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The Waterstones Interview: Mark Haddon on The Porpoise

Posted on 2nd May 2019 by Martha Greengrass

In an exclusive interview for Waterstones, Mark Haddon discusses his new novel, The Porpoise, the inspiration of Shakespeare's Pericles and stories that never grow old.

1. The Porpoise moves between contemporary and classical re-tellings of Shakespeare’s 'Pericles, Prince of Tyre' – itself an adaptation of much older story. Why did this tale, that seems so resonant in our storytelling culture, capture your imagination? 

I’d been toying with the idea of writing a novel based on a Shakespeare play for some time before I realised that if I chose one of his not-terribly-good plays then I would feel less reverence for my source material and more freedom to abuse it for my own creative purposes. I might then be able to write something which felt like an original work and not just an adaptation.

I settled on Pericles because I have always been troubled by the way the text treats the daughter of the King of Antioch. To cut a long story short, the sexual abuse she suffers at the hands of her father is used as a mere springboard to send Pericles on the travels which constitute the meat of the play. She is then cast aside. She is given no name, has only two lines and is given equal blame for what is euphemistically called “incest”. I wanted to tell her story and right a wrong.

2. The story seems to be one which is, in many ways, particularly relevant to our contemporary moment – with its themes of exile and displacement, belonging and how we respond to those seen as outsiders. How important were those ideas to you when writing your novel? Did you find yourself seeing parallels with the world we live in today?

Any novel which tries to be relevant to the contemporary moment is a hostage to fortune. Writing a novel is a slow business whereas the world changes fast. Today’s contemporary moment is next month’s chip paper. There are themes, however, which always strike some deep chord. Exile and displacement are two of them. You can’t read about Odysseus’s companions being drowned in the Mediterranean as they try to return home to Ithaca without seeing the contemporary parallels.

3. There seemed to me to be a contemplation of the parallel between the hidden dangers of the supposedly ‘safe’ space of the home and the risks of exploring what lies beyond our borders. To what extent is this novel questioning how we think of home and how far we can – or should – protect ourselves from the outside world?

To be honest, the idea had never occurred to me. And the same will doubtless be true of many ideas readers see woven into the story. I think of myself as building a novel from the inside, whereas readers see it from the outside. My aim is to make something which stands up and looks good. If I get the structure just right then, hopefully, each of them will see something a little different in it and go away asking different questions.

4. The story moves from a thrilling description of a plane crash, to a classical tale of heroes and fate, with other stories – including that of the play’s shared authorship – weaving into these. Did you always know that you wanted this to be a novel where different times and places and versions of the same story and interlinking tales all bled into one another? Was it a challenge to write?

I wanted to start in the contemporary world in order to hold the reader’s attention as tightly as I could, and to hammer home the point that this might be an old story but it is one about experiences and ideas which never grow old. And if I then needed a small dose of time travel to reach back into the past, that seemed like an opportunity to have some fun. As for William Shakespeare and George Wilkins in early seventeenth century London, once I’d imagined their meeting I couldn’t resist including it.

Was it a challenge? Writing is nearly always hard. It is for me at any rate. There were parts of this novel, however, the writing of which flowed more easily than almost everything I’ve written. The Shakespeare / Wilkins scene was particularly pleasurable and swiftly written, though by swiftly I mean ten drafts instead of thirty.

5. The abusive, incestuous relationship between Angelica and her father raises uneasy questions about the boundaries between protection and control, love and desire. How did you go about approaching the subject? 

The same way I go about writing any relationship. I try to get far enough inside the minds of the characters so that I can see the world through their eyes. Then it’s relatively easy to intuit what they might do in this or that situation. And whilst the abuse of Angelica by her father is not a comfortable subject, the sexual abuse of young women by older men in positions of trust is a horribly common one. If you think you don’t know someone who has been abused in this way it’s probably because they haven’t told you.

6. The novel explores the ways in which Philippe absolves himself of responsibility, telling stories of his role as protector and loving father. It made me think of the way in which stories can be ways to tell lies to ourselves. Is this partly a novel about the power of narrative control and the way in which stories change depending on who tells them?

I doubt you can even become a novelist without being aware of the fact that we don’t have personal histories as such. Rather we tell stories about our lives and these stories not only contradict other people’s stories but often compete with them. Relationships, families, whole countries can be torn apart by this competition.

7. For Angelica, stories are her only means of escape and she imagines herself variously through the classical myths she reads, ‘both teller and listener. She forgets, sometimes, where the page ends and her mind begins.’ Do you see the story of Pericles – as told in The Porpoise – as Angelica’s own way of reframing her own story to imagine a road to freedom?

Almost. The structural conceit underlying the entire novel is that Pericles’ adventures are a fantasy concocted by Angelica / the daughter of the king of Antioch. She is being abused. The first young man to understand what is happening and who could therefore be her saviour instead rejects her and runs away. She comes to terms with this by telling a long and complicated story in which her would-be-saviour is punished and learns the error of his ways, in which a mother dies but doesn’t really die, and in which a family is torn apart then brought together again.

8. At one point Emilia considers the people on the periphery of the story, those whose story is left unfinished or untold. When you considered the story of Pericles, did you have your eye on some of those characters left in the shadows of the original and what might be gained from considering a story from the perspective of those usually ignored or side-lined? 

The entire novel is about someone who is ignored and sidelined. I think the experiences and the points of view of those who have been ignored and sidelined has always interested me. One particular example from the novel does, however, still linger vividly in my mind. At one point Emilia briefly retells the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses of Actaeon who is turned into a stag and torn apart by his hounds as punishment for having seen Diana bathing. Emilia wonders in passing if the hounds were themselves human once and metamorphosed by Zeus for some unrecorded misdemeanour but that Ovid simply didn’t have the time or space to tell their stories.

9. The Porpoise’s narrative eschews simple and easy answers or endings, how important was the idea of stories as malleable, continuous and cyclical to how you constructed the novel?

I could be wrong but I think that every novel and every short story I’ve written ends ambiguously. Even The Pier Falls, in which pretty much every significant character dies, ends with a sea- bleached skull washed up by a winter storm. It is laid to rest with full funeral rites but no-one finds out who it belonged to.

10. To what extent do you see this as a story about storytelling itself and the different purposes storytelling has in our lives – to escape, to console, to make sense of the world around us?

True, stories can console us and gives us a means of escape and provide meaning. But stories have been used to justify the murder of millions. To ask about function of stories and storytelling is like asking about the functions of trees or musical instruments or architecture. Stories are not tools, they’re part of the foundation we rest upon.

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