More than a decade on from his prize-winning bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon releases his first collection of short stories, The Pier Falls (Jonathan Cape, £16.99 / Audible £19.99), which reveal both the depths of his talent and a preoccupation with death.
This is your first collection of short stories – how long have you been writing them and what knits them together as a collection?
The earliest story was written in 2007, at which point it wasn’t even a story. It was a long narrative poem that simply wasn’t working. A lot of the stories began their lives in a similar way. Two of them were originally plays. It took me a long time to realise that a short story could be a good home for a big narrative. And that, I think, is what binds these stories together. Stuff happens in them. On the surface of Mars, in the Amazon rainforest, in Ancient Greece. People seem to die, too, sometime in quite large numbers. The final story was written in response to my wife’s suggestion that I write one in which everyone lives. But death is the engine that drives all fiction. What makes life precious, ultimately, is that it comes to an end.
Your writing has taken various forms, from children’s books to stage and TV and novels. Your art ranges from sculpture to illustration and photography. Is there any particular form that you feel most at home with and – any that you’ve found you’re not actually great at?
Funnily enough, in the last few weeks I’ve gone back to printmaking, linocuts in this case. I’d forgotten what a joy it is to use good quality tools and lose yourself in the job of making something physical and three-dimensional and simply forget what time it is. Sadly, that flow is something I rarely ever experience when I’m writing. I haven’t tried one yet but I doubt I’d be great shakes when it comes to opera librettos.
“Is Hamlet about depression? Is Harry Potter about bereavement? Well, yes and no.”
Thematically too your work is broad. Are there any themes that you can identify that run throughout your work and, if so, why?
I’m most interested in two things above all else when it comes to writing (and, indeed, to reading). The first is human psychology, both what goes on inside individual minds and how people interact with one another, particularly in families, and particularly in families under pressure. The second is the possibilities of language. I am constantly trying to write a page, a paragraph, a sentence which will take the reader’s breath away just as I have my breath taken away by pages, paragraphs and sentences in Moby Dick or Middlemarch. If I never succeed, it still seems like an honourable aim to fall short of.
You seem to have an interest in people pushed to the margins. What are your feelings about how these people are treated by society?
That’s a very big question indeed. Perhaps it will sum up much of what I feel if I say simply that we have, at present, an immoral and mendacious government who are protecting the interests of the wealthy while systematically and deliberately destroying the welfare state, which is absolutely vital for the health and wellbeing of people for whom they seem to have no compassion whatsoever.
The Curious Incident… has been adapted for stage and you sold the film rights. How much involvement have you had with its adaptations and are you happy with the results/plans?
Warner Brothers bought the film rights a long time ago and I have no idea what they plan to do with them as yet. As for the novel’s adaptation for the stage, I had very little involvement in the whole process beyond asking Simon Stephens to write the script, which was a stroke of genius, frankly. I then went home and put my feet up. He asked Marianne Elliott to direct and Frantic Assembly to work on the movement and a beautiful monster was slowly brought to life. I think they have done the most extraordinary job, producing a show which is not just a stage version of Curious but a celebration of the limitless possibilities of theatre.
How do you feel about it becoming a reference point when discussing autism and Asperger’s?
A little uneasy. Is Hamlet about depression? Is Harry Potter about bereavement? Well, yes and no. If any novel, any play, any poem, helps to expand a reader’s empathy and imagination, then that’s to be celebrated. But as the writer I’d like to stand up for Curious as a work of fiction, pure and simple. And Christopher himself? I like to describe him using his own phrase – “a young mathematician with some behavioural issues”.