On Tuesday 17th October I was lucky enough to be interviewing author Mark Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 2003) as part of Off the Shelf’s 2017 Festival of Words. We weren’t in fact discussing his bestselling novel, but his new short story ‘St Brides Bay’, published as a companion piece to Virginia Woolf’s ‘The Mark on the Wall’ (Virginia Woolf & Mark Haddon, Two Stories, Hogarth Press 2017). The release of this Two Stories marks the centenary of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Two Stories (1917), the very first publication that came from the Woolfs’ own printing press, produced at their home in Richmond.
Mark and I discussed his admiration for Woolf and his own approach to writing – his brilliant new short story collection The Pier Falls (Random House, 2016) demonstrates an impressive mastery of the form, though he admitted that, in contrast to the trend for very brief, sparse tales, he likes to pack in as much action as possible! Things must happen in a story, he emphasised: in response to a question from a creative writer in the audience, he proposed that a good way to approach story construction was to find your protagonist and have stuff happen to them, watching to see how that character’s options are reduced as they are forced into new and more difficult places. He had other good advice for aspiring writers too. He described one exercise to spur creative thinking, where he gives each of his students an illustrated postcard, asks them to imagine this as the left-hand page of a story or novel, and then instructs them to fill the right-hand page with the text that accompanies the image. So the students must begin at the top of the page in the middle of a sentence and end in the middle of a sentence at the bottom. He feeds in other rules too to the same exercise, absurd ones such as not using the letter ‘e’ or only writing sentences that are four words long: “anything that is just enough to occupy the ‘critic’ part of your brain, while you are freed up to think and write creatively.”
Mark had another valuable – if quite astringent – message for writers wrestling with the challenge of getting their thoughts, feelings and experiences effectively down on paper. “Remember”, he said, “the relationship between what is in your head and what is on the page is not so important; what matters in the end is the relationship between what is on the page and a group of random strangers. Getting beyond what you personally think and feel is all part of maturing as a writer.”