Probably the question most frequently asked of any author finishing a manuscript is where exactly did the book come from? In the case of The Ha-Ha, the question has two parts. The first part involves the origins of protagonist Howard Kapostash, a character whose traumatic brain injury limits his communication within the world of the book, though he speaks articulately and intimately to the reader, while the second part involves the genesis and significance of the ha-ha itself. I think that by answering each part individually I may illuminate the book's genesis.
Howard's most obvious antecedent is my older brother Hank, who was profoundly autistic throughout his life. When I was a child, my understanding of Hank's disability was complicated and unresolved, and my long interest in those who are different-and differently abled-undoubtedly stems from this childhood curiosity. In some ways, my boyhood vision of Hank was that of most little brothers: he was a robust and handsome presence, big and blond and athletic and gray-eyed. At the same time, it was clear that whatever interesting sibling relationship my friends and cousins enjoyed was not happening with us. My brother was unpredictable and unreachable, and he had the autistic's characteristically evasive glance. He was a person of mystery.
These were the days before autism had much entered the public discourse, and in New England, where we spent summers and holidays, even the word 'autistic' tended to prompt the question, "What type of art?" My parents were reasonably straightforward with my sister and me, but they relied on euphemisms ("different;" "not well") to explain Hank's condition to those outside the family. And because Hank's condition was such an absolute constant, I never felt my understanding of it developing or deepening. He was how he was, and at some point I grew old enough and responsible enough to keep an eye on him at the beach or on a bike ride. Only later did I realize how this upended the ordinary older brother/younger brother dynamic.
While he was alive, Hank was such a vivid presence that I didn't spend a lot of time wondering what his like would have been like if… (though surely my parents thought about it all the time). But after his death at age 44, I found myself returning again and again to that life he might have lived as a more normally abled person. And it was a shock to realize that one thing he'd have had to deal with was Vietnam. Vietnam was the great shadow hanging over my own adolescence, but because it was so thoroughly out of the question for Hank, I'd never considered it in terms of him. Of course, at six years older, he'd have been in the thick of the risk.
At this point, I'd like to state categorically that Howard Kapostash is not a thinly veiled portrait of my brother Hank. The roman á clef doesn't interest me at all, and with the exception of Vietnam itself, The Ha-Ha is very much a work of the imagination. Nevertheless, the character of Howard did grow from thinking around Hank's life-from considering my brother and myself in relation to Vietnam and in relation to disability, in relation to families, and even in relation to that nebulous quantity we think of generally as expectation. For The Ha-Ha is very much a book about expectation thwarted, and it's in this respect that Howard's injury differs most significantly from congenital conditions like the one Hank had. Because he's experienced "normality," Howard's world encompasses several qualities which Hank's presumably did not-in particular, loss.
If the development of Howard's character was the result of careful thought and calibration, the use of the ha-ha as a metaphor came about much more organically. A ha-ha is, in simplest terms, a sunken fence used to contain livestock without interrupting a view; the goal is to create an optical illusion so that the land appears to roll on continuously, with no evidence of this concealed division. In the novel, there's an actual ha-ha, of course, and it plays a major role in the story, but initially all I wanted was to present the convent grounds as an urban, rather than rural, paradise: a little compromised, a little artificial. I came up with the image of the interstate passing so close to this "landscaped Arden," as Howard calls it, that one could hear the sound of traffic from the rectory, and because I knew about ha-has from a college architecture class, I simply wrote one into the story as an interesting detail. Only as the drafts progressed did I recognize the metaphorical significance of a concealed break-not only in the land that Howard mows for a living, but also in the very landscape of his life. In The Ha-Ha, Howard's brain injury is itself the unaddressed rift he works so hard to conceal, and as the book progresses, this is the fissure he's forced increasingly to confront.