Skip to main content

Children's Book Writer and Illustrator Mark Haddon

He has written his first novel for adults, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The narrator of the story is an autistic teenager who is obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and who must prove his innocence when a neighborhood dog is killed. One reviewer described it as "wonderful, simple, moving, and likely to be a smash." Haddon lives in England and teaches creative writing for the Arvon Foundation and for Oxford University.


Other segments from the episode on June 26, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 26, 2003: Interview with Susan Orlean; Interview with Mark Haddon; Review of Greg Osby's new album "St. Louis Shoes."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Susan Orlean discusses her profile of David Friedman
and her book "The Orchid Thief," which was the basis of the film

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Earlier this week we spoke with Andrew Jarecki, the director of the new
documentary "Capturing the Friedmans." He'd set out to make a movie about
David Friedman, a children's birthday party clown in New York City. But
Friedman was evasive about his own family history, which led Jarecki to wonder
what the family's story really was. Here's a clip from early in the
filmmaking process of Friedman telling Jarecki about his father.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. DAVID FRIEDMAN: He died of a surprise heart attack about five years ago
and it was very, very sad. He was, you know, selfless and altruistic.

Mr. ANDREW JARECKI: But in the end, he wasn't together with your mom.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: He wasn't together with my mother at the end.

Mr. JARECKI: And when did they make the decision not to be together? Long
before he died?

Mr. FRIEDMAN: A couple of years before his death. There's a--well, whatever.
There are some things I don't want to talk about.

GROSS: Eventually Jarecki discovered the family stories David Friedman was
reluctant to tell. David's father Arnold collected child pornography. When
he was arrested for getting some through the mail, it unleashed a much wider
investigation. In the end, Arnold and his youngest son, Jesse, were accused
of sexually molesting students in the computer classes that Arnold taught at
home. Arnold and Jesse maintained their innocence, but fearing they'd be
convicted, they pleaded guilty in the hopes of getting lighter sentences.

"Capturing the Friedmans" raises questions about faulty memory, problems
within the legal system and the elusive nature of truth. It also gets to an
issue that I often worry about as an interviewer: someone who comes off as
very sensitive or very amusing in an interview may have a much darker side
that I remain totally unaware of. I worry that my interview may, therefore,
be somewhat misleading.

This is something Susan Orlean faced after she wrote a New Yorker profile of
David Friedman back in 1994, which focused on his work as a clown and did not
mention his family history. Orlean is known for her best-selling book "The
Orchid Thief," which was the basis of the film "Adaptation." We invited her
to talk with us about how she reacted when she learned the story of the
Friedman family.

Your profile of David Friedman ran in 1994, seven years after Arnold Friedman
was arrested on sexual abuse charges. Did you have any clues about the
Friedman family when you wrote the piece?

Ms. SUSAN ORLEANS (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): When I worked on the
profile, I had asked David a little bit about his family. I was curious about
how his parents felt about his choice of professions, being a clown. And he
was very evasive. He just sort of shunted the questions off and I decided
that it was just a matter of him not choosing to talk that much about his
family. And I really didn't pursue it more. My interest in the profile was
very much in the here and now. It was `What's the life of a clown like?'--it
seemed like an extraordinary life--less about the psychological implications
of being a clown or his family life.

When I finished the piece, I got a letter--the piece was already done, it was
already in print. It didn't happen to be on the newsstand yet. I got a
letter from someone saying, `Did you know that David Friedman's father is a
pederast?' It was kind of a shocking thing to receive, and it was also too
late to do anything about it and too late to add it into the piece. And I
thought, `Well, what if I'd gotten that letter a week earlier? Would I have
dealt with that?' It was hard--it's hard to know. I mean, certainly when--I
think all of us, in the back of our minds, have this mythic notion that
children's clowns are a little weird, that maybe all of them have some sort of
unnatural interest in children. So I at first thought, `This is one of these
rumors. This is a myth. Maybe it's even a rival.' I mean, it's a very
competitive world. But it haunted me. And when I heard about the film, it
really hit me.

