‘I know it sounds arrogant but I think it’s undeniable that it has become fixed in the culture like a stately home,’ says Mark Haddon of his book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Arrogant or not, he is probably right. Haddon’s novel about an autistic boy’s attempt to solve the mystery of who killed his neighbour’s dog has sold more than two and a half million copies since its publication in 2003 and seems to have been read by everyone.
As we chat in the basement of the Ashmolean Museum in his hometown of Oxford, Haddon doesn’t come across as an egomaniac. When he discusses Curious Incident he’s more like a proud parent marvelling at his child’s success. He takes particular delight in telling me that the book has been sold under the counter in Tehran and was banned from a number of American schools and libraries for ‘atheism and profanity’.
It’s no great surprise that where a publishing phenomenon leads, film and theatre companies follow, and in the past few years the 49-year-old has had plenty of offers for the rights to his breakthrough work. (Before writing Curious Incident he was a freelance illustrator, providing sketches for The Spectator, and then a prolific author of children’s books.) Mind-bogglingly, several requests were made for permission to do musical versions. ‘If there was a parallel universe we could have let a musical run and see what happened,’ says Haddon, lightly, but two adaptations have been given the go-ahead. Warner Bros is currently in the process of bringing Curious Incident to the big screen and the National Theatre has been given permission to adapt the book for the stage, with the production opening in the Cottesloe later this month.
He agreed to let the National stage the play only once his first choice of adaptor, Simon Stephens, had been secured. Despite the profanity that so enraged some in America, Curious Incident is essentially a sweet-natured coming-of-age story, which perhaps makes Stephens, whose plays are known for their violence and darkness, a surprising first choice. His most recent work, Three Kingdoms at The Lyric, was an uncomfortable exploration of the trafficking of eastern European women to London.
Haddon concedes that there is far more sex and violence in Stephens’s plays than in his books, but insists their sensibilities chime. ‘Three Kingdoms and Curious Incident are at either end of a very long spectrum. Simon can write about a wide range of subjects and characters but retains a voice that is his and I think that is quite rare. And I like him as a person so I trust him to treat my offspring well.’
I ask Haddon if he were ever tempted to write the adaptation himself. He’s no stranger to theatre having written Polar Bears for the Donmar Warehouse in 2010, but the answer is a firm no. ‘You can’t be objective enough to adapt your own work,’ he says. ‘Years ago I adapted Fungus the Bogeyman for television and if nothing else I learned from that that you have to be fairly ruthless and I don’t think you can do that to your own work with any sense of distance.’
Haddon’s limited involvement in the National’s production (he has attended a couple of rehearsals) has inspired him to have another crack at playwrighting, although his work on a number of script ideas has had to fit alongside the various creative projects that he currently has on the go. Since his latest novel, The Red House, was published in May, he has been working on a collection of short stories and has also been painting a series of portraits depicting writers he admires, including Stephens. He hopes these artworks will be the subject of an exhibition soon.
After reading English at Oxford, the town he has made his home with his wife and two young sons, Haddon discovered both his love for painting and that he was incapable of doing a job in which he had to ‘turn up at the same time and place every day and be told what to do’. This independence of spirit is evidenced by the variety of publications he went on to sketch for. As well as working for The Spectator, his drawings appeared in the Catholic Herald and the CND magazine, before a desire to become a writer ‘crept up on him’.
He once described the discovery of this vocation as akin to realising you’re gay. I ask him to elaborate and once he’s finished laughing he says, ‘It’s a phase I’m still going through. I think what I meant by that was it is not something you discover, it is something you look back on and realise it had been coming for a very long while. I think almost everyone who becomes a writer was a little bit of an outsider at school, and I was quite a day-dreamy child and spent a lot of time in my own head.’
Haddon tells me that he didn’t grow up in a bookish household. His father was an architect and as a youngster he often read the trade magazines that were scattered around their Northamptonshire home. The Red House clearly bears this influence. The titular abode, situated just outside Hay-on-Wye, is as important a character in the novel as the eight-strong dysfunctional family whose week’s holiday there it chronicles.
‘I do write about houses a lot and can’t be in a room without thinking about how it’s been designed. I’m very aware of the room we are sitting in at the moment, for example. Will you remember it when you go?’ he asks me, as he gestures around the basement café that now, as I write, I’m struggling to recall.
While The Red House has received some excellent reviews, some critics, including Haddon’s fellow novelist Lionel Shriver, have been rather sniffy about its focus on middle-class family life. Although he admits to having read most of the reviews, including Shriver’s, he doesn’t seem unduly worried by criticism. ‘I’ve come to terms with the fact that what I do is write about families,’ he says, matter of factly. ‘I used to want to write fat, state-of-the-nation books, grandiose fantastical novels. It takes a while to learn what your voice is and I think my job is to write about ordinary things and make them extraordinary.’
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs at the National Theatre from 24 July to 27 October. The Red House is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99).