Profile of a Writer: Matt Haig

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Clare explores the work and public figure of Matt Haig, our former Writer in Residence and author of How to Stop Time.

Matt Haig, Falmouth University’s 2015 Writer-in-Residence, may not have any obvious ties to Cornwall, but his visits to the Duchy during the last three years have impacted on lucky writers and book lovers covering a broad demographic, across the county and beyond.

In entertaining and open style, Haig discussed his novels, relationships within the entertainment industry, with internet communities, and his future projects.

Three days spent at this year’s North Cornwall Book Festival held in St. Endemion (his first appearance there being two years ago), was a busy few days for the author. He delivered writing workshops to local school children, interviews to Falmouth University bloggers and insights on his authorial processes to a packed audience of enthusiastic adults, keen to know details about him and his writing.

In entertaining and open style, Haig discussed his novels, relationships within the entertainment industry, with internet communities, and his future projects.

Haig’s latest novel How to Stop Time, has an illustrated version due for release in November, supplemented with drawings by the former Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell. This illustration project began when Riddell was inspired to add drawings to a copy of the book, pictures of which then appeared on the internet. 

Haig’s first children’s novel was Shadow Forest (2007) and his Christmas children’s trilogy developed, firstly with The Boy Called Christmas (2015), after his son asked what Father Christmas was like as a child. He drew on his own experiences, and literary influences such as A Christmas Carol, The Snowman and The Little Match Girl, Susan Cooper’s series, The Dark is Rising, which is set against Cornish landscapes and Arthurian legends. 

A film version of How to Stop Time starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is in the planning and screenwriting stages. The acclaimed actor heard about the novel during the second edit and made it known through his own production company SunnyMarch, that he wanted to play Tom Hazard, the story’s lead protagonist.

Haig’s relationship with his current publisher sounds ideal; he writes adult and children’s fiction, and non-fiction, under Canongate’s label. They trust him to deliver great material and he feels lucky to work with this independent publisher. He has not been forced into any age or genre specific niche, saying he wants to write for everybody.

Reasons to Stay Alive (2015) is the bestselling non-fiction title based on Haig’s own experience of mental health issues. Vocal on this and other zeitgeist, in both print and digital media, he feels we are at the very beginning of our understanding of mental health and plans to write more on the subject.

Haig writes regularly for The Guardian, commenting on books, mental health and wider politics, contributing an article (Oct 2016) discussing “rigid masculine roles” in Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man. His own thoughts of writing on the same issue stalled due to negative feedback generated on the internet, specifically Twitter.

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He is a regular user of this and other social media but seems to have developed a love-hate relationship with the whole idea of late; initially viewing the web as a source for good, his more recent comments constitute a U-turn on his original thinking (Sep 2017).

When a reader of How to Stop Time was indignant about the protagonists meeting with Shakespeare, he took to Twitter to share his thoughts that this was unrealistic. Haig too was indignant in response. How could someone single out the meeting with Shakespeare as unrealistic when the protagonist was 439 years old?

Haig told the audience at the North Cornwall Book Festival that he had a lot of fun playing with the idea of time within this novel. In an interview for The Telegraph (July 2017), he had said a lot of his writing was “about being ill and getting better,” with this story based on his experience of anxiety and depression, where “days felt like years…trapped in the present moment…like a nightmare version of mindfulness.”

As a time-travelling history teacher with anageria, a condition that ages him incredibly slowly, Tom Hazard meets figures such as Charlie Chaplin and F. Scott Fitzgerald as well as Shakespeare. He admits Fitzgerald is superfluous to the plot, but was fun to include.

This is not the first time Shakespeare has appeared in Haig’s novels. His first novel The Last Family in England (2004), is based on Henry IV and The Dead Father’s Club (2006) on Hamlet. Haig told Radio 4 (2014): “If you’re going to steal from someone go for Shakespeare…He can’t sue me, it’ll be fine! Actually, Shakespeare stole plots himself so I feel legitimate in doing that with Shakespeare.”

Haig has lost of ideas for his next project, he likes to listen to music as he works and writes for the joy of writing. He obviously has a deep love for books and has lots to say about this and other issues – check out the blog posts on his website, his social media and articles in the newspapers to find out more about Matt Haig.

by Clare Heath