How did you become a writer?
By a long and circuitous route, partly because I came from a family which was neither hugely bookish nor hugely cultured, and partly because I spent my childhood reading books about science in preparation for my planned career as a paleoanthropologist. When I was fifteen, however, I began to see how literature could give me access to similar mysteries and generate a sense of awe not unlike the sense of awe I felt when looking up at the Milky Way. Reading Patrick White was large part of that revelation. The prospect of becoming a novelist was, of course, preposterous and inconceivable. I could draw, however, and was scraping a living after leaving university by illustrating for an eclectic string of magazines – the New Statesman, the Catholic Herald, the Banker… So I began writing and illustrating children’s picture books. I must have produced fifty before Gilbert’s Gobstopper was finally published Hamish Hamilton.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I was sent to a boarding school where the teaching was done by force rather than by encouragement, so my influences are all literary and fall into three categories. The first contains those novels which continue to take my breath away and remind me why I continue to do this ridiculous job. Bleak House, Beloved, Middlemarch, Voss… The second category contains those novels from which I am constantly learning and relearning how to write. Examples from the last couple of months would include The Girls by Emma Cline, Golden Hill by Francis Spufford and New American Stories edited by Ben Marcus. The third category includes stories which simply don’t work, in my opinion. They flag up potholes into which I might fall and sometimes contain wasted ideas of which I think I might be able to make better use. I won’t name any of those books…
When and where do you write?
I’m a great fan of cafes. I like the hubbub and the sense that I am wholly unconnected to the rest of human life. It’s also harder to waste time when other people are watching you. I can rarely write for more than four a day without the quality heading rapidly south. When that happens I have to go and do something else or I’ll spend the following morning unpicking the mess I made the previous afternoon.
What are you working on now?
A novel which opens with a house fire. I won’t say any more for fear of invoking the universal curse which dooms all writing projects discussed in public.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I get it all the time. Writing is just plain hard work. To complicate matters, I’m a poor writer but a persistent editor of my own work. Nothing I produce sounds good until the twentieth draft at least and most of it gets thrown away before that. As a result it’s difficult conjuring up the necessary self-confidence when you know what lies ahead. On the other hand, it’s the best job in the world and I wouldn’t last a morning in an office
What’s your advice to new writers?
One: Read lots, read widely and read forensically. Remember that every book is a long string of words chosen and ordered by another human being. Take it to pieces. Try to understand why it works, or doesn’t work. Two: Write lots, edit more and get used to throwing work away and starting all over again. Three: find a reader whose reactions chime with that little voice in your head which is repeatedly saying, “I’m not sure about this word / this sentence / this paragraph / this story but I might just get away with it.” If you can’t hear that voice you probably need to be a dentist or a wilderness guide.
Mark Haddon is an English novelist, best known for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. He won the Whitbread Award, Guardian Prize, and a Commonwealth Writers Prize for his work.