How Pericles Inspired Mark Haddon's novel The Porpoise

Shakespeare Unlimited:
Episode 131

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time author Mark Haddon’s books take twists and turns that sometimes seem to only make sense in the context of his stories. Shakespeare’s  Pericles takes twists and turns that sometimes seem to make no sense at all. Haddon’s new novel, The Porpoise, reinterprets Pericles: the book is a crazy, imaginative ride that swings between continents, between reality and fantasy, and between the 21st and 17th centuries AD and the 5th century BC. It also works to right the “moral wrong” that begins Shakespeare’s play.

Poet and novelist Mark Haddon’s other books include A Spot of Bother, The Red House, The Pier Falls and Other Stories. The Porpoise was published in the US by Doubleday in 2019. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published October 29, 2019. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “The Porpoise How He Bounced and Tumbled,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. It was recorded by Rich Woodhouse at Electric Breeze Audio Productions in Oxford, England.

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Transcript

MICHAEL WITMORE: If you’ve ever read the novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time then you won’t be the least bit surprised by the next thing I say … Mark Haddon has figured out how to make perfect sense of Pericles.

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Mark Haddon is a gifted novelist. His work takes twists and turns that sometimes seem to only make sense in the context of his stories. And what is Shakespeare’s  Pericles but a series of twists and turns that often seem to make no sense at all.

A while back, Haddon was one of a number of writers approached by the Hogarth Shakespeare series about adapting one of the plays. He ended up not writing the book with them, but, as you’ll hear, the suggestion did get his wheels turning. And that’s to the benefit of all of us. His new novel, The Porpoise, is a crazy, imaginative ride that swings back and forth between continents, between reality and fantasy, and between the 21st and 17th centuries AD and the 5th century BC to tell a story about … Well, that’s hard to say, though it’s not hard to enjoy.

Mark Haddon came into a studio in Oxford, England recently to talk about his work and where-in-the-world it comes from.

We call this podcast episode “The Porpoise How He Bounced and Tumbled.” Mark Haddon is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

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BARBARA BOGAEV: When Hogarth first approached you about writing something in their Shakespeare adaptation series, what was your reaction? "Hell yes," or, "Not in a million years," or something in between?

MARK HADDON: I was initially skeptical about the whole project, but I certainly got back to them in time and said, "A, who wants a prose version of something that is extremely good already? And also you need to give writers some kind of leeway, a way of them owning the project themselves so they feel they have given something extra to it.” And indeed, once they started publishing those adaptations, the writers had been given that freedom. But I did not have the chutzpah to measure up to one of the big plays, and for that reason, I put it aside. For some reason Pericles came into my mind again for, I think, completely inexplicable reasons.

BOGAEV: So this is interesting. Pericles came to mind. Was it a play that you were very familiar with and had seen? Because it's not often staged, as you say.

HADDON: I had not seen it. I don't think there'd been many, if any, major performances in my lifetime. I had read it. I knew that it wasn't terribly good in my opinion.

BOGAEV: And that's what made you think, "Oh, I can do this?"

HADDON: Yes.

BOGAEV: Because it's bad Shakespeare?

HADDON: Yes, because why measure up to Shakespeare on a good day? Why not take him when he's at a disadvantage, and he's only written half the play, and frankly he's not on top form?

BOGAEV: Kick him while he's down.

HADDON: And there's almost nothing in here of one of the things for which we love Shakespeare, which is that the language we just seem to take wi

BOGAEV: Well, I mean, you can look forever for poetry in Pericles.

HADDON: I have two favorite lines, one of which I borrowed the title from, which is, "The porpoise, how he bounced and tumbled."

BOGAEV: It trips off the tongue.

HADDON: And the other line I particularly like is from the brothel scene, which of course I excised completely from my version. And the line is, "The Transylvanian who lay with the little baggage is dead."

BOGAEV: Now that's lovely, and I like the internal alliteration.

HADDON: Yes.

BOGAEV: So those are your two lines of poetry.

HADDON: Those are the two gems from the sewer. I also felt that there was a gap in the play, which was also a moral wrong. The princess at the beginning who is in, quote/unquote, “an incestuous relationship with her father,” the King.

