Enter someone else’s life: Write stories that put the reader in touch with a part of themselves they didn’t know existed

By Jack Limpert

imagesThe stage version of Mark Haddon’s book,  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, was a hit in London and New York and is now playing in Washington.

It’s the story of a young boy, Christopher Boone, who goes out to his backyard late one night and discovers that his neighbor’s dog has been killed with a garden fork. It quickly becomes clear that Christopher sees the world in unusual ways, the ways a child with what resembles Asperger’s syndrome, a kind of autism, might see it.

The story follows Christopher’s attempt to play detective and find out who killed the dog. For the reader, it’s a chance to see the world through the eyes of Christopher.

Haddon won the Whitbread book prize for the novel and it sold more than two million copies. In 2004 he talked about writing it, saying, “The book has simple language, a carefully shaped plot and invites you to enter someone else’s life.”

He then gives this advice to writers: “It’s not about you….Readers don’t want an insight into your mind, thrilling as it might be. They want an insight into their own…a book that will put them in touch with a part of themselves they didn’t even know existed.”

Interesting goals for a writer: Do stories that invite the reader to enter someone else’s life. Write stories that will put the reader in touch with a part of themselves they didn’t know existed.

One of the Washingtonian stories that did that was “Like Something the Lord Made,” by Katie McCabe. It told the story of a young African-American man, Vivien Thomas, who wanted to go to college in the 1930s but couldn’t.

How the story begins:

Say his name, and the busiest heart surgeons in the world will stop and talk for an hour. Of course they have time, they say, these men who count times in seconds, who race against the clock. This is about Vivien Thomas. For Vivien they’ll make time.

Dr. Denton Cooley has just come out of surgery, and he has 47 minutes between operations. “No, you don’t need an appointment,” his secretary is saying. “Dr. Cooley’s right here. He wants to talk to you now.”

Cooley suddenly is on the line from his Texas Heart Institute in Houston. In a slow Texas drawl he says he just loves being bothered about Vivien. And then, in 47 minutes—just about the time he takes to do a triple bypass—he tells you about the man who taught him that kind of speed.

No, Vivien Thomas wasn’t a doctor, says Cooley. He wasn’t even a college graduate. He was just so smart, and so skilled, and so much his own man, that it didn’t matter.

Katie’s story won a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing and was made into the Emmy-winning HBO movie, Something the Lord Made.

I’ve often told other editors: If a story brings tears to your eyes, publish it. Often these are stories of courage, of overcoming tough odds. They let you enter someone else’s life.

The boy in Haddon’s novel was trying to overcome what he was born with, a kind of autism. Vivien was trying to overcome racial and economic barriers. I asked Katie McCabe if thinking this way about stories made sense to her.

Her answer:

I’m just not sure how much common ground there is among these two stories, except that they pack a big emotional wallop and open up worlds for readers in ways that are very intimate—or that are made to feel intimate because they’re so heavily textured. But Curious Incident is fiction, and it’s written in the first person, which seems to make it a different animal than my non-fiction, third-person story.

That said, I feel that all great stories give readers access to worlds they couldn’t otherwise inhabit or imagine—some with more emotional impact than others, depending upon the inherent emotionalism of the body of facts and the author’s skill in conveying the emotions.

There are many techniques for making a world so real for readers that they feel they are actually present in the story and are totally unaware of the presence of the author. In the case of the Vivien Thomas story, I was writing about someone who’d died before I started the story, and as you well remember, when I learned about Vivien’s death I nearly gave up because I felt that there was no way to get inside his mind and have any understanding at all of the human being.

Even when I discovered and read his autobiography, I first felt the task was hopeless because the autobiography was so highly technical, and so opaque as to Vivien’s thoughts and feelings, that it seemed useless as a foundation upon which to build a story anybody would want to read.

The turning point was discovering a long taped interview of Vivien and once I heard his voice and felt his humanity, I returned to the autobiography with a new eye and was, after several re-readings, able to decode it and understand that Vivien was actually revealing quite a lot more about himself and his feelings toward Blalock and about race than I had initially thought.

I then interviewed everybody I could find who knew Vivien in any capacity, and slowly began to form a real sense of the man. These are all pretty standard research techniques for biographers, I’d say. I kept going and going until I was saturated with the information and had a feeling for Vivien that was very vivid and sharp and real.

In “Like Something the Lord Made,” I think the emotional impact comes from the shape that I gave to the body of facts. I also felt very strong emotions about Vivien and my emotions are in the story, between the lines—my admiration for his nobility, my sense that he’d been wronged, my sadness that he and Blalock were “so close but so far away.” That haunting feeling came from me, and apparently I was able to get that across without seeming to be present in the story.

I asked Katie if she had seen the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time:

“Yes, I saw Curious Incident in New York in April and was bowled over by its emotional immediacy, the brilliance of the immersive staging. I haven’t yet read the book but the couple with whom we saw Curious Incident had read it, and they thought that the New York production was one of the very few stage adaptations they had seen that did justice to the book.

“They felt that the stage play brought you into the boy’s reality with the same intensity that the book did. I saw that the Post review was a little tepid, and was surprised, although the cast is quite different from the NY cast.”

The October 7 review in the Washington Post, by Nelson Pressley, was headlined: “The hot play ‘Curious Incident’ burns almost too brightly at the Kennedy Center.” The opening grafs:

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” turns Mark Haddon’s novel about a teen with an Asperger’s-like condition into a techno-sensation. The touring version of this British hit and recently closed Broadway success (five Tony Awards) is now blinking and buzzing its way through the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, which makes it one of the biggest plays in town all year: Plays seldom occupy the Opera House.

Design-wise, it’s a whiz, with a jittery, overwhelming package of light and sound that’s meant to take you into the experience of the easily overwhelmed young Christopher (an absolutely terrific Adam Langdon, and played at certain performances by Benjamin Wheelwright). The imaginative “War Horse” director Marianne Elliott situates the show inside a giant cube lined with graph paper by scenic and costume designer Bunny Christie; the video design by Finn Ross and the lights from Paule Constable often turn Christopher’s story into a mind-blowing cinematic extravaganza.


  1. We saw “Curious” on Saturday night with a visiting grandchild–the 14-year-old daughter of my daughter (the heroine of “Mom, I Quit”, Washingtonian, circa 1970s). We were all moved by it. My granddaughter especially so. She had read the book and found the “techno-sensations” both exciting and illuminating. It’s a perfect show for teenagers: A story of courage and no-excuses bravery that eats its way into the mind and hopefully stays there.

  2. Thank you for re-linking to LIKE SOMETHING THE LORD MADE. I enjoyed rereading it.

Speak Your Mind