Below is Patrick Ness’s Siobhan Dowd Trust Memorial Lecture which he gave to a full house at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Saturday August 16th.
Patrick on Tumblr (http://patricknessbooks.tumblr.com/) said about the speech: “it’s about what I care about when I write for young people and an attempt to try and reckon with why I might do it. Not a definitive answer and certainly only my opinion and experience. Yours might be different, and that’s great, as it should be. This is just a bit about why I think I do what I do. Hope you like it!”
One member of the audience told us in Edinburgh it was “the best thing he’d heard in ten years of coming to the Festival” (he then went on to name some VERY big names he’d seen in that time which we’re too discreet to boast about…) Please let us know what you think – either by email or if you tweet, tweet us @sdowdtrust
Hope you enjoy it – it really is splendid in our totally objective opinion!
So I’ve been asked a lot about putting my Siobhan Dowd Lecture online, so I’m putting it here. Ignore the bold and the frequent breaks. Those are just for my eye when I’m doing the speech. I also take frequent diversions from the speech when talking, so this is just a guide.
But it’s about what I care about when I write for young people and an attempt to try and reckon with why I might do it. Not a definitive answer and certainly only my opinion and experience. Yours might be different, and that’s great, as it should be.
This is just a bit about why I think I do what I do. Hope you like it!
THE SIOBHAN DOWD MEMORIAL LECTURE
Edinburgh International Book Festival
August 16th 2014
When I was 8 years old, I was told I would be dead before the year was out.
I lived in a tiny town called Puyallup, Washington, about 35 miles south of Seattle. Though my home state is one of the country’s most literate and progressive – we voted to legalise both gay marriage and pot in the same election – America is nothing if not varied, and Puyallup was – and remains – the home of several enormous evangelical mega-churches.
My family, at the time, attended the Puyallup Nazarene Church, which was Pentecostal, evangelical, very conservative, fundamentalist about the Bible, and on December 31st, 1979, my parents took me to a midnight New Year’s Eve service. This was rare for us, as it probably came too close to a Catholic Midnight Mass – I can’t remember another time that we did it – but I remember this night.
We were on the start of a new decade, the 70s had been terrible for everyone, and during the sermon, the Pastor told us that he believed, in his heart, that 1980 was the year the Lord was going to come back to Earth. That the Rapture would happen, and the End Times would begin. Before the end of the next year, we would all either be called up to Heaven for eternity or dead under the heel of an Antichrist. Life, as we knew it, would soon be over.
Now that… that is fucked up. I’m not going to defend it or try to explain it, but I will say this – and this is important. This was a church attended by some truly lovely, kind people, some of whom I still know and cherish. I’m not out to bash anyone tonight, I’m really not.
Moreover, the sermon was delivered by a preacher who I very much respected, because – though I disagree VERY much with his beliefs – his basic character was one of kindness. He was a searcher, a seeker, and though we may have taken very different paths, I can always respect a seeker.
Regardless, I was eight years old. Crucially, I had just turned eight two months before, and I say crucially because, in my church, the general accepted age of moral responsibility – which is to say, the age after which you could choose to be baptised – was seven. If the Rapture had come before I turned eight, I’d have had nothing to worry about; I’d have been an innocent child and zipped right up to Heaven.
But I was now eight and responsible for my own soul.
The thing is, even then, even at eight, I knew I wasn’t up to it. In my child head, I knew I wasn’t good enough, that I’d never be good enough for a God whose demands seemed, even then, capricious and unreliable. And by God, I probably meant, of course, my parents.
This is the world I lived in, aged eight. Now, of course, there’s an argument to be made that the world did end in 1980: Reagan was elected, someone had shot JR, the world wasn’t pretty.
But I was told, in all seriousness, that the world would be ending soon, and I knew almost immediately, that I wasn’t going to be one of the chosen.
Now, truly, I’m not asking for sympathy. We get the lives we get, and mine was a lot easier than many people.