She is used as a mere springboard to set the larger, melodramatic plot going. She's given no name, she's given two lines, and she is spurned by our protagonist, who is the first person outside the family to realize what is happening to her. He was initially attracted to her. When he realizes that she is being sexually abused, he simply runs away.

BOGAEV: Right? It's outrageous. I mean, just spurned. She's wronged twice.

HADDON: And I was turning those two things over in my mind. I often think a novel only works, or at least it only works for me, if there's a necessity to it. If something feels as if it needs to be said.

BOGAEV: A wrong that you can right.

HADDON: Yes. But when I turn the play over in my headof course, we know it's a very hoary, melodramatic jerry-built kind of thingbut I found a way of giving it some psychological logic for me. I thought, "What if the meat of the plot, those melodramatic journeys pinballing 'round the Mediterranean were, in fact, a story told by this young woman to come to terms with the abandonment by the one young man who promised to rescue her?"

BOGAEV: And her trauma, really.

HADDON: And her trauma. Well, the story became a way of coming to terms with the abandonment, and also articulating her trauma. Because although it's a melodramatic story, it's about family separation, fathers, daughters, partners, about sex and loss and learning how to love, and it often doesn't make a lot of sense. But I can imagine if you're a teenage girl, it might make more sense, especially if you're bookish and you had all these plots already to hand.

BOGAEV: Okay, so all of this is swirling in your mind. We've talked to many of the authors who've adapted Shakespeare's plays on this podcast, and they all had such different processes, especially at the beginning. Did you then go back and read the Apollonius story, and which one did you read? Shakespeare's, or Gower's, or a different one?

HADDON: I read most of them.

BOGAEV: So you did do a whole research.

HADDON: I did.

BOGAEV: You went on a research journey.

HADDON: My memory is so poor, it feels wrong to call it research. It's a kind of scrabbling in the bran tubI think, it’s more like that. Just immersing myself. Often, what I find I'm doing is not trying to get some overview, as you might if you were writing an academic article, but I'm scavenging. I'm looking for

BOGAEV: For the good stuff. Yeah.

HADDON: For the good stuff, you know. Research is nearly always that for me. I don't need to make myself an expert, but I do need to pick up the facts, the bits of vocabulary, the places, the views, the images that are going to help bring it alive for someone else.

BOGAEV: So what did you read?

HADDON: Well, I read quite a few of the versions. Perhaps more importantly than the reading, I went to Southwark Cathedral, for example. That was a good sort of starting off point. The English poet Gower wrote one of the earlier versions of what we now know as the Pericles story—but it was previously the story of Apollonius—in his [Gower’s] work, Confessio Amantis.

I went to London to visit Southwark Cathedral where Gower is buried. Coincidentally, there's a monument on the far side of the church which is a reclining statue of Shakespeare, because Southwark Cathedral is one of the churches where Shakespeare himself would have worshipped. So there was that connection.

But it's even tighter than that, because the Gower tomb would have predated Shakespeare. And if Shakespeare had been in the church, we know that he would have walked past Gower's tomb, and of course, he's a fellow poet. We know that Shakespeare would have stopped there. It's quite electrifying to stand where you knew Shakespeare stood, and especially when you know that he borrowed one of the books which constitute this rather hard pillow under the wooden model of Gower's head. He's resting on his three major works. Very, very uncomfortable place to sleep, even when you're dead.

I think Confessio Amantis is the middle volume, and Shakespeare's standing there, and in this sort of sculpted wooden volume of Confessio Amantis, in there is the story of Pericles. I do like the idea that maybe either him or maybe George Wilkins was standing there looking for a story, and it was in front of them on Gower's tomb.

BOGAEV: Did you read anything about Shakespeare?

HADDON: Yes, and I think the most important text for me was Charles Nicholl's The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street.

BOGAEV: Ah, that's a wonderful book.

HADDON: Wonderful book by a wonderful writer. He is one of thequite apart from the insight into Shakespeare and into George Wilkins, which I got from the bookhe is one of those few writers who makes the job of being an academic just a little bit Indiana Jones-y.

