Jessica Gross | Longreads | May 2016 | 15 minutes (3,709 words)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was Mark Haddon’s first novel, and the one that made him famous. Told from the perspective of an emotionally limited young man named Christopher, the book has sold millions of copies and is now being performed on Broadway. But Haddon was writing long before Curious Incident, including many books and picture books for children, and has been just as prolific since.
Haddon’s new short story collection The Pier Falls deals largely in darkness. The descriptions, soaked through with detail, often verge on the grotesque. In the title story, a pier collapses, bringing many lives with it, a process Haddon details with excruciating exactitude. In “Bunny,” we witness the effects of the protagonist’s obesity, while in “The Weir,” a newly separated middle-aged man saves a young woman from a suicide attempt, yielding an unlikely friendship. Haddon and I spoke by phone about the infusion of death and destruction in his work, his writing process, and his fascination with writing about fatally arrogant men.
Some of the material in The Pier Falls is so dark and full of really grisly detail. What was it like for you to write such dark material?
Hugely enjoyable. [Laughter] There are many kinds of dark, aren’t there? I don’t mind reading dark material, as long as it’s not manipulative or exploitative—I can’t read crime novels in which sexual threat against women, for example, is used as a way of driving the plot forward. Crime novels about psychopaths who are killing, torturing, eating small children—I hate that kind of stuff.
But the violence that I write about, there is something cathartic about it for me. In two of the stories, “The Pier Falls” and “Wodwo,” I took places from my childhood about which I had tried to write many times unsuccessfully, and I realized that I could find a way of writing about them if I performed an act of great violence upon them, and particularly upon the houses. The house in “Wodwo” is my parents’ house. This is a terrible thing to admit, but I know the life that goes with that house, with that milieu, and writing about that life can seem slightly self-satisfied. When I read novels about that kind of person, particularly set in the U.K., a little bit of me thinks, “How did you earn your place on the page? You haven’t suffered, you haven’t seen much of life. There are so many people deserving of voice who are not getting it.” And it took me a long time to realize that I can write about that milieu as long as I am [laughter] mistreating it very badly, as long as something burns down or as long as there is a shotgun fired. It’s a way of avoiding that sense of smugness and entitlement that comes of writing about those people and those places.
I wonder if it also just places distance between your presumably nice childhood in that house and the characters you’re writing about, making it more clearly an imaginative act.
Well, there are two aspects to this, which are intertwined. One is that you have to describe something with equal respect and reverence and detail on the page, whether you’re bringing it to life or destroying it. “The Pier Falls,” for example, comes from holidays I had as a child. And I try to write very respectfully and reverentially about that period and those holidays because it’s my past, it’s my sister’s past, it’s my grandparents’ past.
But reverence is never a useful tool in writing. So I realized that in fact if I just knocked the pier down, I could still talk about those same details, which fascinate me and resonate with me and will stick with me forever. But I have to do it without any reverence whatsoever. And I realized that if you’re going to write about groups of people or places and you’ve got a choice between bringing them to life with reverence or destroying them with the same amount of detail, then why not go for destroying? Because ultimately, there is no narrative without death. It’s finitude which drives stories along. You get nothing on the page if you write about happiness.
This reminds me of something that you said in a 2004 Guardian piece, that the main difference between writing for kids and adults is death: “Not literal death, which has been dealt with even in picture books, such as John Burningham’s wonderful Granpa, but death’s smaller harbingers: illness, failure, loss, the irony that we have infinite dreams but find ourselves stuck in one body for one life.”
I got very tired over the years of reading short stories in which there wasn’t much narrative drive, stories which seemed like just moments, stories which seemed snipped out of larger narratives, stories often about things not happening rather than things happening. It took me a long time to articulate my dissatisfaction. And I think in the end it came down to the fact that so many short stories weren’t stories. They didn’t have that same voltage, that same engine driving them along. And every so often I’d come across stories which did have that driving force and I’d think, “Yes, this is the kind of story I do like.”
