On 3 September this year, 24 hours after the first images of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, stretched out on a Turkish beach, appeared online, the novelist Patrick Ness took to Twitter. “Okay, I don’t know if this’ll work,” he said. “but I’ll match donations up to £10k to do something to help this refugee crisis”.
Ness’s tweet turned out to be the pebble that caused an avalanche. The image of the little boy, limp and lifeless with his face in the sand, had succeeded where campaigners and aid-workers had failed, carving a clean line through the media’s anti-immigration rhetoric and forcing the west to see, in human terms, the horror of what was happening. After a moment of appalled paralysis, everyone began to cast around for a course of action – and there was Ness, waving directions.
“Some of my anger was political,” he says now, “because I felt the response, particularly of [David] Cameron, to the crisis was so morally feeble; that he was thinking as a calculating, how-can-I-keep-my-job, how-can-I-best-please-my-base politician, rather than asking himself ‘What’s the right thing to do?’. But mainly it was just a feeling of hopelessness that in a civilised world this could happen. I thought: how can we call ourselves even decent?”
Within minutes his tweet had been retweeted hundreds of times; within hours his target had been met. Within a day, the fund had raised more than £200,000, and a host of other stars of the young adult writing firmament (Derek Green, John Landy, Suzanne Collins and Philip Pullman among them) had pledged their support. A week later, Ness returned to Twitter with an update. “We’re at an astonishing £659,755 or ... Deep breath ... ONE MILLION, EIGHTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS,” he tweeted. Criminy.
“I think I just got lucky with timing,” Ness says. We’re meeting to talk about his latest novel, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which debuted on the New York Times young adult bestseller list at No 2. Two months have passed since he made his impulsive offer, and the euphoria of the week that followed has shaded into something more reflective: he shies away from the idea that he might be held up as “some oracle of fundraising” and is quick to point out that the credit isn’t just his; he “got pissed off 30 seconds before everyone else, but everyone else was ready”.
When I ask him what comes next, his reply shows how thoroughly he’s interrogated his own response to the campaign’s success, how alive he is to the danger of hubris. He has no intention of using the crisis as material for a novel, he says; he’s sure stories will be written, but he hopes the refugees will write them themselves. Nor are there any plans for a visit to the refugee camps – even though such a trip must be the stuff of which documentary makers’ dreams are made.
“I wonder what good it does: do the people visited get anything out of it? I don’t want it to be ‘I went to the camps and learned something about myself’.” Rather, he’s interested in how the money is going to be spent. Via Save the Children’s refugee appeal, he tells me, it will finance programmes designed to help Syrian asylum seekers at every stage of their journey, from the camps at the borders to their new lives in the west. And first and foremost, of course, it will be used to support children.
Save the Children, he says, “is particularly interested in child refugees, many of whom have come to this side of the Mediterranean and ended up alone. I mean, you’re 10 years old and by yourself in a foreign country. What the hell do you do?”
The Rest of Us Just Live Here tells the story of Mikey: 17, living in “a suburb of a suburb of a suburb of a suburb of a city”, working evening shifts at a steakhouse and trying to figure out how to tell the girl he likes how he feels before they both leave town. Superficially, Mikey’s circumstances – provincial, pedestrian – differ dramatically from those of the young refugees Ness aimed to help, but appearances are deceptive. It quickly becomes clear that if Mikey’s life is unexceptional (and it isn’t, really, though his troubles are at least human-sized), his circumstances are not. In a supernatural twist, the school’s cool kids are locked in an arcane battle with the “forces of darkness”, while the rest of the school’s students are nothing more than collateral. Cars crash; stadiums are blown up: Mikey and his friends just want to live long enough to graduate. It’s a fantastically witty send-up of the “chosen one” conceit that’s dominated young adult fiction for so long – but Ness’s involvement with the refugee campaign highlights the more profound point he’s making. His novel gives voice to the 99.9% of us who aren’t special; who only crop up in crowd scenes. It amounts to a plea for compassion.