BOGAEV: So how thoroughly, then, after you're doing this researchyou're looking for the things that leap out of you to make it real, to give yourself a visceral connection to the materialhow thoroughly did you feel you needed to know the story and the characters in order to write about it, but also not to get too wedded to the original. To be freed or create?

HADDON: I think one of the things that mylet's call it my moral indignationdid was that once I realized that there was a wrong in the play, I didn't feel I owed it anything whatsoever. And when it comes to the characters themselves, I think we'll probably all agree that the characters are fairly thin. So what it gave me was a structure, a story structure, basically.

BOGAEV: Of overlapping stories, which is what Pericles is.

HADDON: Yes, although the overlap… we can perhaps come back to the overlap. Well… let's do the overlap now. The overlap in time came to me, I think, because I asked myself a question about this that I always ask about any… can we generically call them old stories?

BOGAEV: Yes. That's great.

HADDON: Just to cover everything. I'm often saying to myself, "What would happen if this were real? Primarily, what would this poor girl do, and what would she feel? What is her situation?" I think we often forget to ask this question, because so many of those stories have a patina of age, don't they? As soon as something feelsas soon as you've gone back past sepia, it doesn't really feel real anymore.

The sex, the death, the violence in Shakespeare, for example, sometimes is very real on the stage, but on the whole, feels… there's a window of time between us and it. And I wanted to bring part of the plot into the present day so that readers were reminded that this is a story which is still going on.

BOGAEV: Okay, now this is starting to make sense. You wanted to bring the past into the present day. The story into the present day. And the story also weaves back into the past in the way that you have interwoven or overlapped your plotlines.

So that people can follow us, why don't you lay out the modern and the oldie, the ancient plotlines, briefly for us, in your story. The modern-day tale of Phillipe and Maja and Angelica and the somewhat parallel story of Chloe and Marina.

HADDON: My modern version of the King is Phillipe, an extremely wealthy man, married to Maja, an actress, who at the beginning of the story is pregnant with their daughter, Angelica.

I needed a mechanism to get rid of the mother. This makes me sound terrible, doesn't it? I needed to have a father and the daughter without the mother, and that gave me a possibility of having a terrible event in the opening chapter. I think a terrible event in an opening chapter always grips readers, so the mother dies.

Then we have the father and the daughter together, and grief is maybe the initial thing which pushes his feelings about his daughter off-center. And because he's a man who has limitless wealth and to whom no one ever says no...

BOGAEV: No accountability whatsoever.

HADDON: No accountability. So when that relationship becomes abusive, there's no one to stop him. I had a modern version of Pericles as well. A young man who comes along and, out of nowhere, realizes what is going on. He has to make a decision; does he help this woman, or does he run away?

Now, I wanted my cake, and I wanted to eat it as well. I wanted the immediacy, but I wanted pirates as well. I wanted galleons. I wanted the Hellenistic Mediterranean, circa 50 BC. The only answer to that is having a form of time travel. If you have the confidence, if you hold a reader's hand and they feel they trust you, you can take them anywhere, and it seems a shame not to take them anywhere. So moving 2,000 years into the past was not a problem. It was an opportunity.

BOGAEV: Well, I'm dying to hear you read from some of the passages that illustrate this, because you use various techniques to get us there, to create this time travel, and it's a very slow burn.

If you could, there is this key moment in the book when time does start to bend, and the man named Darius, the Pericles figure in the story, who's in the modern storyline, he kind of morphs into Pericles in the ancient story.

And I have to say, I first read that passage late at night, and I got completely lost. I wasn't on top of my game, and then in the morning, I had to reread it twice when I was more clear-headed. To follow the thread, because it happens so magically and mysteriously. So maybe you could read that passage for us.

HADDON: "Helena, Marlena, and Anton tell Darius nothing about the disturbing nature of the changes in the world around them. He has been through enough already and the situation's so peculiar that, even as a group, they are wary of admitting their concerns for fear of seeming crazy.

