A MONSTER CALLS
Published May 2011
Patrick Ness's award-winning Chaos Walking trilogy furnished his first Carnegie Medal. The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in the trilogy, was published by Walker Books in 2008 but it was the final book, Monsters of Men, which won the Carnegie Medal.
Shortly after completing the Chaos Walking trilogy, Ness received a call from his editor at Walker Books asking him if he'd consider completing a novel begun by another author, the late Siobhan Dowd (author of Bog Child, a posthumous Carnegie winner).
Ness's initial reaction was to refuse. He says, "My automatic reaction when I was asked to complete the story was you can't mimic someone else and that to tell a story, you have to be yourself. If you're writing a story for any other reason that telling a good story, you're risking mediocrity. But I eventually agreed because I thought she had left a really good idea and characters, and there was a spark I could feel."
As he studied the fragments Dowd had left behind, a new story began to take root, says Ness. "I think all books that succeed do so because they capture a sense of yearning and this was a story that was yearning to be told. It had a real emotional appeal."
Having only her initial ideas for the story was a help rather than a hindrance, he adds. "There was enough of it for me to see what she intended, but I wouldn't have to mimic her story; I only had her early ideas for the story and I could feel my own ideas really beginning to percolate."
Ness's completed novel, A Monster Calls, is the story that Dowd began but never had the time to finish before she died of cancer in 2007, aged just 47. It is about Conor, a 13-year old whose mother is dying of cancer, and his increasing isolation at home and at school. One night, Conor hears someone calling his name and discovers that the yew tree from the top of the hill has come to life and is challenging him to tell his story.
Ness admits that he might seem like a "counter-intuitive choice" to complete a Dowd novel when you compare his Chaos Walking novels with the kinds of books that she wrote. However, he explains, "While our writing may seem stylistically different, we are both reaching for the same thing. It's not about the externals; we are both reaching for the emotion of the story. Dowd wrote about real people with real problems and I felt the same kind of emotional connectedness and a particular wariness of cheap sentiment."
Ness only had the fragments of Dowd's initial ideas to work with. For example, he says, "Dowd had said that the Yew Tree would tell Conor three stories, but not what they were so I could make them up. I love English mythology and for me the yew tree is a kind of Green Man figure in this story.
"Myths come about because we call them, we need them to make sense of the world, and by telling his stories, the Green Man gradually draws Conor into telling his own story, the thing he is most afraid of." As the Green Man tells each story, Conor takes on more of the story-telling role until he becomes the storyteller himself.
Ness also wanted to explore the complexity of the experiences felt by the teenage Conor, who is frightened about what is happening to his mother, and increasingly isolated at school where he is bullied. Conor's confrontation with the school bully helps propel him towards admitting what it is that he is really afraid of.
"I wanted to explore the idea that Conor can feel more than one thing at a time," says Ness. "He has this thing that he feels and won't admit until he is able to share it towards the end of the story. But I wanted to stress that, even if he feels this, it's not all he is.
"People are complicated and it's not what you think but what you do that is important. We are a collection of actions rather than thoughts. I love writing for young adult readers because they are just discovering their complexity and beginning to discover that life is like that."
The book is illustrated by Jim Kay and Ness says he was "blown away" by his illustrations. "The first illustration I saw was of the Green Man leaning against Conor's house at the beginning of the story and I thought he had just nailed everything about it. The Green Man is big and mythic and scary but more in the way of Ted Hughes's Iron Giant than a monster."
Ness never actually got to meet Dowd during her lifetime and wonders what people will make of the novel he completed for her. In writing A Monster Calls, Ness says that his goal "was to write a story that Siobhan Dowd would have liked". He adds, "I hope I have done so. I wouldn't have taken on the challenge unless I felt I could write a real, breathing story. That is the best thing I could give to her."
The book has now become the first ever to win both the Carnegie Medal for literature, and the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration, awarded to illustrator Jim Kay.