Burning Down the House
An Interview with Mark Haddon
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Wikipedia describes Mark Haddon, simply, as a novelist, but it might be more accurate to call him a literary renaissance man. Best known for the much-beloved 2003 mystery novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time — which sold over 2 million copies and was adapted into a Tony and Olivier-award winning play — Haddon is also the author of nineteen books for children and young adults, as well as two other critically acclaimed novels, a play, and a volume of poetry. His latest, and undeniably darkest, work is the short story collection The Pier Falls (Doubleday, 2016). Depicting characters in extreme, often near-fatal, states of loneliness and despair, there is also a rich vein of empathy and black humor running through these nine diverse tales. And diverse they most certainly are. One story is set in Ancient Greece; one in the Amazon jungle; another on the surface of Mars. The title story, told at a chilling remove, details the devastation wreaked upon a group of holiday-makers when a pier collapses in a sunny English seaside down in 1970, while “The Gun” — an O’Henry Prize-winner in 2014 — is an almost unbearably tense coming of age piece about a boy and his neighbor discovering a handgun.
I spoke to Mark over Skype in early April and, despite the unfortunately-timed construction symphony which erupted outside my window as I dialed his number, we managed to discuss everything from hate speech and banned books, to literary adaptations and the thrill of using fiction to blow apart childhood memories.
— Dan Sheehan
Dan Sheehan: Carol Birch in The Guardian called you “a master of the excruciating family set piece,” remarking that family has become your speciality. Your novels A Spot of Bother and The Red House, as well as your stories “Breathe” and “Wodwo,” all contain scenes of painfully escalating tension within family units in domestic spaces — what is it about this environment that so appeals to you as a fiction writer?
Mark Haddon: When I began writing fiction I wanted to write big novels about big subjects and learned, painfully and slowly, that I had other, smaller subjects where I was at home, subjects that suited me. Family is one; houses is one; what goes on in the mind when it’s not working properly is another. I’ve had to give up on those dreams of writing the big novel and admit that I’m actually at home on this quite small scale. And given that stories simply don’t happen without flaws, suffering and conflict, if you’re writing about families, houses and minds then painfully escalating tension with family units in domestic spaces is pretty much essential.
DS: Though you have addressed the “larger” themes of mental illness and psychological disintegration — both within that domestic sphere and in the wider, more anarchic world outside of it — time and again in your work; whether it’s bipolar disorder in your play Polar Bears, hypochondria in A Spot of Bother, or Schizophrenia in “The Weir.” Do you think fiction that deals with these subjects has a societal value beyond the artistic, in terms of our understanding of mental illness, or is that asking too much of stories and storytellers?
Literature has to work by stealth and in spite of itself.
MH: I think it has value, but only insofar as you don’t write it for that reason or publish it for that reason or force it upon readers for that reason. It’s paradoxical, isn’t it? It’s the Keats quote “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us.” Literature has to work by stealth and in spite of itself. It’s hard to read great novels without coming out the other end changed in some way, without your empathy broadened to some extent. But that wouldn’t happen if they were written as self-help books. Apropos of which, I was particularly proud that to find out yesterday that Curious Incident has appeared on two very different lists. In the UK it was added to a list of books recommended by the reading agency for doctors to prescribe to young people who are struggling with their mental health. I think that’s a wonderful thing. If you can read a book instead of taking a pill, then read the book. Read to find out more about yourself. Read to find our more about the world. In the US, on the other hand, the American Libraries Association included Curious on their list of ‘Most Challenged Books’ in schools and libraries throughout the US. I was one above the Bible and two above Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, but three down from 50 Shades of Grey, sadly.
DS: Well that was always going to be a tricky one to beat.
MH: [laughs] Between the Bible and 50 Shades of Grey, what a great place to be. More seriously, one of the unexpected upsides of the novel being challenged, and occasionally being banned, repeatedly throughout the US is that in almost every case the inevitably heated arguments always create a debate about freedom of speech, about censorship, about atheism and profanity in books, about why we read and what we expect to get from it. So, there are two very different examples of the way in which a book can have a societal value and I’m very chuffed that Curious appears in both categories.
DS: You haven’t shied away from criticizing the policies of the current Tory government in Britain; do you worry about the political climate at the moment with regard to some of the issues we’re talking about?