“Two nights later, however, they fall asleep to the slap of waves on the hull, and the shriek of shearwaters while riding at anchor in an isolated cove just above the Spanish border. In the small hours Darius is woken by noises which he does not recognize and cannot easily explain – creaks, thumps, scrapes. He climbs out of bed. The movement of the boat is different, a wider, slower roll. He can smell tar and wet wood. He thinks about waking the others but this seems like a good opportunity to restore a little of his badly undermined manhood. He mounts the steps, girds his loins, slides the hatch back and climbs onto the deck.

“There is a man standing in front of him, wearing a soiled leather jerkin over a bare torso. He has a tattoo of a gryphon with talons raised down one muscular arm, and a compass inked onto the centre of his chest. The man's black hair is plaited down his back and he is so filthy that it is impossible to tell the color of his skin. His eyes are narrow, Mongolian perhaps. His smell is the smell of someone who sleeps in the street and soils himself and does not change his clothes. Mixed with dog-breath and incense. There is an elderly, wooden-handled knife tucked into the rope that holds his trousers up. He looks like a man for whom killing other people is easy, if not habitual. He smiles at Darius. He has a small number of yellow teeth randomly arranged inside his mouth. Darius assumes it is an ironic smile, an indication that any resistance will be hilariously ineffective. 'All is good. Back to sleep.' The accent is indecipherable, part Dublin, part Bangkok, part Lord alone knows where. Darius is having trouble breathing. The man is surely not alone. Two more like him and they will find themselves thrown overboard at best. People have been held for years on becalmed tankers off Mogadishu. It might be best to jump the rail now and swim, but he has one functioning arm and no memory of how far they are from shore. He looks at the long rip of absolute black between the stars and the starlit chop of the waves, and this is when he sees what had happened while he was asleep."

BOGAEV: Yes. So, he thinks of Mogadishu. I thought of pirates and MogaI didn't know whether we were in the present, or he was going into some weird past, or what. Tell me about writing that scene, and, in fact, it goes on in a very slow-burn way as well. How did you think about constructing this passage from one time to another?

HADDON: Only as I read that did I realize that what happens to Darius over the next few pages, which is the amazed discovery that he seems to be on a Jacobean or Elizabethan galleon of some kind, exactly parallels my own enjoyment in reading about ships from that period. Selecting all my favorite images and details and then putting them on the page in a way that felt most flavorsome and vivid for me. So in a way, as Darius turns into Pericles, I'm enjoying creating the world into which he has been magically lifted.

BOGAEV: Oh, that's so interesting. You do employ different techniques though. For instance, you have these parallel characters. You have Darius and Pericles, and when one is in modern-day times and the other is in his storyline, but they both feel the same pain. Darius has a hurt arm; Pericles feels, for no reason, pain in his arm. You create these isolated links between them as if they're connected in consciousness.

HADDON: There was a deliberate overlap. I didn't quite have one character turning into the other. They both seemed to exist separately at one point, so it's not quite the same person, but it's not quite two different people.

BOGAEV: Right, it's like string theory or something.

HADDON: A lot of people...

BOGAEV: Defies physics.

HADDON: On many occasions, people will say, "You have this process. You have this technique. I can see what you're doing there," and that's often the first time that I've thought literally about how I might have put it together. I often think of my favorite bit of writingand it's the bit of writing which I think creates the writing which works bestis when I'm on the edge of knowing quite what I'm doing. I often describe it as reaching out into the dark and pulling something surprising out of the dark, something that is both logical but wholly unexpected. And when those things go right, you quite often don't know how you got them.

BOGAEV: Huh. And that's what gives this such a mysteriousness.

HADDON: Well, I hope so.

BOGAEV: That is, I think, very suspenseful.

HADDON: It's also why those parallels exist but aren'tI didn't map one world onto the other. I didn't want it to be a soluble puzzle, so that you might send yourself off on a wild goose chase trying to solve the puzzle. But I'm pretty sure you couldn't do it, because it wouldn't all fit together.

