Saturday, January 19, 2008

Mark Haddon Q&A

In summer 2006, I did an e-mail interview with Mark Haddon, whose second novel, A Spot of Bother (the follow-up to the massive hit A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), was coming out that fall. My questions were strictly straightforward, but he was generous with his responses. Since this was for a Chatelaine front-of-book piece, said responses were then broken into tiny shards, two or three of which were picked up for publication. But here it all is in full.

After the huge success of Curious Incident, did you feel any pressure – from publishers or from yourself – when writing your second novel?

Obviously I felt some pressure after Curious Incident spread round the globe like a benign plague. Thankfully, however, it all came from me (my agent and publishers were blissfully unpushy). And that pressure was less a pressure to write an equally successful book, but to understand precisely why Curious had been so successful in the first place. It was a very peculiar novel. Consequently, unlike most novelists, I couldn’t simply write another book in the same genre, or the same voice, or with the same setting. But I did want to carry over something from one novel to the next. And I knew that once I had solved this puzzle half the job would be done.

In the end I decided that what made Curious work so well was a quality of empathy, a kindness, an interest in other human beings, not in spite of their failings, but because of them. And it is this, I think, which connects Curious Incident and A Spot of Bother. As Dan Franklin, my editor in London, said after reading the new novel, it’s like being in a different car going to a different destination, but you know that the same driver is at the wheel.

Because Curious Incident was such an unusual, one-of-a-kind novel, do you feel there’s more pressure with the second novel to establish “what kind of novelist” you are or anything like that?

It took me a long time to admit that Curious Incident was a good novel (it’s fantastic having written a bestseller but it’s hard to silence that nagging, doubtful voice which keeps asking whether you’ve written something that’s simply entertaining and easy to read). There’s a world of difference, however, between writing a good novel and being a good novelist. I’d love people to read A Spot of Bother and think I’ve managed to cross that divide.

You’ve said Curious Incident began with the image of the dead dog. What was the starting point for A Spot of Bother?

Actually, it’s not strictly true that Curious Incident began with the image of the dead dog. It began with many things coming together, as all half-decent novels do. The image of the dead dog was simply one of those things. It also happened to be the pithiest and funniest answer to a question I was asked several hundred times. And the one people remember most clearly.

As for A Spot of Bother, well, I wanted to write about nervous breakdown, I wanted to write about older people having sex, I was bored of reading novels in which gay men have perfect dress sense and thrillingly promiscuous lives, I liked the idea of writing in a way that was quite complex but seemed utterly artless....

From there, how quickly did you realize you wanted to write about various members of a family?

It was Donna Tartt, I think, who talked about novelists writing for a single voice, then writing for a group of voices and moving towards writing for the whole orchestra. Curious Incident was a piece for a solo instrument. A Spot of Bother is a quartet. Maybe the next novel will be a concerto.

Which character did you feel closest to as you were writing? Which did you feel least close to? (Or did you not think in those terms?)

I began with George’s story and initially I felt closest to him. But as the novel progressed I realised that I had to give equal weight to all four members of the family. And that it would only work once I had fallen in love with all of them.

George’s bout of mental illness is one of the major engines of the novel.What attracts you to that as a subject?

Show me the novelist who is not interested in the failings of the human mind.... We all spend a great deal of time in our own company, lying on the sofa thinking about what is going through our heads, and what might be going through other people’s heads. I’d go so far as to say that you can’t write a literary novel with being slightly obsessed with the way the mind works. And like all complicated machines, it’s only when it breaks down that you really begin to understand how it operates.

You’ve written children’s books, and Curious Incident was marketed to both adult and young-adult readers. Was there anything particularly liberating – or particularly challenging – about writing your first novel aimed solely at adults?

No, is the short answer, for the simple reason that when I wrote Curious Incident I thought I was writing for adults. The (rather brilliant) marketing strategy was something dreamed up afterwards by my agent and publisher. On the other hand, I am secretly looking forward to the fact that some fans of Curious will be, let’s say, “challenged” by some of the material in A Spot of Bother. I think all good art is slightly disturbing as well as entertaining.

Both your novels mix comic set pieces with dramatic, serious moments, to great success. Is that the kind of approach you most enjoy as a reader, too?

To be honest, I usually steer well clear of novels described as “comic.” “Experimental,” “dark,” “difficult,” those are the words that I find tempting on a flyleaf. I’ve just started reading The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, and I’ve recently finished reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte (a novel which doesn’t really get going till, ooh, about page 250).

Though I guess you could describe my favourite novels (Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, Bleak House...) as comic in the broader sense of the word. None of them are going to make anyone laugh out loud, but they are imbued with a profound generosity and good humour. All of them are aware of the cruelty and harshness of the world but they never allow themselves to be poisoned by those qualities.

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