Author Talks: Matt Haig

Author Matt Haig sat down with festival blogger Lizzie Arnold on Friday to talk about his visit to the North Cornwall Book Festival and about his books.

Hi Matt, I really enjoyed your talk earlier! How’s the festival going so far?

I’ve always liked coming to this festival. I came here two years ago, because it’s nice to be in Cornwall, and they’d look after you quite well, and you were in a nice cottage, so it’s one of those events where I take the whole family with me. Normally, you’re asked to do a festival and you go somewhere and you treat it as work, whereas with this, as well as a little bit of work, it’s also a nice weekend away. And this year, as Patrick Gale, one of the organisers, was telling me, this year’s the fifth year, and it’s the first year where it’s really taking off.

How did you find your young readers workshop?

It was okay! I’m a little bit rusty, because I basically do a Christmas book tour every year, but because this was called a ‘workshop,’ I felt I had to give them something to do, so that was a bit unusual for me. But I think it went down okay.

I think it went really well – the children really seemed to enjoy it. According to your website, you’ve written novels, journalism, children’s novels and screenplays. Which of these do you most enjoy writing?

Children’s book and adult novels I kind of see as the same thing, because every book feels different to every other book. I like doing the balance between kids’ books and adult books – they’re the two that I really feel. I have written non-fiction, and I’m writing another non-fiction at the moment, but I see that as a limited thing, where I will end up stopping doing it. With the fiction, I feel like it can keep going, and I’ve got more ideas than I’ll ever be able to write. I wouldn’t want to choose between children’s and adult’s because I kind of see them as a nice balance.

Do you have a number one favourite genre to write?

Not really – I like to mix up genres. I try and resist being a straightforward ‘genre writer,’ so even though I do write fantasy, or science-fiction, I always mix it with realism, comedy, tragedy… I think genres are brilliantly useful for publishers but not always massively useful when you’re coming up with ideas because they can limit you. Some people are different, some people like to stay within one genre and just go deeper and deeper and deeper, but I like to mix it up. If you go back far enough, all genres used to be mixed up – Shakespeare used to mix up genres, go back to Homer, the Ancient Greeks – it was all mixed up, history and mythology and so on.

Your workshop today focussed on children and children’s literature – why is this a particularly important genre for you? Is it to do with having children?

Yeah, although I wrote two children’s books before even having children, but having children has definitely given me more incentive. I like writing for children because even though their vocabularies are narrower, their imaginations are wider, so it’s more freeing in a way than adult books.

Do you have a favourite children’s book?

I have lots of favourite children’s books! I grew up loving Roald Dahl and all of the obvious ones, and there’s a book called The Little Wooden Horse that I used to love. As a teenager my favourite book was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, but we didn’t really have Young Adult books as such as we do now, so I used to read a lot of Stephen King when I was an early teenager. I’d always say Roald Dahl was a sort of archetype. There was another book called Bridge to Terabithia – it’s a very sad book, actually. It was one of those ones that sort of shook me as a young person.

I’ve heard that you have some exciting film work on the horizon, specifically for your books A Boy Called Christmas and How to Stop Time. I’m sure you can’t go into much detail, but would you like to talk about it a bit?

They’ve both been optioned as returners by Studio Canal – they’re the biggest European studios so they’ve got lots of money. A Boy Called Christmas is with them and a company called Blueprint and we’ve got scripts written. They’re just looking for a director. How to Stop Time – the script is on the way, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s company, Sunnymarch, have also bought the rights with Studio Canal. He’s touched to play Tom Hazard, the main character. The screenwriter is Anthony McCarten, who wrote The Theory of Everything, the Stephen Hawking movie, and he’s written lots of other stuff, and he’s won BAFTAs and things. It’s like a dream come true in terms of the quality of people, and obviously with an A-list actor like Benedict attached, it conjures up lots of interest and gets lots of directors to read it. So I think things are going to plan. But it’s film, so to keep sane, you just crack on with the next book and not think about it too much.

One of your most successful books is Reasons to Stay Alive. A good friend gave it to me, and I just wanted to say thank you for writing it. I think it’s such an incredible thing that you’ve done to put it out into the world, and that it’s still helping so many people, even though it was published over two years ago. How would you say that writing it and getting it out into the world has impacted on your life?

It took me a long time to get round to writing it – I don’t know if I’d have ever written it if I hadn’t been asked to write it. Someone in the book industry, Cathy Rentzenbrink – who now lives in Falmouth, actually – she was the person who suggested that I write about my own experience of depression, and I did. It took me a long time to write, but when I did start writing it, it was very easy to write, very short to write. I knew the story. It wasn’t a case of – people always say, “was it hard to go back there?” but because I had lived with mental illness on and off for so long, that part of my life was always, always there. It felt like more of a letting go than a going back. The difficult bit was after it was published. After doing lots of events about it, and when it was doing really well – it was number one on the charts and loads of people were reading it – but I was getting tons and tons of emails from people who were ill, and in vulnerable parts. I went through like a month of anxiety; I was then suddenly in a position where I felt like a fraud because I was suffering anxiety and I’d written a book about mental health, and also, I was a hypochondriac who would just have to hear about symptoms and start feeling symptoms and get triggered.

Me too. (laughs)

(laughs) And particularly with mental health. And it’s very easy with mental health to actually think yourself into it because you don’t actually have to change your body, you just have to change your mind. It was hard for a little while, the intensity of it, not because it was doing well, but because it was that book. And I was thinking, you know, I’d always wanted a book that had broken through, that was a ‘big book’, but yes, it was difficult it being that book at that time. Now I’ve absorbed it and I’d still pick that as a book I’m most thankful for having written; I don’t necessarily think it’s my best-written book, but it’s the one that’s been most useful to people, and so for that reason, I’m thankful and I’ve come to peace with it.

And if there is one thing that you would like others to take away from the book, what would it be?

It’s weird, isn’t it, because I’m not a doctor or anything. I think I wrote it to make people feel less alone and to understand that their present self, especially if they’re a young person feeling out their present self, is not going to be their future self, and that there’s a million other versions of themselves in different times of their life. It’s not like life’s some perfect thing waiting for them, but it’s just that there are lots of brilliant, perfect, wonderful moments within that; that is worth waiting for. And there will be moments when you’re so thankful that you hadn’t done anything stupid at that time.

Your video, How To Be A Writer, made me laugh a lot when I visited your website. What compelled you to make it?

Oh dear. I don’t know! I was going through a silly patch. I don’t know, I think I’d been doing a lot of tweets called ‘how to be a writer’ about then, so I thought it would be a good idea. I’d seen a lot of quite pretentious YouTube videos, and I thought I’d do something which was taking the mickey out of myself but also out of writing advice in general. I give writing advice, and I’ve taught writing advice, but I still think there’s something funny about when writers do it, so I was just… being pretentious.

It’s been such a pleasure to talk with you – thank you very much. I hope you enjoy the rest of the festival!

You too! Thank you very much!