Patrick Ness shared the same editor as Siobhan Dowd, and he was already familiar with her work. He didn’t expect he’d be finishing a book that Dowd started after she unexpectedly passed away from cancer.
Ness was reluctant to take on the task of completing the book at first, but rather than write a tribute to Dowd’s work, he decided the best thing to do would be to make it a book that she would be proud of. The end result is A Monster Calls, a story about young Conor who is visited by a monster in the middle of the night at the same time. His mother is dying from an illness, and the monster helps Conor understand what he needs, the truth.
I caught up with Ness recently and we talked about how it felt to have the baton passed to him, and then for him to pass it on to Jim Kay to illustrate, and finally to have J.A. Bayona direct the book and bring it all to life.
Awards Daily: How did it begin for you? This was initially a journey that Siobhan Dowd started, and you finished?
Patrick Ness: Unexpectedly is the answer. She had written these wonderful books, and at the time of her death, we shared an editor. After she died, my editor brought the material to me and asked if I’d consider turning it her material into a book. My first reaction was to say no because I was worried that a good book doesn’t get written that way.
You have to pay attention to the story first. Are you writing a memorial? Or are you writing a story? She would not have done a memorial. Siobhan would have let it grow organically. The worst outcome was that I could write a bad book. Then, it started suggesting other ideas. The very first idea I had was the scene was when Conor comes out of the second tale to discover that he’s discovered his grandmother’s sitting room.
I thought that’s actually everything I want. That’s the power, the transgression, his contained rage that he has no outlet for and doesn’t know what to do with it. I thought there was so much power there, and it felt like that was the permission I had to proceed.
AD: How did you prepare to take it on? Were you familiar with her style?
PN: I was familiar with her work. On the surface, we’re different writers, and I had completed this gigantic sci-fi trilogy, and Siobhan had written several contemporary novels set in Ireland. However, underneath, what we have in common is that we take teenagers seriously in a nice way as real complicated human beings. She has this sympathy for them, that I think we both share. I had read her books, but it was never an intention to write a book she would write. My goal was instead to write a book that she would love. In the introduction, I called it a relay race where she handed me the baton, and I ran with it and handed it to the illustrator, and the movie is like handing it over again.
AD: Who’s idea was the fourth story in the book and the film?
PN: Siobhan had written an email to our editor saying she was really looking forward to working on it. She said the tree was going to tell some stories, and we’ll never know what those stories were going to be. I loved the idea of the monster telling stories. The monster in her email was going to tell three stories, I added the fourth story. She had Conor. I added the grandmother, the father, and the bully. I also made a change to the monster because it was originally going to be a grandmother type figure.
The monster is ambiguous, and it’s a shifting thing. I thought Conor would be calling on a version of himself, or if his father is missing, he might be asking for his father, and that’s not what he gets. I changed it to a bigger, terrifying one. It was really about letting her story grow. I couldn’t guess, I just wrote something that I thought she’d be proud of.
AD: The writing is incredibly moving and powerful. How much of that came from personal experience because you strike deep?
PN: The way I always thought about the book is that it is about loss, but it is fundamentally about fear of loss. The fear is what’s destructive, and that’s universal. That fear of losing your best beloved is what haunts me. I identified with being a clever kid, and the danger of that is kids figure out way more than we do. A clever kid will figure out 95% of what’s going on, and it’s that extra 5% that’s destructive and you guess wrong. That’s the position that Conor is in. He knows what’s going to happen. There’s the sentence in the film and he says, “You’ll stay?” He always knows what’s going to happen, he just doesn’t want to go through it by himself. That to me is the request of any child. “Take me seriously, take my pain seriously. I’m not asking you to take it away, I’m just asking to not be alone.”
AD: When you wrote the screenplay, how was that process?
PN: I took my time. iIt was spec. I wanted to write it so I could write the conversation. I took about 6-8 months getting a decent first draft together. I started talking about it and let some people read it and give some feedback. Then, I met the director and gives you notes, adds to it, and I wrote all the way through shooting. We added some good jokes and we made it work.
AD: The humor was a nice addition to everything else that’s going on.
PN: Well, life is funny even in its darkest moments. If you’re purporting, to tell the truth, and you’re not having a few laughs, you’re not showing life. Even when you think you’re terrible, you still laugh, and that was important to me.
AD: Was it hard to go from the book to the screenplay?
PN: The first big reckoning I did with myself was accepting that the book remains. Whatever happens to the film, the book has to remain. It was made with Siobhan and Jim Kay, and the movie will never erase or negate it. There were some things we lost, but Bayona had some great ideas and managed to take an internal novel and make it into a very visual film. I could totally see his ideas working, so I’d write them out and it turned out to be a great collaboration.
AD: What was it like when you saw Lewis play Conor?
PN: I’m asking a lot here. It’s a conscious decision that I had to make. It’s like with the visuals, I thought, I was going to ask for the moon. If you don’t ask for it, you’re not going to get it.
I thought to myself, let’s just pretend we’re going to get this fantastic, nuanced young actor who can do all of it. I thought there would be ways to work around it if he didn’t work out, and I asked for everything, but this audition process was massive. We saw over a thousand kids, and Lewis kept coming back. He’s not precarious, he got the anger right, he got the stillness right, and there’s no falseness to him. We saw him and thought he was a miracle.
AD: What can you tell us about the tree seen in the movie? Where did you go find it?
PN: The stuff about the tree in the movie is that it’s true. Siobhan was writing it and was taking Taxol. The Latin name for the Yew tree is Taxus. We looked for an actual graveyard with a yew tree because the berries are poisonous and it’s a tree that lives in graveyards. So, the exteriors are all in the North of England. The rest of it was filmed at an abandoned tuberculosis hospital outside of Barcelona.
AD: How did you find those voices?
PN: They’re mystical. I never quite know why they work, or how to find them. I let them talk, and they emerged, and my job is to listen. There are surprises I wanted to keep. With the monster, I’ve had this long-standing theory that there’s a difference between nice and kind. Kind is better because you can be very nice without being at all kind, which makes an interesting villain. The reverse is also true, you can be very kind without being at all nice. That to me is an extremely compelling character. The monster isn’t at all nice. He doesn’t care that he gets Conor in trouble. He doesn’t care that he destroys things. With all the scariness and power, when he is finally kind, that to me is devastating to me in a way that sorrow is. I can deal with sorrow and difficulties, but someone who is unexpectedly kind knocks me down.
That was the feeling I had behind the monster. He’s not a nice creature, but there is a kindness at his center.
AD: You moved to the UK in 1999. What do you miss about the U.S.?
PN: [laughs] Junk food. It’s an emotional thing. It’s not the food itself. It’s how old you were when you ate it. Take grape soda, it’s not a nice thing, but you drink it. I feel like I’m seven and I always put on weight when I visit America.
The EU bans some things, so I can’t get the soda. So I guess it’s good for my health.
AD: Stock up while you’re here.