GROSS: I'm sure that your New Yorker profile of David Friedman encouraged a
lot of parents to try to book David Friedman for their children's parties
because, `Hey, he's the guy who was written up in The New Yorker. He must be
good.' Now a lot of these same parents would probably have had second
thoughts, rightly or wrongly, if they had known that David's brother and his
father were accused and then pled guilty to sexual abuse charges, even though
outside of the courtroom they maintained their innocence. Do you wonder about
the impact of your story on his life and on, you know, what parents are
thinking now who hired him as a result of your article?

Ms. ORLEAN: I'm definitely thinking about it. It's--the nature of making
public someone's life is so complex and it's so fraught with responsibility.
And in this case, first of all, I think you have to separate the fact of David
from his father and his brother. David is a separate person. There was never
any implication in anything that he had anything inappropriate to do with
these kids. But if I were a parent and I heard that the clown I was going to
hire had a family history like that, I probably wouldn't hire him.

There's so much that comes with writing about people or exposing people to the
public eye. I was doing a profile years ago of someone who was in a religious
position, you know, of stature in his community, and he grew to feel very
comfortable with me and then one day he told me--he said to me, `Do you want
to come meet my mistress?' And I thought, `Well, now I really don't know what
to do.' A part of me was thinking, `Well, this is great for my story.' I
mean, here this guy is standing in his community as somebody who's of some
position in a religious, fairly conservative community and he's introducing me
to his mistress? You know, this was overwhelming. I didn't know what to do.
Did I want to have his wife read in The New Yorker story about him that he was
having an affair? I didn't know if I really felt that I could put myself in
that position morally. I mean, no matter what, as a writer, you still have to
be a moral person and make decisions. It would have been good for the story.
It would have added an element that would have been really interesting. I
couldn't do it.

If I'd heard that David Friedman's father was a pedophile, you know, to return
to that, what would I have done? I just...

GROSS: Well, what would you have done? Do you think you would have written
the story?

Ms. ORLEAN: Yes, I would have written the story and I would have folded it in
with a great deal of delicacy because I don't think it's fair to imply that
he--I mean, it's very much in the American tradition that you don't hold
someone responsible for acts committed by members of their family. I don't
know. I guess this is the great question in being a writer and your moral
obligations to your subjects and the fundamental inability to ever know the
truth and your need to kind of acknowledge that in your writing.

GROSS: Are there any parts of your piece on David Friedman that read
differently to you now, now that you know more about the Friedman family? And
here's the part I'm thinking of. You have a part in which you say about
Friedman, `He also started doing performances at parties for adults under the
name David Friedman,' as opposed to under the name Silly Billy, his clown
name. `For adult parties, he does magic and he's developed expertise in the
field of off-color balloons. He has mastered a balloon man with a rising and
falling erection, and he believes he will soon have a breakthrough involving

Ms. ORLEAN: The minute I heard about this movie, that part of the piece
flashed through my eyes. It was something that, when he showed it to me, I
thought it was kind of crude. It's not the sort of humor that I find
appealing. Now it's chilling.

GROSS: Have you spoken to David Friedman recently, like since the release of
the movie "Capturing the Friedmans'?

Ms. ORLEAN: I've had a lot of e-mail exchanges with him and I hadn't heard
from him in a number of years. I don't keep in touch with people generally
after I've written about them. He got in touch with me about--several months
go. He really wanted me to see the movie, he really supported the movie and
it mattered to him that I saw it, which is interesting, given that we're not
friends, we're not--we haven't stayed in touch. And he said he wanted to sit
and talk with me about it, and we haven't managed to do that yet, but it seems
interesting. I don't feel that he lied to me. I asked him a little bit about
his family. He dodged, not in an unusual way; simply deflected the question.
He never lied to me. Had he lied to me, I would be angry and I would feel
that I'd been manipulated. In this case, he simply avoided a painful subject,
and it's interesting to me that he wants to talk to me now and maybe explain a
little more what was going through his mind when I was working on the profile
of him.

GROSS: That's the thing. You know, if you've written a portrait of someone
and then you find out something about their past that leads you to an
understanding of them and their work that you didn't have before, particularly
if it's something dark about their family, do you feel betrayed that they
didn't volunteer this information or do you feel like, well, who would
volunteer that information? And they have a right to their life and to their
work without this really disturbing part of their family life, this really
upsetting part of their family life kind of penetrating every action that they

Ms. ORLEAN: It's a two-edged situation. I guess, to begin with, I present
myself, as a writer, as fallible, as subjective, not as an omniscient observer
of the people I'm writing about. And part of that is because I've come to
believe and understand that it is impossible to know someone thoroughly. We
don't even know ourselves thoroughly. How could we possibly know someone that
we spend a limited amount of time with? It's simply--it's absurd. And I
think some of the artificiality and inauthenticity of modern celebrity
journalism is all about that, in my opinion. It's spending an hour in a press
situation and then writing a piece with the authority and the voice of someone
pretending to know somebody well. It's just not possible. It's absurd. I
hope that my perceptions and my sensitivity to someone's character will lead
me to an ultimate truth about them, even if it's not a specific truth.

David Friedman struck me as somebody who had a kind of deep, sort of tragic
kind of quality and maybe that's just the nature of clowns. So did I get the
specifics right? No. But I don't think I got the truth about him wrong, the
fundamental reality of his nature. Do I blame him for not telling me this?
Absolutely not. People--as it is, I consider it kind of remarkable that
anyone is ever willing to talk to a writer, so to begin with, it's something
that you're--it's a privilege if someone lets you into their life. I don't
want to be lied to, but people lie all the time. Do I feel someone needs to
volunteer something this tragic? No. It's not realistic to think that they

GROSS: My guest is Susan Orlean. She's best known as the author of "The
Orchid Thief." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Susan Orlean. We've been talking about her 1994 New
Yorker profile of David Friedman, which she wrote before learning about his
family's story, the story now told in the documentary "Capturing the
Friedmans." Orlean is the author of the non-fiction best-seller "The Orchid
Thief," the story of John Laroche, his obsession with rare orchids and his
shadowy past. The book is the basis of the film "Adaptation," which featured
Meryl Streep in the role of Susan Orlean.

You spent about two weeks writing your profile of David Friedman and about two
years writing about John Laroche, the subject of your book "The Orchid Thief."
You found out all kinds of things about John Laroche, about his life, his
divorce, his car accident--I mean, just--and his crimes. Was it difficult for
you to figure out what to reveal, what to keep secret and what was even true?

Ms. ORLEAN: It was very hard to figure out what was true. John, in a way,
was the ultimate modern subject. He was an unreliable narrator. In fact,
that was part of what the book became about to me, was about the myths that he
developed about himself. And there was a point in the book when I simply
said, `There were so many things he said to me that seemed incredible, seemed
impossible.' But what mattered wasn't that they--to find out whether or not
they were true, but that he was a person who had a need to create a sort of
fantasy alter-ego for himself. There was a point where he said to me that he
had found the oldest fossil pearl that's ever been found. And I thought,
`Well, that just seems hard to believe.' But what was important was this was
John's character, a need to make himself more important than he was.

GROSS: Your book "The Orchid Thief" was a best-seller and that was made into
the movie "Adaptation," which was a very popular film. What impact do you
think all of this has had on John Laroche's life? Are you still in touch with

Ms. ORLEAN: I hadn't been in touch with him for a while and then I saw him
when the movie was first being screened and he came up to see the film for the
first time. I think it was a very unnerving experience for him. Even though
he was such an egomaniac and loved attention, seeing himself portrayed in a
movie was sort of one step beyond what I think he was prepared for. And he
was a little shocked. And then, John being John, he started to really enjoy
it. He's turned his life around a lot. He's got a very nice woman he's
involved with. They have a baby. He's leading the life of almost a yuppie,
which is hard to believe given who he was.

GROSS: Do you think that you proceed any differently now when you're
profiling somebody now that you've had the experience of "The Orchid Thief"
becoming a best-seller and a film, and now that you've had the experience of
profiling the children's clown, David Friedman, and then finding out after the
fact about his family and how his father and brother were both accused of
sexually abusing children?

Ms. ORLEAN: No matter what I think, when I'm profiling someone, I simply have
to remind myself constantly of the really enormous moral challenge that it is.
The unending fallibility of the process of reporting is--it's always present
in my mind. And I think actually it's very useful to remain humble and be
aware of how little you can count on knowing everything and what that means.
And it means to emphasize, as I feel like I need to do, that this is a
subjective portrait. It's a portrait. It's not a hologram. It's a sketch of
someone and it's someone processed through my perception of them. And I think
that I can strive to having it be true and I know that there will always be
things that I'm going to miss. It's just impossible for that not to be the
case. So it's a balance. It's a balance between hoping that the facts are
right and acknowledging the limits to what, as a writer, I can know about my

GROSS: Now we've talked a little bit about how your writing has affected the
lives of your subjects. Because of the movie "Adaptation," in which you were
depicted as a character, your life, I'm sure, was changed a lot by the movie.
How has your life been changed and what has that taught you about the effect
of being the subject of a movie or a profile?

