Teen fiction sensation Patrick Ness has a new fable ... for adults. He tells David Robinson about a story he’s been nurturing for decades
There’s a story that’s been in Patrick Ness’s head since he was five years old, a story that he first heard in his kindergarten class in Hawaii, and it’s never gone away. He was taught there by a Japanese woman and she told him an ancient fable from her homeland – about a lonely sailmaker who longs for a wife, finds a stricken crane on the ground near his house, and nurses it back to health until one day it is able to fly away.
The next day the sailmaker opens his door to find a beautiful woman. She marries him and ends his loneliness. There’s just a glimpse of happiness ever after before the sailmaker spoils it by asking too much from his new life.
Ness isn’t sure why the story of the Crane Wife went in so deep that it stayed in his imagination for more than three decades. But it has – so much so that even though his publishers were expecting him to work on another teen novel, he quietly pushed on ahead with writing his own take on the fable, knowing that it would have to be a book for adults.
In a way, that was a brave decision. Because when he made it, Ness’s stock in the world of teen fiction couldn’t have been any higher. His Chaos Walking trilogy had sold a million copies worldwide, won or been nominated for practically every children’s fiction award going and been met with near-universal praise (“one of the most outstanding literary achievements of the present century” gushed Robert Dunbar in the Guardian). Oscar-winning scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation) had already been signed up to write the screenplay for the first book in the trilogy, The Knife of Letting Go. When it is released next year, it is widely expected to be the next Hunger Games smash at the box office.
Ness’s next book was A Monster Calls. Already, this story of a boy forced by his confrontations with a real-life monster to come to terms with his mother’s imminent death from cancer is being talked about as a masterpiece. In the 50-year history of the Carnegie and Greenaway Prizes for children’s writing and illustration, no book had ever won both. When that happened last year, Ness was scrupulous about giving credit to Siobhan O’Dowd, who had the original idea before she herself died of cancer. He also spoke out vociferously against library closures. American he may be (though he now has dual citizenship), but the world of British teen fiction has taken Patrick Ness to its collective heart.
For such a writer, at such a time in his career, switching – even if only temporarily – to writing a novel for adults carries its risks. But when Ness’s novel, The Crane Wife opens, there’s no sense of that at all. A crane, injured by an arrow shot through its wing, is lying in George Duncan’s London back garden. He removes the arrow,the bird flies away, and the next day an enigmatic woman walks into his T-shirt print shop. The fable starts to come, brilliantly and confidently, to life.
I ask him what made him want to write the novel, and what bits of the fable were in his head before he sat down to do so. “For me, when I start a novel, I only have a general sense of what I am going to do – usually three or four big scenes or something to which I can really respond emotionally.
“When George finds the crane in the back yard – that’s one such scene. Then there was another – a conversation he had with his nephew that made me laugh, and I thought, ‘There is something here’. And I always have the last line in place, because how you leave the reader is one of the most important things.
“That’s different with each book, but here, I wanted to leave the reader with a sense of yearning. Sometimes it can be linked to music, and with The Crane Wife, part of the inspiration is also songs in The Decembrists’s The Crane Wife album – which also have that same emotion: a yearning to connect, not to be lonely, to be friends with someone.”
In A Monster Calls, it was the vividness of the Monster itself that gave the book much of its power. In the new novel it’s the way in which Ness seeds specific, quotidian detail into his fable that hooks the reader: when George, his middle-aged protagonist, hears the sound of what turns out to be the crane landing in his back garden while visiting the bathroom in the middle of the night, we could be in the middle of a dirty realist short story – stylistically about as far away from a fable as you could get.
Instead of death, or the fear of death, in A Monster Calls, here comes love, with all its glorious disruptiveness. Ness’s story will veer away from the traditional Japanese tale he heard sitting in front of his teacher as a five-year-old, but it begins in a similar, magical way. “In the folk tale, the man is greedy for material success,” he explains. “With this book, it’s greed to fully know the woman he falls in love with, to make sure that the love is certain – and sometimes that can damage the love a bit.”
But still … how can we, immersed as we are in our noisy, non-stop culture, the very thing that Ness twisted in the Chaos Walking books into the Noise – whereby nearly all of his characters can hear each other’s thoughts – how can we ever, in the 21st century, fully appreciate the simple purity of fable?
The answer, he has worked out, is to make the life of George, who falls in love with the woman who visits him the day after he rescued the crane, as individualistic as possible. The woman – Kumiko – remains mysterious, unexplained; but George’s life has to be both detailed and distinctive.
For that, he draws, to a small extent, on his own life. Ness isn’t George – if anything, he reveals, he is more like George’s socially awkward daughter – “but an author is everywhere in a book and they’re lying if they deny it”. So George is also an American living in London (in Ness’s case for the last 13 years) who has grown used to British attitudes to his compatriots, the way we all think they’re irony-free, narrow-minded, untravelled, the way they’ll always tell him that somebody like him – soft-spoken, gentle – doesn’t seem American at all. “When you ask what an American sounds like, they’ll put on this really thick southern accent, and I’m from the Pacific North-West, so that’s not me at all,” he laughs.
One scene, however, is heavily autobiographical. Early on in the book, George describes being hit by a car as a young boy – “one of those moments, only a handful of which he could recall throughout his lifetime, when the world dwindles down to almost no-one, where it seemed to pause just for him, so that he could, just for a moment, be seized into life.” Another one of those moments is George’s discovery of the crane: both are bravura pieces of writing, reminders of assurance with which Ness handles the unlikely and the unusual.
It’s the moment after George is hit by the car that sticks in the reader’s memory. There is, before the pain arrives, a great feeling of calm, as though time had stopped. What shielded him from death was the bike he’d been pushing along, while talking to a friend. The car knocked the bike to one side and George with it, so the tyres passed inches by his head rather than over it.
“That all really happened. It should have been a fatal accident but I was barely injured. It’s a key memory in my life. As I grew older, I began to think what about all those people who saw a kid get hit by a car, knowing there was nothing they could do. In my version of the story, I’m the centre of it, but in theirs, I’m just a supporting character. My story is true and so is their, but the truth of the scene is where these stories interconnect.”
To convey that interconnectedness, and how the story changes according to who is telling it, Ness introduces another element – a story that Kumiko tells with her artwork, and which involves a talking volcano. Won’t that, I ask, prove too esoteric for his readers?
“The magical and fantastical isn’t something I’m uncomfortable with in books, and I chafe slightly at the idea that a purely realist novel somehow has more value. Of course those books have a function and I love reading them, but to me if a book is a world made of words, you can do absolutely anything within that world as long as you are persuasive and convincing.”
The magical and fantastical – or at least the wildly different – featured in Ness’s two previous books for adults: his first, The Crash of Hennington, published ten years ago, featured a city in which a herd of rhinos was an accepted part of everyday life. It’s important, he stresses, to stay true to yourself and write the book that you want to write. “Whenever I have tried to write for other people, that’s when my writing has failed, when nobody wanted to read it or buy it. But it’s only when I’ve been able to write a story that makes me excited, only then have other people wanted to read it. With this book, I wanted to convey a feeling of astonishment and wonder. I don’t use those words lightly. If I can get a little bit of that across, without being either sentimental or cheap … that’s the challenge here,. It’s an exciting one.”
• The Crane Wife is published by Canongate, price £14.99. Patrick Ness will be talking about it at 6pm on 16 April at Glasgow’s Aye Write! Festival (with Matt Haig) and at 7:30pm on 17 April at Mainstreet Trading Company St Boswell’s. Tickets £8.