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9 August 2022

Mark Haddon: “I’m quite lucky to be alive”

The novelist on his triple heart bypass, literature’s “culture wars”, and why he’s donating book royalties to abortion funds in the US.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Mark Haddon has been volunteering as a Samaritans “listener” for six years. The novelist compares the experience to that of “a power hose cleaning the inside of his head”. During his weekly four-hour telephone shifts speaking with people who are having a difficult time, perhaps feeling suicidal, Haddon is focused firmly on the other person. “Not being able to think about yourself for four hours is great. It’s certainly wrong to say you enjoy it, given what a dreadful time many callers are having. But it is a positive experience. I always call it a holiday from myself.”

Most people would do better to dwell on themselves less; those who delve inwardly to make a living face an even greater challenge. “Thinking about yourself too much is of course a perennial professional problem of writers,” Haddon said over video call from his home in Oxford, where he sat in front of overflowing bookshelves in what an estate agent would call “the lower ground floor” – it’s not quite a basement as it gets plenty of natural light, he explained. He turned his camera around to show a long, colourful room full of paraphernalia: more books; paintings; a low table hosting half-finished sculptures and the artistic materials required to finish them.

This is the workspace of Haddon, the poet, playwright and author of numerous books for children and adults, most famously the 10 million-copy bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), and more recently the short story collection The Pier Falls (2016) – the titular story of which was first published in this magazine – and The Porpoise (2019), which was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. The room is also Haddon’s artist’s studio, where he paints, illustrates and makes sculptures. He shares his abstract, graphic works regularly on Instagram, and occasionally exhibits.

Escaping from his own brain has, in recent years, been a crucial respite for Haddon. In February 2019 he had a triple heart bypass. A long-time vegetarian and keen runner, the now 59-year-old had experienced no chest pain when a CT scan showed that his coronary arteries were severely narrowed. He and his wife Sos Eltis, an English fellow at Brasenose College, Oxford, decided to tell their two sons, then aged 18 and 15, the news with a multiple choice quiz. “I said: ‘I’ve got some possibly difficult news for you. Is it a) Sos and I are splitting up. Is it b) cancer. Is it c) I’ve lost a lot of money and we have to move out of this house. Or is it d) that I need a heart bypass.’” The boys thought for a moment, and then the oldest guessed correctly, before taking out his phone to look up the procedure on the NHS website, and informing his dad that he wouldn’t be able to have sex for six weeks after the operation. “I was just relieved that he took it so well. Although having had the operation,” Haddon reflected, “I think, frankly, if you have sex within six weeks you deserve a medal from the NHS.”

The procedure was serious, but it has not been the most gruelling part of Haddon’s life in the past few years. “The heart thing was the easy thing, relatively,” he said with characteristic understatement, before quickly acknowledging “I’m quite lucky to be alive”. His physical recovery was fast, but after the surgery he experienced “brain fog”, a common but poorly understood after-effect for people who have been on a heart-lung machine. He found it difficult to read or to write.

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This passed after about a year, and in the six months that followed, Haddon had a productive period of work. Then, near the beginning of the first Covid lockdown in 2020, he was “struck down again” by the mental ill health that has “dogged” him for decades. He lives with the mood disorder Bipolar II, though he has written that he rarely uses the phrase, given its association with Bipolar I, “which is a merciless destroyer of lives”. The bipolar spectrum was the subject of his 2010 play Polar Bears.

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While the brain fog following his heart surgery felt like a “physical affliction”, this experience of mental illness “was about the meaning of the world. Everything became lacking in meaning. I couldn’t understand why we did anything.” This time, he wasn’t able to write for 18 months. If Haddon had been an accountant or a dentist, he thinks he would have been able to carry on working. “But if you lose the ability to find interest in the world, you can’t write about it. Your days suddenly become empty. It wasn’t even like the interesting mental health you could get a memoir out of,” he laughed. “I look at these people publishing mental health memoirs and I think – this is a bit harsh – ‘Yeah, you’re unlucky, you had a shitty time, but you were lucky to get the right kind of shitty time to get a book out of it!’”

[See also: The 15 best books for summer 2022]

Volunteering for the Samaritans – his holidays from himself – helped him get through the period. As did totally coming off medication, after spending a year “going round a whole continental buffet of psychiatric drugs”, none of which suited him. “I’d love to say that I suddenly feel flooded with creativity and back to normal again, but it’s a bumpy exit. I’m getting there.”