BOGAEV: No, and that's what's magical about these more eliding storylines, as opposed to parallel storylines. The echoes, for me, didn't feel so much as across time and space, but in different characters' consciousnesses, or this kind of metanarrative about what we get from storytelling. And, in fact, you have Angelica, this woman who is so wounded and traumatized. She seems to be the one who is telling this Pericles story to us. That's also a rather slow realization that we have.

HADDON: That was an underlying conceit which I think you will find if you dig for it, but I don't think you necessarily need it. That's the skeleton onto which I put the flesh, as it were.

But, again, that idea of telling the story you're involved in, certain other characters. When they're at extreme moments, they have a sense that a story is being told, or that they're in a story, or that if they look through a kind of membrane, they'll get to the real place where everything's being run from, as it were.

A lot of what I write, I realize, goes back to one single image that I found in an encyclopedia of space I had when I was a child. It's a little world in microcosm, and it's a man who's walked away from this town with the church and the buildings and the sun in the background. And he's across the field, he's bumped into the surface of the lowest of the spheres. So he's come to the limits of his world, and he's opened a little hatch in the lowest sphere. And through the hatch, he can see the clouds and the flames and the wheels turning. He's seen beyond his little world, and he's seen a kind of greater truth. That image has stuck with me ever since. I'm not someone who believes there is somewhere else, but we all have this almost unstoppable hunger for opening the hatch into the other place. So that happens over and over in this story. The hatch sort of half opens, the veil goes thin.

BOGAEV: Slightly lifts.

HADDON: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And then falls. That is so delightful. And I'd like to continue talking about stories. But there are stories and then there are facts, and it's important to acknowledge the difference between the two.

You have this whole other storyline in your book dealing with an actual historical figure, George Wilkins, who may have collaborated on Pericles with Shakespeare. You hilariously make him out to be just a straight-out rat. And I think we have another section of the book that I'd like you to read that illustrates this. His infamous career as a

HADDON: A serial abuser, really.

BOGAEV: Abusive man. Yeah.

HADDON: I mean, you say I've made him out to be a rat, but given the nature of the small number of historical facts he has left behind, they do not speak well of him, do they? I mean, he's largely known from court records.

BOGAEV: And that's where you gotwell, why don't we have you read the list first. And then you can explain.

HADDON: Absolutely. So this is a list ofor shall I give the context of this

BOGAEV: Yes, do.

HADDON: So, well, to give the even larger context, I said earlier that I'm beginning to realize that you can do anything in a novel, so why not try it and see if it works?

When I was reading about Shakespeare and Wilkins, I thought, "They are, A) so interesting, and B) there are some rather inviting holes there, which are just asking to be filled. Why don't we simply go and pay them a visit?" So that's the other bit of geographical and historical travel we do. We go to Jacobean London, and we see Shakespeare leading George Wilkins to his death. And this happens in the middle of the Thames estuary, where they've taken a sort of Chiron's boat down the Thames, a black punt to his death, and finally this is what he sees.

"And this is the moment when they start to rise slowly from the water, one by one, around the boat. Lank, wet hair and salt-bleached skin. Sunken cheeks and eyes like chunks of coal, eyes you don't look at but into. Devils? Ghosts? He cannot breathe. Five, seven, nine of them. Drowned but alive, clad in sodden shrouds that stick to their breasts and bony shoulders. They are talking at a loud whisper, words overlapping so that they emit only a general hiss. Ten, eleven. He turns round. The wet, cadaverous crowd circle the boat completely now. One of them is Ann Plesington, or some demon wearing her body. No pupil in the dungeon black of her eyes, but he knows that she is looking at him. He knows that they are all looking at him. He beat her with a strap, and one of the blows hit her face and left her permanently scarred. Bound over to keep the peace in the Clerkenwell magistrates' court.

“Rebecka Chetwoode. Dorothy Lumbarde. Magdalen Samways. Hollow-cheeked and fish-fleshed, ankle-deep in the water as if they were only five yards from the beach. Twenty? Twenty-five? No longer countable, though he recognizes every one of them. Judith Walton. Allison Packham. Susanna Medeley whom he kicked in the belly when she was pregnant. The Old Bailey this time. And only now does he see, beside her, the child who died in her womb, too young to sit up but standing in the water nevertheless, a domed hairless skull above the naked body of a baby bird, tiny versions of those same black eyes staring at him when they should be closed. Joane Chatwyn whom he took by force. Isabelle Fletcher whom he took by force. Frideswide Chase who died when three men used her for their pleasure. Lettice Alfraye whom he sold to Lord Buckleigh. Charity Cooper."

