NYTBR essay outtakes, Volume 1: Mark Haddon Interview
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was published in two simultaneous editions in Britian, one for adults and one for young adults. In America, it was almost published as YA–when the book was at auction here, a YA publisher bid on it, but did not win; it was published only as adult. I think it’s a truly wonderful book that defies categorization–when I finished reading it for the first time, I opened the cover and started over again at the beginning. I interviewed Mark Haddon over email.
You’ve said that when your agent first mentioned selling Curious Incident as either an adult or a YA title, you thought, “Maybe I’m about to slip back inside the ghetto again.” Could you talk a little about the “ghetto” that children’s writers are often put in?
I don’t think readers have ever been too fussed about the distinction between writing for kids and writing for adults. Indeed, quite a lot of us happen to be parents and feel sad when our kids don’t want us to read to them anymore. Plus there have always been plenty of writers happily straddling the divide. Most of the fantasy genre, for example, special forces thrillers, the frothier end of chick-lit, most of which are usually ignored in discussions of ‘crossing over’. Nevertheless… for a long time it was possible for an established author to write a children’s book and everyone think it rather charming. But an established children’s writer trying their hand at a novel was considered gross presumption. As my previous agent once said to me, ‘Stick to what you’re good at’. Underlying all of this was the idea that children’s books are easier to write. They aren’t. As a number of adult novelists have proved (no names, no pack drill) they aren’t.
There is often a stigma that adult readers have against literature for children and young adults. Have you encountered this stigma yourself? If so, are there any examples that you can give?
I haven’t experienced any of this stigma in recent years. Partly, I think because Curious was seen by most people as an adult novel which was also sold to young readers, as opposed to a YA novel also marketed to adults. I suspect the word ‘cunt’ helped in this respect. As did winning the Whitbread Book of the Year Award via the novel section rather than via the children’s book section. In the years before Curious, however, I remember a number of people looking down their noses at me when I explained what I did for a living, as if I painted watercolours of cats or performed as a clown at parties. I remember going to some official dinner many years ago and the man sitting next to me swivelling instantly through 180° when I mentioned the words, ‘children’s books’. Oddly he now lives a few streets away and every time I see his weary, hang-dog face it lifts my shallow heart.
Do you plan to write for children or young adults again? Why or why not?
I’ve got no plans to write for kids or young adults. Partly because I’ve written 14 books for kids, which seems like enough. And partly… much of the joy in writing, for me, lies in trying to recreate for other readers the experience I myself get from reading a really good book. I’m trying to get inside the mystery that powers Middlemarch, or Mrs Dalloway, or Raymond Carver’s short stories. That’s never going to happen if I write for children. However challenging writing for children might be I’m writing for someone who is not me. Of course, I could change my mind next week…