Ms. ORLEAN: It's changed my life quite a bit, which I guess I was sort of
prepared for, though I didn't know what it would feel like. It's made me more
self-conscious in certain ways. I mean, I've enjoyed it. It's been
fascinating. It's a bizarre kind of adventure ride. It has made me
self-conscious. I feel more observed, and then it really--in a way, to circle
back to what we've been talking about, there's a great deal in the movie
that's clearly not true. It's the fantasy of the screenwriter struggling with
how to end his movie. So suddenly there's this image of me being presented to
the world that goes off in this wild direction of me becoming a drug addict
and having sex with my subject and trying to kill the screenwriter. And there
are certain people who think this is true. And people who've seen the movie
who didn't quite get that turn in the script...

GROSS: Exactly. Exactly.

Ms. ORLEAN: ...who look at me and say, `Are you still involved with Laroche?'
and I think, `Oh, my God. What have I done?' It makes you appreciate the
very, very quicksilver nature of truth and reality, and it makes me--well, I'm
glad if it makes people a little bit afraid of me.


Ms. ORLEAN: Well, you know, instead of being just a normal writer, I'm a
writer who pulled a gun on a screenwriter. It's kind of an impressive thing,
but it does make you step back a little and think, `Well, what is reality?' I
mean, this was Charlie Kaufman's effort to make an honest adaptation of my
book. And in order to do that, he had to completely change the facts. So it
kind of addresses this issue again, which is truth is very mutable and no one
really can claim to have an absolute hold on it. In this case, my character
completely transformed. It's not me at all and yet that's me, as being
perceived by people who go to see the movie. So it's been kind of
philosophically interesting and it's made me appreciate my role as the
intermediary between the experiences I have and the readers who read my work.

GROSS: Susan Orlean, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. ORLEAN: Oh, it's my pleasure.

GROSS: Susan Orlean is the author of "The Orchid Thief" and writes profiles
for The New Yorker.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews "St. Louis Shoes," the new CD by
composer and saxophonist Greg Osby. We're listening to it now. And we meet
British writer Mark Haddon. The narrator of his new novel "The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" is a 15-year-old boy who is autistic.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Mark Haddon talks about his new book, "The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

British writer Mark Haddon is the author of the new novel "The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." It's told from the point of view of a
15-year-old boy named Christopher who is a high-functioning autistic. Critic
Michiko Kakutani writes, `Mr. Haddon writes with such sympathy, such
understanding of Christopher's interior life that he makes all his obsessions
and needs into a mirror of our own cravings for safety and order.'

This is Mark Haddon's first novel. He's written and illustrated several
children's books. When his novel begins, Christopher finds his neighbor's dog
lying dead, speared by a pitchfork. Christopher wants to find out who did it.
The greater mysteries he is faced with have to do with comprehending his
parents and the confusing, threatening world around him. Here's a reading
from early in the story.

Mr. MARK HADDON (Author, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"):
(Reading) `I pulled the fork out of the dog and lifted him into my arms and
hugged him. He was leaking blood from the fork holes. 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. I had been hugging the dog for four minutes when I heard
screaming. I looked up and saw Mrs. Shears running towards me from the patio.
She was wearing pajamas and a housecoat. Her toenails were painted bright
pink, and she had no shoes on. She was shouting, "What in God's name have you
done to my dog?" I do not like people shouting at me. It makes me scared
that they are going to hit me or touch me, and I do not know what is going to
happen. "Let go of the dog," she shouted. "Let go of the damn dog, for
Christ's sake." I put the dog down on the lawn and moved back two meters.
She bent down. I thought she was going to pick the dog up herself, but she
didn't. Perhaps she noticed how much blood there was and didn't want to get
dirty. Instead, she started screaming again. I put my hands over my ears and
closed my eyes and rolled forward till I was hunched up, with my forehead
pressed onto the grass. The grass was wet and cold. It was nice.'

