s why we tell stories. To sort the universe so that we can stand it for a short time. The big themes for Adam and Catherine in the book are feeling less than. If you’re constantly told that you’re less than, that’s a story that you internalise. One of the most freeing things is realising you have the ability to tell different stories.’
Stories within stories are recurring in Ness’s books; they nest within each other like those Russian dolls – ‘Matryoshka dolls,’ he informs me. ‘I like reading stories like that. Pretty much all my books are linear but they tend to spiral – helix, rather. They start to twist. I think that’s how we live our lives. I always picture life as if the moment we’re living is the end of a ling braid, and reaching out in front of us are all the strands of future moments that will be braided and the farther away you get the farther apart the strands are. We’re living is right at the moment when they come together.’
It’s like a demonstration of time or space that would be used in Cosmos. Does he think about things visually, then?
‘It’s more instinct. It’s emotional. I can read a page and know there’s some shape that is wrong. It makes it seem cold, which it isn’t; or mechanical, which it isn’t … I think that over time I’ve gotten better at finding that, the bit where the shape isn’t working.’
It makes me think of metalwork, somehow. Testing for strength and resilience, that there’s a craft to it.
‘Yeah’ Ness says, ‘although it’s like actors who talk about the craft; its never the really good ones. It’s Tom Cruise who goes on and on about the craft.’
I suppose it’s the easier thing to talk about abstractly. That’s why it’s so often brought up in creative writing classes.
‘You read a lot, you do your best. That’s about it. That’s about all you can do.’ He shrugs. ‘That’s your entire writing course right there.’
The more you read, the more you learn, but often it shows me what’s not there, the stories that aren’t being told enough. So I recognised that an important element of Release is that it’s not just about gay characters coming out. Those stories are – and always will be – essential, but there are more young adult books now that are moving beyond that. I tell Ness that I remember a writer once saying that transgender characters can also have jobs.
Ness nods, ‘That’s exactly what this tour is about. I’ve met a surprising number of trans men and one said he wanted to see a trans male character in a story that wasn’t just about the journey. I knew exactly what he was talking about. As you say, they’re important but they’re not everything. It was important to me that in Release Adam doesn’t have a problem with being gay. I don’t like the phrase “coming to terms with sexuality” – he’s come to terms with it, he loves it, it’s really fun! But if you’re told you’re damned, well, how does that affect your relationships with other people? It’s not about the coming out, he’s fine with it. It’s the rest of the world that has the problem.’
And that you don’t have to be stuck in the stage of telling people, of that coming-to-terms-with it. You can go beyond that and it’ll always be a part of you but you have … (I cast about for a phrase and settle lamely on) … bigger fish to fry.
Ness seems to know what I’m talking about. ‘Exactly. I always say that one of the ways to change the world is to act as though it was already changed. One of the ways to do that is to tell a story where it’s not a big deal because – guess what? – “it’s not a big deal.” It’ll come. It’ll happen. There are trans writers out there now who are getting their stories together, to tell them and I can’t wait to hear them.’
Yes; I’m listening for them, too. On that subject, I move on to my most burning, incisive question. Who’s going to win the Eurovision?
Ness replies instantly, ‘Italy. With Bulgaria as a dark horse.’
Wrong. It was Portugal. I was rooting for Moldova.
‘But,’ he adds, ‘an independent Scotland will win the Eurovision before the UK ever will.’
Ness has to go, then, to announce the ‘big news’ he had hinted at on Twitter. I had seen that teaser – what was it? ‘I might as well tell you,’ he said, ‘the Chaos Walking books have been greenlit for a movie adaption. Finally!’ Ness will be working on the script, and it’s scheduled to start filming next year, with Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley set to star as Todd and Viola.
My gasp was mostly because I love those books, partially because I had recently watched Tom Holland’s Lip Sync Battle performance of Umbrella, (Very impressive, I recommend, along with the Moldovan Eurovision entry.) The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first of the trilogy, had electrified me when I read it.
Todd and Viola are the protagonists of the Chaos Walking books and, like Adam and Catherine, have to consider their place in a world that keeps expanding. It’s what Clarissa Dalloway does during that long day, but often teenagers aren’t perceived as doing that.
‘It makes me angry, that teenagers don’t get credit,’ Ness says passionately, ‘I think they’re amazing. I wanted adults to take me seriously, to say: how do you feel? What do you want to do? What are your questions and your fears? That’s what I wanted in a book.’
Ness understands that it’s not really just about providing answers, it’s about giving room for questions to be asked. And that’s what he has done in Release; there it is.