MH: There are reasons to be profoundly depressed about pretty much everything the Tory government is doing at the moment, most notably the systematic destruction of a welfare state upon which they, as wealthy people, have never relied, but which is essential for the health and welfare of millions of people for whom they appear to have no empathy whatsoever. Thankfully, freedom of expression isn’t something most writers have to worry about here. In any case the new arena in which those debates are fought is on the internet and the main focus is not political but personal — who has the right to offend and who has the right to be protected from offence. Part of the puzzle is a practical one. How do you sustain an environment in which people can express themselves freely and anonymously without it being an environment in which they can abuse others freely and anonymously. More interesting, I think, is watching old political paradigms shifting to accommodate a new landscape; witness Germaine Greer’s attempts to square the transgender experience with the feminism of the seventies and eighties. I don’t deny that it’s a genuine puzzle but it’s not one she has handled with sensitivity.
DS: I remember reading recently about a somewhat similar situation at the Decatur Book Festival at Emory University last year. Roxane Gay was in conversation with Erica Jong and at the Q & A which followed, Jong was asked how feminism might better include women of color, to which she answered “feminism has always included women of color.” It became clear that, even though there were these two champions of the feminist movement up on stage together, the opinions of one on some significant issues were very much stuck in a previous era, and were no longer in sync with how the new, more inclusive generation, feels.
MH: Absolutely; and I don’t think these discussions apply to books that much, because books are written slowly and published slowly and read by people who choose to read them. So it’s not a problem for writers in that sense, but it is very much a problem on social media. What’s really difficult on social media — not for me of course because I’m a white middle-class man so I can say anything I want and I’m not going to be abused. It’s not like I’m a woman with an opinion — is that when you have a potential audience which includes the whole world, it’s very easy to offend people and very difficult to discuss certain things.
DS: Turning to The Pier Falls, I don’t think I’ve ever read a collection that was set across such a broad and disparate range of places — you move from a seaside town in Britain to ancient Greece to the Amazon jungle to the surface of Mars, to name but a few. Did you envisage a unifying idea or theme when you began to put together this collection?
MH: Well, there was no overarching plan. I was just trying to write the stories that I could write. I had started many, many more stories than there are in the collection and I either stopped halfway through or threw them away. So instead of those nine being a deliberate choice of situations and characters, they were what remained when I threw away the stories that didn’t work. And then post-hoc I had to look at them and ask myself whether there was a theme. And I’m still not sure how much that theme is accidental or representative or what’s going on inside my head.
Unlike a lot of writers, I think the short story has given me much more freedom than a novel. I feel that I can take bigger risks. I mean, I would never set a novel on Mars because I would think that it’s simply not going to work, and there is no point in trying to put a year’s work into it just to have it go nowhere. But if it’s a short story, I can take that risk. Ironically, Clare Alexander, my agent, said to me “Mark, you seem to write novels in which nothing happens and short stories in which everything happens.” I had never really thought about it like that but I think she’s right.
DS: You’ve written close to nineteen books for children and four for adults so far, as well as a play and a volume of poetry. As a writer of different forms, but also an illustrator and visual artist, what aspect of your work brings you the most joy?
MH: This is an awful answer, but I rarely get joy from writing. I get a lot of joy from having written well, which happens sometimes. The actual process I find quite painful. I often wish that I did something which gave me flow, that psychological sense of being immersed and forgetting where I am and what the time is, but that never happens for me with writing. It used to happen more when I was doing illustration and sometimes it still happens when I do certain types of art, but sadly never with writing.
DS: I was fascinated by the undercurrent of black humour that accompanies disaster in many of these stories. Is that something that organically infuses your writing style now or did you consciously want to move toward a darker, more biting place with this book?
…there is a pleasure in writing a book that seems not to have come from the pen of the person who wrote that nice novel about the boy and the dog.
MH: Undeniably there is a pleasure in writing a book that seems not to have come from the pen of the person who wrote that nice novel about the boy and the dog. I quite liked putting that person to bed. I’ve been trying to get out from under that person for quite some time. But as far as the humor goes, I think there’s a region where humor, meaning what is funny, blends into something broader: an empathy and generosity that’s often not funny at all but which is a very close cousin to it, a warm way of looking at the world, and I think that’s certainly there. There’s also something in that which I think is very British. We lived in Boston for a year and one of the biggest cultural differences, for me, between the US and Britain — and there are lots, especially in Boston, which, with its bizarre anglophilia is a particularly odd place — was that I find certain stories of horrific trauma actually very funny. I remember telling friends in Boston about what I thought were very funny stories from back home, and they would look absolutely horrified, apart from a couple who would laugh and then say “I’m terribly sorry, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Canadians.” So I learnt to keep my amusement at horrific physical trauma to myself.
