'Curious Incident' author Mark Haddon on new story about 70s 'collapse of Brighton Pier'

PUBLISHED: 08:00 23 June 2016

Mark Haddon. Picture: PA

Mark Haddon. Picture: PA

PA Archive/Press Association Images

Not just a music festival, the Proms at St Jude's also has a packed weekend of literary talks, including an event with author of The Curious Incident of the Dog int he Night-Time, Mark Haddon.

Q Your latest book The Fall of the Pier (Jonathan Cape £16.99) is a short story collection, what are the challenges and delights of telling stories in short form?

A: I don’t subscribe to the idea that short stories have to be fundamentally different from longer fiction. After all, fiction of any length should not be bound by hard and fast rules. Short stories are just shorter. It’s a simple as that. Which means, among other things, that a failed short story is much easier to throw away. As a consequence I can take risks with a short story of a kind I would never take with novel. I can set a story on Mars or in the jungle. I can write a story with no central characters...

Q: Reviewers have pointed out the nine stories feature lots of death and disaster. Are there themes running through the collection?

A: True, there is a lot of death, but without death - without finitude - life has no value and narrative doesn’t happen. As for common themes... I think the collection is bound together by both my determination to make stories which grip the reader, and, I hope, an empathy for people in extremely difficult situations, whether they’ve been abandoned on a island or they’re housebound on a council estate.

Q: The title story is set in 1970 and imagines the collapse of Brighton Pier was there an event that inspired your writing about disaster?

A: No specific disastrous event, though my sister and I went on regular holidays to Brighton as children, so I knew Brighton of the 70s very well, albeit from a child’s point of view. I had tried in vain to write about it on many occasions, as a piece of memoir, but it felt boring and prim and over-respectful. Then it occurred to me at some point that if you’re destroying something in fiction you need to pay as much loving attention to detail as you would do if you were bringing it back to life. It also happens to be a good deal more fun. Hence a pier falling.

Q: Another story is set at Christmas where violence breaks out at a family gathering, was this inspired by terrible Christmases past?

A: The story is an adaptation of Gawain and the Green Knight so the Christmas setting comes as a given. But, yes, family Christmases are an excellent source of stress and conflict, which is gold-dust for any writer of fiction.

Q: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was written for adults but ended up also being aimed at young people. Is cross generational writing a fruitful genre for novelists to explore or was that more of a one off?

A: I wrote it as an adult novel and never once thought about a YA audience. And the idea of novelists “exploring a genre” makes me feel a little queasy. It sounds like marketing speak to me. It’s hard enough writing a good book. You need to believe it matters. So write the book you need to write. If it works it will find an audience.

Q: The book did a brilliant job of putting readers into the head of someone whose thinking was different to theirs, is it gratifying to have opened up people’s understanding of people with special needs?

A: Isn’t all fiction about putting readers into the head of someone unlike themselves? Personally, I think Christopher’s “difference” is largely a product of social conditioning. Readers think he’s different because they’ve been taught to think of people like him as alien and other. Paradoxically, I think many readers enjoyed the book because they had a lot in common with Christopher. He has a lot in common with me, too. Ironically it was far, far harder writing the teenage girls, Daisy and Melissa, in The Red House, but readers took that for granted...

Q: What do you find makes for a great piece of writing?

A: To define it in advance would be to miss the point. A great piece of writing is always surprising. It expands the possibilities of what literature can do. By definition, you can’t have any idea of what those possibilities are until you open that first page.

Mark Haddon appears at Henrietta Barnett School at 5pm June 25.

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