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Matt Haig: I think books can save us

How to follow a bestselling memoir about depression? With a novel about a 400-year-old adventurer

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Matt Haig refuses to be typecast or confined to a genre
Gulf News

Matt Haig and I meet in a flat in London, the morning after the terrorist attack at the Manchester Arena. Typically, he has already spent several hours battling racists and trolls on Twitter (he has a very large following), but he doesn’t seem stressed. “I’m actually quite relaxed; I like this period just before I get really neurotic [about the launch of a new book],” he laughs. As for social media: “I tweet more when I’m writing more ... I’ve got quite a distracted brain anyway.”

Haig is probably best known for his 2015 book Reasons to Stay Alive (it was in the top 10 bestseller lists for nearly a year) — a warm and moving memoir-cum-self-help book about his first descent into depression, aged 24, and his subsequent efforts to climb out of it. Haig is also the author of seven novels for adults, seven books for children and various business books, but his latest is a genre-defying novel called How to Stop Time. Its hero is Tom Hazard, an unremarkable history teacher at a London comprehensive, who lives with a secret: he has a rare condition that makes him age very slowly; he may not look it, but Tom is more than 400 years old. This is a book full of fantastical adventures, from Elizabethan England to the south seas, but it is also intensely sad. Tom travels the world and witnesses history, but is doomed to watch societies continually repeat their mistakes. He can hang out with Shakespeare and meet Captain Cook, but the one thing he mustn’t do is fall in love. Like the alien narrator in Haig’s laugh-out-loud funny The Humans, or the family of vampires at the centre of his YA novel The Radleys, Tom is an outsider who is physically superior to mortals, but he would sacrifice it all for a life of human vulnerability and pain. Haig writes exquisitely from the perspective of the heart-sore outsider, but at their most moving his novels reveal the unbearable beauty of ordinary life. Nonetheless, How to Stop Time reads like a book that was great fun to write, packed as it is with pivotal moments from the past and walk-on parts for historical figures.

“I think Shakespeare was the first,” he says, smiling mischievously, “because that’s literally the one you’d be told not to do if you were on acreative writing course.”

His Globe is the bawdy and drunken place we now know it to have been, stripped of the centuries of adulation that have sanitised our image of Shakespeare. Haig is keen to rehumanise him, part of his mission to remind 21st-century readers that “art, really, is for everybody”. When Tom bumps into F Scott Fitzgerald in 1920s Paris, however, that scene is just for larks. “I don’t think it serves any plot purpose whatever,” he admits. “But just to have him walk into a bar ... let’s do that!”

All this frivolity may sound a million miles from the “surprise bestseller” he now calls Reasons, but all his books — even if about depression — contain the same self-deprecating humour. He is particularly wary of being “self-indulgent”, a phrase that he repeats throughout our conversation. Reasons discusses his history of anxiety and depression, with jokes, wisdom and pithy advice. Stephen Fry called it “astounding” and “amazing” and, according to Amanda Craig, it was “a life-saving book”; Haig is both amazed and rather terrified by its success. “You spend all your life writing novels and hoping they’re going to be your breakthrough book, and when you have your biggest book, and it’s the book about the worst experience of your life, it is slightly a double-edged sword,” he grimaces.

Reasons was published without great fanfare, but there followed a year of publicity in which Haig endured what felt like dozens of public therapy sessions at literary festivals around the country. Though he was experiencing a period of anxiety, he bared his soul and in return became a receptacle for the soul-baring of strangers. Haig was overwhelmed by emails from readers in various states of distress, and felt a weight of responsibility that was hard to process. “At that point I’d have pressed a button not to have written it,” he says. “But I think I needed to write it as if no one was watching. And do it as a sort of therapy.”

Haig is justifiably wary about becoming the “voice of mental health”; he is not a doctor, and he can’t give advice. But inevitably his phone rings every time a celebrity raises the subject. While he has had his fill of being “Mr Depression”, and usually says no to these requests now, he is somewhat reassured that he is asked. “I think we’ll truly be there with mental health when we just see it exactly the same as physical health ... But I think the first step has to be the conversation, and the conversation is happening so that’s good.”

