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With a handful of picture books to his name, reams of unpublished novels in his drawer, and an agent who told him he would never ford the abyss between children's and adult fiction, Mark Haddon sat down one evening and wrote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

The Writing Life

By Mark Haddon
Sunday, September 28, 2003

In 1980, I went to Oxford University to study English literature. After three years of big books, earnest late-night discussions, drunken parties and periodic essay crises, I decided, like many of my friends, that I needed to restore some kind of balance by spending time doing something that revolved around the needs of other people for a change.

I signed up with a volunteer's organization and was duly shipped to a small town in Wales to work with Michael, a young man paralyzed by multiple sclerosis. I was to be one of two helpers who did alternating 24-hour shifts, cooking, feeding, washing, taking Michael to the shops, turning him in bed at night, changing his catheter bag, holding his cigarettes so that he could smoke.

What I wasn't told until I was being driven to the house by Michael's social worker was that he had recently become an evangelical Christian of a particularly fervent stripe. He was now a member of a rapidly shrinking church whose members spent perhaps a little too much time deciding who was and wasn't going to be "saved."

In the circumstances, Michael and I got on rather well, though he was adamant that when I died I was going to hell (along with Catholics, lesbians, Muslims and pretty much everyone apart from seven or so members of his own church).

Michael had thrown the last three volunteers out of his house -- one because he had beer stashed under his bed, another because he was gay, the last because he owned a pack of tarot cards. They had been replaced by Neil, a reformed alcoholic who had been told, personally, by God, to go and work with Michael. This, it turned out, was not one of God's better ideas. Neil was the kind of man who couldn't open a packet of biscuits without spraining an ankle and setting fire to something. Despite having almost no education, he was attempting to read the New Testament in Greek using only a battered, second-hand Greek dictionary. He burnt meals, shrank washing and was persuaded to buy a second-hand car even though he couldn't drive. A door fell off the car the following week.

Shortly after my arrival, the local vicar dropped round for tea. The local vicar was very definitely not one of the saved, but he was dogged and cheerful and determined to make the best of a difficult conversation. Matters were not helped when Neil and I heard a loud pop and realized that Michael's catheter bag had burst. We spent the next five minutes trying to mop several pints of urine from the carpet while Michael and the vicar drank tea, ate egg mayonnaise sandwiches and made prickly small talk above our heads.

A few days later I attended a prayer meeting in Michael's living room. At the climax of the evening, when the singing and the preaching and the giving witness had whipped everyone into a state of high excitement, a large truck drove past the house shaking the walls. Immediately Neil leapt out of his seat, shouting, "It's the Second Coming!"

I learnt four valuable lessons during my time in Wales.

One: The great majority of the problems that occupy people with disabilities are the problems that occupy all of us -- money, family, relationships, broken washing machines, neighbors with electric guitars, etc.

Two: Sunny stoical people can become seriously disabled, but becoming seriously disabled does not necessarily make you a sunny stoical person. Consequently people with serious disabilities can be as cantankerous, small-minded and difficult as the rest of us.

Three: You can live with someone who is paralyzed from the neck down and spend more time looking after the third member of the household who is physically fit and in full possession of all his faculties.

Four: The blackest moments in life are often the funniest.

These things were on my mind when I sat down to write The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Though it is deliberately never mentioned in the book, Christopher, the narrator, has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. I knew, from the beginning, however, that Christopher had to be a rounded, believable human being, not an accurate clinical portrait of someone with the condition. Such a portrait, in any case, would be impossible, because people with Asperger's are as varied and eccentric and diverse a group as Italians or bus drivers or piano players. So I did no research.

After leaving Wales, I did a series of jobs that involved working with people who had physical handicaps and learning difficulties. And ever since that time I have been interested in the subject. If I come across a newspaper article about Tourette's, I'll read it. If I come across a television program about Down Syndrome, I'll watch it. But I made a point of not getting large tomes on autism out of the library. I made no visits to special schools. Indeed, when I started putting Christopher's character together, I borrowed all of his ticks, habits and obsessions from a variety of people I know, none of whom would be labeled as having a disability.

Consequently I was amazed (and very flattered) when, shortly after the book was published, I started receiving letters from parents and grandparents of young people with Asperger's, saying that I had "got it exactly right." I was equally amazed (and very disconcerted) to receive a string of invitations to speak at academic conferences on autism.

It comes down, I think, to this: We live in an age obsessed with facts. If we want to learn about a group of people with whom we have very little contact, we watch a TV documentary, we read a book of popular science, we buy a biography. We forget, too easily, that we can have all the facts and still be no nearer the truth. We forget that imagination is still one of the most powerful tools we possess.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout's father says that to understand another human being you have to spend half an hour in her shoes. This, of course, is not just Atticus Finch talking to his daughter about Tom Robinson, Boo Radley and the other residents of Maycomb. This is also Harper Lee talking to us about the book we are holding in our hands.

I am always suspicious of writers who have what Keats called "a palpable design" on their readers, however honorable that design. But you cannot write a half-decent novel if you do not empathize with your characters, and if you do not try to persuade your readers to feel the same way.

It is for this reason that novels remain one of the best ways we have of understanding people we have never met, one of the shortest routes to a half-hour in another person's shoes.

So, if Curious Incident has any palpable design on readers, it is to persuade them that however different we may be from one another, however alien we may seem in one another's eyes, the things that separate us are dwarfed by the things we have in common. •

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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