Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Books

Mark Haddon: 'I'm giving up Twitter because it is bad for my soul, it stops you being as nuanced as you'd like... how can I condense experience into 280 characters?'

As his new novel is published, Mark Haddon tells Hannah Stephenson about life after The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, writer's block and Line of Duty

Success story: Mark Haddon
Success story: Mark Haddon
Coming Down The Mountain starring Julia Ford, Neil Dudgeon, Tommy Jessop and Nicholas Hoult
Prize night: winning the Whitbread Award

By Hannah Stephenson

Charming, genial and more straightforward than some of his fantastical books, Mark Haddon knows we cannot ignore the novel that made him famous - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

His 2003 multi-award-winning story about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way, written from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome, must surely have been a tough act to follow.

It won 17 literary prizes, sold in its millions, and was adapted into a hugely successful West End stage play. Haddon (56) is well aware that it might be seen as his "gold-plated ball-and-chain", but he isn't about to moan about it.

"How can one complain about being paid lots of money and selling that many books?" he says, simply. "I've put some effort into getting out from under it. I've stopped doing any Curious-related events. It would be very easy to let it become my career. Instead, my ambition is to have an obituary which has a footnote saying, 'He also wrote The Curious Incident'."

He'd written novels before Curious, which didn't work and which he threw away. He still throws some of his writing away. From the way he speaks, his wastepaper bin must be overflowing.

"I've talked to other people who've had this success with one book, or one album, or whatever. However many copies you've sold, it doesn't give you anything to do tomorrow. And if you're a creative person, you need to do something most days."

Today, we're focusing on his latest novel, The Porpoise, which begins with a plane crash in modern times - in which a newborn baby girl, Angelica, is the sole survivor and goes on to be raised in wealthy isolation by her overprotective, hugely rich father, who embarks on an incestuous relationship with her.

When Angelica falls for handsome hero Darius, with terrible consequences, she fantasises about his death-defying adventures, presumably to escape the reality of her abuse. This is where the time-frame jumps back to draw on Greek mythology, reworking Shakespeare's play Pericles (in which Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, risks death after revealing a Syrian king's incestuous relationship with his daughter).

The plot transforms Darius into Pericles, escaping the assassins who are after him, in this fast-moving, time-jumping tale, which is at times quite bloodthirsty - decapitation, sliced flesh and the birth of a baby just in the first chapter.

Haddon laughs at this observation, commenting that it's nothing more than you'd see on a TV drama.

"We have double standards for literary novels and for film, TV and stage. We accept a very high level of violence, peril, gore and threat in the cinema and on TV, and when we turn to literary novels we turn up our gentility dial quite high.

"I'm sure a lot of people watched Game of Thrones, which had the highest death-count of any TV series ever, then they pick up the latest book and think, 'Oh, there's too much gore in this'.

"I don't aim for gore. I aim for big stories with beginnings, middles and ends."

But he is careful in which context he features violence.

"There's a very important distinction for me between certain kinds of violence. I can't bear sexual threat and sexual violence. I am sick of TV crime serials in which women are tortured and murdered - and that gets the story going.

"It seems so lazy and unpleasant. And as much as I like a lot of TV crime drama, because I like the structure, if I get an opening scene like that, I just give up."

Haddon began his career as a magazine illustrator, writing and illustrating children's books at the same time. He lives in Oxford with his wife, Sos Eltis, who is a fellow and English tutor at Brasenose College, Oxford, and two teenage sons. As well as writing, he also paints.

"There are writers who write all the time - the Hilary Mantels - who say they write 4,000 words a day. Most of us find it difficult to write all the time. Writer's block is what I have most of the time. A lot of writing gets done in my head."

When he is stuck, he'll go for a long walk, or a drive, to sort out his thoughts. He also watches cop dramas on TV. "Police procedurals are my down-time. I thought Line of Duty started well, until it was crushed underneath its own preposterousness.

"My latest favourite police procedural was Trapped, set in Iceland. I liked the howling wind and the bad weather. The people looked normal. I could imagine myself being there."

He wrote scripts for children's TV in the Nineties and subsequently wrote the Bafta-nominated Coming Down The Mountain, a BBC drama which starred Tommy Jessop, an actor with Down Syndrome, in the lead role opposite Nicholas Hoult.

"The experience put me off TV forever," he confesses. "When I'm writing a novel, I'm in total control. I'm the benign dictator.

"When you're working for TV, or film, you're just the person who does the words. You need a thick skin and you can't be precious about your words.

"There are lots of other people whose contribution is important and it might mean that your contribution gets changed, or pushed out of the way. That needs a lot of generosity.

"TV and film as a writer is like being a little barnacle of art stuck on to an oil tanker of commerce. There's not a lot you can do to steer it."

As for social media, he is pulling back from Twitter. "I'm giving up Twitter because I think it's bad for my soul. It's started to affect the way I think and the way I see the world. It stops you being as nuanced and as ambiguous as you need to be and you go around wearing Twitter goggles.

"How can I condense my experience into 280 characters? It's not good for you if you're an artist."

Haddon is still ambitious, though.

"I want to be read after I'm dead, not for a sense of power, but because the writers who moved me profoundly were themselves long dead," he says.

"If you arrange a string of words in the right order, then maybe, just maybe, they will still be read 500 years later."

  • The Porpoise by Mark Haddon is published by Chatto & Windus, priced £18.99

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph