‘Having depression doesn’t make you immune to happiness’
Matt Haig on life after depression, negative reviews and his new book ‘How to Stop Time’
Author Tim Haig: his new book ‘How To Stop Time’ has already been optioned for the big screen by Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company, Sunnymarch. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Matt Haig writes books about vampires and aliens but they don’t take readers on escapist voyages to other planets. Rather, they are firmly grounded on this one.
The Humans tells the story of an alien who takes the identity of a university lecturer in mathematics. The Radleys are an ordinary, everyday family of abstaining vampires. The narrator of his new novel How to Stop Time – one of the most eagerly awaited fictional releases of the summer season – is a history teacher at a London comprehensive school. And he’s 400 years old.
“Technically,” says Haig, “all my books are fantasy. But I’m not really a fantasy geek. I like having the licence to do what you want – but at the same time, to do what you want in a way that sharpens our gaze upon ourselves. To have someone who can infiltrate human life but have that outside perspective.”
In How to Stop Time, Tom Hazard suffers from a rare condition which means that he ages very, very slowly. He muses on the eccentricity of humanity – and the possible superiority of turtles – as the story zips back and forth from one historical period to another. He drinks cocktails in Paris with Scott and Zelda FitzGerald, visits the Dakota building in New York when it still isn’t quite finished, gets a job as a lute player with the backing band at the Globe Theatre.
All this is fun to read and easy to navigate, thanks to short chapters with signposted headings: “London, now” or “Paris, 1929”.
‘I write in a very haphazard way’
How did the author keep it together when he was writing the book? “Well, I write in a very haphazard way,” Haig says. “I will start with scenes that interest me. So I didn’t write all the Elizabethan stuff together and all the Victorian stuff together. It made the editing tricky. Continuity was a nightmare. But the payoff is a better book, because just in that moment you’re writing the book you want to write.”
The longevity conceit allows Hazard/Haig to philosophise, in a fairly light-hearted way, about human obsessions and certainties
Having Shakespeare play a cameo role was, Haig admits, a bit of literary self-indulgence. “If I had been doing a creative writing course they’d say, ‘Ugh, don’t put Shakespeare in as an actual person’. But one of the themes of the book is how the past shapes the present. And even though Shakespeare has influenced us and our language so much, in England he’s seen as a dry, dead thing. I thought it would be good to imagine him as a smoking, drinking, real human being.”
The longevity conceit allows Hazard/Haig to philosophise, in a fairly light-hearted way, about human obsessions and certainties. “The longer you live, the more you realise that nothing is fixed. Everyone will become a refugee if they live long enough. Everyone would realise that their nationality means little in the long run. Everyone would see their world views challenged and disproved. Everyone would realise that the thing that defines a human being is being a human.”
Early in How To Stop Time, Tom Hazard discovers he’s not the only human being with his condition. There are others. There’s a society. And – without wishing to give away any crucial plot details – there’s danger. If you’re thinking that this would make a great movie, you’re not the only one. How To Stop Time has already been optioned for the big screen by Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company, Sunnymarch.
Is Haig excited by the prospect? Well, he’s delighted by the prospective casting of Cumberbatch in the role of Tom Hazard. “He’s got the intensity. There’s an intensity in his eyes, isn’t there? Tom is carrying 400 years, so you need someone who can carry off that belief, that they could have lived for that long.”
As for the movie, however, only time – ironically enough – will tell. “All my books have been optioned for films,” Haig says with a bleak smile. “You take the option money each time it’s renewed, and that’s about it.”
Because it has Cumberbatch on board, he reckons How To Stop Time is a bit more hopeful. “It’s not a dead cert, but a little bit more likely. So by the law of averages, at some point – if I just keep doing this – the odds are gonna be in my favour.”
It sounds like the sort of thing many successful novelists might say. But for Haig, there was a time when it wasn’t by any means certain that he would keep on doing anything. In his 20s he was overtaken by depression and came close to taking his own life. He chronicled the experience in 2015, in the non-fiction book Reasons To Stay Alive. “In my head I saw Reasons as a side project – something I felt I needed to write for a very specific audience,” he explains.
If I’m ever feeling fragile, getting loads of emails from people who are feeling even more fragile can have a sort of knock-on effect
To the surprise of his publishers – and himself – the book became a word-of-mouth bestseller. In fact, it ended up as the second highest-selling non-fiction book of 2016. “It was great,” Haig says. “But it’s a bit of a double-edged sword as well.
“If I’m ever feeling fragile, getting loads of emails from people who are feeling even more fragile can have a sort of knock-on effect. I don’t regret writing it – hearing from people whose lives you’ve apparently ‘saved’ is an an amazing thing. But it’s a hard thing to absorb.”
So, he adds, are negative reviews. “I’m not the best at dealing with bad reviews anyhow. But with a novel you’re one step removed. When you’re getting a bad review for a memoir, it’s your life that’s being reviewed. Like, on Amazon. I mean, I shouldn’t even ever look – but it’s your personality they’re reviewing. That was trickier than I realised it would be.”
In the strident world of online opinion, there are also those who take a dim view of a mere novelist having the cheek to step into this very sensitive sociological arena. “Occasionally you get a backlash because people think you’re the voice of mental health – which is not what I ever set out to be,” Haig says.
I’m just saying that suicidal thinking is not your most rational self. You possibly will stay ill for ever – but you’re not going to stay in that moment forever. You will be happy again
“People who haven’t read the book think that I’m saying there’s always a cure and everyone will get better. That’s absolutely not it.
“I’m just saying that suicidal thinking is not your most rational self. You possibly will stay ill for ever – but you’re not going to stay in that moment forever. You will be happy again. As weird as it may sound, having depression doesn’t make you immune to happiness. In some ways my life has been happier this side of depression than it was before, because it makes you appreciate life.
“It made me get physically healthier. And thinner skinned, but in a good way. Like, you’re thinner skinned so you actually enjoy things. Before, I used to always have to drink to excess or listen to the loudest music or read the edgiest books. Everything had to be extreme. Whereas now I can live at a lower volume and actually appreciate . . . just breathing.”
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig is published by Canongate