Mark Haddon: ‘Writer’s block is my default state’
A Q&A with the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time author and Moth prize judge
Mark Haddon: “I suspect that having a fixed idea of what elements make up a good story is a guarantee that you’re not going to write anything genuinely new or thrilling.” Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty
The Moth Short Story Prize is now in its eight year. First, second and third prizes respectively are €3,000; a writer’s retreat at Circle of Misse in France; and €1,000 will be awarded to three unpublished stories. Last year’s winner, Conor Crummey, said: “I have stewed with the idea of sending stories out into the world before, but never quite had the courage. If anyone has contemplated doing the same, go for it! You never know what might happen.”
Each year the Moth asks a single writer to judge the prize blind. Previous judges include Kevin Barry, Kit de Waal and Mike McCormack – and this year it’s Mark Haddon. Haddon’s first book for children appeared in 1987 and was followed by many others, many of which he also illustrated. From 1996 he worked on television projects, winning two BAFTAs and a Royal Television Society Award for this work. His novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, published in 2003, won 17 literary awards and became a worldwide bestseller, and is now an acclaimed stage play. Douglas Coupland described his recent collection of stories, The Pier Falls, as “pure genius”, while his recent novel, The Porpoise, was praised by Max Porter as a “full-throttle blast of storytelling mastery”.
Which came first for you: words, music or art?
Art. My family was not bookish. My father read but never talked about the books he read. When I cast my mind back, the made-up worlds which stand out most vividly are all pictures: a framed print of a Van Gogh portrait on the upstairs landing which I believed, for many years, to be my father when he was younger, despite it looking nothing like him; the illustrations for Diggy Takes his Pick by Racey Helps; the astonishing landscape of a pagoda and pine trees which filled our blackboard one Monday morning at Eldean Junior School, created using all six colours in the pack by some supernatural weekend visitor.
What did you read in your formative years?
I read very little fiction as a child. Then, at 14, I was made to read RS Thomas and a terrifying poetry anthology called Conflict and Compassion edited by the appropriately named John Skull. It opened with a section devoted to poems about nuclear war and maintained the upbeat tone throughout. Nevertheless, I was hooked.
When did you start to write?
I wrote poetry at university. As you do. It was terrible. Unfortunately one of my poems was published which only encouraged me.
Where was your first story published?
The Island was published in Oxtales: Fire, one of the four Elements volumes published by Profile Books and Oxfam in 2009.
What elements make up a good story?
I suspect that having a fixed idea of what elements make up a good story is a guarantee that you’re not going to write anything genuinely new or thrilling.
How difficult should a good story be to write?
There’s no “should” about any art. However, I do say to students that if you’re having fun then it’s probably not working. I’m sure there are exceptions …
Do you edit your work a great deal?
Over and over and over. More often than not I then throw it away and start again.
Do films/dramas influence your work?
Every good play – and every scene in a good play – is a contest between at least two characters who have contradictory needs and desires. It should feel like a competition with an unpredictable outcome. You don’t need this kind of conflict in a novel, but when I feel a narrative sagging I regularly turn to that theatrical model, think of my story as a stage play and wonder how I can increase the drama.
Do you have a favourite author or favourite book?
Favourites come and go but Virginia Woolf is a lifelong friend. I am particularly partial to Jacob’s Room which often gets overshadowed by Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.
What are you reading at the moment?
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell and the David West translation of The Aeneid.
When do you write? Do you have a routine?
I wish I had a routine. I write when I can and wish that happened more often. Writer’s block is my default state, interrupted every now and then by a burst of writing.
The Moth Short Story Prize closes on June 30th