The curious success of Mark Haddon
If pushed, Mark Haddon agrees that 'Curious Incident' is 'quite a good book'. But he'd much rather discuss his new novel. The writer talks to Robert Hanks
Friday 25 August 2006
It is not uncommon for artists to find that one big success overshadows everything they do afterwards, sometimes to the point where they conceive a grudge against their own work. Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes; for years, Radiohead refused to play "Creep" in concert. So it would not be altogether surprising if Mark Haddon took against his multi-award-winning worldwide bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
At an early point in our meeting, I suggested that instead of the chore of talking about his new novel, A Spot of Bother, he might prefer to discuss the earlier book. His reaction was amused but emphatic: "Good God, please, no."
He said: "Talking about Curious Incident - it's like if you pick your favourite food in the world, and if somebody makes you eat it 500 times, it finally starts to make you feel slightly queasy. And even when good friends of mine now ask me questions about Curious Incident, I can feel this fog coming down."
Boredom is not the only factor that makes him reluctant to talk about the book, though; modesty plays its part. "Even when your book's really successful it takes - well, me, it took me - a long time to finally admit that it was quite a good book. Now I finally think it's quite a good book."
His website lists 17 awards won for Curious Incident, for both children's fiction and literary fiction; the book has sold millions of copies in upwards of 40 countries, and Haddon has been bombarded with letters from appreciative readers. Nobody I know who has read the book didn't enjoy it.
Although the narrator, 15-year-old Christopher, has Asperger's syndrome, and has great difficulty understanding facial expressions, body language and metaphors, people identify with him effortlessly. This, it seems, was part of Haddon's problem: "When it started to sell really well, I thought it was great. And then it started to sell really, really well, and so many people liked it, and I thought..." There's a sharp intake of breath. "As I've often said, it's like you want to be Radiohead, then you think, shit, I've accidentally turned into Coldplay.
"All the books I really like are loathed by some people. You know, I think a really good book winds some people up a lot and is really hated. And I'm just suspicious that too many people like it."
Fortunately, as time has gone on, the consensus on Curious Incident has fractured somewhat. "It's constantly the centre of rows in American cities, where it's put on a required reading list for schools or becomes part of 'One City, One Book' campaigns - the chief librarian chooses it, then the mayor's wife reads it and tells the mayor, and the mayor berates the chief librarian, saying 'Why are we having to read this filth? It's full of foul words and it's got an atheistic narrator.' And then the mayor has to admit that he hasn't actually read it... It's great, really good publicity. So there are plenty of people out there who think it should be burned. Which is quite reassuring."
I rather killed this joke by bringing up protesters' threats to burn Monica Ali's Brick Lane for its portrayal of East End Muslims. Haddon is full of sympathy, adding that he has experienced a very minor version of what she has gone through. "Various people who claim to stand up for the Asperger's community, a few of them, said, 'Your book is a travesty, you got it all wrong' - in short, in the way that Brick Lane has been misunderstood, they can't accept that it's a novel. And they think that when you write fiction about a minority, an oppressed minority of some sort, then your job is to present as positive and appealing an image of them as possible. Part of being a full member of society is just being in novels, in the normal messy way that everyone else is."
Despite the swearing, Curious Incident was marketed in this country as a crossover, with separate adult and "young adult" editions, each with its own cover. However, there's little danger that A Spot of Bother will appeal to teenagers, concerned as it is with sexual desire in old age, the fear of death and painfully depicted madness.
The central character is George Hall, a 57-year-old former manager at a manufacturer of playground equipment, living in quiet retirement outside Peterborough and convinced that a mark on his hip is cancer. Around him, the other members of his family have their own troubles: Jean, his wife, is carrying on an affair with one of George's old colleagues; their daughter Katie, a single mother, is about to marry Ray, whom neither of her parents can stand; and down in London their estate-agent son Jamie is breaking up with his boyfriend. So it takes them a while to twig that George is going mad.
The story is both very funny and deeply painful, and George's descent includes, as well as some hallucinatory episodes, one appallingly gruesome scene: rather than go into detail, let's just note that Haddon's working title was "Blood and Scissors".
The success of Curious Incident has brought with it certain obligations. The same illustrator was brought in to do the cover. He had just had a bicycle accident, but said he would love to do it "as he was only badly damaged from the waist down," Haddon says. There is even a dog on the back cover, though the only dog in the book has a tiny cameo. "The Americans have managed to put a dog on the cover as well, almost the same size as all the human beings involved. I think dogs are going to be on my covers till I die."
Other compromises have had to be made for the US market. "One of the things that we found difficult for America, and I did quite a few little changes to emphasise this, was the class distinction between the Halls and Ray, which I think is quite obvious to English readers. I think all English readers are * * aware of the tensions that come from someone marrying into a family, having a slightly northern accent and being a little gauche."
But the big compromise he feared did not come to pass. "The book market's so international that you need the same title in the US and the UK now, or buyers look very confused, and I assumed A Spot of Bother wouldn't wash in the States. But when I told my American editor, Bill Thomas, he loved it."
The novelist and critic DJ Taylor periodically laments the current unfashionability of the English provincial novel. Despite the hallucinations and the blood, A Spot of Bother is precisely the sort of novel Taylor mourns - and perhaps the fact that it has not made the Booker longlist reinforces Taylor's argument.