But I do ask for empathy. Because I truly believe that – though your circumstances were probably different – I doubt what you felt aged eight was actually all that dissimilar.
Aged eight, I was faced with mortality. But: I was forced to cope nevertheless. And I did cope.
The title of this speech is, roughly, “Why on earth write books for Young People?”
I thought for a long time what I was going to speak about, and I decided almost immediately that I was sick to death of YA Clickbait.
You know exactly what I mean:
- Are children’s books too dark?!?!? No.
- Should adults be reading children’s books?!?!
First rule of literacy, you don’t shame ANYONE for reading what they’re already reading. Second, yes.
Shortly before the first Young Adult Literature Convention over this summer, I got asked by a broadsheet if I’d write an opinion piece for them on YA, but only if I had a very strong point of view. I declined.
When did we decide that page views were more important than discussion? I understand the struggle for a reader’s attention, the struggle to get enough revenue to keep reporting hard news, but oh, how I do get tired of YA articles telling me to BE ANGRY BE ANGRY BE ANGRY. Or any articles that tell me to be angry, for that matter. The end result of that is Fox News, and that’s not a world I’m interested in living in.
More importantly, I don’t write books to find binary oppositions with which I can score easy points in Internet Debate Club. Books are an exploration of ideas. When did arguments cease to be?
And one of my questions for you today is: if a writer really is that polarised, why would you want to read anything by them?
When I read a novel, I’m not interested in a political tract. I’m not, fascinatingly enough, interested in a sermon. I want a story.
But if a book for kids isn’t a political tract or a sermon, why on earth write for them? Truly, why?
Now, honestly, I’m not 100% sure of the answer to that question. And this speech, to my surprise, turned into an exploration of that question for myself. So bear with me, I’ve got notes but this could go anywhere.
But let’s talk about Siobhan first.
Siobhan Dowd’s first published work was a short story call “The Pavee and the Buffer.” Tony Bradman, who you’ve met, was editing a collection of stories for kids about racism called Skin Deep. He knew Siobhan’s work through PEN and asked if she could recommend any writers willing to contribute a story about traveller children. Shyly, she asked Tony if she might write it herself.
The story is about young Jim Curran, a traveller child in Ireland. The authorities have forced him into the local school, but it’s a hostile place for a traveller. He suffers prejudice and violence from the Buffers – non-travellers – at the school. He makes a friend in a girl called Kit, does learn a few things, good and bad, but at the end, his life is uprooted as his family sets out for an uncertain future outside of Ireland.
It’s a lovely story. It’s like all of Siobhan’s writing: smart, clear-eyed, unsentimental; tough but full of truth. Just plain damn good.
There’s an incredibly moving moment where Jim – who can’t read – is being tucked in bed by his mum. She leans over and whispers, “If you learn a few words, could you ever pass them on to me?” Gorgeous.
So why? Why did Siobhan write the story?
– Was it liberal agitprop? As we are sometimes accused of writing.
– The desire to tell a lesson? To preach about traveller children?
– Some worthy and progressive reason other than wanting to tell the story?
We can never know for sure, of course, but I’m going to say the answer has to be no, for the simple reason that it’s a good story.
This is a real theory of mine. I’ve always talked about how if you’re going to write an adjective novel – a satirical novel, a political novel – you’re pretty much guaranteeing you’re going to write a mediocre one. If you sit down because you want to “teach the young people a lesson”, you’re going to write a lesson, not a story. And who wants to read a lesson?
But, if you call yourself an artist – and you should, no matter how wanky it seems; if you write books, you’d better call yourself an artist – if you do, you have to trust yourself that you’re responding to a story for a reason. And if you follow that story the best you can, it’s going to contain everything you believe. And kids might read it, because it’s a story.
For example, Chaos Walking and A Monster Calls are two completely different books. Massive versus tiny. Science Fiction versus fantasy. Different characters, different concerns…
And yet, looking back, I can see now that – though they tell very different stories – they’re both about how to survive after the worst thing happens.