DS: The Curious Incident play has been a tremendous success, on both the West End and now Broadway (7 Oliviers and 5 Tonys). Was the prospect of stage or screen adaptation something that excited or concerned you in the wake of the book’s release? Does the idea of adaptation of your work in general fill you with dread?
MH: Except in rare circumstances, I think writers should steer clear of being involved in adaptation, for the same reason that surgeons don’t operate on their own children: you’re just too close to be objective. I’ve adapted other people’s work for TV, for example, and I know that you have to be harsh. Different things are needed. You have to make cuts which are often very painful for the original author. I also know writers who have been involved in trying to steer an adaptation in the direction they want, and you can lose years of your life trying to do that. I think you should take the check and go home, or if you still really want to be that involved, don’t take the check. I think the secret, and I discovered this retrospectively with Curious, is choosing the right people to do the adaptation. If you get the right people, it’ll work. If you get the people who are almost right, you can’t compensate for that yourself. My one stroke of genius with the stage adaptation of Curious was choosing Simon Stephens, who in turn wanted Marianne Elliott to direct and Frantic Assembly to do the movement. I had to do nothing except keep a sort of Zen-like detachment from the whole process. In the case of Curious, the reason it worked was not because it was a good or less good adaptation of the book, but because it was a celebration of what you can do on stage. I think if your main concern is to have a good adaptation of your book, then you’re sunk. Whereas if someone wants to make a great play or film using your book as a starting point, then I think you stand a much better chance of being pleased by what comes out at the end.
DS: This can often be a terrible question to ask authors, but have you decided on your next project?
I could happily not read about people like me in books for many, many years.
MH: Well, publication can end up taking a lot of your time if you’re not careful so I’ve always thought that you have to have another book well underway beforehand. Its always dangerous talking about these things in public because you can invoke that terrible curse, but I’ll take that risk: I’m about halfway through a novel about a house fire. It grew out of several things I discovered while writing the stories in The Pier Falls. I’d often tried to write about my past, but I don’t have a very interesting life story. I grew up in Northampton and nothing much of interest has ever happened in Northampton. It’s the middle of Middle England and I had a middle English upbringing. But I know it in detail and I often remind myself that, in a way, everyone’s life is of equal value. Having said that, people who’ve had the childhoods that I had have occupied too many pages in literature for too long. I could happily not read about people like me in books for many, many years. But the conundrum then is how do you use that past without writing a story that feels somehow smug or entitled or cosy. We all know those types of middle class novels, and I think they’re more common over here than in America. I realized that one way to do it was to go back and destroy parts of those lives [laughs]. The story “The Pier Falls” is actually based on a lot of my childhood holidays. When I tried to write about those holidays reverentially, the story became slightly saccharine and not terribly interesting. But then I realized that if you want to destroy — a place, a building, a structure, a family, a family occasion — then you have to write about that destruction with the same attention to detail and the same love that you would use if you were building it up from scratch. So I realized that instead of writing about the pier I remembered from my childhood, if I just smashed it to pieces, it would be the same pier but somehow more gripping.
DS: In a way, it made the story doubly terrifying because it felt known, it felt experienced, to the point where I found myself turning to Google to tell me more about this horrific real life event.
MH: And I think it’s also true of “Wodwo”. I know that kind of family, that milieu, really well, but the question was how to write about it in a way that was genuinely interesting. And I realized that one of the ways to make it interesting was to send someone in to tear it to pieces. And I’m allowed to use this material that I know so well, because I’m being so unpleasant to those characters! There’s a release to that as well, there’s a release in going back to your childhood and stamping all over it. It’s rather thrilling, worryingly thrilling when you realise you can do it. So that was in the back of my mind when I started writing about a house fire. I’ve always been interested in houses. I think, largely, because my father was an architect. I’m not someone who notices the clothes people wear or who remembers conversations word for word, but I could give you a good 3D sketch of all the buildings I’ve been in over the past six months. It’s one of the main languages in which I think about the world, so I decided to write about a house but then, having learnt from “The Pier Falls” and “Wodwo”, I thought “I’ll write about a house, and destroy it.”