Last month I was lucky enough to attend a fully-booked author event in Hull Central Library, featuring the enormously successful Matt Haig, author of The Humans and Reasons To Stay Alive (and who, by the way, is a fellow Hull University alumn and I had no idea!)
Matt’s most recent book, Reasons To Stay Alive, was the main focus of the book event, but he discussed most of his novels and writing. In a Q&A session with Hull author Russ Litten, Matt talked at length about his continuous struggles with mental illness and depression and how it shaped his writing and reading habits over the years. He began with an explanation of his breakdown which happened to him in his early twenties – how he was in a constant state of pure panic, how the breakdown was physical as well as mental, how he was in terrible discomfort for a week and couldn’t eat or sleep. He felt suicidal, and even when the worst of it passed, it was a condition that never quite went away.
“Even when I was at my best, depression and anxiety fluttered around at the back of my brain like butterflies – I was never completely free of them.”
Back at his parents’ house, where he spent his time in recovery, he found that he couldn’t bring himself to read.
“At my lowest point, I couldn’t read at all,” he explained. “My anxiety was at its loudest volume and I couldn’t cut through that long enough to concentrate on reading.”
Even when he did start reading, he could only bring himself to read his childhood books, and nothing more. Reading was a source of comfort for him, but only when he was reading things that were familiar. He couldn’t face anything new, or, essentially, the ‘unknown’. As someone who has a family member diagnosed with GAD, I could understand this perfectly. Familiarity often makes us feel safe, and a familiar world within a familiar book is one of the safest places to be – at least mentally.
So, how did Matt’s struggles with his mental health affect his writing and the novels that we, as his fans, have come to love?
When asked if he enjoyed much creative writing in university, before he suffered the breakdown, Matt quipped, “Are you kidding? I barely even wrote my essays!”
However, he did begin to write after the anxiety and depression kicked in. A lot of Matt’s writing is in some way influenced by his struggles with depression. His first novel, The Last Family in England, was written soon after his breakdown occurred, and he was suffering from separation anxiety from his girlfriend. His mum was battling cancer and he was unemployed, and needed something to occupy himself and fill the time.
So, did he start writing novels expecting to be published?
“Of course not!” he giggled. “You don’t start writing with a view to getting published, only to start writing in the point of view of dogs and writing mild satires of Shakespearean plays! Initially when I started writing, it was a coping mechanism. Getting published was an added bonus.”
After a number of rejections from agents and publishers, the book was finally published. At the event, he described The Last Family in England as a “selfie of the mind” – a reflection of how he was feeling at the time. He wouldn’t write anything like that now, he explained, but it needed to be written at the time. He described how a lot of his writing at that time involved short sentences, short paragraphs and a lot of white spaces. He wanted to make his work accessible, something that wasn’t hard work or which took a lot of effort to read. “I was recovering from the depression, but I still wasn’t completely back to normal,” he explained. “I needed to deal with something that wasn’t too difficult or heavy. I wanted to have fun, to keep my mind off my predicament, and this novel helped me do that.”
Matt’s second novel Dead Father’s Club was much darker, he explained, because he was sinking bank into illness and depression. It was a tough time; he suffered from ‘second novel syndrome’ and looking back, he said, he could tell in his writing that his mind was in a darker place. Dead Father’s Club tells the story of a young boy who loses his father and is visited by his ghost (and is in this way loosely based on Hamlet.) It deals with a noticeably more serious subject matter, and is therefore another of his works that was influenced by his emotions.
Haig’s book The Radleys is based on a family of vampires who attempt to curb their appetites and desires in order to fit in. They have to make compromises in order to appear normal to the outside world. Matt highlighted the parallels between the stigma of being a vampire in the novel and the stigma of mental illness in the real world. “I have always been very resistant to stigmatising and I fight against discrimination of people with depression and anxiety, because I’ve been on both sides myself.”
So that explains The Radleys, Russ Litten commented. But why did you decide to write a novel from the point of view of an alien?
“When you’re writing, sometimes you need to take a big step back and look at the bigger picture, like when an artist is looking at a painting they’re working on,” Matt explained. “With The Humans, I was able to do that. I was able to write a narrator that looks at the human race from the outside in, and in this way I could easily show how alien the world can seem. I don’t have answers to the big questions in life, and so The Humans allowed me to ask the questions and ponder why we are the way we are. The alien is an outsider and that’s how I often felt when I was ill.
“On the other hand, I didn’t want it to be all doom and gloom. I injected humour and light-heartedness into the novel, because, let’s face it – the human race is pretty damn funny!”
The discussion then moved on to his most recent novel, Reasons to Stay Alive. It was recently published to enormous acclaim and achieved instant popularity. Many have described it as a ‘Zen Bible’ and is a true testament that positive feeling and thinking can prevail. “I tried to explain through this book that the cliché of depression is a model that doesn’t fit everyone. I also wanted to give a positive message to my readers – as bad as life gets, there is always a reason to stay alive, and I truly believe that.”
In light of your occasionally fragile state of mind, Russ Litten put to Haig, how do you deal with negative criticism?
“Badly! As is to be expected, I loved praise, but hated criticism. That said, I don’t think the book blogging and book review world is critical enough! All of these bloggers who receive free copies left, right and centre – they’re too scared to look nasty or to give genuinely critical reviews. They want to be liked and to continue getting books but they need to know that it’s OK to criticise something. This fake culture isn’t healthy for the book world. We can’t evolve with fake praise.”
“That said,” he continued with a chuckle, “I still don’t want to see bad reviews of my OWN books. I’ll pretend they’re not there!”
When asked by Russ Litten if writing helped his condition, Matt launched into a powerful and moving discussion of literature and books. He explained, “Writing has always given me something to focus on. Paid writing in particular gave me a real boost, a reason to live, if you will. Talking is therapeutic, but it can be both physically and mentally hard to speak when ill. Writing can help overcome that – when I wrote, it felt like a lightening of the weight in my brain. Taking something painful and giving it language, a thing that is shared by all humans, tames the problem and makes it manageable. When I was depressed, I felt alone, divorced from the world. But language is the umbilical cord that connects us back to each other, and to life….
“Being bookish is a way out of loneliness. You can find comfort and a friend in a book. It can help you find a way back into life.”
“A story, in its most basic form, is a form of change. When you’re feeling ill and trapped, all you want to do it buy into the idea of change. I grew a taste for stories that I was previously cynical about. This is why books and stories can therapeutic to atheists…they give us hope, and a reason to stay alive.”
Matt is just as brilliant with words and language in person as he is on the page. This was a truly inspiring event to be a part of. No matter what Matt Haig was feeling when he wrote each book, as a big fan of his I can truly say that he wrote some truly fantastic novels. As he said repeatedly, each piece of his work has been affected in some way by his state of mind but that in writing each one he helped himself to come to terms with it and make sense of it in a wider context.
A parting word from Matt: “Strange as it sounds, I am glad I’ve had depression. In some ways it changes you for good.”
It definitely resulted in some truly amazing work.
A big thank you to Head In A Book for making this event happen!