Never one to shy away from the darker tendencies of human nature, Matt Haig is a writer who approaches those subjects in novel ways, from a retelling of Henry IV, Part 1 with dogs in his 2005 debut The Last Family in England (The Labrador Pact in the US) which he followed up with The Dead Fathers Club, a modern version of Hamlet. More recently he has tackled vampires trying to assimilate into English suburbia in the critically acclaimed The Radleys and an alien who finds marriage and children more complicated than jumping between planets in The Humans. While attending the Edinburgh Book Festival on Sunday 18th August, he was kind enough to talk with Geek Chocolate about music, movies and how humanity looks from the outside.
Geek Chocolate – In both The Radleys and The Humans, there’s a huge sense of being the outsider, trying to be accepted, but both are also terribly British books, the way the characters deal with the situations. Are we a particularly difficult and contradictory society?
Matt Haig – I think so. I recently had a holiday in California, and coming back home there is a difference in terms of the smile ratio and the fact that we’re quite a crowded, cramped up society and yet we are very spatially unaware.
We pretend we’re not there a lot of the time, we’re sort of locked into ourselves, I think, despite being surrounded by ourselves because we’re a relatively small island. And I think we’re more obsessed by class as well, that’s the other thing, and regional differences. I think we’ve got all sorts of issues, given our relatively small size.
GC – In the best of the golden age of science fiction, the tools of genre were used to examine ideas of human identity as we moved forward as a species, but in both those novels you used them to hold an immediate mirror, examining loneliness, isolation, depression. Why did you choose to write these novels as genre?
MH – Well, I don’t know! If you look at the books I wrote before this, they weren’t strictly genre, they were more straightforward literary fiction, and I think it took me a while to get the confidence to actually write books that would be classed as genre. I think it’s as simple a reason as I have a lot of fun writing that stuff, because as soon as you cross the line from straightforward realist, whether it’s present day or historical fiction, to something where anything can happen, I just find it unlocks a little door in your imagination.
And also, for me, I’m not an escapist genre author, although I hope that people do enjoy the books, it’s more that I try and use it as metaphor. It has to fit. Vampires match the repression, and I feel that by making it a fable, making it a fantasy, you can hopefully have more power than if you’re doing it straight. Animal Farm is probably a better book than if it was about Trotsky and Lenin.
GC – When reading The Humans, and this is big praise, I kept being reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5, your Vonnadorians serving the same narrative function as Billy Pilgrim’s Tralfamadorians. Was that intentional?
MH – Yes, the Vonn was a direct nudge. No-one gets that. It’s a combination between Vonnegut and Tralfamadorian. So yes, definitely, although obviously I don’t class it in the same league as Slaughterhouse-5. Slaughterhouse-5 is quite an angry book from the depths of his soul, whereas my influences are that, but also Douglas Adams, a bit more easy going family fiction or relationship fiction like Nick Hornby, so all sorts in there.
But yes, he was my guide, Slaughterhouse-5 especially which could be saying a lot about real life, in that case the Second World War, real experiences, and yet be totally fantastical at the same time. That is total fantasy yet you cannot read Slaughterhouse-5 without escaping the fact that he is talking directly about real, important, serious issues. I wanted The Humans to feel real at the same time as feeling very far-fetched.
GC – You’ve very much answered my next question already, as another voice I felt coming through, and again, this is huge praise, exemplified by lines such as “This was England, a part of Earth where thinking about the weather was the chief human activity,” was the late, wonderful Douglas Adams.
MH – Well I was a massive Douglas Adams geek. I wasn’t really a science fiction geek in terms of books, I was in terms of films, but Douglas Adams was the exception, all of them. I think I read them in reverse order. I started with The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and worked my way back, and yes, just loved it.
It was one of the first books I didn’t feel like I was reading a book, it felt too much fun. Books for me, up until teen years, were definitely something that teachers gave you or your mother was pleased you had read, but you didn’t read them, as opposed to watching Star Wars or The A-Team. It was the first time reading felt like something I wanted to do more than watch the telly or playing on the computer, I want to be reading Douglas Adams, so yes, absolutely.
GC – Another line which stuck with me was “Humans don’t like mad people unless they are good at painting, and only then once they are dead.” The British are perhaps stereotyped with the stiff upper lip, not talking about problems, which if anything makes the problems worse, but you’ve been very open about your own bouts of depression, both on your website and as made very clear in the background of The Humans. Has the book helped, and do you feel it has helped others?