While Haddon has his reservations about the word "provincial", he takes the point - "That whole world of chartered accountants and market towns, which make up a vast proportion of the population but don't really appear over the horizon very often." He comes from Northampton - "Jewel of the Midlands, as I always describe it" - and has "met a lot of people who are quite like people in the novel". For me, mention of Northampton always recalls a remark once made in an interview by the writer of comics and graphic novels Alan Moore, another native: he said it was the sort of place where mass murderers lurk behind the net curtains.
A Spot of Bother is full of resonant details of English life - shopping at Marks & Spencer and Ottakar's; the fact that in George and Jean's village you pop down to the post office to rent a video; the books that people read (Patrick O'Brian, Bernard Cornwell and, for Katie's toddler, Jacob, Bob the Builder. At one point, Jamie tries to read Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained, but that's mainly to impress a prospective date). The novel's title itself gives the game away: as well as a reference to George's lesion, it is George's own description of a succession of personal catastrophes. For all that the title plays in America, it is a very English understatement.
This is recognisably the same world as Curious Incident, which is set in Swindon, and in which, apart from Christopher's beloved Sherlock Holmes, about the only literary reference is mention of a copy of Diana: Her True Story. But in Curious Incident, the world is seen entirely through Christopher's tunnel vision - it is his uninflected voice that gives the book its particular charm. A Spot of Bother offers multiple viewpoints, with each chapter devoted to a single member of the Hall family.
I wondered if that was a conscious reaction to the earlier book. Haddon, seeing it more as a natural development, paraphrases an interview he read with Donna Tartt: "You start off writing for the solo instrument; and then you move on to chamber music for two, three, four voices. And what you're aiming at finally is a symphony for the entire orchestra." As for himself: "I think I've got on to the quartet now. Maybe in the future I'll get on to a full-scale symphonic piece."
But chamber music seems to suit Haddon's tone, which is determinedly understated - the same applies to Haddon himself who, in his rumpled shirt and trousers and heavy boots, could be pretty much anything from a social worker to an academic to a builder: you would not guess at either his upbringing (Uppingham and Merton College, Oxford) or the wealth that the success of Curious Incident has undoubtedly brought him. He describes A Spot of Bother as "very unliterary", though he is himself quite a literary person - at Merton he read English literature, and his wife is an English don (though he asked me not to go into more detail: she has had to deal with her share of crackpot e-mails from Curious Incident fans).
When I arrived for our interview he was sitting at the café table poring over a Penguin Classics copy of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, covered with pencilled annotations. He says: "I'm quite interested in the distinction between the literary and the non-literary, and whether the comic novel can be literary or not."
The novelists he aligns with himself are mainly American - Richard Ford, AM Homes, people who write in plain English. The nearest British equivalent may be Nick Hornby, whose early work was all about men who had trouble coping with feelings and who took refuge in lists; if you swallow the idea that Asperger's and autism are extreme examples of the "male brain", he and Haddon have a lot in common. Getting away from novelists, you can see parallels with Alan Ayckbourn, who likewise deals in the ordinary, painful farces of non-metropolitan life.
As with Ayckbourn, one of the pleasing aspects of Haddon's work is the sheer efficiency, the unfussy craftsmanship. He is by his own account something of a workaholic: even as a child, he says, he was compulsively creative, writing, drawing (for a long time he made his living as an illustrator), making stuff.
When we met, he had just returned from a week's holiday with his wife and their two young sons, and he was preparing for another - he says he can't stand more than a week's holiday at a time, because he has to get back to his desk and write. "I put a vast amount of effort into getting all those sentences right," he says. "But I think the net effect is that there's not much of me there that's visible. If I ever found myself showing off, I would always get rid of the sentence."
It's relevant that he has written a great deal for children. His website lists 16 children's books he has written (and mostly illustrated), starting with Gilbert's Gobstopper in 1987 and including Agent Z and the Penguin from Mars and the Baby Dinosaur series of boardbooks.
Haddon is possibly the only person to win the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best first book with his 17th book. He has also written a fair amount of children's television, including the innovative comedy-drama Microsoap, for he which picked up several awards, including a couple of Baftas and a Royal Society of Television award.
Writing for children, Haddon thinks, forces you to hone. The result of this honing is a downbeat style indefinably reminiscent of Christopher's voice in Curious Incident. Haddon himself thinks that what the books have in common is "empathy" - an odd quality to pick out in a novel whose narrator is autistic, but absolutely what you notice about A Spot of Bother, in which every character, bar some annoying evangelical Christian relatives, is treated with the utmost respect.
"The authorial voice just loves the messy complexity of normal human beings, and that's, I think, what sort of carries over, if anything does. Dan Franklin, my editor, said that reading A Spot of Bother, you're in a different car going to a different destination, but you have this feeling that the same person is behind the wheel," Haddon says.
The new novel is narrated in the third person, but lightly inflected. George never elides a word - it is always "Would not", never "wouldn't"; Katie's chapters refer to "mum and dad", the more aspirational Jamie's to "mother and father". I didn't notice this: Haddon had to point it out. "It's a bit of a swan of a book, really," he says, "all quite smooth on the surface but there's a lot of messy kicking around underneath."
Then modesty intrudes again: "This sounds slightly self-congratulatory: is there another water-bird we can choose that's slightly less glamorous?"
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