The success of Reasons may have been unexpected, but by opening a discussion about men’s mental health it seems to have started a trend. Since it was published, princes William and Harry have begun a campaign to “feel normal about mental health” with their charity, Heads Together; the pianist and memoirist James Rhodes, footballer Rio Ferdinand, Peep Show’s Robert Webb and The Fault in Our Stars author John Green all have memoirs or novels about mental health coming out. Grayson Perry had great success with The Descent of Man — which happens to be almost exactly the book Haig had wanted to write about the dire state of masculinity, had Twitter not bitten his head off when he suggested it. I wonder how someone with anxiety can cope with so much social media immersion, but Haig insists that it has its benefits. “It’s sometimes nice just to test things and talk to readers and hear back,” he explains, “and it makes you feel real, like you’ve got a real job with real people and you’re not in your little ivory tower ... But when people get piled on, there’s nothing worse for your mental health.”

Born in Sheffield in 1975 and having lived in Nottinghamshire, Ibiza and London and studied in Hull and Leeds, Haig now lives in Brighton with his partner and two young children, who are home schooled, so “there’s always noise in the house. And I’ve got permanent tinnitus. And my brain is always chaos anyway from anxiety. And Twitter is just an externalised form of chaos, and sometimes that’s nice when you’ve got a lot of internalised chaos ...”

At one point he says: “I think Twitter is the exact opposite of a book. A book is such a considered thing, such a safe space of the mind where you just go to and it’s not immediately interactive and it has different eyes on it. Twitter, for me ... is just an impulsive rash response.”

Later, when we talk about his politics (vocal, generally left-ish but not strictly party political), he echoes this: “To be very strongly political is like being the opposite of a novelist: you almost need to only see one side, to be a successful politician, and a lot of things are not that clear cut.” It’s this kind of attitude that means he spends a lot of time arguing with racists, I suppose.

Haig does seem to have a very good sense of how to manage his own mental health. At one point our talk risks becoming rather dark, and I ask him how he deals with taking on other people’s trauma and anxiety. Doctors and therapists have structures in place to help them process what they hear; where does he put all that? “I put it into a book about Father Christmas!” he laughs. He is talking about the 2015 children’s book, A Boy Called Christmas, which immediately followed Reasons to Stay Alive. “I thought, ‘OK what’s the opposite of a slightly misery memoirish book?’ and I thought, ‘I know, I’ll write about Father Christmas!’”

While he has always steered clear of being a one-trick writer, Haig explains that it made no sense at that point in his career to write another children’s book. His books for adults were taking off and his children’s books were selling comparatively badly, but “when there’s no rational reason for you to do something but you still want to do it, that’s how you know it’s the right idea to do”. Serendipitously, just as he was casting around for an idea for a book about the opposite of depression, his son asked him what Father Christmas was like as a child, and an illustrated Santa Claus origin myth was born. The book is charming and sweetly funny, but not without moments of darkness. “I definitely don’t want to write a book that’s going to make any kid miserable,” he says. “I want to write books that make them happy. But to get there you have to acknowledge some of the darkness and death [in life]. And if you can find happiness within that, then you’ve really earned that happiness.” It is not unlike the story of his own mental health, after all.

Both A Boy Called Christmas and How to Stop Time have been optioned by the film company Studio Canal. Look away now if you’d like to read How to Stop Time without a pre-conceived image of Tom in your head, but Benedict Cumberbatch has been lined up to star. Haig isn’t interested in writing the scripts; he prefers to write new books than adapt old ones.

It is not surprising if his brain is chaotic; he is currently working on three. There’s another book for adults in the pipeline — though he recently scrapped a huge chunk of a realist novel-in-progress when he realised that his heart wasn’t in it: “Why am I stopping at the bounds of known reality when the purpose of fiction is to literally go where you want to go?” There’s a project about how the modern world is making us crazy by preying on our neuroses with advertising, fake news and the monetising of human fears. And there’s going to be a kids’ book set in space.

Haig refuses to be typecast or confined to a genre. “‘Are you a literary author?’” he mimics. “‘Are you the type of book that gets sold in airports? Are you a book club author?’ When I’m writing I really ignore that because I kind of resent it.” He does reflect that ”I suppose I’ve become a slightly more optimistic writer than I used to be. I used to think that if you were a ‘literary’ writer, you had to reflect the bleakness of existence and if you ever had a remotely happy ending you were selling out. That was just the typical, dark, twentysomething male author writing dark stuff. But I think, weirdly, depression made me a more optimistic writer because it taught me that the pessimism you have in your head isn’t always authentic.”

Haig is adamant that “one of the uses of the arts is to keep us sane”, and that “reading is a route out of yourself”. He is almost evangelical about the power of reading to do good.”I think books can save us and I think they sort of saved me,” he says. “Empathising isn’t just good for the person you’re empathising with; it’s good for yourself because it’s a way of getting perspective over your own life. You’re not the only person that matters in the world, and books are a great way of teaching yourself that.”

–Guardian News & Media Ltd

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