MH – I had fun writing it. I was worried about writing it because of that, because even though it was fantasy, it did have that personal, autobiographical weird element to it, but it just felt really fun. I wouldn’t know if it was cathartic. I just feel glad know that I’ve got those things out of me, in quite an abstract way. And if it helps others, that’s a bonus. I wouldn’t say that was my sole reason.
I’ve sort of joked about it being like a self-help novel, but I sort of cringe at that idea. First and foremost I want people to enjoy the book, but if you’re contributing to the world, if you’ve got a relatively short space of life and you’re creating things, you might as well try and create things that are useful to people and helpful to people, even if you’re writing fiction.
I still think that can be one of the functions of fiction, so yes, with this, out of eight books I’ve written, the first one that I actually did have that slight imagining of a reader and imagining someone who was depressed, actually trying to pull them up. A lot of the time I was actually imagining myself about twelve years ago, but some of the time I was imagining a sort of vague, faceless reader, who was in a dark place, male, female, whatever. Yeah, fiction as anti-depressant. I don’t know.
I do get, with this more than any of the other books, quite touching, heartfelt letters. I don’t know how much is necessarily to do with the book and how much is to do with the personal note at the back, putting it together in my mind afterwards, but it’s obviously nice. It can be overwhelming if you get a lot of people with these very dark experiences, when you’re part author and part agony uncle.
It’s strange but it’s good, and it’s made me reassess what I want to do next, where I want to go, the writer/reader relationship and stuff like that.
GC – Andrew is constantly shocked by the brutality of humans to each other, how they create industries with the sole purpose of making people feel bad about themselves, and you yourself a couple of weeks ago were threatening to quit Twitter when the trolling was drowning out the genuine communication. Certainly you’re not the only one who has recently been having issues with that particular medium. Is sometimes the best thing you can do is turn off the computer, walk away and go to a safe place where you can be yourself?
MH – Yes, it’s something I’m trying to learn to do. I have quite an addictive personality, so I often dig deeper rather than just walk away, Twitter especially. I used to feel like I wasn’t very good at Twitter and I used to do it intermittently, then I started taking it seriously last year when the Book Trust asked me to do their blogs, so I upped my online presence deliberately and I knew I had this book coming out, so I’ve been slightly cynical in just thinking I’d raise my profile this way.
It sort of worked, but the flipside of that is that as soon as you raise your profile in any way and you’re saying something which is deliberately provocative in some ways, and also when you’re selling yourself like that, you’re going to get people getting annoyed and come back, especially as the followers numbers build up. So, yeah, I need to learn to walk away.
It is a double edged sword, but I don’t regret it, because between Twitter and Facebook, it gives writers a safety net in terms of their career. We forever feel we’re out of control, standing outside our career watching, we never know what’s happening in the sales and marketing meetings, whereas this we have an illusion of control.
That particular trolling incident caught me on a very bad week, terrible jet lag, feeling ill, hadn’t slept and it all just came together, was feeling borderline depressed, so I just went out and did that. I don’t know if it was wise or not.
GC – You’ve also got a successful career as a children’s writer, Shadow Forest, The Runaway Troll and this year To Be A Cat. Do the two sides complement each other, and other than a different prose style, do you approach them in the same way?
MH – Relatively the same way, yes, certainly now my adult stuff is getting a bit more fun. Actually, I’m only thinking about this for the first time now, since I started writing kids’ books, my style for the adult books has got a bit more fun and playful, vampires and aliens, they could be kids’ books if you did them in a different way, so yeah, I suppose it’s having an effect.
I like alternating, one adult book, one kids’ book, because it does feel different, and I think the biggest threat to your career is getting bored of writing, because as soon as you get bored of writing you start writing crap, and you’ve got to try and change it.
GC – In The Humans, Andrew draws great comfort and inspiration from music, Beethoven, Beatles and Bowie, but in both that and The Radleys, the son sits upstairs in his room playing the music of misery. Where on the spectrum do your own tastes lie?
MH – They’ve been in both places. As a teenager I was massively into The Cure, and I wasn’t fully goth in terms of what I looked like, but that was my taste. If I’d have had more courage I would have probably looked like a teenage Robert Smith. Yeah, big hair. My cousin was like that actually, he got me into it.
I had an older cousin who lived near Brighton and he took me to my first concert which was The Cure, and it was very sort of gloomy, but then I got into happy clappy dance ravey music, and now I’ve been a parent for five years, so you have that hiatus where you just feel completely detached and you play the Beach Boys and songs from years and years ago because you’ve completely lost touch with what’s happening in contemporary culture.
