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Patrick Ness spun triumph out of tragedy in ‘A Monster Calls’

Patrick Ness  is the author and screenwriter of “A Monster Calls.”
Patrick Ness is the author and screenwriter of “A Monster Calls.”Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Virginia-born, London-based author Patrick Ness already had five books published — a novel and a short story collection for adults, and the “Chaos Walking” trilogy for young adults — when the idea for “A Monster Calls” came to him. Actually, it was given to him.

The story of Conor, a young boy who is not coping well with his dying mother’s cancer, but finds direction and comfort from a huge yew tree that comes to life every evening just after midnight, was dreamed up by British young adult author Siobhan Dowd, who died from breast cancer before she could write the book. Ness and Dowd shared an editor, who gave Ness a draft of the first chapter of Dowd’s book and asked if he’d like to give it a try. The resulting 2011 novel, “A Monster Calls,” became so popular around the world, it’s been translated into, among other languages, Estonian and Faroese.


Ness later adapted the book into a screenplay on spec, eventually catching the attention of director J.A. Bayona (“The Impossible”) and Focus Features. The resulting film, which opens in Boston on Jan. 6, stars newcomer Lewis MacDougall as Conor, Felicity Jones as his mom, Sigourney Weaver as his grandmother, and the voice of Liam Neeson as the tree/monster.

Ness, 45, recently visited Boston to chat about his work and the creative process behind it.

Q. Are you related to Eliot Ness?

A. I am not. He was Irish, and my family is Norwegian.

Q. Were you one of those kids who was reading all the time?

A. I would read everything. I’d go to the library and literally judge a book by its cover. I would pick something off the shelf that looked good. In the sixth grade we had to read a biography, and there was a particularly green cover, so I read a biography of Margaret Mead; [whispers] it was very dry.


Q. Were you already writing by then?

A. Sure. I never thought it would be a career, but I wrote anyway. I was writing stories for [elementary school] class. Of course, at that age it’s only mimicries of things you see and read, but I really enjoyed it. People would sometimes respond how I wanted them to respond, and that’s quite powerful.

Q. Your bio says you graduated from the University of Southern California with an English degree, got a job as a corporate writer, moved to London, and got a book deal. Is that about right?

A. Yes, it was as difficult and simple as that. I was living in England, working as a temp. I wrote a book, “The Crash of Hennington,” then I sent out my samples to every single agent in England who was remotely plausible. A few went on to read it and I got a book deal. I didn’t make a ton of money for a good long time, but I didn’t care because the idea that I could hold a book of mine in my hand that somebody published was amazing to me.

Q. What was the genesis of you getting the idea for “A Monster Calls” from Siobhan?

A. I never met her. She died in 2007, just before “The Knife of Never Letting Go” (part one of the “Chaos Walking” trilogy) started on its publication journey. She wrote all of her books knowing that her cancer was terminal. Two were published in her lifetime, and two after. This was going to be the fifth. Just after I finished the “Chaos Walking” trilogy, my editor brought me [Siobhan’s] material, which wasn’t very much. It was a first draft of the first chapter. So it was just a beginning.


Q. Is there anything left of her words in the book you wrote?

A. No. But she made up Conor, she made up the mother, she made up the tree, and she had a structural idea. She said that the tree would tell Conor three stories. She didn’t say what the stories were, but I loved the idea, and I wrote three stories, then added a fourth.

Q. When you wrote the script, did you put the book away and start from scratch?

A. No. I’ve done a few adaptations since, of other people’s works, and I’ve fallen into a process, which is in the first draft I’ll refer heavily to the book, and then I’ll set the book aside. Because it has to exist on its own, and further drafts are the movie, itself.

Q. What was going on in your head the first time you saw the completed film?

A. Well, by that point, I wasn’t coming in cold. I had seen so much of it along the way, so many of the rushes and assemblies. The real moment for me was on the first day of shooting, which was in a big, empty studio. Liam Neeson and Lewis MacDougall were in there in their motion capture suits, and the first a.d. [assistant director] was saying to them, “OK, this is where the parson’s house is, and this is how you run up to it.” And I was sitting in the dark in the back, going [whispers], “This is amazing! This is something I made up! These are things that I created!” That was the real excitement for me.


Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.