Matt Haig is a critically acclaimed writer whose work has been now been translated into 29 languages.
His first novel, The Last Family in England (2004) was a UK best-seller. which was the product of what would become a long road of effort to drive himself out of depression. Matt told us about how he fought with week long panic attacks, as well as depression. He suffered from these afflictions from being in his late teens up to present day, and he has used his writing to project himself and come to terms with depression.
He regaled us with his strife’s of how he went from hiding within the better times of literatures from his youth (The Outsiders by S E Hinton) to slowly building up to penning his work on his first of many works: The Last Family in England which is a story of a family of four told from the perspective of the family dog..which proved to be the beginning of his forward course to “Normalcy” this and through his career from The Radleys, to The Humans until finally finishing on his latest work Reasons to Stay Alive.
When asked: Did you always think that you would be a published Author?
he replied with : “You don’t sit down and think you are going to be a published author. and then write a story about four human from the perspective of a dog, the story of which is loosely based on a obscure Shakespeare play that you once did in A Level“
He then went on and explained his inspiration toward his first novel and how he attempted to emulate the alien-ness of the subject in relation to his afflictions as well as by writing it similar to that of an David Attenborough nature documentary, so we are seen as a separate “Alien” entity by the dog and again in his later work “The Humans” by the Alien counterpart. Despite the fact that a lot of Haig’s writing is somewhat heavy and at times very serious, it is still without its odd element of light comedy such as quotes saying:
” Humans, they F*@k you up, they don’t mean to but they do”
The Radleys, another of his stories from the perspective of another fictional Minority, this time Vampires, used the vampiric condition as a metaphor for desires, making the characters hide and compress both their nature and their feelings in order to live and ordinary life in a modern society, so much so it was even hidden from their children, only to have their world turned upside-down by their eldest daughter being attacked. This resulted in her nature coming to the surface, thus throwing the family into chaos their once balanced status quo completely out of whack.
Most of Matt Haig’s stories where about an unseen or unheard protagonist or symptom each connecting back to the authors somewhat crippling unseen affliction. When looking at the portfolio of books it seems like all of his work was leading up to his most recent work “Reasons to Stay Alive” which underlines his struggle and approach to dealing with his depression and anxiety. He described his condition as felling as though “he was trapped in a window of a burning building” and found himself asking the same questions as Sylvia Plath, “is there any way out of your mind?” which not only scared the pants off him, but me as well, when presented with such a question in his current state of mind I couldn’t fathom what my answer would be, however over much trial and turmoil he had decided .
“That there is no real way out, BUT the mind changes and is not in a consistent state.. so it’s a matter of finding the right ingredients be it therapy, prescribed medication.. but when you do everything balances itself out.”
Matt then did a reading of the first thing he ever wrote that was published which was a chapter entitled Garden from The Last Family in England. Which described the thoughts and feelings of the main protagonist (Prince the dog) during his time in the garden while his human “master” a school teacher teacher, wrestled with a rosebush in order to make sure nature knew its place, before taking him for his afternoon walk, avoiding children he may teach and through the age old activity conducted between man and man’s best friend, that ritual known as fetch.
He then went on to read a segment of his newest book, from a chapter entitled “in praise of thin skin”
I found the second reading particularly powerful, and through the Interview/reading I have now begun to build an understanding the terrors of depression. As well to understand the feelings that Matt and countless others have to deal with on a daily basis. This unseen affliction that grips many in our nation, nay the world. It helped give me a perspective that I never had before, and for that I am very pleased I had the opportunity to hear him speak on such matters.
Many hold his latest work “Reasons to Stay Alive” as a Zen bible and from the reading and discussion my Matt Haig it is easy to see why.
The floor was then open to questions from the audience to Matt Haig:
How did you cope with the reviews, with both public praise and ridicule?
Pretty Badly, as I have somewhat of a Neurotic tendency I loved the reviews that told me my work was great, but loathed and got very down about the Amazon 1 star review type reception”. However he went on to explain, how he feels as though there is far to much positivity in the book world, and that book bloggers should feel that they cant state what they really feel about a work, but instead catering to the needs of both the writer and publisher saying the work is great, and not giving a true personal reflection upon it.
What was the last book that got you hooked, the last one you where really excited about?
The last book that got me excited was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by
How did you remember your feelings and emotions towards your symptoms to write them down so clearly in your books?
Despite the fact that I have a bad memory. Its the same now as it has ever been, you never really escape depression, you relive it. Flip side is that you can build up a bank of bad days through flashbacks of emotions and the feeling of being utterly lost in despair, its like an act of therapy, and very easy to write as its all there just waiting to be written.
Are you more or less productive when you are “down” (in a state of depression)?
Yes and No, when I was really ill, no I didn’t have the energy to do anything, not even nip down the corner shop for some milk, let alone read or even write, but over time it became therapeutic and cathartic to write, so those where the times I did so, and without my depression I think its safe to say I probably wouldn’t be a writer.
Is there a book in you, that you haven’t written yet, or that you are scared to write?
Yes there are a few infact –
One of my aspirations is to one day write a novel about a relationship that is souley written through the dialogue of conversations the couple have and it would be entitled “The Conversations”
Secondly I am currently working on a piece loosely written on the concept of immortality, except the immortality in question isn’t real it is in fact just a select number of humans that age very slowly and are wanted for scientific study, these humans have lived hundreds of years undercover and often in isolation as they where often burnt alive or trialled as demons in times past.
How did you come up with the title “Reasons to Stay Alive”?
The Reasons to stay alive came about, as I had began a blog with such a title in order to document and help with the therapeutic process of my condition once I began writing the book someone had got wind of the blog (I cant remember who) and from then on it was always known as The Reasons to Stay Alive.
The event then concluded, and we all went down to the Old English Gent, for a cheeky pint!, it was a very interesting and enjoyable evening, I hope to cover more Head in a Book events in the future.
Until next time, read more books!