Interview with Mark Haddon
In 2003, British writer Mark Haddon achieved the kind of success first-time novelists fantasize about. His debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, told the story of a teenager with Asperger's Syndrome searching to solve the murder of his neighbor's dog. Loosely couched in the detective genre, the novel gained attention for its empathetic and humorous view of a family stretched to its limit and became an international best-seller. In addition to his work as an abstract painter, Haddon has written screenplays and several award-winning children's books, including the Agent Z series. His other books include The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea, a poetry collection, and A Spot of Bother, which follows a hypochondriac through a messy post-retirement phase.
Haddon's new novel, The Red House, observes a family on holiday in the English countryside, rife with barely repressed tensions and failed attempts to emotionally connect. The eight flawed characters converge and evolve: an estranged sister and her family, a remarried brother, his wife, and willful stepdaughter. Interviewer Margaret Wappler talked with the Oxford-based writer about capturing the internal life of a family, the problems associated with writing for other media, and the best way to inhabit the mind of a teenage girl. (Hint: It involves TV.)
The Red House first come to you?
Mark Haddon: God knows. I don't even know where I started in the book, really. Things just slowly and painfully coalesce over a long time. Red House came from a previous novel I half-wrote and then threw away. For me, books never have a single story—never have a single moment of beginning. Some things I find to be hanging around for many years before I get around to using them. I have the characters and images in the back of my mind, waiting for a home. Much of Red House was born in this previous novel, which was about lost children, dead children, and absences in family. The novel didn't work because it was too grandiose and overcomplicated. I abandoned the novel, but the central idea stayed with me.
GR: The Red House is told from several points of view. How did that come about?
MH: That's something I've always wanted to do. I wanted the book to have that democratic statement and intent. I write best about families and am most interested in them—but to pull out only one or two voices from a family seems to miss something profound and vital about them. Everyone has their voice. However many people are in the family, there are that many equally valuable points of view. I wanted to write in such a way that granted the same respect and privilege to all those points of view.
I also wanted the challenge of writing a proper ensemble novel. I think that's actually relatively rare. The average novel we pick up off the shelf is usually narrated by a single middle-aged man whose wife and family has left him and who has a sort of mild alcohol problem and mischievously sexual relationships with some of his creative writing students. I wanted to write the opposite kind of novel. I've also always been a huge fan of Virginia Woolf. I think the way she writes her ensemble novels...well, let's just say they're a very admirable mark to fall short of.
GR: What were the rewards and challenges of shifting perspective so often? Sometimes you switch in the same passage; that's a tricky move.
MH: It's often paragraph to paragraph. It's what it's like to be in the same room as a family, like during mealtime. When we're with our family in a room, we are different from when we're by ourselves. When we're alone, we have a very clear sense of ourselves as a distinct being, as individuals. There's a boundary between ourselves and the world. But when we're together as a noisy family, we're not so well-defined, are we? We sit together with our parents, or our brother or sister, and suddenly we're the child to our parents. I wanted to give sense to that confusion of being in a family.
GR: Goodreads Author Anthony Bellaleigh asks, "How do you set about the initial crafting of your characters, and do they ever creep up and surprise you while you're writing?"
MH: I think writers who say that their characters take over or start talking to them are either liars or I despise them. I mean, I find writing really hard, and most of the writers I know find writing really hard. So I doubt that any serious novelist would have characters do the work for them. If you're writing a thriller or a detective novel and you know the character from a previous book, then maybe that could happen. But if you want to invite new people every time, you have to invent them. I think it's generally true that the characters who are the most hard work are the characters who work the best, certainly for me. I felt in the end [of The Red House], from my point of view, that I was inhabiting these teenage girls, perhaps even more than the others. I had to work very hard to create them. I don't really know any teenage girls.
GR: How did you go about making an authentic teenage girl work on the page?
MH: I think the trick to making anyone believable is to not think in catchphrases or stereotypes and to remember that most of us have most things in common. You can take two people who seem at either end of a very long spectrum, and as long as we put aside prejudices, we all have the same fears and the same kinds of things that make us happy. People think a lot about family, sex, about belonging or not belonging, money, love, whether life has any meaning. These are very common things throughout the world. Of course, all their concerns are set a little bit differently. But you only need a few little details about teenage girls, what they might wear and what TV they watch, that kind of thing. And you can pick that up from reading magazines and watching TV. After that, you just put yourself in those kinds of situations and think, How would I feel? How would I react?
GR: You seem continuously drawn to narratives that center on family. What drives this interest?
MH: I'm not entirely sure, but I know I want to write in a literary way. I'm not interested in huge events. I'm interested in language and psychology. I'm interested in how people work and how you write about that to give people a real sense of those workings. Hopefully people walk away thinking, Yes, that's what it's like to be alive. I like when people get to the end of the book and say, Yes, this book showed me bits of my daily life that I haven't seen written down anywhere. And I think if you want to do that in a book, you have to avoid The Big Event. You have to be unmelodramatic. You have to avoid the meteorite strike and the alien invasion and the car crash and the bank holdup, because then the book becomes about events. I don't tend to write about big events; I tend to write about small events that reveal who we are in our daily lives. In that case, I think families are the place where we reveal ourselves. We're relatively simple on our own, but if you put us with our family, with three generations around, you realize how many different personae we have. Everyone knows that transformation they go through when they go through the door, from their work self to their parent self, but there's a stranger one: You can be a middle-aged person with a job and a family, and if you go home to see your elderly parents, a bit of you becomes ten years old again. It's embarrassing, and you wish it didn't happen.
GR: Goodreads member Megahn Schafer asks, "How much of your own family experience is reflected in The Red House?"
