Mark Haddon: “I like people to like me. Is that a weakness?”

Mark Haddon on his Goldsmiths-shortlisted novel The Porpoise, the beauty of Ordnance Survey maps, and why Shakespeare’s Pericles is “a pretty dreadful play”.

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Mark Haddon was born in Northampton in 1962. He is the author of five books for adults, including 2003’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which won the Whitbread Award and has been adapted into a long-running stage play. His latest novel, The Porpoise, is shortlisted for the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize. It begins in modern-day Southampton at the palatial home of a superrich father and daughter, but soon moves mysteriously across the ancient world of myth, Elizabethan London and a treacherous voyage at sea.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

I am wary of making any sweeping statements about The Reader and The Novel. However, I’m always in search of novels which surprise me by doing something I had never previously imagined or which I had imagined and not thought possible. I want the thrill of standing at the very edge so that I can witness the envelope being pushed.

I read an interview in which you described The Porpoise as the book in which you hoped to “cross into the wild”, and enter “the weird zone”. Can you talk a little more about what the “wild” or “weird zone” of fiction might be to you?

How do you get from the here and now to the place where magic happens? Once upon a time it was easy. The clock struck thirteen and the panel beside the fireplace swung open. Most of us can no longer suspend our disbelief to that extent but we still possess a conviction that there is somewhere else. I’m often looking for a believable way to cross over from here and now into somewhere else without ever letting go of reality.

This is a novel that is anchored by the perspective of Angelica – a girl who is imprisoned and sexually abused by her incredibly wealthy father. How did you approach her character?

The way I approach any character, by imaginatively inhabiting their mind and body as fully as I can, then considering what might happen next. Of course, I’m sometimes trying imaginatively to inhabit the minds of several people in the same room at the same time, which is why I can’t write for more than four or five hours a day without feeling completely wrung out.

Much of The Porpoise is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Pericles – a work that another Goldsmith’s nominee, Ali Smith, also engages with in her recent book Spring. What makes Pericles worth revisiting in 2019?

There are some lazy answers to this question (most of them involving refugees in the Mediterranean) but I don’t find them very convincing. You can see contemporary resonances in almost any Shakespeare play, and therein lies one aspect of his genius. Surprisingly, since his death, Pericles has been performed more often than any of his plays. So its popularity is not a new phenomenon, and perhaps the more pertinent question is to ask why it fell out of favour.

It’s a play you clearly admire, but also one you update and reconsider with a critical eye. Do you think it’s important to engage with literature in its historical context, or on today’s terms?

On the contrary, I think it is a pretty dreadful play, structurally, poetically and morally, but it was my low opinion which allowed me to treat it with the necessary disrespect, so that the novel became less an adaptation of the play than a wrestling match with it.

The image of the porpoise is clearly an important one here –the slippery but propulsive motion of a porpoise in water seems to mimic the style and rhythm of this dreamlike novel. How did you come to settle on this particular title?

There are, in my opinion, only two lines from the play which are worthy of savouring and remembering. The first is spoken by the Third Fisherman in the first scene of Act II: “the porpus how he bounced and tumbled”. The second is spoken by Pandar in the brothel scene in the second scene of Act IV: “The poor Transylvanian is dead, that lay with the little baggage.” I was particularly attached to the first of these and therefore used The Porpoise as a working title for the simple reason that it sounded good. As often happens, after the novel was complete, we considered a hundred other titles before returning to the point where we’d started.

This is a page-turner, even as it becomes challenging. How important to you is it that your books are “readable” , “accessible” or “gripping” even when they are daring or innovative?

It happens without any conscious intent on my part. There is a foolish, curmudgeonly part of me which has always wanted to write challenging novels in the manner of László Krasznahorkai or Thomas Bernhard for a small but discerning audience. I can’t do it. And in truth I’m glad I can’t do it. It’s the same in real life. I like people to like me. Is that a weakness? Sometimes. But it’s a necessity if you want people to tell you their stories.

In The Porpoise, modern-day Southampton and a rickety boat in ancient seas are equally vividly realised. Was it important to you that this wasn’t a book with a “real story” and “dreams” but one fluid, changing story?

I am in love with stuff – buildings, weather, bodies, smells, light, landscape, furniture… Vivid realisation is therefore always near the top of my to-do list. And, yes, I wanted the question, “Which of these stories is real?” to be, at the very least, hard to answer, if not meaningless.

How important to you was style on the level of sentence in writing this book? Or were you more concerned with the over-arching mutability of the story?

It’s impossible to measure one of these things against the other. Nevertheless, I am very much a connoisseur of the well-written sentence (my copies of my favourite novels contain blizzards of underlining). Consequently, I spend a huge amount of time honing my own. A well-written sentence will, I believe, make readers feel they are in safe hands. Then you can lead them anywhere.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

It’s one of the very few chances we get to celebrate novels which take big risks, redraw the boundaries of the form and, sometimes, shape the future of the novel. In light of the recent Booker fiasco, it’s also good to have a prize which proudly and clearly states its remit (especially when that remit so closely mirrors my own reading tastes).

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

Ordnance Survey maps. Shall we call them a combination of art and literature? They are one of my favourite English language publications. I can spend hours immersed in them.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

If I am able to overlook that fact you have already awarded a Fantasy Prize to Jacob’s Room, I’d nominate Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Having reinvented the novel once with a series of works which culminated in To the Lighthouse, she broke it down and reinvented it all over again. It is so different from any other novel I have read that description is pointless. Suffice to say that it creates an entirely new way of writing about what goes on in the human mind and how those minds interact with one another.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.