– And though we throw the word dystopia around, I’ve always thought you could describe The Fault In Our Stars as a dystopia. Discuss.
Then my next two books for teens, More Than This and The Rest of Us Just Live Here, I realised at the end – though again, very different – they’re both about living without knowing, as is The Crane Wife. I didn’t plan it, I just wanted to tell those stories and was clearly responding to them for a reason.
Now, Siobhan Dowd was a woman who worked for human rights charities, who set up the Siobhan Dowd Trust so that after her death the money her books earned would go to help children who needed it, a woman who wanted to tell this story so much, she offered herself – an unpublished writer – as a candidate.
So I don’t think she wrote a story about Irish traveller children because she wanted to preach to us. I think the story burned within her. And I think the reason it burned within her was because it was also an act of compassion, of empathy, an act – dare I say it? – of love.
I know, that’s a word we hate, especially the English in the audience. But let me tell you another story.
I once saw an actress – and I really wish I could remember who it was – tell this story on The Tonight Show with Jonny Carson in America.
She was maybe 10 years old. Her dad, at the last minute, couldn’t find a babysitter, so she had to come along to a business dinner with him and a client. He told her, I know it’s boring, but just sit quietly through the meal and I promise we’ll go to ice cream after.
So they go to the dinner, and it’s all fine, dad talking to his client, her sitting there quietly. But then she decides to order artichokes. And they come and she eats all of the artichokes.
And then she remembers something she saw on television, which is that you’re not supposed to eat the entire artichoke, you’re just supposed to squeeze out what’s inside, because the leaves contain a strong, pointed fibre that will pierce your heart and YOU WILL DIE.
But it was too late. She’d eaten the artichokes. But she also didn’t want to interrupt her dad’s business dinner. So instead of telling him, she just sat there quietly, waiting to die.
What is childhood?
What is childhood? We all think it’s freedom from responsibility, constant laughs, sugar, tantrums, just the most brilliant bloody time ever.
But I don’t think so. I think it’s partially those things. But I think it’s also sitting in a restaurant waiting to die. I think it’s being told when you’re eight that the world will be ending soon and there’s a good chance you won’t make it.
Why do we assume that it’s only our childhoods that were messed-up and bonkers and that we’re lucky to have survived them? Everyone feels like that. Because everyone is right.
Being young is great. Being young is also so hard as to be damn near impossible.
I’ve spoken at length about how dangerous and destructive it is to demonise teenagers like the press and the government like to do. But I’m also not too pleased about the self-appointed “experts” constantly telling me what my fiction for young people needs to include, what it’s about and why teens should or shouldn’t read it.
Now, I want to be clear, I’m not an expert on childhood. I’m not even an expert on children’s books – though for god’s sake, it really is a field where anyone who’s even vaguely heard of a child calls themself an expert on them.
But I think the dangerous word here is ‘Them’. Calling children ‘them’.
Theory of Personality
I’ve got a theory of personality. Or rather, let’s call it the metaphor I use to explain my own to myself. I think I’m every age I ever was. I don’t think I stop being 8 or 22 or 17. It’s all there. I see my sense of self as a big warehouse that contains every single thing that’s ever happened to me. And who I am and how I feel on a particular day is where I’m standing in that warehouse and what I’ve decided to pick up and hang on to.
So when I write for teenagers, I’m not writing for a nebulous “them”. I’m writing for the teenager I was, the teenager I still am.
I’m writing, in fact, for that 8 year old in Puyallup, Washington, wondering how he’s going to die sometime in 1980.
Writing as therapy
Now, I hasten to add that I don’t mean writing as therapy. There are all kinds of things writing can do, not just telling stories. Writing for therapeutic reasons is one of them, but I’m not talking about that. It definitely has its place, but I’m talking about story-telling and, as I said I believe, the story must come first.
But a story comes from who you are and what you care about. And I look at that 8-year-old boy on New Year’s Eve and I have such compassion for him.