GROSS: That's Mark Haddon reading from his new book "The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time."

Mark, what is your main character's behavioral or cognitive problem?

Mr. HADDON: If he were diagnosed, he would be diagnosed as having Asperger's
syndrome, which is a form of autism. I suppose you'd call it high-function
autism in that he can function on, you know, a day-to-day basis, in a kind of
rudimentary way. But he has a serious difficulty with life in that he really
doesn't empathize with other human beings. He can't read their faces. He
can't put himself in their shoes. And he can't understand anything more than
the literal meaning of whatever's said to him, although I'm very careful in
the book not to actually use the word `Asperger's' or `autism.'

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. HADDON: Because I don't want him to be labeled, and because, as with most
people who have a disability, I don't think it's necessarily the most
important thing about him. He's obsessed with mathematics. That's one of the
little hobbies he has. It's one of the ways he manages to pattern and
organize his daily life and keep chaos at bay. And as a good friend of mine
said after reading the book, a friend who is himself a mathematician, it's not
a novel about a boy who has Asperger's syndrome; it's a novel about a young
mathematician who has some strange behavioral problems. And I think that's

GROSS: Because he sees the world in a very literal way and hears conversation
in a very literal way, he doesn't understand jokes. He doesn't get irony. He
doesn't understand human emotions. He has no real empathy for other people.
What are the things that really scare him because they're so incomprehensible?

Mr. HADDON: Because he can't put himself in other people's shoes, he doesn't
really understand what other people are going to do, and other people are
therefore extremely unpredictable. He likes his life to be safe and ordered.
He's never gone farther than the end of his own road without someone to keep
him company, so his life is very small and circumscribed. And it's things
that threaten to wreck that pattern, it's change and difference and chaos
which really terrify him.

GROSS: He hates being touched. He can become violent when he's touched.

Mr. HADDON: He does indeed. Yeah.

GROSS: Is that pretty typical of somebody with autism or with Asperger's

Mr. HADDON: I think it's fairly common, although a lot of people said to me,
`He seemed like a very real character. Did you do a lot of research?' And I
have to say honestly that I did more research about the London Underground and
the inside of Swinton Railway Station, where some of the novel takes place,
than I did about Asperger's syndrome. I gave him kind of nine or 10 rules
that he would live his life by, and then I didn't read any more about
Asperger's because I think there is no typical person who has Asperger's
syndrome, and they're as large and diverse a group of people as any other
group in society. And the important thing is that I did a lot of imagining,
that I did a lot of putting myself into his shoes in trying to make him come
alive as a human being rather than getting him right, whatever that might

GROSS: You know, that's an interesting exercise for you because what you were
doing is putting yourself through the exercise of having empathy for a boy
who, because of his problems, can't empathize with other people.

Mr. HADDON: That's true, and I realized very shortly after I started writing
the book that the whole thing was littered with, you know, paradoxes. On the
surface it's a very, very simple book, partly because his voice is a very,
very, very simple voice. And yet you're right. It needs a lot of empathy to
write a character who has no empathy. Another paradox is that he says he
can't tell lies; he needs to tell the truth all the time. And he always tries
to do this, and yet somehow he always gets things wrong. We read the novel
over his shoulder saying, `You've got this wrong. You've got that wrong.'
And we can see more than him. He's a very unreliable narrator.

And perhaps for me the biggest paradox of all is that you'd think someone like
Christopher, who can't empathize, who can't understand anything more than
literal meaning, who can't see the bigger picture, would be a really bad
narrator for a novel, and yet it's a wonderful, wonderful voice to write a
novel in because it helps you avoid the pitfalls that so many novels fall
into. He never explains anything. He never tries to make up the reader's
mind one way or the other about anything because he has no real idea of there
being a reader out there.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Haddon. His new novel is
called "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."

Now your main character, who is autistic, doesn't read novels. Although he's
the narrator in your novel, he has a great deal of difficulty comprehending
fiction. And there's a short excerpt I'd like you to read about that.

Mr. HADDON: (Reading) `Mostly I read books about science and maths. I do not
like proper novels. In proper novels people say things like, "I am veined
with iron, with silver and with streaks of common mud. I cannot contract into
the firm fist which those clench who do not depend on stimulus." I found this
in a book in the library in town when Mother took me into town once. What
does this mean? I do not know.'

