Wednesday, July 16, 2003

First-time novelist in his literary prime

SANDRA MARTIN talks to Mark Haddon, whose compelling debut novel narrated by an autistic teen looks set to be filmed by the Harry Potter team

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
POSTED AT 3:35 PM EDT Tuesday, Jul. 15, 2003

Appearance versus reality is the underlying theme of the hottest debut novel of the summer. I can feel you yawning, but before you skip to another page of the newspaper, let me just say that the astonishing success of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time shows that the way a story is told, rather than the story itself, often makes the difference between an instant remainder and a literary bestseller.

Rights to the novel have been sold in more than a dozen countries, with the British publisher producing it in separate editions for teenagers and adults. A consortium of Warner Bros./Heyday Films/Brad Pitt and Brad Grey have bought the film rights and are in the process of negotiating with Steve Kloves (screenwriter for the Harry Potter films) to write and direct.

After nearly 20 years writing and illustrating children's books, churning out television scripts, papering his walls with his own unpublished novels and firing his agent, Haddon has become an instant success.

"I have this fantasy that someone in that office has been beaten heartily on the bottom with a copy of this book," he says about his former but unnamed agent during an interview on a hot summer day in the Toronto offices of Doubleday, his Canadian publisher.

The novel has a deceptively simple surface. Underneath, though, it is quirky and complicated, both graphically and textually. Mainly that's because Haddon has chosen to tell the story in the voice of Christopher John Francis Boone. He's a 15-year-old kid who finds his neighbour's black poodle stabbed to death with a garden fork in the middle of the night and sets out to find the murderer.

Christopher has Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. Typically, people with this syndrome have normal intelligence; some, like Christopher, have an exceptional skill in a particular area. He has a photographic memory and a special talent for math. For example, he knows the names of all the countries of the world and their capital cities and every prime number up to 7,057. Besides numbers, he loves science, puzzles, drawing pictures and his pet rat Toby. He also likes dogs, as "they do not tell lies because they cannot talk."

That's the upside.

Christopher has no peripheral emotional vision; he sees the world in strictly literal terms and he has no friends. He hates change, looking people in the eye, the colours brown and yellow, and having different foods touch on his plate. If somebody inadvertently grazes Christopher's arm or stares at him, he is likely to bang his head against the wall or roll into a ball on the ground and emit loud persistent groaning sounds for hours on end.

"Christopher seems supremely ill equipped to be a narrator," Haddon agrees. And yet, as he discovered early on, Christopher's apparent disabilities were actually a safeguard against the literary traps that ensnare so many novelists. "He never explains anything too much, he never tries to make the reader's mind up one way or the other," Haddon says. "He just paints a picture and leaves you to decide. He is very good at show, don't tell."

Christopher speaks in short declarative sentences that he has organized in chapters headed by prime numbers. Here's the way Christopher writes: "13. This will not be a funny book. I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them. Here is a joke, as an example. It is one of Father's.

His face was drawn but the curtains were real.

I know why this is meant to be funny. I asked. It is because drawn has three meanings, and they are (1) drawn with a pencil, (2) exhausted, and (3) pulled across a window, and meaning 1 refers to both the face and the curtains, meaning 2 refers only to the face, and meaning 3 refers only to the curtains.

If I try to say the joke to myself, making the word mean the three different things at the same time, it is . . . like three people trying to talk to you at the same time about different things.

And that is why there are no jokes in this book."

But there are plenty of puzzles. In fact, the novel is a giant question mark about making order out of chaos. There's Christopher himself, of course. He's the one who's been labelled and who goes to a "special needs" school. But, as quickly becomes apparent, it is the adults around Christopher, especially his parents, who are the truly dysfunctional ones. Christopher can't change the fact that he is autistic, but he does manage by the end of the book to organize his life in a manageable way. And in doing so, he provokes his parents into modifying their own crazily self-destructive behaviour.

Haddon, a soft-spoken Englishman, was born in Northampton, "the jewel of the Midlands," he says dismissively. "I always joke that there are only two literary links to Northampton, and both of them are to the same psychiatric hospital." Apparently John Clare, the English Romantic poet, ended up in St. Crispins Hospital, and so did Robert Lowell, the modern American poet, after suffering a manic episode when he was passing through. "That's the end of Northampton's link to world literature," Haddon says with a laugh.

Now happily living in Oxford, Haddon, 40, has big muscles from his penchant for marathon kayaking on the River Thames. "You can only write for five or six hours a day," he says, "so you have to find something else to do the rest of the time. For a lot of writers, it is either alcohol or family breakdown." Or both, one assumes. Haddon's solution is "wholesome outdoor sports" and painting with acrylics so that the canvases are dry before his toddler, Alfie, comes home from nursery school.

Haddon obviously doesn't suffer from a problem such as Asperger's, but there is lot of him in Christopher -- the love of math, for example, and also his need for solitude. "I was always one of those outsider kids," he says. He read gobs of science as a kid, avoiding fiction like a contagion. It wasn't until his teen years that he began wanting to write, and it was only at the last moment that he decided to study English lit rather than math at Oxford. "A narrow escape," he now thinks.

Even so, he periodically has to nourish the scientific part of his brain. "After I have read lots of fiction, it is like having too much birthday cake," he confides. "Reading science is like having a jug of cold water."

After Oxford, Haddon spent a few years doing assorted voluntary and part-time social-work type jobs before he discovered he "was completely unemployable." The longest he says he lasted at any one time in an office was five weeks. Not having a boss, he says, is one of the best things about being a writer.

All he ever really wanted to do vocationally was to paint and write. He fell into writing and illustrating children's books because "it seemed halfway there on both counts." Writing television scripts paid the rent. There is a double irony here: He was typecast because he was good at both; and the economy of diction and scene-setting he learned from the kiddie-lit and television trenches are the foundations of his international success.

He has blurred the boundaries between postmodern and genre fiction, between books for kids and those aimed at adults. But that is what fiction should do, he counters, pointing out that one of his favourite books is the quintessential 19th-century mystery novel, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.

"People ask me what model I had in mind when I was writing this book," he says. After thinking about it for a while, he finally concluded it was Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. She has taken the Bennet family, with their parochial lives, and adopted their language, which is in itself restrained and limited. But, he says, she has drawn them with such empathy that there is a universality about them. In retrospect, Haddon realized it was that quality of empathy that he had been striving for in creating Christopher.

Who would want to read a novel, let alone make a film, about a disabled kid living in Swindon, he asks, evincing a mixture of surprise and pleasure. The same could be said about Yann Martel's Life of Pi, a novel about a shipwrecked boy adrift on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific with a starving tiger. The reason that both novels connect with readers of different ages is that they tell simple but powerful stories and they pose the biggest puzzle of all: What is life all about?

Read the complete first chapter of Mark Haddon's book on the Entertainment page of our Web site, .

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