– I know he’s going to make it and I know that maybe it even needed to be as hard as it was to become the person I am today
– But I wish – I wish with all my heart – that I could have told him he wasn’t alone.
I wish there had been books to tell him so more often.
Difference between YA and Adult
So let’s talk about those books. I get asked ALL THE TIME about the difference between teen books and adult books. So let’s just settle this once and for all shall we?
Boundaries – no concrete answer here, but they tend to be:
– YA tends to be about finding your boundaries, testing them, learning where they are and how you exist within them
– Adult books tend to be about knowing your boundaries and feeling constricted by them or having someone else cross them.
That’s it. That’s all the difference I see. Because otherwise, they do exactly the same thing:
- They show you the world and all that’s possible in it
- They show you that you’re not alone
The difference is that teen books didn’t really exist when I was a teenager. The whole amazing world of YA that there is now was much smaller when I was a teen. So many of us just read all of Judy Blume – who’s brilliant – and went straight to Stephen King.Let’s talk about those two things. So, for example, books show you the world and all that’s possible.
I wanted to be a writer since I can remember. A lot of it was that I was such a big reader, but a larger portion is that 1) I loved to write and 2) I was good at it.
By that, I mean that people would respond to my stories how I might have intended them to respond. If I wrote a funny story, they’d laugh. If I wrote a thrilling story, they’d be thrilled. If I wrote a moving story, maybe they’d even be moved.
I had stories read out in class regularly – over my extremely embarrassed objections – AND I looked for ways to tell stories everywhere, including – and this is true – turning a chemistry paper on covalent bonding into a story about divorce and adultery. True. That got read out in class, too, and I got an A.
But – and this is the important thing – I never thought it was a serious ambition. I really didn’t. People “like me” didn’t become writers. I’ve said this a number of times, in the logic of a smalltown kid, I thought “only famous people became writers.” Which makes a kind of nonsensical sense.
This didn’t stop me from writing, but I always thought it would be a hobby. I took Creative Writing Classes in College with TC Boyle, but I got an English Literature degree because I thought that would be more practical (ha!). I took a full-time job, getting up an hour early before work to write, but still going to work and trying to get promoted.
I never seriously thought I would ever publish a book. So imagine my delight and surprise when I did.
Part of what makes books so amazing is the implied permission that they grant.
Though basically all I had was Judy Blume and after her I went straight to Stephen King, I clearly read enough to keep me going, to keep me trying, to keep me writing. But this is why I always say to young writers, if you want to be a writer, you can. You absolutely can.
Any writers out there?
But the other part of this is that books showed me a world out there, with lives different than mine, with outcomes different than I might have been expecting, with different people who I could meet one day.
With – and this was the clincher – different lives I one day might live. You all know my story, I was a gay kid raised by Christians who would take me to a church on New Year’s Eve that told me I was going to die. I needed someone, somewhere, somehow, to show me there were other possibilities.
Books show you what’s possible. And even though there was a dearth of teenage books at the time, there were obviously just enough for me to squeeze by.The second things books can do is that they also show you, and this is the thing that I so desperately would love to tell my younger self, the thing that I sorely wish there had been books at the time to show me – they can show you you’re not alone.
I was a gay teen, as I said, but I was a gay teen in 1986, 87, 88. There were no books by Tim Federle, there were no books by David Levithan. I had Edmund White, who was… educational.
But this was years before the internet and finding other people on the planet who might know what I was going through. It was decades before hashtag we need diverse books.
There were no other gay kids at my high school that I knew of – and as far as I know 25 years later, none of them have come out either, which seems statistically improbable, but there you go, bless their closeted Republican little hearts. I come from a conservative town, where most of them still live.
I got out, though. Ha.
But here’s another true story. One of my best friends in high school – let’s call him Craig, not his real name. We were quite different people, he was very sporty and into school politics, but we were both in all the honours classes and were alphabetically close in name, so we’d sat next to each other for years.