Haddon, who was born in Northampton in 1962, studied English at Merton College, Oxford and began his career as a community volunteer, often working with people with disabilities. He spent some time as a live-in volunteer in Livingston, Scotland with a man who had late-stage multiple sclerosis (MS). “That was a saga in and of itself, not least because he was an evangelical Christian, and I wasn’t.” He then became an illustrator, drawing for newspapers and magazines. He doesn’t think he is a “natural writer”. “I’m very good at editing, throwing away, rewriting and rewriting. But there’s nothing that naturally flows out of me that is good writing. I’ve never lost the ability to write absolute crap.”

Since coming off psychiatric drugs, he has started writing again. “Thank goodness. I feel it’s one of the reasons I’m on the planet. If I’m not writing, I don’t quite know who I am.” His need to be creating is “pathological”, he said, “in the very best sense of the word. It’s just something I have to do. It’s like being a dog that needs to go for a run. I am also a dog that needs to go for a run, and a dog that needs to make things.” At the moment he is writing short stories, though quite long ones. He doesn’t know in what way they may end up being published.

It is because of the immense success of A Curious Incident, which has been translated into 36 languages and adapted into a popular theatre production, that Haddon has the life that he does. The novel is narrated by 15-year-old Christopher, who “finds certain relationships really difficult” (the word “Asperger’s” appeared on the book’s cover, although Haddon prefers not to label his protagonist’s condition as such), as he investigates the murder of his neighbours’ dog. The book has continued to appeal to both children and adults, and is taught in schools in the UK and the US.

Haddon has long donated “dog money”, as he calls it, to various causes, including Oxfam, Refuge and the Trussell Trust, and in July this year made public his pledge to give all future US royalties from sales of the novel to the National Network of Abortion Funds, following the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs Wade, the ruling that guaranteed the right to an abortion in America.

“I wanted to do it as a person who’s written a book that’s in lots of schoolrooms,” he said. “I almost wish it could be like a great metaphorical octopus and have some influence in all those homes. That ruling, which is in and of itself so terrible, particularly for its out-weighted effect on women of colour and on poor people, somehow has all the problems of the rise of the right welded into one: the religious values of a small group of people, allied to very rich corporations, being forced upon everyone; the collapse of church and state boundaries.”

The Curious Incident has been “the subject of attacks – and this simplifies matters a lot – by both ends of the political spectrum”, Haddon said. It has often been banned in US schools after parents have complained about the bad language in the book. On the left, disabilities advocates have questioned the accuracy of Christopher’s character, despite Haddon himself never using terms such as “Asperger’s” or “autism” to describe him. But there are also many readers around the world who see themselves in Christopher, and who have used the book to help people around them understand why they are the way they are – and they have written to Haddon in their droves.

Haddon believes book bans are “useless”, but engaging young people in conversations about free speech and the importance of literature can only ever be a good thing. We are speaking at a time when the publishing industry finds itself in the middle of the “culture wars”, where arguments over whether authors ought to be “cancelled” because of their political views regularly develop online.

“I think many recent arguments are contemporary manifestations of an old and cyclical phenomenon: getting old is tough when you’re a writer. The current argument is framed in terms of really important political issues of race and identity but it’s fundamentally not that different. Your readership is slowly shrinking and wanting new entertainment, and the angry and passionate young are always snapping at your heels. I think you can react in two ways. You can be defensive. You can complain that you’re being silenced. You can complain that people are trying to ‘police the imagination’. But that’s a dead-end street.

“Alternatively you can be interested in this new world coming into being around you. You can listen to the voices of those who have not been heard. You can question your own world view. Sometimes this is really uncomfortable, because change is always uncomfortable. But as a writer I feel a duty to listen to other voices.”

That sense of duty reminds him of his Samaritans training. It was then that he realised how bad we all are at listening. When someone is talking about their troubles, “it’s so easy to say to other people, ‘Don’t worry, things will get better,’ or, ‘Tomorrow is another day,’ or, ‘Oh, something similar happened to me.’ All of which are versions of saying: ‘I’d rather not talk about what you’re going through.’”

Why, as a writer, would you ever put your hands over your ears, he wondered. Samaritans calls work – though not all do, he insisted – because it “is [about] hearing something difficult and saying, ‘Tell me more about that.’”

[See also: Sarah Langford Q&A: “Pay something attention and it rewards you a hundredfold”]

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This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World