So it’s a total smorgasbord now, I like gloomy stuff, I like happy stuff. All time… Beach Boys and Prince are probably my two. Totally different, obviously.
GC – Around The World In A Day is a brilliant album.
MH – Yeah. And Sign o’ The Times. With the Beach Boys I’ve just got their biggest greatest hits on four CDs, just whack it on, love it.
GC – The Radleys is told from multiple perspectives, but The Humans moves to a single, very strong, authorial voice. Were you ever tempted to show Andrew as seen by others, or was it a conscious and deliberate choice to have it entirely from his sometimes skewed perspective, by his own admission, an unreliable narrator?
MH – Yes, it was definitely my intention with the whole book, before I even had the name Andrew, before anything, was the human species from an outside perspective, so it was almost like a David Attenborough commentary on us, so I always thought it was going to be one person doing that.
I’m regretting that now because I’m writing the screenplay for The Humans and it’s very hard to adapt because so much of it goes on, so much of the humour, the lines I’m most proud of, are just thoughts. How to voice them without doing voiceo
ver? I really don’t want to do voiceover.
GC -That was something Pinter wanted to avoid when he did The Handmaid’s Tale but it didn’t work. Sometimes you have to go for the voiceover.
MH – There are load of classics, Apocalypse Now… I think the trick with voiceover is not to do too much exposition, to do too much lazy storytelling, if you’re actually undercutting what you’re watching on screen.
GC – Heathers, Winona Ryder and her diary entries.
MH – Going back to my goth teen years, Heathers was the film for me. Winona Ryder was my poster girl.
GC – And in Beetlejuice, too, I bet.
MH – Oh, Beetlejuice!
GC – You mentioned science fiction films earlier; which were the ones for you?
MH – Well, just the big blockbusters, Star Wars, Ridley Scott, Blade Runner, lots of films I can’t remember, really rubbish B-movies from the eighties. There was one called Space Pirates which probably no-one knows now.
GC – I know Ice Pirates or Space Hunter.
MH – Ice Pirates! It might be Ice Pirates. That was set in space.
GC – Yes, but it wasn’t a B-movie, it was about a D-movie.
MH – Yes, it was terrible. Also another film which you’re not meant to like, Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, stuff like that. I just liked anything spacey. But mainly Star Wars, over and over and over again, especially Return of the Jedi, because that was the first one that I saw at the cinema.
GC – I know that there is a long road between the optioning by a studio and walking down the red carpet on opening night, but I understand that The Radleys has been optioned by director Alfonso Cuarón. He’s got a wide and varied slate, from Y Tu Mamá También, the brutal but uplifting Children of Men, Prisoner of Azkaban, easily the best of the Potters, and this year Gravity, which could be the film that takes him to the A list. How far along are plans for The Radleys, and how much involvement do you have?
MH – The Radleys and The Humans have both been optioned, and The Radleys, with Alfonso Cuarón, I have very little involvement, so I have no idea. I’ve had five books that have been optioned now, and all with different chances. I’m now thinking that The Humans is most likely to happen, but it’s totally up to me if I can crack the screenplay, I suppose.
The Radleys, I’m becoming a bit more sceptical now because there have been so many vampire films. If it will happen, it won’t be in the next ten years. The script is done, and it’s sort of timeless, so it could be filmed at any time, and I think right now people are so tired of vampires. It’s just missed that moment. If it had been a year earlier, been optioned then, it would have stood a better chance.
The Humans I’m having to feel very positive about as I’m writing the screenplay, and it’s all fresh and everything new. I wrote a book, my first book, called The Last Family in England, and it’s still optioned by Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B, they keep renewing it, and obviously it’s an American company, I don’t have any involvement, don’t know what’s going on. Apparently they’ve got a director attached to that and a writer, so things might be happening, I don’t know.
With films, when I first ever got a film option, I just thought that’s it, I’ll be retiring to Malibu, I can just quit, that’s it now… and it’s not like that, obviously. So I just take whatever little money they give and be thankful and not think too much. Apart from obviously when you’re having to write the screenplay.
GC – Well, fingers crossed.
MH – Fingers crossed. You never know.
GC – Matt Haig, thank you so much for your time and your books.
MH – Thank you.
The Humans and The Radleys are both available now from Canongate Books, and The Humans is one of the chosen titles of World Book Night 2014