When I was 17, a mutual friend told me that fictional Craig had grown uncomfortable going out to the cinema or parties or whatever with me because he was afraid that I was treating the evenings we went out as dates.
Now, two things quite quick – this, and I’m serious here, couldn’t have been further from the truth. Fictional Craig I’m sure had his admirers, but I wasn’t one of them in that way. Imagine a teenage John Cleese. Yeah. My crushes were entirely elsewhere. I just preferred going out one-on-one because it was easier to talk. I still do! It doesn’t mean we’re on a date.
The second thing, Fictional Craig was and remains a really good guy. This was 1988/89. The world was not as it is now. I wasn’t out, but I’m sure he suspected and, among what were probably his panicky reasons about guilt by association, there was probably also a decent, genuine wish not to hurt my feelings.
But of course, that didn’t matter at the time. I was unbelievably embarrassed and ashamed-
Side note here: Do you have any idea how much shame the average teenager feels? Constantly, overwhelmingly. The weight is incredible. Think about that.
But I was embarrassed and ashamed and worried about what other people might think and worried that my whole teenage life – which I already knew was precariously perched – was about to topple over completely.
And I had absolutely no one to discuss that experience with. No one. I had no idea that anyone anywhere might be going through the same experience.
And importantly, neither did Fictional Craig.
A book, any book, which showed either of us that we weren’t alone could have changed our world. Could have changed the world.
What can a book do? It can show you you’re not alone.
Now, I’m lucky. I’m very lucky. I survived anyway. Not everyone does.
I didn’t kill myself. Many do. Which is why I so love the It Gets Better campaign, because it does get better and it can and it will, so just hang on. I promise.
I’m also lucky in that I didn’t fight my identity – or at least, I didn’t fight it very hard – as many also do to their harm.
I was lucky, am lucky. My willpower was entirely directed towards escape. Boy, was it. There were lots of hurdles to overcome: my parents wanted me to go to the same Nazarene college in rural Idaho that my brother and sister went to; the college I did choose was so far out of our price range that it might as well have been on the moon; and I was going to somewhere, Los Angeles, that my mother, without irony, called “a devil city”.
She’s probably right about that, actually.
We drove the 22 hours from Seattle to Los Angeles in a single trip, without stopping, arguing the entire way. It’s so firmly etched in my mind that I have planned for years to write a play about it one of these days.
And also all this time, I kept writing. I had no encouragement, no dreams that it would ever work, no thought I might ever actually publish a book.
But I kept on anyway.So why do I write for young people?
I wonder, sometimes, if it really is as easy as that I write for the kid that I was, who needed the books I wasn’t getting, because I know he’s still out there.
That’s not quite the right answer, of course, the right answer is that I write because I’m a writer. I write for the same reasons singers sing and sculptors sculpt. The world isn’t asking me to. It certainly doesn’t need any more writers.
But I wrote long before I knew anyone would ever listen, so I suspect I’ll continue long after no one’s listening anymore.
But why does a writer write? Why does any artist do anything? I don’t know.
Why especially write for kids? I don’t know, except that those are stories I feel drawn to tell.
I don’t write as a crusader or a teacher or, god help us, as a saviour. I know writers who do, and frankly, I can barely read a word of them.
But some part of me – my soul, my heart, my personality, my flaws – who knows? Some part of me responds to stories. And I think I respond – I think all artists respond – to stories that they needed. Stories that they need.
Again, I believe we carry all of ourselves around at all times. I’m 42 now, but I’m also 26 (which, frankly, stinks) but I’m also 19 and getting comprehensively laid (which is awesome) and I’m 14 which was horrible and physically almost constantly painful and I’m still 8 and it’s still New Year’s Eve and I am still going to die before the year is out–
But I am not just that. Because that’s what growing up is. That’s what growing older is. I am all those ages, but I am also the man who knows he survived. And so implicit in every story that I write for 14 year olds, is the grown-up man who made it and who knows that you can make it, too.
