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Pia Bhatia
28 Feb 2021

The Curious Incident of the Author who couldn't be Categorised

Mark Haddon in conversation with Sandip Roy

In this much-awaited session on #JaipurLiteratureFestival2021, the writers discuss Haddon’s expansive, multidisciplinary literary career, as well as the inspiration and ethos that guide his pen. Roy asks, “What has the year of the virus been like for you?” For Haddon, and, as he suggests, many other writers, life hasn’t changed too much - authors tend to live in a “semi locked-down” state anyway. The conversation progresses to travel - Haddon mentions feeling a “peculiar sadness” when away from home (especially at literary festivals), and describes the liberating feeling of “Zooming “to Sydney in under 30 seconds for a reading.

Speaking of journeys, Haddon’s latest novel Porpoise is, as Roy aptly says, about “journeys across oceans, and journeys across time.” It is a significant departure from the famous Curious Incident that launched Haddon’s career as an author. Haddon carefully recounts all that came in between these two works, from his ventures into short stories that were “big” and rejected minimalist trends he had been seeing, to the desire to write something even larger.

The author mentioned something particularly striking on this point. “The novel is a vehicle which can go to many places,” he says. “So why not take it to those places?” He feels that there are enough books about people whose lives are similar to his own, and wanted to shift his focus to underrepresented characters, which was part of the genesis behind Porpoise. Roy nimbly puts these words against the context of today, and asks Haddon about the ever-increasing danger of facing backlash for telling someone’s stories for them. Are we now restricted by a secret set of rules that forbid us from writing certain things? For Haddon, who is known for portraying autism in his unforgettable character Christopher Boone, the answer to this question functions on a spectrum. While he would never write a first-person narrative in the voice of a trans-person or person of colour, and sees that as a “theft” of their story, he believes every male novelist should write in the voice of a woman so as to gain “sufficient empathy muscles”.

Speaking of empathy, Haddon sees it as one of his guiding principles and inextricable from his body of work - even when it comes to people who “commit monstrous acts”. “At root, the monsters are not greatly different from us,” he asks. “What do we still have in common?” According to him, part of preventing abuse is understanding why it happens and how people justify it to themselves - a driving force behind his writing Porpoise, which is based on the Shakespeare play Pericles in which a daughter is abused by her father. Haddon both wanted to peel away the layers of the abusive king and do right by his daughter, who was left unnamed and erased in the original play.

Roy asks, is there a danger in a writer writing to right a wrong? To some extent, Haddon thinks so - having a campaigning process while writing a book is something he thinks should be avoided “like the plague”. He does admit that a writer’s perspective will shine through anyway - and in the increasingly polarised world around us today, we’re lucky to have ones like his.