Mark Haddon: ‘I don’t mind squaring up to Shakespeare on his off-day’
His new novel is a take Shakespeare’s Pericles – not what fans of his mega seller might expect
Mark Haddon: Curious Incident feels like a stranger to him now, ‘I was forced to talk about it too often’. Photograph: Awakening/Getty
Before we begin our chat about his new novel, bestselling author Mark Haddon tells me that if he sounds stupid, it’s because he’s tired. He has recently had heart surgery.
“I’m a 56-year-old running vegetarian. It’s not what I was planning. You forget, don’t you? We’ve been given the idea that if we get everything right, things will be perfect. We forget there’s a huge roll of the dice in health. You can just be really unlucky. Although I feel lucky, because I got one of the things you can fix.”
Luckily, Haddon is feeling up to talking about The Porpoise, his reworking of Shakespeare’s play Pericles, the story of a prince who goes on the run after discovering the truth about King Antiochus’ relationship with his daughter. In Haddon’s new work, conventions of narrative fall away, plot and place are layered, and “time is repeating or rhyming”. Early reviews are heavy on words like “challenging” and “ambitious”.
I think good as he might have been, Raymond Carver had a malign influence
Initially reluctant to re-tell Shakespeare, Haddon found himself re-reading Pericles. “There was something I really disliked about it, the way this poor woman is really just used and abused by the play and inside the play. I thought, Pericles is just not very good, is it? I don’t mind squaring up to Shakespeare on his off-day.”
He also saw a “hole” in the story. “Those gaps [in old stories] are quite often women’s stories because most of the storytellers are less interested in those. We don’t know what she thinks, we don’t know what happens to her.”
Haddon also saw an opportunity to break from the “fashion for contemporary naturalism. Some books in that vein are fantastic but something inside me yearns for all the stuff that the novel can do. I think good as he might have been, Raymond Carver had a malign influence. He’s made a lot of people believe for a long time that we need to be sort of literal contemporary and relatively minimal. I think, why don’t we think of something expansive and generous and hungry?”
He confesses he has stolen a peek at early reader reviews on Goodreads, not all of which are favourable.
“I always try and get on with people. I sometimes wish I was a bit more unpleasant, but I’m a social person. So in a way I want every review to be nice. I have to remind myself that the books I love have passionate fans and passionate detractors. I’d rather be loved passionately by a smaller group of people.”
However, Haddon’s most famous work, the 2003 novel A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was loved passionately by a very large group of people indeed, with sales into the millions and translations into almost 50 languages.
“If I may mention The Curious Incident . . .” I say.
“That book,” he says, with pretend annoyance.
I remind him he once said that as an author he wanted to be Radiohead and as the book sold into the millions, he realised he was Coldplay. With this new work, is he moving back to Radiohead territory?
“God, Radiohead. It sounds like trad jazz now when you look back. Radiohead feels antique, doesn’t it? It would be easy to make a career out of being the person who wrote Curious Incident. I think I knew from early on I didn’t want to do that so I steered hard in the other direction.”
In The Porpoise, Haddon writes often from the perspective of teenage girls, as he did in his previous novel, The Red House. “Obviously on one level, I’m not a real man,” he says, pausing for effect. “I say that as a joke but it’s also true. I grew up surrounded by large burly rugby lads and I used to think, I do not belong here. I still can’t talk ‘man’, that thing men do in the pub.”
He has two teenage sons and no daughters but he believes in the challenge of writing characters with whom you have nothing in common. “If you write someone like yourself, it’s really easy to be lazy, and they come out thin if you’re not careful. All of us are basically the same, aren’t we? We all have the same fundamental needs, we just express them in different ways.”
And while the women in The Porpoise move hard against the societal and familial ties that bind them, Haddon resists the idea of an easy feminist message.
“It’s always dangerous to have an ideological list of things you want to say because readers can smell that a long way off.”
He mentions one of his Goodreads reviewers found The Porpoise immoral somehow because of how it dealt with child sexual abuse. I ask him was he nervous about tackling the subject. “You write a book and then you finish it and then you think dear God, I’ve got to show this to other people. But I thought, we all know people to whom it happened. Anyone who was born in the 60s, and grew up in the 70s, it’s absolutely rife. I think the thing that’s different here to most accounts is that it’s an account from [the abuser’s] point of view as well.
“I think we often say of certain people that they are evil and while it’s very easy to understand that emotionally, it’s a refusal to think about why these things happen.”
It may be that we do not live in a time when people are interested in delving into the mind of a perpetrator. It does not make for good Twitter. “Oh God no, social media and the appalling lack of nuance. There is something about slow writing and slow reading which feels like an answer to false news and the hot take. To go back to a complex, nuanced novel after feeling poisoned by Twitter.”
Haddon has recently taken a break from Twitter. “It was affecting my brain. I found myself simplifying complicated things to do a tweetable version of them. If I’m not thinking about Twitter and I’m out for a walk or watching something on television, I’m allowed to think messily and complicatedly about it.”
Haddon likes to think messily and complicatedly in his work too, and has steadfastly resisted being pigeonholed. “For a person who likes to get on with people, when I’m sitting down writing, I’m quite ornery and difficult. I really like the fact that if you read Curious Incident and you read this, I think you’d find it very hard to spot that they’re by the same writer.”
He describes Curious Incident as “very sui generis. As much as people on Twitter get in touch and say, can you write part two, I say, not on your life. Curious Incident didn’t give me a voice I could use anywhere else. And it wasn’t like any of the books that have made me want to write, whether it was Virginia Woolf or Patrick White. A bit of me wants to write something more like those and maybe for a handful of people give them the experience that I had reading the books that really moved me.”
Curious Incident feels like a stranger to him now, “I was forced to talk about it too often so I lost the ability to creep up to it on the bookshelf and open it and read it as if I was browsing in a bookshop.” Just when he had stopped talking about it, it was developed into an award-winning play in 2012. “I can’t complain about any of this but the truth is I feel very alienated from the book now. Richer, but unable to read the book. You can kill a book by talking about it too much.”
For Haddon, writing does not come easily.
“I’m sort of haunted by the image of Hilary Mantel sitting down every morning and writing 4,000 words. There are weeks and months during which I can’t write at all and that makes me very uncomfortable but I’ve come to think of that as a necessary part of the process. I’m not quite an architect that has the plans. I feel I’m staggering through a poorly lit forest at night, just looking for anything, anything. And if I find that thing, I will run with it.”
Having written for television, and the successful Polar Bears for the stage, he has decided to focus on the novel.
“I’ve learned from talking to Simon [Stephens, the playwright who developed Curious Incident for the stage] about what is really involved in writing a play. He always says the word playwright is spelled [the way it is] because you’re like a shipwright or a cartwright. You make a structure and then other people come along and they fit other things into it. There’s a generosity. Whereas I’m much more at home with the benign fascism of the novel. I’m in charge of everything.”
Haddon is openly political. In 2012, he wrote to his MP asking why wealthy people such as him were not paying more tax. Is he ever tempted to incorporate current political drama into his work?
“It’s important not to be dazzled by the literary possibilities in the dumpster fire that is going on around us right now. Stick to those same long-term human subjects that have always fascinated us and that way you retain some pertinence to readers. Write a novel about Brexit and what’s it going to read like in two years’ time?”
At the same time, writing is no escape. “I wish it was. Having a heart bypass is a bit of an escape. I did feel I got a medical certificate which relieved me of having to understand everything that was going on. I was just relieved to have the procedure before a no-deal Brexit turned the hospital into smoking ruins.”