Key to a 'Jack of all trades'

With a new novel and a play set to open at the National Theatre, Mark Haddon won't be battling boredom, he tells Arifa Akbar

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"Curious feels like it doesn't belong to me anymore," says Mark Haddon. "I've read it too much, I've talked about it too much... It's gone flat." The writer is talking about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, his crossover novel that became a word-of-mouth sensation for kids and adults when it was published.

It's a relief that Haddon has mentioned Curious first, even if it is to make clear his dissociation. I am under instruction not to focus on his most famous novel because he is apparently sick of talking about it. Except that he isn't. Haddon, a one-time children's author, is sitting in a swanky west London hotel, feeling underdressed for not having worn a swanky suit to match, and is happy to talk about anything at all, not least his debut adult novel – which brings us back to Curious. In 2003, the book became a global bestseller, winning 17 awards including the prestigious Whitbread Prize. Nearly a decade later, the story of the suburban maths whizz-kid (wrongly identified as an Asperger's sufferer on the dust-jacket) is to be staged as a play at the National Theatre this month and there are plans for a film adaptation, too. The play will star Luke Treadaway, Una Stubbs and Nicola Walker, and has been adapted by Simon Stephens. The book's phenomenal success, reflects Haddon, allowed him to take his time to write his next novel (A Spot of Bother, in 2006), with a poetry collection and a stage play in between.

Now comes a third adult novel, The Red House, about a family trip to a country cottage that brilliantly gets into the heads of all of its characters, from an eight-year-old boy to two teenage girls and an unfaithful husband. Even now, he doesn't have to churn out conveyor belt novels just to pay the rent. Recently, before beginning The Red House, he went as far as throwing away 150 pages of a half written novel (plus reams of notes) because it wasn't panning out.

"It was too purple, too clever by half. It was an awful realisation that dawned on me slowly. It was like ending a marriage, not that I ever have, but that sense of a relationship getting worse and worse, not doing either of you any good. It's a great relief when you're free of it.

"One of the freedoms you get if you earn a lot of money from a book is to throw away what you want. And if you throw a lot away, the good stuff always comes back, nothing is lost. One of the binding themes of the book I threw away was of children who have died which emerges as a major aspect of The Red House."

At 49, Haddon is a mix of middle-aged father ("I just have to make a call to get the child-minding sorted out"), big kid ("I feel slightly out of place here"), nerd ("I'm anti-Kindle because of the typeset for the en- dashes and em- dashes are exactly the same") and intellectual ("I like to re-read Ulysses from time to time").

These numerous sides to Haddon correlate with an almost childlike zeal for numerous artistic passions: he is a cartoonist and illustrator and was on the verge of including illustrations in The Red House before pulling the plug ("they weren't quite right"). When he's not a novelist, he's a poet, TV script-writer or stage dramatist (his TV scripts have won Baftas and his play, Polar Bears, was staged at the Donmar Warehouse). Soon he will stage a solo exhibition of paintings, too .

The son of an architect, his early interest lay in maths until he swerved into the arts and graduated from Oxford with an English degree. His father's profession nevertheless left him with an obsession with houses and he regards the eponymous "red house" of his novel as seriously as he does a living character. "I'm very aware of different houses. My parents now live in a house with thick stone walls, they are like burrows. I thought I'd live in a Modernist house with lots of glass – that's what I grew up thinking adults lived in. But what I live in is a late Victorian period house because the Modernist house would only look good if the children's pants weren't all over the floor!"

Haddon wrote his first children's book in 1987 as a stepping stone to adult literary fiction. Fifteen books later in nearly as many years, he was still struggling to make the leap. He likes to remind interviewers – and maybe also himself – that he wrote unpublished novels in this period. Would they be worth reviving now? I ask. No, he says definitely not, or only as examples of how not to do it.

When the idea for Curious came to him, his agent suggested it be marketed for children as well as adults – an idea which dismayed him at first, given how hard he had striven to change direction.

"It was a publishing arrangement [for the book to be simultaneously published by Jonathan Cape and David Fickling] or a stroke of genius because if a book has two ISBN numbers, it can go into two different parts of a bookshop.

"Initially, I was slightly depressed by this as I was trying to write an adult novel and get away from children's books. I felt like I'd dug a tunnel for years and come up in the commandant's office."

It was published at the height of the Harry Potter frenzy, when JK Rowling had suddenly "made it acceptable for adults to read children's book in public". Yet in spite of the similarities in its crossover appeal, Haddon's book was never written for kids and adopted by parents. He set out to make his story deliberately different from what was out there. The "sheer oddity" of the book, as well as its postmodern qualities, are sometimes overlooked, he says.

What is marked in his latest novel is the narrative democracy between characters; the voices of the children and the voices of the adults are equally interesting and equally dramatic.

What The Red House also has in common with his other two adult books – Curious included – is its focus on the dark side of family life – relationships going wrong, teenage angst and sexual frustrations, as is the case with the teenage daughter, Daisy, who may or may not be a lesbian in this latest novel.

It took him a while to realise that family life was what he was really keen on writing about. "I'm really interested in the extraordinary found in the normal. Hopefully, my books don't take you to an entirely different place but make you look at things around you.."

Then there is his own, real-world family life: married to Dr Sos Eltis, an Oxford University don, he has two sons aged eight and 11. The boys have read some of his books, he says evasively.

His oldest son, Alfie, has naturally drifted towards writing and drawing, just like his father, while his younger son says he wants to be a teacher (

"Before I wrote Curious, I felt like I was going to be one of those pushy parents. But afterwards, I realised I had satisfied myself. Some parents want the kids to be what they haven't been able to be. Now, I have two rules for the kids: I want them to be happy and to be kind. More than that and you're doing it for yourself."


'The Red House' by Mark Haddon is published by Jonathan Cape, £16.99