Despite embarrassment, despite pain, despite how every day feels like the end of the world.
I’m not writing for kids. I’m writing for humans experiencing life who just happen to be an earlier version of you now.
And this, I have to say, is why I’m so pleased and honoured to have been given the chance to help Siobhan Dowd create A Monster Calls, so pleased to have been asked to give this lecture, and so enormously pleased to be associated with the Trust.
I won’t tell you more about the Trust as you’ve already learned quite a bit, except to say that they do incredible work and one of the coolest things about the Monster Calls film is that they’re going to be getting a lot more money to do even more things.
I do, however, want to return to Siobhan Dowd the writer and that traveller story. Is it a story “about racism”? Yes, of course. It’s a story meant to show its readers that the world is bigger than just them. And it’s a story meant to show that a traveller child reading it isn’t alone.
But first and foremost, it’s a story. And that means, every child who reads it can see themselves in it, not just traveller children, but every child.
This is true of all her novels, every single one. The autistic lead in London Eye Mystery, the pregnant teen in Swift Pure Cry, the boy finding his way during the Troubles in Bog Child, and the runaway teen in Solace of the Road.
More, this is a woman who wrote all of those books knowing she had terminal cancer. Yet the final book she was going to write but didn’t have time was about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer. Think about that. Think about what kind of person does that.
This is writing done out of artistry first and foremost, but artistry infused with compassion, with empathy, with – and I use the word again – love.
Siobhan Dowd wrote the way that all of the best writers for children do. She wrote for children, which is to say, she wrote for anyone who ever was a child.
She’s basically the writer I always wanted to be when I grew up.
Now, when I say empathy, compassion and love, do I mean that stories for kids need to be soft and coddling? Hell, no. A writer that tells the truth about hard things, about feelings of despair, about topics like suicide or abuse – trust me, they’re being just as empathetic, just as compassionate, just as loving.
And stories for kids that are just plain exciting? Or hilarious? Or frivolous? Or vampire-filled? What’s more compassionate than wanting to share joy?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about subject matter. I’m talking about why anyone might write for young people as a philosophy. As an artistic gesture.
So why on earth write for children? Well, I don’t know, I can’t answer for you. I can only ask myself and search and try to guess at an answer that might shift and change and grow while still remaining true.
I can tell you that I feel no competition whatsoever with “adult” writers. Why should I? I do write both, but even if I didn’t, it would never even occur to me that my books for kids would necessarily somehow be lesser. I put the same effort into both, the same time, the same themes, they’re no different to me.
Having said that, I also tolerate zero condescension from adult writers. Though to be fair, I often find that kind of condescension far more talked about than actually experienced. In fact, when I do get condescended to, it’s from one or two children’s writers I know who consider themselves rather more serious than the field in which they’ve found success.
Adult writers are usually just jealous of how well we sell. It’s all good.
In the end, maybe my answer to the question why I write children’s books is this:
A book, any book, is a cry in the wilderness. It’s a cry that says, This is the world I recognise, do you recognise it, too?
And for children’s books, I’d say that we issue that cry on behalf of the voiceless, on behalf, too, of that voiceless part of ourselves.
– It’s not a wounded cry, but it recognises wounds.
– It’s not a lonely cry (quite the opposite), but it is a cry that recognises loneliness.
– It’s not an angry cry, but oh my, is it a cry that knows anger.
It’s a cry, to my ears, of compassion, of empathy, of – yes – love. A cry for the child we all are still. To quote Siobhan Dowd, it’s a swift pure cry.
When I was 8 years old, I had no voice and I needed one. When I was 17 years old, I had no voice and I needed one. I’m 42, I still need a voice, but now I have one.
Why do I write for kids? Simple. It’s because I once was one. Young people aren’t a separate species. They’re us. We’re them. No getting around it.
And they need stories just as badly as we do to deal with an inexplicable world. Stories told with empathy. Stories told with compassion. Stories – of any kind – told with love.
Thank you very much.