Mark Haddon tells it like it is | Highlights from Curious Incident author's session at Jaipur Literature Festival 2021
“The novel is a vehicle which can go so many places…so why not stretch it, why not take it to those places?” Haddon notes.
Included in the knowledge panel that comes up when you Google “Mark Haddon”, are these quotes:
Reading is a conversation. All books talk. But a good book listens as well.
Use your imagination, and you’ll see that even the most narrow, humdrum lives are infinite in scope if you examine them with enough care.
Writing for children is bloody difficult; books for children are as complex as their adult counterparts, and they should therefore be accorded the same respect.
Over the course of a 45-minute conversation at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2021 with the writer Sandip Roy, Haddon comes up with several other printable quotes that would make worthy additions to the above lot:
“I like the benign fascism of the page.” [On why he wasn’t involved in the stage adaptation of his critically acclaimed and much-awarded 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.]
“The novel is a vehicle which can go so many places…so why not stretch it, why not take it to those places?” [On the ever-expanding scope of his writing.]
“Every time I hear someone dismissed as evil, I wonder: ‘what's their story?’ At their root, the monsters are not really different from the rest of us. How did they end up in a position where they commit monstrous acts? And what do we still have in common?” [On writing difficult characters.]
“I think every male writer should, at least once, try to write from a woman’s perspective, in order to exercise their empathy muscles.” [On whether there are characters a writer is/is not allowed to write for.]
Some of his quotes are — like interviewees who’re asked about the same thing over time — recycled, such as when he describes the success of Curious Incident as a “gold-plated ball and chain”. Others seem more spontaneous. In both instances, Haddon is articulate and succinct; throughout, his tone is warm, his demeanour friendly and open. Yet, for all that, there is a sort of reserve too. That is, until the very end of the session, when Roy plays an audio clip: His elderly mother reciting a few verses from a Tagore poem.
Haddon is confused at first by the Bengali words, then as recognition dawns, he grins widely and seems overwhelmed for a moment by Roy’s mother’s recital. The verse is one that appears in a short story from his 2016 collection, The Pier Falls. Having collected himself somewhat, he explains to Roy how the lyric ended up in his book:
“Well everyone has such a short store of things that are important to them, and you could spend them all in one novel. So you travel this world of ideas, stories and experiences and when you come across one that feels deeply right, you tuck it into your back pocket. And that’s what happened with this Tagore lyric. I have a friend who is a huge Tagore fan, and when I first heard the verse, I thought it had enormous magnetism…”
Almost rueful then that he didn’t have a more dramatic anecdote for Roy, Haddon continues, “Novelists are tricksters aren’t they? They give you the impression that there’s this big structure and work when it’s all smoke and mirrors. But as long as the smoke and mirrors move you, I think we’ve won.”
Before we get to that point, however, Roy and Haddon discuss a number of subjects, beginning with the latter’s pandemic experience —
“I think most writers live in a semi-locked down state anyway. So in that sense, it’s not that bad. All around the world, there is such a huge social gulf in how people have experienced the pandemic. If you have a nice house, a garden, and get along with your family — you’re good. If not, [then not so much].”
his heart bypass surgery last year —
“I experienced something called ‘pump head’: it was a brain fog that prevented me from thinking clearly. By the end of the year, I could run 15 miles, but I could not write, and paint only a little. When you have a heart attack, you feel like your body has betrayed you. But I knew something was wrong and [got help in time, so I feel like I won].”
whether or not he missed travelling —
“I have a profound fear of flying, and a great love of home. I enjoy seeing new landscapes, new people, but I don’t like the mode of getting there. And for instance, when you travel for a literature festival, there’s a peculiar sadness about nights spent in a hotel room by yourself far away from home; I know for some people that’s a great relief, but not for me!”
the many marvels of Zoom, of Ancient Greek and Math, of Shakespeare and mythology.
And, as writers are wont to, they talk a fair bit about writing.
When Roy expresses his fascination with the increasing expansiveness of Haddon’s recent works, the author quotes his agent Clare Alexander, “[She told me] Mark, you used to write stories in which nothing happened. Now you’ve written stories in which everything happens!”
Haddon says his literary direction for The Pier Falls was partly a reaction to the most common idea of the short story prevalent in the UK and America — “Carver-esque, melancholy, minimalistic”. “And I was tired of it, I wanted to do a big kind of short story, almost like a 19th century short story where there was no sense of limitation whatsoever,” Haddon notes.
Having done that, Haddon wanted to do something bigger. And so his 2019 novel Porpoise (a retelling of Pericles, Prince of Tyre) came to be. “I didn’t want to do a novel about people like me. There have been too many novels about people like me. Let’s use that space for something different,” he tells Roy. “There are so many minimalist novels that are so beautifully done, but there are so many others that are also wasted opportunities. I didn’t want to waste any opportunities.”
Roy and Haddon segue for a while into the novel as an articulation of social justice, which the former rather nicely sums up as: “Is there a danger in a writer writing to right a wrong?” Haddon cautions against writing a book with a campaigning purpose; readers, he points out, can tell when a writer is trying to change their minds. But every writer has a worldview; Haddon’s is empathy. “I find it hard to write without an imperative…often, a moral imperative,” he shares.
That’s possibly why he doesn’t think of Curious Incident as (using Roy’s word for it) an albatross around his neck, why he’s gone on to write prolifically, about many different things, and in many different forms in the years since.
Haddon admits that when the wave of acclaim for his 2003 novel started, it was scary. He compares it to how one always fantasises about having a flying car, but if one’s car were to actually take flight while driving down a highway, it would be incredibly frightening. “[I thought] Oh my god, how do I control this thing? I spent a lot of time on the treadmill talking about Curious Incident...until I got off,” Haddon says. “There are a lot of writers who have that one good book and then they make that into their profession. I took a vow that I wouldn’t participate in any event that centered solely on Curious Incident. I need light and space in my head to be able to write, and Curious Incident completely took over.”
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