Patrick Ness: ‘Terry Pratchett makes you feel seen and forgiven’

The author celebrates the most perfect sentence by Toni Morrison and his struggles with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

The book I am currently reading
I’m just about finished with Adam Levin’s thousand-page The Instructions, about a 10-year-old boy who thinks he might be the Jewish Messiah. Everyone makes David Foster Wallace comparisons, as if that explains anything, but I’ve found it a vastly entertaining, wildly over-loquacious joy. Then, for something completely different, I’ll be starting Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Doors of Eden. He writes incredibly enjoyable sci-fi, full of life and ideas.

The book that changed my life
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. I read it maybe a dozen times when I was 15 and 16, and it broke all the rules for what introverted, painfully preppy me thought writing was supposed to do in novels. It dared to be playful, which was a revelation. I haven’t read it since, because I don’t know that I could bear to look on it with adult eyes, but it changed everything for young-writer me.

The book I wish I’d written
Not a book – because jealousy is a mug’s game – but the last line of Sula by Toni Morrison is the most devastatingly perfect fictional sentence I know of. A woman finally realises what the death of her lifelong friend and sometime enemy means to her: “It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”

The book I think is most overrated
I have tried to read The Goldfinch three times and failed each time. None of it rings true to me, and I genuinely don’t understand the fuss. For years, I joked that every living American claims to be “half-Irish, half-Cherokee”. Not 50 pages into The Goldfinch, the narrator’s mother is described, without irony, as “half-Irish, half-Cherokee”. I thought: “Nope, there’s no truth to be found here.”

The last book that made me laugh
Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. It manages the remarkable trick of being laugh-out-loud funny while not actually being a comedy. It just observes life, in all its truth, and is hilarious for page after page. Never trust an entirely dour book; it’s what bad writers think art is.

The book I couldn’t finish
Many. Lots. Several. There’s no shame in it. If a book doesn’t hold your interest, it’s probably the book’s fault.

The book I’m ashamed not to have read
None. Zero. Nada. There’s also no shame in not reading a book, any book. The kind of people who would shame you for not having read something are not anyone you need to know or associate with. Their breath invariably smells of sour wine, and they probably still listen to the Beautiful South.

The book I give as a gift
This is a strange one in that, not only don’t I give books as gifts, I rarely recommend them either. I feel like reading is so personal that there’s no way I could possibly guess what books you might find thrilling or touching or, despite what I said above, hilarious. Maybe just give book tokens instead?

My comfort read
Discworld by Terry Pratchett. I am always at some point through the cycle (I’m currently on The Thief of Time). They’re not only gloriously funny, they’re humane in a way that makes you actually feel seen and forgiven, with all your faults. He was a one-off, Sir Terry. When I finish reading them through, I simply put the last book down and pick the first one up again.

• Burn by Patrick Ness is out in paperback, published by Walker.


Patrick Ness

The GuardianTramp

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