Photo credit: Helen Giles
Describe your latest book.
My new novel is called And the Ocean Was Our Sky
, illustrated (breathtakingly) by Rovina Cai
. It started with the almost joking question to a friend of mine, “What if Moby Dick
were told by the whale?” and it got weirder from there. Bathsheba is a whale, an apprentice hunter, in a world where whales and men have hunted each other for centuries. They then find themselves on the trail of a rumored monster, but at what cost? You don’t need to be familiar with Moby Dick
at all to read it, though that novel isn’t nearly as difficult as its reputation.
What was your favorite book as a child?
The first book I remember actually reading (rather than just puppeting what had been read to me) was Richard Scarry’s Storybook Dictionary
. That’s where symbols became letters and letters became words. Which was properly mind-blowing. I may never have recovered.
When did you know you were a writer?
When people in class would react to the stories I’d written for creative writing assignments. It’s a strange and powerful thing, having people laugh when you’d like them to or be gripped when you want them to. I’m a terrible singer, but I imagine it’s how singers feel when an audience really responds. It’s kind of magic.
What does your writing workspace look like?
Tidier than some, messier than others. It works for me.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Interior climate control. I live in England, and they have none.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I get a lot of… responses about the fate of a certain dog called Manchee from the Chaos Walking
trilogy. One day, at a book conference in New York, someone brought an actual Coca-Cola bottle they’d had customized with Manchee’s name. It was an absolute delight, mostly because it was fun and not someone yelling at me about him.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I wish more people read the late, great Mal Peet. His YA novels are astonishing: smart, human, unexpected. Life: An Exploded Diagram
is a masterpiece and should have won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize on which he and I were nominees (I didn’t win either, but he really should have). He was a friend, too, and his death is a real loss, personally and to literature.
What's the most interesting job you've ever had?
I worked at a call center for three days as a teenager. It wasn’t interesting, it was merely the very worst job I ever had. Nobody likes to be cold-called, nobody likes strangers interrupting their dinner, but everybody likes screaming at the people who do. I couldn’t take it at 16. The last straw was a man whose wife had just died who started crying into the phone. I quit that afternoon.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Complacency. I’m so afraid that if I get too comfortable, what I write will be rubbish. I need to be properly nervous and scared in a project; there has to be a chance of colossal failure. It keeps me paying the right sort of attention. It’s like when an author takes their reader for granted. I hate it as a reader, and it terrifies me as a writer. Always be scared.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Reason to Worry: An Unsubtitled Memoir
or possibly Pooping in Thickets: A Runner’s Life
Offer a favorite sentence from another writer.
Ah, that’s easy, the sentence I most wish I could have written is the final one from Toni Morrison’s Sula
where a woman finally realizes the true depth of loss from her friend’s death: “It had no top and it had no bottom, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
“In some universes, we’re all Beyoncé” from The Rest of Us Just Live Here
. Because in some universes, we are.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
I try not to be too pet peevish as language is malleable and ever-changing. Plus, how arrogant to constantly be correcting others on how they use it? Having said all that, I do wish “unique” still meant “one of kind” rather than a catch-all synonym for “original." Unique is an absolute value and so can’t actually be modified. Something can’t be really unique or highly unique. It’s unique or it’s not. You mean “original” in those cases. Again, though, language changes. Only the worst sort of pedants would try and stop it.
Do you have any phobias?
Open-water swimming. Can’t do it. Love pools, love sitting beside the ocean, can’t get in it because something will absolutely, 100% bite me.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I never liked the phrase “guilty pleasure." People are capacious and legion. You’re more than allowed to legitimately like something classy and something trashy and to even fight about those words. Cat videos will never not make me laugh, and I’m not remotely embarrassed.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
Top Five Most Important Books for My Life as a Writer
These are the books that, because I lucked into reading them at the right time, had the most enormous impact on my own writing:
Anything at all by Beverly Cleary
She was the very first author I ever read more than one book from, and of course I read them all. Ramona the Brave
, Runaway Ralph
, and on and on. As a very young reader, it was my first realization that people could write more than one thing, that they could keep on delighting you book after book. Even better, she’s currently 102 and still going strong!
The Color Purple
by Alice Walker
I read this at 14, which is probably “too young” but I really don’t believe there’s any such thing. Children are their own best censors, and if it’s not for them, they’ll put it down. And I love the idea of “reading up." The Color Purple
blew my mind for two reasons: 1) it was so utterly outside my own tiny, sheltered suburban experience that it was bound to knock some doors down if I let it (I did), and 2) it’s epistolary, written in letters, and that was the first time I’d seen formal literary experimentation. “You can do this?!” I thought. Yes, you can.
by Tom Robbins
I’ve written about this one before, so suffice to say, I read it a good two dozen times when I was a teenager, loving every word of its impolite, shifting, fun narrative, reveling in a book that was clearly enjoying itself and, like the Alice Walker, realizing that that was a possible thing you could write. I haven’t read it since because I prefer to leave it as the cherished memory I have.
Oscar and Lucinda
by Peter Carey
One of my favorite ever novels. Read it while on a super-budget holiday in Australia when I was 21. The one that made me think, “You need to follow this dream. You need to try and write something that will make someone else feel how this makes you feel. Because otherwise, what’s the point?” I went off and wrote. Ten years later, my first book finally came out…
by Nicola Barker
A chaotic landslide of a novel. 838 pages, hilarious, dangerously mischievous, utterly fearless with form and language. We’re lucky to be alive in an age when Nicola Barker is writing books.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of 10 novels, including his New York Times
bestselling The Rest of Us Just Live Here
, the Chaos Walking trilogy
, More Than This
, A Monster Calls
, which was made into a major motion picture with a screenplay adaptation by Patrick himself, Release
, and And the Ocean Was Our Sky
. Born in Virginia, Patrick lives in London.