After you wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, you were often asked about the background research you’d done for the story, and you always responded that you didn’t really do any. Is that standard for you? Could talk about any research you did for this book, if you did? Some of the details were so specific I couldn’t imagine you’d simply made them up, such as the performance of an appendectomy in one of the stories.
Oh, absolutely. I do quite a lot of lazy research. If you’re writing a historical novel or a novel set in 17th-century Japan, or in a country or a culture that you don’t know, you need to do research. But with most literary novels, if you do too much research, you feel you’ve made an investment and you have to make it pay off, so you end up putting that research into the novel. So too much research, I think, can sometimes sink a novel. In my experience, you need very little research to convince a reader that you know what you’re talking about, and once you’ve convinced a reader you know what you’re talking about, then you need to make it as light as possible.
So for my lazy research—in the case of that appendectomy—I used YouTube. If anyone has a particularly gruesome taste for these things, you can watch an appendectomy being carried out. One hospital actually has written out—for its junior doctors, I think—a very, very precise procedure for carrying out an appendectomy, should you ever want to do it at home.
I remember being bewildered, when Dave Eggers’ The Circle came out, by the outcry that he doesn’t know enough about social media or the tech landscape to write about it. I wondered, where is the room for imagination in there?
Well, I think there were two effects there. One is that however much research you do, when your book is read by experts in that field, many of them will be incensed simply because you’re trespassing on their front lawn. Whether you’ve got it right or wrong, they will feel that it belongs to them and they’ll make a fuss. We all do it, don’t we? When we see films or novels set in our hometown, we just love to point out how wrong everything is.
I think there’s another effect as well, that if you write a novel like The Circle in which the ideas are very important, where it’s less about character and human interaction and more about the future of that industry, then the details sit further in the foreground, don’t they? And you are much more susceptible to criticism. I do take your point that writers should be able to make things up, but if your novel is explicitly about what might happen to a certain industry [laughter], I think you might as well put a tin hat on straight off and wait for the flack to come in.
I see. Because it was polemical, too. Although your own experience would appear to contradict that, in a way. You’ve insisted that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time “is not a book about asperger’s. It’s a novel whose central character describes himself as ‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties.’ Indeed he never uses the words ‘asperger’s’ or ‘autism.’” And yet—despite the fact that, as you say, you did no research—it’s been used as a sort of handbook about autism spectrum disorders.
Yes, yes, I got away with that, didn’t I? Somehow, somehow, somehow.
Although it appears to irk you somewhat that it is being used in that way.
It’s very bizarre. It makes me feel very uneasy, in fact. Well, I think there are several sides to this. One is that all I set out to do was to write a book about a believable human being, and hopefully I did that. Only after that did people come along and add a diagnosis to this person, saying if this person were real and if this person were sent to a psychologist, this is the diagnosis they would get. But I wasn’t terribly interested in that when I was writing the book.
Also, Christopher is made up of lots of habits, opinions and quirks which I borrowed from people, none of whom had been labeled as having a disability. And everyone who reads the book, I think, recognizes a bit of themselves in him. So it wasn’t so much that I was intruding upon someone’s medical or psychiatric or psychological specialty as it was that I wrote a person who people recognize. I think if I had gone in trying to be diagnostic and medical about it, I’d have caused great offense and a lot of justifiable anger.
In one passage in Curious Incident, Christopher asserts that everybody has special needs. Which made me curious, what you would define as your special needs?
Well, I’m going keep some of them quiet, okay, if that’s all right? [Laughter]
There’s an assumption that you will be completely open with an interviewer—and the interviewer will then go on to tell ten, fifty or a hundred thousand people. And I’m going to keep my cards close to my chest. I have special needs.
That’s completely fair. Several of your books feature fatally arrogant male characters, including Gavin and Edgar in this collection and, in a way, Dominic in The Red House. Could you talk about your attraction to writing about men like that?