BOGAEV: I mean, it's horrific. Did all of that come from the court record?

HADDON: Uh, no. The two court cases, one at the Clerkenwell magistrates' court and one at the Old Bailey, they were on record. So he did scar a woman's face permanently, and he did kick a woman in the belly and she miscarried. He is a very unpleasant character from what we know.

BOGAEV: And it would seem that youpart of righting the wrong of Pericles is taking revenge, getting vengeance, on George Wilkins. Did you feel that was driving you? Is that why there here in his story? Shakespeare?

HADDON: Yes. Yes, but of course, however high a motive you ascribe to yourself when you're writing something... It has to be enjoyable at the same time, doesn't it? I mean, there's a moral driver behind it, but there's also a slightly horror film thrill to doing something like that.

For me, there is often another motive behind some of the darker things I write about, which is that I firmly believe that if we look the dark things in the face, particularly when it comes to human suffering, that's when you learn empathy. Running away from the monster always makes the monster worse.

BOGAEV: So why Shakespeare? Why is Shakespeare in the story as well? And I have to say that Shakespeare is not very “Shakespeare-y” at all. He's just, you know, he's not doing the normal Shakespeare things like spouting lines from the play or speaking in some kind of dialect.

HADDON: When you say, "The normal Shakespeare thing," are we talking about the real Shakespeare, or are we talking about the sort of concocted Shakespeare of general myth?

BOGAEV: Exactly, and I'm being facetious a little bit, because we've talked to many writers who say, "Absolutely, I would neverI don'tI tried to write Shakespeare into my play, and it was so hard. Everything sounded tacky. If you make him sound like what we expect Shakespeare to sound like, it sounds ridiculous."

HADDON: Well, George Wilkins is the main character here, isn't he? I've got Shakespeare leading him, but we hear a few lines from Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: He barely talks at all. He's not in this world.

HADDON: Which of course, I think, is useful, because we all sort of think we know who Shakespeare is, and yet don't know at the same time, so you've got to be careful. You've got to leave gaps, and people will quietly fill them in with their own knowledge-slash-ignorance.

BOGAEV: Well, this leads right into the next question I wanted to ask you. We’ve talked to so many of these authors who've adapted Shakespeare's plays into novels. Almost all of them pointed out that they felt it gave them license to be more free with their interpretation when they thought about how much Shakespeare just borrowed things.

HADDON: Oh, yes. He's a dreadful scavenger.

BOGAEV: Exactly. Yeah.

HADDON: I mean, let's treat him like he treated Holinshed and Plutarch.

BOGAEV: And is that how you felt? I mean, did that even occur to you? Or did you need to feel that kind of freedom? Or did you have any anxiety about, "Oh, what if I play fast and loose with Pericles, or with Shakespeare? I'm just not being true to the Bard."

HADDON: Absolutely not. But for me, I'm sure it's true for many writers, I see myself as a small burrowing animal, and when I'm writing, I'm deep underground. It's kind of dark. No one else is around. I'm my own audience. I swap hats between reader and writer. I'm constantly saying, "Does that work? Does this work? If I'd never seen this paragraph before, what would I think?" But there's no one else looking over my shoulder.

BOGAEV: Shakespeare was not looking over your shoulder?

HADDON: Well, he's deader than most of my readers, isn't he? So he certainly wasn't looking over my shoulder, nor did I feel the presence of academics or the presence of a sort of general reader. And for me, that's really important. I need that complete freedom. It's only when I come blinking out into the light of day at the end do I realize that other people have to read this.