GROSS: Where does this quote come from? Is this something that you made up
to sound as obtuse as he finds metaphors as being?

Mr. HADDON: Funnily enough, it's actually a quote from Virginia Woolf. It's
Virginia Woolf on an off day, in the middle, I think, of "The Waves." An
author whom I love actually, but who sometimes got a little too carried away.

GROSS: Wow. That's really terrible. That's totally incomprehensible and
terrible, but that's your idea of how all fiction reads to him.

Mr. HADDON: Yes. Certainly.

GROSS: One of the things you had to imagine is what it would be like for
Christopher to, for the first time, get on a subway by himself and go to
London, where he's never been, to find his mother. So he's coming from, like,
a suburb of London to London, and it's like "The Odyssey" for him. So maybe
you could just describe how you imagined, for instance, the subway, you know,
the train looking from his point of view.

Mr. HADDON: As we all know when we visit a strange city, particularly in a
foreign country, you're bombarded with information and noise and sights and
sounds in these places. And for someone like Christopher, who sees everything
around him and attempts to understand it all, it's completely overwhelming.
Although I have to say that strange as Christopher is, this experience isn't so
alien. I think one of the reasons when we read about it that we understand it
is because it's an extreme version of something we've all experienced at some
time or other in our lives.

GROSS: What did you most empathize with about Christopher and his confusion?

Mr. HADDON: Of all the parts of Christopher that I empathized with, I have to
say it's not the confusion that I empathize with most; it's the mathematics.
I don't know whether we've said yet, but the book is peppered with little
maths questions and maths puzzles and diagrams because he is very good at
maths and obsessed with maths, and he uses it as a way of blocking out the
world sometimes in the way that many of us use crosswords or other kinds of
puzzles. And that's pretty much like myself. I very nearly did mathematics
at university. And even now, after I've had a month or two of novel writing,
I get a yearning for numbers again and go back to working on maths for a week
or so. So all the maths in the book came straight out of my head, and that is
the part of Christopher that is unadulteratedly me.

GROSS: That's funny 'cause I thought you were going to say that you often
felt so confused by the world and by people's emotions and their response to
you in the same way, or in a different way, than he does. But that's not it,

Mr. HADDON: No. I really love interacting with other people, and in that
sense I'm very, very different from Christopher. But this is one of the
ironies about Christopher. If we talk about Christopher as a whole--everyone
talks about Asperger's syndrome and autism and talks about him as a kid with a
disability, and yet every single little oddity of his behavior I have taken
from someone that I know who doesn't have that label, who is not called a
disabled person, who's not labeled with Asperger's or autism. You know, he
has a little habit for determining whether a day is going to be an unlucky day
or a lucky day. You know, I know someone who does that. He has a habit of
disliking foods that are yellow or brown. I know someone else who's like
that. And someone else who can't eat foods if different food types are
actually touching on their plate. And all of these people are, you know,
quote, "normal," unquotes, people. But it's only when we put these things
together that I find I've got a portrait of a person that we call disabled.

GROSS: Do you know somebody who can't comprehend jokes because they take
everything literally?

Mr. HADDON: I know a few.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HADDON: I know a few of those people, and I certainly know a few
people--and to be honest, most of these people tend to be either scientific or
academic people, people who can't really do conversation with others, people
who find it very hard to listen to what the other person is saying to them,
because they're so worried about what they're going to say next that they're
concentrating on that.

GROSS: My guest is Christopher Haddon, author of the new novel "The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"--I'm sorry, his name is Mark Haddon.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, Mark Haddon, is the author of the new novel "The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time." It's told from the point of view of a
15-year-old boy who has a type of high-functioning autism.

Now I've read that you worked with people who had autism. Is that right?

Mr. HADDON: That's true. After university, I spent a few years working with
both children and adults with a variety of physical and mental handicaps.

GROSS: What--yeah, go ahead.

Mr. HADDON: The irony is that even at the time, autism was a fairly kind of
loose and conjectural diagnosis, and it's only now looking back that I realize
that some of those people were autistic. Although I have to say all of them
were much more severely disabled than Christopher is.

GROSS: What was your job?

