The Power of Ordinary People: An Interview with Patrick Ness

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A few weeks ago, the American Book Center here in Amsterdam organized a Skype interview with Patrick Ness, award-winning author of the Chaos Walking trilogy and the soon-to-be-filmed A Monster Calls. The interview, which took place at the ABC Treehouse, mostly focused on Ness’s latest release, The Rest of Us Just Live Here – until it became a discussion on Hogwarts houses and cat pictures. The novel describes the ordinary and focuses on people who are simply trying to live their lives in a world full of superheroes. It also points out that not everyone has to be the Chosen One, something that might be nice to hear in today’s performance driven society. I thought Ness’s answers were really interesting and informative, and I wanted to share them with you.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is about the “normal people,” the Not Chosen Ones. Why do you think their story is important to share?

Ness: “I think there are two key moments when you’re a teenager. The first is when you just become a teenager. That’s the first time in your life where you step away from your family and you say, “I am different from what I have known up until now.” That’s an important moment, but it’s really isolating, really lonely, and I think the Chosen One narrative explains it. It gives it a good reason. It says, “It’s okay that you’re different, because you’re a wizard, and you’re going to go to Hogwarts,” and I think that’s really powerful and I wouldn’t want to take it away.

The second time that’s a hard period is at the end of the teenage years when you’re just about to leave school. You spent some time figuring out who you are, what your boundaries are, what you believe – and then everything changes. Your friends move away, you move away, you have to start over again. I think that’s an interesting time and a hard time and I think the Chosen One narrative is less effective for that, because I don’t think anybody feels like the Chosen One then. So I kind of wanted to write a book about the ones who were never going to be chosen, which, true, is me.”

Some of the characters in the book deal with serious issues, like OCD or eating disorders, and you wrote this really well. How did you research this?

“I think the anxiety that [the characters] feel is really common, and I don’t think you have to look too far to find it. That’s the things like the anorexia of [Mike, the main character]’s sister, which she’s mostly gotten over but you never completely get over, and the OCD that [Mike] faces – I don’t think you have to look very far to see those in the teenagers that you know. For example, I used to have OCD, I used to wash my hands so much that they would bleed just like Mike does, and it’s only now, it’s only much later, that I can sort of look back with compassion and have a bit of tenderness for me at that age doing those things because it was so hard to go through then. So some of it is first hand, but if you look closely at anyone, you’re going to find stuff. Everybody’s got something.”

Speaking of the power of ordinary people: you have recently been in the news a lot because you started a huge fundraiser to raise money for the refugees from Syria. Can you tell us a little more about that?

“It was the day that picture of the Syrian boy who drowned on the shore of Turkey, three years old. You know, the UK government is a feeble, mean-spirited politically-driven government, and I was really, really annoyed at their response. I thought it was inhumane and amoral, and I thought, “I don’t want to just tweet upset into nothingness, because what does that accomplish?” So I just started the simplest page, and I said, “If you donate money I will match it up to ten thousand pounds,” thinking we might get a few hundred – we got ten thousand pounds in two hours. And then John Green came in immediately and said, “I’ll do the next ten thousand,” and Derek Landy did the next ten thousand, and on and on and on.

Now it’s at about one million and sixty thousand dollars, just by – and this is the important thing – just by readers and writers, particularly YA readers and writers. And interestingly enough, there was a bunch of YA writers and then the other group was a bunch of women who write novels. So the men who write “adult” novels were kind of missing, which is interesting to me. But what great communities, what fantastic communities, filled with people who want to make the world better – that felt really, really good. In a pessimistic world with a sucky government, it’s nice that there are lots of people out there who want to do something good.”

That’s absolutely amazing! On a different note, what kind of books do you enjoy reading yourself?

“I want something fresh, something that doesn’t feel like a cliché, something that looks at the world a little differently. The thing I try to do is not to be a snob. If a book is good, it’s good. If it’s a good middle grade book, then that’s great. If it’s a great classic – I read Middlemarch by George Eliot every couple of years and that’s a great book. I think my favorite book of the last five years is a picture book, I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. It’s a great work of art, it’s really funny, it’s the perfect little thing.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, which Hogwarts house would you be in?

“Ah, this is a good question! I think I’m a born and bred Ravenclaw, with the ones who really, really, really want to win the house cup [on the Pottermore website] and never do. We really care about winning it, we get the top marks, we’re the brainy ones, we get the best scores – and then in comes some Gryffindor like, “Oh, I ate the hero cake.” So I always say that Ravenclaws take revenge for that, in later life, by denying Gryffindor mortgages. No, I’m an actual born Ravenclaw, and I’m proud of it.”

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