Writers Festival: On a collision course

By David Larsen

London-based American writer Patrick Ness tells David Larsen how a childhood accident inspired his new novel

Fantasy writer Patrick Ness. Photo / Supplied
Fantasy writer Patrick Ness. Photo / Supplied

Remember that kid you saw being dragged along under that car that time? I'm sure you do; hard to forget. His name was Patrick Ness. It took him a long time to realise you were watching.

"This actually happened," says George, the central character of The Crane Wife, Ness' new novel. "I'm not making this up."

George is an American expat who lives in London, and he's talking about the day he was hit by a car and dragged along the road. There was a bike wedged between him and the car, and without it he would have died.

The reason George feels he has to insist this childhood accident really happened is that parts of it felt so surreal and other parts were such a cliche.

"It seemed too cruel that the car should have been driven by an 83-year-old lady who could barely see over the steering wheel... For the dignity of old ladies everywhere, George often wished this part of the story hadn't happened, but there you were, sometimes life didn't oblige with appropriate variation."

The Crane Wife's elderly lady driver was not invented to allow Ness to make a point. "I never write autobiographically," says Ness, on the phone from his home in London, where it's late in the evening. He has lived in England for 15 years now, though it hasn't blunted his American accent. "I never take stuff from my own life, but George's car accident - that happened to me. Not exactly the same - details have been changed to protect the innocent, sort of thing - but I was hit by a car and pushed along the road, and it was a little old lady who hit me, and I was saved by the fluke of a bicycle being there."

In the book this scene is vivid and startling, full of unlikely details, and most of those details come straight from Ness' memory, where, unsurprisingly, they have stayed fresh over the decades. What did surprise him, telling the story to a friend one day, was the realisation that it was not just his story.

"I began to wonder, did all those people who saw it - because it was right by a petrol station and a supermarket - did they tell the story, how they were helpless to stop a little boy get hit by a car? They would have had a long moment of thinking they were watching me be killed. Living with that memory of helplessness, and then relief, when the car finally stops and you run over and the boy's alive - what would that be like? And I began thinking about how a story changes depending on who tells it. And that was the crystallising idea for this book."

The Crane Wife is about stories and storytelling, among other things. As the book opens, George, a kind, lonely, middle-aged artist and businessman, is woken by a strange sound in the night. He goes outside and finds a huge white bird, with a red arrow shot through its wing. He gets the arrow out. The bird flies off. The next day, George meets an enigmatic woman ...

"I've always known the crane wife folk tale, I've known it since I was a boy in Hawaii," says Ness. "I heard it from a kindergarten teacher. It's a parable about greed, about destroying the thing you love, which is heavy duty for kindergarten, I suppose, but those were different times. I responded to it because most folk tales begin with acts of cruelty - someone locked up in a tower, someone abandoned in the woods. This one begins with an act of kindness. So I've always known the tale and I've always liked it, and I could always sense there was something there I could do something with.

"But what I always say about good ideas is, when you get one, the best thing you can do is wait. Let it sit. If it's really a good idea, it will attract other good ideas."

He learned this at the start of his writing career; the fact he learned it is part of what allowed his writing career to start. He had on several earlier occasions set out to write a novel and not got anywhere. "Just terrifying; you're cast out on the sea, you have no idea how it's going to end or how to get there, and a novel is not a short thing, the amount of faith you have to have that you're going to get to an end is just enormous."

With the project that became his first novel, The Crash Of Hennington, he found his way to several techniques he has used on every novel since: the three Chaos Walking books for young adults, his forthcoming YA novel More Than This, out in September, and The Crane Wife, his first non-teen novel in some years.

Ness never starts writing until he knows a book's last line. He needs a general idea of the plot. He usually knows three or four key scenes or images. "Things I'm excited to write, so I have something to work towards."

Nor does he launch into a project unless the initial idea has attracted other ideas, giving the book a richness and an internal life. He does not want his novels to be books you can reduce to a rubric.

"So I had the crane wife myth, and eventually a couple of things started to stick to it. One was a song. I often have a theme song for the books I write, something that makes me feel the way I want the story to make the readers feel; in this case the song is actually called The Crane Wife, by The Decemberists, who were also inspired by the folk tale. It's a beautiful, beautiful song, and so gentle. And then the third thing was this idea about stories. And then the characters showed up and I thought, okay. Let's see where this goes."

Patrick Ness will appear at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, Aotea Centre, May 15-19; writersfestival.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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