I think it goes hand-in-hand with the real-life sense of repulsion. Maybe “repulsion” is too strong, because I am genuinely fascinated by everyone, including even repellent people. But I grew up and went to school with quite a few people like that, and I am very much not like that. I was sent away to a private boarding school for five years, which was in one sense a machine for creating that kind of person. So that’s always there in my background, this large shadow. I think I got out from under it, but I spent so much time with those people, it always fascinates me.
Why is that kind of education a hotbed for creating that sort of person?
I think it’s a traditional English public school education, isn’t it? They’ve been turning out men to run the empire for several hundred years. I suspect it’s slightly less true now, but I think the tradition is still there. If you’re in Britain, you only have to look at the present conservative government to see the products of that system—arrogant, insular men who lack the ability to empathize with people who do not have their wealth and power. Maybe the long-standing Tory government in this country has made me doubly fascinated.
Is there some satisfaction in bringing them to their downfall, in having some divine justice, in the stories? That doesn’t often happen in real life. Arrogance isn’t always fatal, it sometimes just lets you run the country, you know?
[Laughter] True. True. There is some satisfaction in that. There is also some structural fascination with characters who have a flaw which they do not recognize and which generates a kind of irony—in the old-fashioned, Sophoclean sense of irony where the audience knows that something is going to happen, but the main character doesn’t. That, itself, is another good narrative engine. Those characters have a semi-willful blindness which plays into your hand as a writer.
Plus, it allows the reader to be the smug one. As a reader, when I know something bad is going to happen, I feel pretty good about it.
As a reader, if you know anything which hasn’t been made explicit on the page, it’s a pleasure, isn’t it? When I’m teaching creative writing, I always say, “You’ve got to learn how to trust the reader.” Readers love working things out for themselves. On a simple level, readers need to be treated like adults. If you can avoid saying anything that you think most readers will get themselves, then you should do it. And if readers will interpret things in manifold different ways, you should let them do that as well. There is nothing worse than a writer having a palpable design upon us.
Although, funny enough, despite my fascination with arrogant, powerful men, I will say I like writing about women just as much; I possibly enjoy it more. The arrogant-and-powerful-men subject is lodged in my imagination forever because of where and when I grew up, I think, but I’m very pleased that a number of the stories actually do pass the Bechdel Test.
In The Red House, I loved writing Melissa and Daisy, two teenage girls. I don’t know any teenage girls at all. It was really rough to start with. But I think if it’s tough then you have to make the effort to bring someone to life for yourself, and if you’ve done that, the chances are you’ll bring them to life for a reader as well. And, to be honest, in real life I prefer the company of women to men on the whole.
I can gossip, y’know? [Laughter] Man talk is quite often so tedious. I have good male friends and we have real conversations, but if I was offered the chance to spend the evening with a randomly selected group of men or a randomly selected group of women, I’d go for the women every time.
There are a lot of oppressed or unfairly subjugated female characters in your books. In “Wodwo,” for example, you reference “the person his mother might have been if she were not warped by the deforming gravity of the husband around whom she has orbited for nearly all her life.” Was that was a conscious moral argument you wanted to engage?
I think we all know people like don’t we? Particularly of that generation. It’s often a tragic situation, women of that age whose social outlook was extremely conservative and sort of threw in their lot with the patriarchy in general, and on the sort of strong man in particular, and became a housewife and a mother. The world changed around them and their daughters and their granddaughters suddenly had choices which in a way they had chosen not to have. And I think that’s a really, really sad and fascinating situation to think about someone being in.
In a recent Fresh Air interview, Terry Gross asked Jonathan Franzen if, when his writing is going well, it’s an escape from self or a means of getting deeper into the self. He replied, “I think it’s substantially an escape from self. I’m making up stories. It’s escape not just from myself. It’s escape from everything.” I wonder how you feel about that—do you have a similar sentiment?
When something becomes that large a part of your life, it performs many, many different functions. If it’s something you do every day, like exercise or going for a walk or eating—we can all come up with lots of different reasons for why we eat on different occasions. I think writing is like that. Different times, different periods in your life, it does different things.