MH: It's very hard to unpick things. Very little of the action, but a lot of the stuff; let's put it that way. None of it is lifted from my life, though I'm sure there are lots of little things all the way through. I know the landscape very well and the objects. But if you take people from your life, they are already real to you; you can't make them real on the page. You have to invent people to make them real, I think. So that's not my family on holiday, is the short answer.
GR: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has recently been adapted for the stage and will premiere in July. How involved are you with the production, if at all?
MH: Very little. Simon Stephens, who adapted it, was my first choice. I like him, and I really like his work, but I left him to get on with it. He occasionally asks me questions, but otherwise, I'm not involved at all. I'm going to rehearsals just to say hello and have a look because I'm interested. But my literary input would be worse than useless. I don't think anyone can be objective enough about their own book to adapt it, or even help to adapt it for film or TV. It's like a doctor operating on his own children. It's especially true for me with Curious Incident. I've talked about it too much; I can't even read it clearly anymore. It's one of the reasons I'm not doing too many interviews about The Red House. I'd like to not kill this novel stone-dead in the way I sadly did with Curious. It spread around the world like bubonic plague, didn't it? It's a thing; it's out there. I mean, I'm quite amused. There are still people who get into arguments about it. I'm always entertained when it gets banned somewhere or causes a huge row. Sometimes it gets banned for profanity; that happens quite a bit, actually. That, combined with its atheism, causes a certain effect when considered for young readers. But I never really feel that I have to stand up for it. It's not really my baby; it's more like a sturdy 25-year-old who can pick a fight and look after itself.
GR: You write children's books, fiction for adults, and screenplays. How do these various forms influence each other? Do you find yourself using screenplay techniques in fiction, for instance?
MH: I haven't written children's books in a long time, so that doesn't really influence anything anymore. I stopped writing for TV, and I won't write for TV and film again. There's too much politics involved and too much money. Too many people are involved in the creative process who have no interest in it as art. I sometimes say that writing for TV or film is like being this little barnacle of art trying to hang onto this oil tankard of commerce. It's not anything like my experience writing a stage play. Two years ago I wrote Polar Bears, and it was done in the Donmar Warehouse in London. It was a fantastic experience. I will write for the stage again, but never film or TV. Usually in the theater, everyone involved in the creative process has exactly the same aim, which is to make a good experience for the stage. It's partly because no one spent 10 million dollars. There aren't accountants sitting in the back of every room.
GR: Goodreads member Anmiryam asks, "Have you ever written a character you can't empathize with, even when looking at them from a comic perspective?"
MH: No, I don't think you can really do that in the literary novel. Obviously if you're writing a murder mystery or a thriller, those are filled with the most appalling people. But if you're writing a novel, it's hard, because there's something about a literary novel that's a conversation. It has to be a voice that you want to sit down and listen to, and I think it's quite hard to sit down and listen to a voice if there's something cold about them. I think the voice in which the novel is told, it has to be the voice of a quite generous person, because you'll have to be in their company for many, many hours. I think it's different for film and stage. With those, you can just strap yourself in for a ride. We all enjoy our Hannibal Lecters, but you can't quite do it in the same way in a literary novel. For the reader, a good book becomes a good friend. A book has a character, like anyone else, and that character can't be mean-spirited or we won't want to give it space in our lives.
GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
MH: Just chaotic, usually. Desperately trying to get work done and desperately trying not to get distracted. I have small kids, so I don't really have a long day. I dream of long days, but often I'm not writing at all. At the moment, for example, I'm painting portraits, which is sort of the other thing I do besides writing. I've painted for a long time, and recently I've gone back to painting portraits. I hugely enjoy it. I've started to take it as seriously as the writing. Hopefully there will be an exhibition next year. If I wrote all the time, I would find it very hard. I think it would be difficult to be a novelist or poet or screenwriter and have to finish one project and then start the next straight away. That would drive me insane.
GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?
MH: Virginia Woolf has always been a polestar for me. George Eliot as well. Both in terms of writing style and in terms of an empathetic, embracing vision. My memory is dreadful for what happens plot-wise in books, so in a way I'm always most excited for what I've read most recently. Not always good books; sometimes it's bad books that can be just as inspiring. And books in between as well.
GR: What are you reading now?
MH: I just read The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. I found parts of it fantastic and then other bits were...well, it was good to have arguments with other readers about it. That's the joy of reading, when people ask you what your favorite book is, it's often the book you just argued about the most. It doesn't have to be the best book or the one you liked the most. It's the book that gets you thinking about the mechanism of writing. I thought it was an immensely addictive read. It was interesting discussing with people the extent to which it was melodramatic and perhaps overshaped. In some senses it felt quite real, and then other times it felt quite constructed. It had a slightly old-fashioned feel to it.
I'm also in the middle of 1599 by James Shapiro, which is about a year in the life of William Shakespeare. It's a wonderful book. It's one of the very few books about English history that makes it vivid and memorable as well. I did very little history at school, so I'm always searching for a way back in. It connects so many extraordinary things together. It makes part of Shakespeare's work utterly fascinating in ways I'd never ever considered. It talks about the day-to-day politics of what was happening in London at the time. You realize that some of the plays you thought were abstruse or cold or somehow purely historical, they were actually up to the minute and quite searing and satirical. Even when he was writing about ancient Rome, he was writing about the politics of London at the time. That's a highly recommended book.
Interview by Margaret Wappler for Goodreads. Margaret has written about arts and culture for the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, the Believer, Fader, NYLON, and other publications. Her fiction was recently anthologized in Joyland Retro, and she has been published in Another Chicago Magazine, Black Clock, Facsimile, and Public Fiction. She lives in Los Angeles.
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