Seeing a man about a dog

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Raise your hand if you haven’t read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This first foray into adult fiction by Merton graduate Mark Haddon sold 30,000 copies, won the 2003 Whitbread award and the 2004 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book, and gave its author the economic freedom to chase up his creative pursuits. And the hardcover was puffed by two luminaries who span the spectrum between literary fiction and non-fiction – Ian McEwan and Oliver Sacks.

The downside to writing a bestseller is inevitably the public scrutiny you incur when you attempt to follow it up. Haddon’s second novel, A Spot of Bother (2006), is something entirely different from Curious Incident: it’s a quieter novel about a middle-aged hypochondriac and his web of relationships, which garnered great praise for his characterisation (a repeated commendation of Haddon’s fiction).  

When I ask Haddon whether it’s been difficult to follow his initial success, Haddon replies that he’s often been asked this question and he wonders what is meant by it. ‘Compared to how hard it would have been writing if Curious hadn’t been published?’ he says, ‘Or hadn’t won a prize? Or had sold thirty thousand copies?’

Haddon makes it clear that writing is always hard. ‘Unless, perhaps, you’re a genre writer, who has some of the hardest questions already answered when you start the next project.’ On the topic of the success of Curious, Haddon ‘not only had the freedom to write what I wanted, instead of what might pay, but, more importantly, it gave me the freedom to throw stuff away when it wasn’t working. And I’ve done a lot of throwing away over the last eight years.’

The novel, ostensibly written by Christopher, a teenager who attempts to make sense of a world which is inscrutable to him, describes itself as a ‘murder mystery novel’. Christopher is ‘15 years and 3 months and 2 days old’ and knows ‘all the countries of the world and every prime number up to 7,507’. Christopher may be a maths whizz and want to become an astronaut, but daily human expression and motivation escape him. McEwan’s endorsement aptly describes Christopher as having an ‘emotionally dissociated mind’.

I gave the novel to my aunt who is raising a boy with high-functioning autism, not because my cousin is much like Christopher, but because of Haddon’s sympathetic and uncanny abilities to reproduce what I assumed ‘it must be like’ to be inside a similar  situation (disregarding the impossibilities and perhaps presumption of such an exercise).

The particularity of Christopher as a central character means that the novel is often pigeonholed as a novel ‘about Asperger’s’. But Haddon would prefer it if he novel didn’t have the term affixed to it. ‘Though I have pretty much giving up fighting my corner in this respect,’ he admits, ‘Curious Incident was so freakishly successful that I feel oddly detached from it now and must leave it to fight its own battles. Saying any novel is about a single issue diminishes the book and narrows readers’ expectation. I find it particularly disappointing with regards to Curious because I purposely excluded the words Asperger’s and autism from the text. Christopher defines himself as having a few behavioural issues. To me it’s about disability, but it’s equally about being an outsider, about difference in the wider sense, about seeing the everyday world with fresh eyes, about the process of reading itself.’

Asking Haddon what sort of ‘habits of art’  he subscribes to, he says that while he longs for ‘a few habits of art’, he feels mostly as if he is ‘stumbling through a dark and ill-managed forest trying to find some object whose identity remains a complete mystery until I stumble on it. I tell myself I do so many different creative things because I get bored or because I have so many diverse interests or for some other rather self-aggrandising reason, whereas I suspect I’m merely post-rationalising the fact that I often have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.’

This is a modest way of saying Haddon is an experimenter. And indeed he has a reputation for producing works which seem to explore new territories – whether that’s a new genre, form, or subject.  Though Haddon’s extraordinary success with Curious Incident might make one think of him as a one-hit wonder, his creative involvement crosses generic boundaries. In addition to his novels, Haddon has published a volume of poetry (with the fabulous coordinative title The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village under the Sea),  written and produced a play (Polar Bears), written a film for BBC 1 (Coming Down the Mountain), and written numerous books for children. Incidently, in addition to this, Haddon has won four BAFTAS, paints, and sculpts.

This exploration of new territories, says Haddon, is intentional. ‘Like most writers I write for a reader like myself, and as a reader I’m continually drawn to writers who want to extend the boundaries of what writing can do.’

Haddon lives in Oxford with his wife, Dr Sos Eltis, who tutors at Brasenose, and who (as I can attest) is a great favourite in the lecture theatre. I ask Haddon if Oxford – a city which can be hospitable to writers, but can be overly hospitable to Sunday Times conventionalism – suits him. Haddon gives a resounding yes. ‘I don’t think it has anything to do with writing. I like the fact that it’s metropolitan but on a small scale: the University, bookshops, the theatre. I enjoy the sheer throughput of people from various corners of the world. I like the fact that my kids are at school with other children who comes from pretty much every conceivable background. On the other hand, I can run to Port Meadow in five minutes and be in the empty countryside in fifteen, and we are far enough upstream for me to swim in the river without getting leptospirosis or mercury poisoning.’

Place is clearly important to Haddon. His upcoming novel, The Red House, is set in the Black Mountains near Hay-on-Wye. ‘I don’t think there’s a single aspect of place which isn’t included somehow: the landscape, the history, the architecture, maps of the area, the weather.’  

According to Haddon, the novel is about ‘a middle-aged and long-estranged brother and sister who go on holiday with one another and their respective families. Family holidays are often, of course, more stressful than being in an air crash, so stuff happens. It’s a novel about belonging and not belonging, about being a child, about being a parent, about grief and sexuality and how we can find the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary. It’s also a novel about my love of the English literature and the English language.’

According to rumour, Haddon (an English graduate) once harbored dreams of being a mathematician. ‘Sadly,’ says Haddon, ‘Curious (and answering several hundred letters about the maths in Curious) largely killed off my interest in maths. Even at school I was only a reasonably good mathematician so it was never a likely proposition.’

The idea of crossing over between art and science, he says, has become ‘a rather sexy topic over the last few years for reasons I don’t quite understand.  Of course there are crossovers and similarities and lights which can be thrown on one discipline by another. All these things are creative and difficult and involve and great deal of slog and brief moments of insight, which often connect unexpected in unlikely ways which come to seem somehow utterly right in retrospect.’ But Haddon’s profusion of interests and media makes him an optimist. ‘I think it’s time to turn the tide and start celebrating how thrilling different all these disciplines are,’ he says.

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