It is tempting to begin a conversation with writer Patrick Ness by congratulating him on a big year.

His latest YA novel, Release, is out and receiving rave reviews while the film A Monster Calls, which he adapted from his 2011 book, is now screening with Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson and Sigourney Weaver in lead roles. Not a bad cast for your first film.

But look back on Ness's CV and it becomes apparent he's been having "big years" pretty much since he released his first book, The Crash of Hennington, in 2003. He's published a novel or short story collection almost every year since then, won the annual Carnegie Medal from British librarians in 2011 and '12, becoming one of only seven writers to win two medals and created and written the Doctor Who spin-off Class.

In the last two years, Ness has juggled writing Release with his first screenplay. He adapted A Monster Calls, the first book to win both a Carnegie Medal and the Kate Greenaway Medal for Jim Kay's illustrations, not because he wanted a big paycheque but because he likes a challenge.


"As a writer, I am always wanting to learn and stretch and keep growing."

 Patrick Ness on the set of A Monster Calls with young actor Lewis McDougall. Photo / Supplied
Patrick Ness on the set of A Monster Calls with young actor Lewis McDougall. Photo / Supplied

But Ness also didn't want the story, about a 12-year-old boy (Conor O'Malley played convincingly by Lewis MacDougall) whose mother (Jones) is terminally ill, to become mawkish and sentimental. On the contrary, the film is an unflinching look at how an isolated boy deals with a cruel situation where no one, except a menacing tree creature (Neeson) which visits him nightly - is it just a figment of his imagination? - offers any sort of comfort.

One critic described it as "mixing horror movie imagery with honest, heart-wrenching human truths", declaring it a dark, coming-of-age masterpiece. Truthful is certainly the way Ness prefers his fiction.

"I'm from that era [Ness is 46] where there wasn't a tonne of YA fiction; a few authors but not a whole lot so you sort of went from kids' books to Stephen King but Judy Blume was one of the few who wrote truthfully about the sorts of things I was feeling," he says.

"Truth is like a tonic for teenagers. 'You will grow out of this' is one of the worst things you can say to a teenager because you don't live your life for a potential future; you live your life for today and today can seem brutal. I wanted books that spoke to me rather than at me."

Born in small-town Virginia close to the US Army base his father served on, Ness says people like him simply didn't become writers. He did what most "good at English and writing" kids do and initially pursued a career in journalism, writing and getting short stories published on the side.

His early influences, notably Blume, gave him pause for thought on how they struck a chord with readers like himself: young, curious and sick of being patronised by preachy books which told it how it should be rather than how it was.

"I'd written ever since I was a kid and I loved writing and when I started writing stories in class, I realised that sometimes people would respond to them in the way I wanted and that's kind of intoxicating but I never thought it could become a career," he recalls.

"People like, from tiny little towns, didn't write books but, then again, real writers don't let that stop them; they write anyway."

By 2010, Ness had moved from short stories to adult fiction onto Young Adult books and his Chaos Walking trilogy had been well received; the first two books, The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and The Answer were short-listed for the Carnegie Medal while the third, Monsters of Men, won Ness the first of his two Carnegie awards.

Around then, the opportunity arose to write A Monster Calls. He shared an editor with fellow writer Siobhan Dowd, who died of breast cancer before she could complete the book, and was asked to take her notes and complete the story.

In his author's note, Ness wrote: "She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time."

Ness says he's always written with his teenage self in mind as well as that desire for truth and authenticity. He describes Release as his most personal story yet, premised around a day-in-the-life of small-town boy Adam Thorn, the gay son of a local preacher.

The inspiration for the form the book takes? Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. Ness calls it one of the greatest English language novels ever because, he believes, it's a close to accurate written thought as an author has ever achieved and so specific yet wholly universal. He wanted to create this type of intensity for Adam's story.

While Release is certainly not the first YA book to have a gay protagonist - Ness says the genre has been cutting edge in this respect - its sex scenes are possibly more candid than many.

"I thought, 'if I don't talk about this frankly, like Judy Blume did, who will they hear it from - Grindr and porn? How can that be good for the kid and for society as a whole?"

What: A Monster Calls
Where & when: Screening in the NZ International Film Festival - see for dates and venues.
Release by Patrick Ness (Walker Books, $28)