Mark Haddon was a children’s author—and an illustrator, painter, and TV writer—before his first published novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, sold 10 million copies worldwide. Narrated in an affectless deadpan by a 15-year-old autistic, the mock mystery was translated into 42 languages. His new follow-up, A Spot of Bother, follows a surprisingly ordinary father, George, sent into a panic by a patch of eczema he’s convinced is terminal cancer. Haddon talked to Boris Kachka.
So this book is a bit of a changeup—relatively conventional.
Where else could I go? Curious Incident was a very odd book.
All those devices—the disabled narrator, the charts and maps ...
Yes, it was kind of tricksy, but it was tricksy in a way that covered its tracks quite well, didn’t it? If I got stranger still, I’d probably be off the map. But there’s a quieter oddness about this book which isn’t obvious.
Well, George is profoundly normal, but he’s going through a mental illness you tend not to see in books. You see a lot of depression and florid mental illness, but not that grinding, horrible anxiety that a lot of people suffer from.
It’s also very realistic—is it closer to your own experience?
Every other person who talked to me assumed that The Curious Incident was based on someone I knew or it was the result of huge amounts of research. So I’m really loath to allow people to do the same thing with this book. But show me the artist anywhere who’s had an utterly stable mental life and I’ll buy you hot dinners for the rest of your life.
You could probably afford it—your first novel sold millions of copies. But
A Spot of Bother has had mixed reviews. Does that bother you?
Only if something someone says chimes with a secret worry I’ve already had myself, and that hasn’t happened yet. Some people will be annoyed that it’s not Curious Incident II. But that’s what I set out to do anyway.
So you don’t really feel that fabled anxiety over the sophomore slump?
I feel it mostly as an absence of that grinding ambition which used to be there all the time—a feeling of not having written a book that was really going to work. For which reason I didn’t do a two-book deal—I wanted the freedom to finish a novel and, if it was rubbish, chuck it in the bin.
“A spot of bother,” the phrase, brings to mind Wodehouse and other comic novelists.
I think Britain has this tradition which suggests that if you make the readers laugh too much, you can’t really be serious. Whereas I think one of the functions laughter can perform in a book, as in life, is that it’s a reaction to genuine horror.
So what tradition are you writing in?
I think of the films of Mike Leigh, which are also very realistic, very believable, but also slightly pushed to extremes, and very funny and very sad and quite painful at the same time.
It seems a very British phrase.
It’s a phrase you only use when there’s a meteorite coming toward you and you’re trying to concentrate on your cup of tea and cucumber sandwiches instead.