Still, it’s an interesting shift of perspective for Ness, who exploded on to the young adult scene in 2008 with The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first book in his Chaos Walking trilogy, which went on to bag him the Guardian children’s fiction prize, the Costa children’s book award and the Carnegie medal. The books are set on a lush and abundant “new world”, settled by a group of religious colonists who left Earth to establish a better, simpler life elsewhere. But they reckoned without the native population, and without the fact that the planet harbours a germ that infects the male members of their party, leading their thoughts – all of them – to be broadcast aloud. Turmoil ensues, followed swiftly by war. The hero, Todd, is a “chosen one” in the classic mode: the novels’ action is driven by his difference, which becomes apparent as he closes in on his pivotal 13th birthday and grows more marked as the story unfolds. The books are a tremendous achievement: full-throated but morally nuanced, they grip hard and hold tight. The conceit obviously works for him; why the move away from it?
“I love the chosen-one narrative; long may it reign,” Ness says. “But it seems to me there are two periods of challenge in a teenager’s life. The first is when you become a teenager and realise: ‘I’m separate from my family.’ That experience is vital but it’s also kind of violent, and the chosen-one narrative offers an amazing explanation: it says, everyone feels this way, there’s power in this decision you’ve made. The second is the end of school. You’ve spent time figuring out what you believe and where your boundaries are, and you’re just getting back on your feet when everything ends. And the chosen one is less good at dealing with that.
“I wondered if the two were entwined: do you feel less chosen the older you get? Then there are all those millions of kids – and I was certainly one of them – who would never have got the Hogwarts letter. It’s not even that I’d have been in a different house from Harry – I’d never have gotten the letter in the first place.”
Ness was born on an army base in Virginia, in the United States. His father was a drill sergeant, and the family shuttled around: they were transferred to Hawaii when Ness was four months old, and when he was six they moved again, to Washington State. It was there that he did most of his growing up, although he still thinks of himself as an islander; he views the condition as “not a bad metaphor for novel-writing: you carve down the world into an island that you can manage”.
There was a physical fluidity to his childhood, then, but as he grew older, other boundaries asserted themselves. “I have a very religious family,” Ness says, “and I was their gay kid. I was putting on the right face, keeping up the right facade, so everyone would look away and I could live my life – which is effective, but isn’t without consequences. The restaurant Mikey works in, in The Rest of Us Just Live Here, is a lightly fictionalised version of the one I used to work in, and at the time I had OCD so bad that I did what Mikey does: I washed my hands so often I washed the oil out, so the skin cracks. I look back at my teenage self and think: you should have got help. When I’m writing for teenagers, I’m writing for him.” And all the kids in the same position? “If you write a true story for yourself, other people are going to find themselves there. That’s just the axiom of all fiction; the universal resides in the specific.”
Nowadays Ness is married to his partner of 17 years, whom he moved to the UK to be with. He’s recently written the screenplay for A Monster Calls, his novel based on an idea left behind by children’s novelist Siobhan Dowd when she died suddenly from cancer (it won him his second Carnegie medal), and announced earlier this year that he is “the creator and sole writer” of a Doctor Who spinoff series, out next year. From the outside, he looks chosen – but scratch the surface and underneath you find the teenage kid he used to be: anxious and trying to reduce the world’s mess down to the question of whether or not to wash his hands again.
But it’s his ability to access the boy he was that allows him to write the fiction that he does. “I’m a good way along from being 17,” he says, “and over the years I’ve found the right combination of talking and strategies and medication. It’s come to a point where, yeah, I check my door – a lot – to make sure it’s locked, but if that’s what I do to be able to write the stuff I do, I can accept it. It’s better than it used to be; I can get on with my day.”
“We are the choices we make,” say his Chaos Walking characters repeatedly. Ultimately, it’s this narrative, not that of the chosen one, that Ness seems to be advocating – which may go some way to explaining why, in September, he was so quick to step up to help those whose choices had been taken from them. Let’s see what he chooses to do next.