Sometimes writing, for me, is all about challenge, it’s all about solving a problem. I’m writing about my childhood at the moment. So that’s about understanding who I am and who my family is. Perhaps the most regular motive I have for writing is that I feel profoundly uncomfortable if I don’t do it. Not writing is a very unpleasant experience. Quite often, writing is an unpleasant experience as well, but it’s better than not writing. It’s become such a part of who I am that I just have to do it.
What happens if you don’t write?
I’m like a dog in a hot car. I just feel wrong. I feel unfulfilled. I don’t really get satisfaction from the process of writing, I almost never get flow, unfortunately, although I do get flow when I’m painting or drawing. But try to write a thousand words a day. If I get to a thousand then I can stop doing it. I’m allowed to do the rest of the things in my life—I can go for a run, I can read a book, I can lie down with my eyes closed and that’s deeply pleasurable. If I get to the end of the day having written very little or not having written at all, I can’t switch off and I can’t go and do the other things because I have a feeling that something important remains undone.
Why do painting and drawing offer more flow?
Because they’re more physical, I think. Because they don’t involve language and words and cogitation. My writing accretes. I write a passage, then I add to it and edit and add to it and edit and add to it and edit. There is no initial explosion.
A few years ago, you said that when writing plays, “If you get it wrong then it hurts so much more than a bad review.” Could you talk about what it’s like to get reviews, especially now that you’re famous and everything you do is so public?
It depends what the review is like, doesn’t it?
I’m sure so. [Laughter]
In life, I dislike people disliking me, and I put a lot of effort into getting on well with people. And there is a parallel. If someone reads your book and says, “I really didn’t like this,” then that’s unpleasant. I wish I had the self-control not to read them, but I don’t have that self-control. And, in a way, you do want to read them, because just occasionally you do realize that you’ve got certain things wrong and you always have to be open to that.
I have had a few reviews which have been so spectacularly negative that I’ve become rather proud of them. There was a review of my poetry collection six or seven years ago which was so spectacularly, biliously, grandstanding negative I thought we should take phrases from it and put it on the front of the book.
If you read a bad review and you realize someone has misunderstood something or is more interested in how they sound, then it loses any traction. What’s always hurtful about a bad review is that little seed of possibility that they are right.
I’m curious to ask—especially having read The Red House, which features a character grappling with her newfound Christianity—about your own spiritual or religious background. I read somewhere that you were an atheist.
Well, I stopped being an ardent atheist, because most ardent atheists are not doing atheism any favors. I’m not Richard Dawkins, for example. But I strongly believe that. And I do believe that the physical world is so profoundly astonishing that it supplies all my conceivable hunger for both mystery and solutions. It was science which did that for me as a kid and which continues to do it.
As a child growing up in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, it was cosmology and particle physics which were the most exciting ideas in the world at the time—the physics of the very big and the very small. Now, it’s still those things, but the thing I find most exciting is cell biology. Absolutely gripping. And whereas popular science has managed to sell the excitement of physics to the general population, I think the general population is still unaware of how astonishing cell biology is.
What about it? Can you enlighten me?
The fact that we are made of billions upon billions upon billions of cells and that each cell is as sophisticated as a small city. I don’t mean that in any vague way; it really is. And we build these cells at the most astonishing speed. The speed and the size and the scale of what’s going on in the end of your finger is mindboggling.
Okay, here’s a fact that most people don’t know. Earth was covered in bacteria for billions of years. On one occasion, one occasion, one cell swallowed another and that internal cell became a nucleus and from that one event all complex human life evolved. You name it—bananas, cucumbers, algae, everything. We have one great grandparent. And it was this one cell. That’s astonishing in itself, but what’s also astonishing is that it should’ve only happened successfully once with trillions upon trillions of bacteria covering a planet for billions of years.
I don’t think people realize how relatively likely life is, but how astonishingly unlikely complex life is. We talk about life on other planets; we’ll find it, but it will be invisible. It will be bacteria. And the worldwide, newspaper-reading public will say, “That was not what we were waiting for.” To find animals on another planet would be almost unimaginable. It took so long for the unimaginable to happen here.
* * *
Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.