Mr. HADDON: I had a variety of jobs. My first job when I left university was
to work as a live-in volunteer with a young man who was crippled with multiple
sclerosis, and he needed constant, constant attention. And two of us lived in
his house and did 24 hours on, 24 hours off looking after him. And from
there, I moved down to London and did a series of part-time jobs helping with
kids and adults, both in training centers and at home in their families.

GROSS: What got you into that work?

Mr. HADDON: What got me into that work was spending three years at Oxford
University and feeling that I'd kind of eaten too much birthday cake and I
needed some kind of compensation to set myself right again. I'd had three
years of, you know, hard work, but in a fairly luxurious setting in which, you
know, if you're a student at a prestigious university, you're kind of the
center of attention there and you think you're pretty important. It was
really nice to go out there and do what I thought of at the time as a proper
job in which I was helping other people for a change. And I really felt it
restored some kind of inner balance to my life.

GROSS: I'm thinking that you might have learned a lot of things about
yourself by working with people with disabilities, because since some of those
disabilities were cognitive, you might have had to change things about
yourself in order to communicate to them in a non-threatening way.

Mr. HADDON: Funnily enough, I think I've learned more about myself by being a
writer. I mean, the nice thing about working with people with disabilities is
that you don't think about yourself. You know, you have to be patient, you
have to think about someone else all the time.

GROSS: No, no. But that requires thinking about yourself, and particularly
if you're not patient. You know, that would be like an immediate diagnosis
there: `I am not patient, therefore I have to learn how to be patient.'

Mr. HADDON: Well, I can be quite a patient person, so I quite enjoyed doing
that. But I think the time when I really started to learn about myself is the
hours on end you have to spend as a writer just thinking quietly in a room on
your own. And I think actually for many people, that would be a harder thing
than working with people with disabilities, being in your own company that

GROSS: You know, the story is written from Christopher's point of view, but
reading it, you can't help wonder about how difficult it must be for
Christopher's parents, because there's such a burden on them to make the world
manageable for him and to give so much of their time to creating a manageable
world for him. And the parents aren't getting along; they're having problems
themselves. Some of those problems are because of differences in opinion
about how to deal with Christopher. So even though Christopher has no
empathy, as a reader, you have to start to thinking about what it must be like
to be one of his parents.

Mr. HADDON: That's true. And although I said earlier that there would be no
right depiction of someone with Asperger's because people with Asperger's are
a huge and varied group, having met a lot of parents of kids with
disabilities, I think there is a kind of general picture of what happens in
many, many families who have a child like Christopher. And as I said to
someone recently, it's probably very similar to having a child who's special
in other ways as well, a child who's peculiarly gifted. Again and again I've
seen families where one parent--and it's usually the mother--devotes their
life to looking after this child. And that child becomes their life project,
and the other parent feels pushed to one side and as if they have no role.
And I've seen many, many families break up for precisely that reason.

It causes other problems as well in that, as the child grows older and wants
to become an adult, you find that the parent who's given their life to looking
after them has a vested interest in them staying as a child, and that causes
huge difficulties.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Haddon. His novel is
called "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."

Mark, do you have a dog?

Mr. HADDON: No, I don't. I have one cat, and that's all.

GROSS: Oh. Because I was thinking that the idea of a dead animal might be
particularly upsetting to you.

Mr. HADDON: It does. And, in fact, I am a vegetarian, and on the whole, I'm
very kind to animals. But I have a rather sort of dark English sense of
humor. And when I wrote that first page with the dog impaled on the fork, I
found it quite funny. But I found it quite funny only if I described it in
this flat, emotionless, toneless voice, which I really liked and which, over
the next few pages, became Christopher's voice.

GROSS: What did you like about that flat, toneless voice?

Mr. HADDON: What I like about it is perhaps best explained by saying if you
heard a really good comedian--a really good comedian is funny because they
don't laugh at their own jokes. And the converse is true, as well. If
someone's telling a very sad story, it's somehow sadder and more moving if
they're not moved by it. That stops it becoming sentimental, and that's what
I really liked about Christopher's voice. It's both funny because he doesn't
seem to understand why it's funny, and it's more moving because he doesn't
really understand why things are sad that are happening around him, and that
stops the whole thing becoming sentimental.

