A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd (Candlewick, 2011, 224 pages) is one of the most beautiful, and utterly harrowing, books I've read this year. It tells of a boy named Conor, whose mother is dying, and of the monster who comes walking into his world at night. It is dark and wild and powerful, a creature from the heart of wild magic, but it not as terrifying as the nightmare that torments Conor every night...
And it is calling on Conor for a reason.
"Conor blinked. Then blinked again. "You're going to tell me stories?"
Indeed, the monster said.
"Well-" Connor look around in disbelief. "How is that a nightmare?"
Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt." (page 35, ARC).
And in return for the three stories, Conor must tell a fourth story--the story that he cannot face, the story of his nightmare.
All the while Conor's mother grows weaker, and Conor's life falls apart. Neither his father (back for a flying visit from America, and not much use to Conor) nor his grandmother (not at all skilled at making a sad boy feel loved) are any help.
But the monster keeps calling...until the end.
I don't know exactly what the monster's stories mean -- every time I've read them they speak differently to me. And I don't really know what the monster means either...but I do know that Conor's story, sad as it is, is beautifully told and a pleasure to read. In contrast to a number of books I've read recently, in which I got the sense that the author was deliberately writing a book for "young people," here I felt certain that the author was telling the story he had to tell, as truly as he could. Although I didn't always understand, I was willing to trust, and was repaid by a story that will stick in my mind always.
So I was honored when I was invited to ask Patrick Ness a question, and said yes, please, but then was faced with the vexing issue of what question to ask. The monster, so incredibly powerful, so enigmatic, has filled my thoughts, so this was the best question I could come up with:
Me (shyly): Might Patrick Ness be wiling to share a little about how the monster came to be? Was the monster the Green Man from the get-go, for instance? Was it ever more horrible? more emotional?
Patrick: "The short answer to your first question is actually a little bit "no" (he said, apologetically). I have a really strict rule of writing (which I always recommend to new writers when I teach), which is that no one on earth reads my first drafts. No one, not family, loved ones, agent, editor, no one. That way, my story can grow - and stumble and explore and meander - outside the eyes of anyone and find its proper shape without any self-consciousness. Often it happens, for example, that you get your very best idea 5 pages from the end, and draft two is a process of making it look like you meant that all along. But then no one needs to know that and you come out looking like a genius!
The monster grew and changed, of course it did, but the monster in the book - in all its contradictions and complexities, all its horrible ancient terrors and kindnesses - well, its mystery is part of its construction, part of its identity. I'm one of those awful, awful people who wants all of his papers burned at my death (I know, I can hear the dissents already!) but it's that old saw about how dissecting a joke is like dissecting a frog. You learn a lot about the frog, but at the end, the frog is dead. Everything I wish and hope and dream for the monster is in the book, and I'm loath to let any of his mysteries be solved...
But if you're asking as a writer, I can say that he came to be like most of my characters come to be: by listening to him talk. That's how he (and Conor and his grandma and his father...) all come first to life, by hearing exactly who they are by listening to exactly what they say. The monster's calm interest and surprise when Conor isn't afraid of him was where I knew I'd found him. The rest just became a process of setting him talking and writing down what I overheard."
Thank you very much! I loved the interchanges between Conor and the monster early in the book, when the two are getting to know each other, as it were.
"I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O'Malley."
"You look like a tree," Conor said." (pp 34-35, ARC)
There's a fascinating discussion with Patrick Ness at educating alice, talking in more detail about many aspects of the book with two readers who lived Conor's experiences (sans monster) themselves, including more thoughts on what the monster means... or not.