BOGAEV: Well, I think one of the most moving things about this story that you've written is that the female characters, as was your intent, get, in this version of this ancient story, really do get their say. They get their day. They get their revenge. And this abused daughter, Angelica, of the modern-day story that you write, she does escape into fantasies of revenge. But she doesn't necessarily triumph. We could argue about what "triumph" means, and I don't want to give away the ending of your book in any way, but how much did you tinker with, or struggle with, her use of fantasy and the ending of her story?

HADDON: I knew from the beginning the balance I had to strike. If you want to, as it were, redress a wrong. And you want to give a voice to a certain character or certain group of people who haven't got that voice. If you give them too much strength, too much of a voice, it becomes facile, doesn't it?

BOGAEV: They become Wonder Woman. Yeah.

HADDON: Yeah. I want to keep it real so that it doesn't dismiss the nature of some horrible negative experiences. In this case, her abuse.

BOGAEV: Well, she does something, and I think I can say this, she does something very real and very common that women have done throughout the ages. She stops talking and then she stops eating.

HADDON: So I needed that overlap.

BOGAEV: She sort of visits her pain on her own body.

HADDON: I wanted the pain real.

BOGAEV: Yeah.

HADDON: Yeah. But I wanted her to be able to do something about it, but something that was, as you said, doable in the world as it is. I wanted to give them some redress in this world.

BOGAEV: I'm thinking about endings now, and we should probably end this conversation, but the reunification scene in Pericles, and of Pericles with his long-lost daughter Marina in the play. That is one of the best scenes. You end your story before that.

HADDON: I do, and that's true of almost everything I write. The scene of resolution happens shortly after the last page. I don't like closure, because we don't have closure in life. As we approach what feels like an ending, another story is starting off somewhere. I can see the attraction of tying all the knots together, because, in a way, that's sort of what we want from life. We want it all summed up and locked down, and finally you get your certificate and you know what it all means. But it's not like that, is it?

BOGAEV: And when you read that, it seems so pat.

HADDON: Yes.

BOGAEV: Yeah.

HADDON: But the cost is, of course, readers get in touch with me and say, "Yeah, but what happened? Can you tell me what actually happened?" And I mean, it's very, very common with Curious Incident obviously because they're younger readers, and there's a very deliberately ambiguous ending to that book. And I have to say, "That's for you to write."

It's also a testament to the reality you've created in the mind of a reader if they come to you and say, "I want to know what happens afterwards." And it's hugely flattering and then rather difficult to dig yourself out of the hole I've sort of dug myself into because I do have to say, “The book ends for me.” I create the illusion, and then I step away. And hopefully you leave as it were this metaphorical theater feeling excited but a little troubled, and most importantly, disagreeing with each other over what has happened and what might happen.

BOGAEV: So it's an ongoing conversation.

HADDON: Yeah.

BOGAEV: Yeah.

HADDON: Keep the conversation going.

BOGAEV: So this whole experience, has it led you back to Shakespeare? Has it made you want to read the better plays? Or has it had any effect on your relationship, this interrogation of Shakespeare, on your relationship with him?

HADDON: If you're a writer in English and you go to the theater, Shakespeare's there all the time. I don't have to make an effort to reacquaint myself or to make the relationship deeper because he's part of my life. I think I had to take a little break, a little Shakespearean holiday, so I didn't read anything for a while. But he and I are back on speaking terms now and will be for a long time.

BOGAEV: Well this has been such a delight talking with you. Thank you so much for being so generous with your time.

HADDON: Well, thank you.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: Mark Haddon is a poet and novelist whose books include A Spot of Bother, The Red House, The Pier Falls and Other Stories, and most famously, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. His newest novel, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Pericles called The Porpoise, was published in the U.S. by Doubleday in 2019. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast episode, “The Porpoise How He Bounced and Tumbled,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. It was recorded by Rich Woodhouse at Electric Breeze Audio Productions in Oxford, England.

If you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited—and after 25 minutes, I imagine you are—please do us a favor and leave a positive review on Apple Podcasts. When you do that, it helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it yet. Thank you.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. And, if you find yourself in Washington, DC, please come and visit us on Capitol Hill. Take in a performance in our Elizabethan theater and come face to face with a First Folio—the first printed edition of Shakespeare's plays. We’d love to see you here.

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.