GROSS: Why don't you read that opening paragraph that Christopher narrates
about the dog?

Mr. HADDON: (Reading) `It was seven minutes after midnight. The dog was
lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears' house.
Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side the way dogs
run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not
running or asleep; the dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of
the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog
and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the
dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds
in the dog. And I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after
it had died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road
accident, but I could not be certain about this.'

GROSS: Yeah. Part of his mind seems to be, like, your forensics mind and the
other part seems to be just kind of loopy and not really very intuitive at
all. (Laughs)

Mr. HADDON: True.

GROSS: I guess that leads me to think, like, how do you size up a mysterious
and shocking situation when you see it? Where do you look for clues, and what
do you make of it? And he's both approaching it in a very logical, forensics
kind of way and he's also thinking strange thoughts like, `I don't think you
would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason
like cancer or a road accident.' I mean, that's true. That's kind of
unarguable, but it's a kind of strange thing to be thinking.

Mr. HADDON: It's a very strange thing to be thinking, and I think that's why
I found the voice so funny. Although I have to say that there seems to be
another aspect of Christopher's voice, because he doesn't try to push the
reader one way or the other trying to make them feel this or that about what
he's said or what's he's seen. Some people have read the book and wept their
whole way through it and found the whole thing sad and the ending sad, and
other people I've talked to have found it very funny the whole way through.
So the people have completely different reactions to the same book.

GROSS: Mark Haddon, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HADDON: Thank you.

GROSS: Mark Haddon is the author of the new novel "The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time."

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews Greg Osby's new CD "St. Louis
Shoes." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New CD by Greg Osby, "St. Louis Shoes"

A few years ago, composer and saxophonist Greg Osby began playing some soul
jazz tunes of the 1950s and '60s to connect with a broader audience. Starting
with familiar material makes it easier for some jazz fans to follow his
improvising. On Osby's new CD, he covers tunes from the 1910s to the 1980s by
composers from W.C. Handy to Cassandra Wilson. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead
has a review.

(Soundbite of "East St. Louis Toodle-oo")


Bassist Robert Hurst on Greg Osby's version of "East St. Louis Toodle-Ooh,"
which Duke Ellington recorded in 1926. Osby's quintet plays it kind of
straight until they get to a new section which pushes it into the present.
The new bit launches from Duke's oom-pah rhythm, replaces tricky shifting
accents over the top. Hopping between the beats, Osby ties James Brown's
jittery funk to Anthony Braxton's Cubist zigzags.

(Soundbite of "East St. Louis Toodle-Ooh")

WHITEHEAD: Greg Osby on alto saxophone, with hot New Orleans trumpeter
Nicholas Payton, from Osby's new CD "St. Louis Shoes."

For company, he's turned to players who've moved in more orthodox circles than
he does, like Nicholas Payton and bassist Bob Hurst, who's recorded with three
Marsalises as well as Osby's old Brooklyn crowd. Even so, Osby subjects most
of the vintage material to postmodern tweaking. He'll add extra beats or
phrases to a melody not to remake it for all time, but to put his own stamp on
it. This is his revamp of Thelonius Monk's "Light Blue."

(Soundbite of "Light Blue")

WHITEHEAD: That's Osby's 21-year-old find Harold O'Neil on piano. The
drummer is Rodney Green.

(Soundbite of "Light Blue")

WHITEHEAD: Another reason Osby retools jazz standards like "Summertime" or
"Shaw 'Nuff" is to keep the players off-balance and on their toes. The payoff
is in the playing. Nicholas Payton's trumpet solo on "St. Louis Blues" starts
with a familiar lick he keeps chipping away at.

(Soundbite of "St. Louis Blues")

WHITEHEAD: Nicholas Payton.

Greg Osby holds his own in such fast company with his clean saxophone tone,
clear ideas and slippery rhythms. He's a thinking person's jazz musician who
can complicate the blues and get away with it.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: I like most of Greg Osby's new album a lot, but for all his
strengths, he rarely breaks my heart with a ballad and two of them here lag a
little. There is something of the cool customer about him, but it's not such
a big deal. And the invited players bring heat to match his bright light.
Together, they make these oldies walk and talk.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Reader and the Chicago
Sun-Times. He reviewed "St. Louis Shoes," the new CD by saxophonist Greg

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue