LONDON — The hero of Mark Haddon’s first piece of adult fiction is a sensitive, misunderstood teenage boy with a strange pet and a mystery to solve — but that’s pretty much where the Harry Potter parallels end. Haddon’s hero, Christopher John Francis Boone, is a 15-year-old who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism, and his world is more darkly comic than sweet and whimsical.
Haddon, who lives in Oxford and has written 14 children’s books, never set out to write about an autistic boy when he started “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (Doubleday). He says Christopher came along well into the first chapter of the critically acclaimed book, which kicks off with a murdered standard poodle on a suburban lawn.
“I was describing the whole scene with the dead dog and it just turned out to be funny,” says Haddon. “It was only until the voice of the narrator was up and running that Christopher came along.” One reason the dead-dog moment is funny — rather than sickening or sad — is that Christopher is totally and utterly unflappable. For example, after he pulls the bloodied garden fork out of the dog, he tells the reader: “I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk.” And that’s the end of his reaction — except for a scientific curiosity.
A few pages later, the mystery of the dead poodle begins to unfold, with brilliant Christopher collecting his clues, taking life very literally and giving the reader descriptions of the world as he sees it — complete with graphs, mathematical equations, drawings and charts.
In the past, Haddon worked with adults and children who had a variety of disabilities — including autism — and believes they have personal problems like everybody else. “I didn’t do any specific research before writing and, frankly, Christopher is an amalgam of the behavior, thoughts and habits of people who are not disabled,” he says.
In addition to his children’s books, the 40-year-old Haddon has won two Bafta awards for “Microsoap,” a children’s TV drama coproduced by Disney and the British Broadcasting Corp. His books range from stories about hidden polar bear caves to magic trains to mystery stories for preadolescent boys. The TV drama, “Microsoap,” was about two children with divorced parents. “We even had surreal inserts that predated the ones in ‘Ally McBeal,’” says the easygoing Haddon with pride.
It’s clear Haddon likes to keep busy. Rather than resting on his laurels with “The Curious Incident,” he’s just finished a TV adaptation of the “Fungus the Bogeyman” children’s book, which will be aired in the U.K. in three 50-minute segments. “It’s about this community of slimy, slightly melancholic bogeymen,” he says with a laugh. Haddon also has written 10,000 words of his next adult novel, tentatively titled “Blood and Scissors” — but he’s keeping mum about its plot.
Although Haddon was already writing books and children’s TV programs while J.K. Rowling was still scribbling her soon-to-be-famous notes on a café table, he credits her with sparking a hybrid moment in literature between children’s and adult fiction — of which he’s taking full advantage. “Publishers are desperate for crossover books, due partly to Harry Potter,” says Haddon, adding that he wrote “The Curious Incident” as “an adult book for myself.”
In the U.K., “The Curious Incident” is being marketed both as an adult and a young-adult title, each with its own cover but the same text. In the U.S., it’s being marketed solely as an adult book — perhaps because of some of its salty language. The novel has already been sold in 27 countries — and Haddon says he’s had his share of translation wrinkles. “I’ve had very long discussions with the Finns about how to translate the precise size of the garden fork,” he muses.
Haddon says the very literal-minded Christopher taught him a lot about the writing process.
“I was able to avoid sentimentality, and I learned to write better. Christopher does a lot of what writers are told to do: Paint a picture, show, not tell, leave the reader space in the narrative,” he says, adding that some readers laughed all the way through his book, while others wept.
And for those literary deconstructionist lovers out there, the book offers even more. “I think this book is as much about writing and books and language as it is a story in itself,” says Haddon. “It’s simple, but full of paradoxes. It’s a fiction about someone who can only ever tell the truth.”