Sunday, September 28, 2003

I'm slightly obsessed with Mark Haddon these days...

Mark Haddon: Seeing the World Through New Eyes

Sunday, September 28, 2003

With a handful of picture books to his name, reams of unpublished novels in his drawer, and an agent who told him he would never ford the abyss between children's and adult fiction, Mark Haddon sat down one evening and wrote the following lines: "It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears's house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead."

When he wrote it, he did not know the voice belonged to Christopher, a 15-year-old math prodigy with a rare developmental disorder. He didn't realize that he was writing a spare new form of noir, told in the slab-flat voice of a child who has trouble processing anything so ambiguous as tragedy or emotion. Discovering the story even as he extruded one flat little sentence after another, Haddon wondered whether there would be readers willing to suspend themselves in such a disquieting world view. The answer was a resounding yes. His Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has gathered fans the world over, climbed its way up bestseller lists, and cloned itself into 30 languages, including Lithuanian and Chinese.

Perhaps it's a book for our time. Perhaps it's because we live in a world that craves stories that pit the young against rude fate: Consider, for instance, today's bestselling fiction: The Lovely Bones, The Life of Pi, The Secret Life of Bees -- novels about children beset by rape, murder, shipwreck, predators. In Haddon's remarkable story, the reader is made to travel the perilous road of adult perfidy with a cicerone who doesn't know what perfidy means -- a bit like riding a racehorse with blinders. And yet there is grace in the journey.

Forty-year-old Haddon was the first in his family to go to college -- in his case, as he mentions above, Oxford. His father "clawed his way" through night school only to become an architect during the building slump of the '70s; he made do by designing slaughterhouses. His mother was not a partisan of books. The town he grew up in -- Northampton -- despite being a mere hour from London, didn't have a bookshop. He grew up anxious, even depressed, although he would posit that "adults who remember their childhood as idyllic are deceiving themselves." The kids, he says, who are comfortable in the classroom are uncomfortable on the playground, and vice versa. There is bullying. Sadism. Getting from day to day is a genuine puzzle: A child who is sensitive to it might be a writer someday.

His favorite book at age 10 was The Origins of the Universe, by Albert A. Hinkelbein, which to this day sits next to his desk. When he read Lord of the Rings, at age 12, he thought he had graduated to adult fare, but Camus's The Stranger disabused him of that notion: He failed to understand what was so good about it. He believes it was then that his fascination with books began.

At first, he thought he would become a scientist. Maybe it was his parents' supportiveness, he says, maybe it was a bloodymindedness he inherited from his father, but what he remembers vividly was "the unspoken assumption that if I put my mind to something I would be able to do it." He feels he would never have succeeded as a writer without the underlying confidence that it would all come right some day. He survived a boys' boarding school -- "a low-security prison with slightly better d├ęcor, where there was violence and cruelty" -- because he could make people laugh. At Oxford, he majored in English. And then, of course, comes the stretch he describes above, caring for the disabled, after which he published a number of books for children, among them Ocean Express, The Sea of Tranquility and Gilbert's Gobstopper.

He has compared his success to someone who has pressed his face to the window of literary life for so long he cannot fathom how he tumbled in and landed in the Jacuzzi. He is ill prepared for fans, for the movie deal, for Brad Pitt wanting to own the story, for Steve Kloves ("Fabulous Baker Boys," "Wonder Boys") wanting to write the script. Husband to an Oxford professor of literature, father of a 2-year-old boy, expecting a baby soon, he still looks forward to getting together with aspiring children's books writers -- going off to Devon or Yorkshire or Shropshire, cooking his own meals and chatting all night into the wee.

What's next for this whirlwind phenomenon? Blood and Scissors. Of it he will only say this: "A few weeks ago, in an interview, I made passing reference to the funny bits in Curious Incident. The journalist who was interviewing me was outraged. She had wept her way through the book. So perhaps the best way to describe my next novel is to say that it is the story of an architect (not, I hasten to add, my father) having a rather dramatic breakdown."

With funny bits.

-- Marie Arana

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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