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Matt Haig is the author of novels that include The Radleys (currently being produced as a film by Alfonso Cuaron), The Last Family in England, Shadow Forest and To Be A Cat. He has won the TV Book Club Best Read and the Smarties Gold Medal, been shortlisted for the Galaxy Book Award and Waterstones’ Children’s Book Awards and been twice commended for the Carnegie Medal. His books have been translated into 29 languages.
Here he writes about visiting Byron and the Shelleys on Lake Geneva, his addiction to toast and his upcoming novel The Humans.
Describe your earliest memory.
I was in our back garden, near some sunflowers. I was throwing a washing basket in the air and trying to catch it on my head.
What was the first book you ever loved? Why?
The first piece of book-form literature I liked was apparently a free Massey-Ferguson catalogue, full of photos of real tractors and combine harvesters. After that, controversially, it was Enid Blyton’s Noddy Goes to Market, which I liked chiefly because of Big Ears who seemed fun. The first proper big book I liked was Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse by Ursula Moray Williams. It made me cry.
Tell us about the first time you realised that the world may not be as it seems.
Oh, various experiences come to mind. When I was 7 my parents moved from a small village to a town, so that was when I realized the world was bigger and scarier than I’d been led to believe. Then when I was 24 I had a breakdown, and that totally changed my view on existence. It made me realize that, to survive, we need myths. We need narrative. A belief in the structure of our own lives. Now, after reading the thoughts of philosopher Nick Bostrom, I actually believe that we are living in a vast simulation.
What has been the most formative place in your life? Why?
Newark, Nottinghamshire. The archetypal small British market town. Cattle market, casual violence, soulless shopping precinct, sense of despair – ticked all the boxes. Lived there from 8 to 18, and went to a school I hated. It gave me a deep yearning to leave. It filled my head with daydreams which I still mine for my work. It also made me realize that I was never going to fit in, and so I might as well do something I genuinely liked doing.
Which literary character could you have a romantic crush on and why? How would you win him/her over?
I love Emma Bovary. The original desperate housewife.
What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
Eat toast. Drink wine. Hopefully go on holiday. Clown around with my children. Eat more toast.
Describe your most defining experience with money.
I am lethal with money. In 2003, fifteen grand in debt, I decided to give up my job and write a novel. Also, now I have a bit of money I try my hardest to get rid of it. For instance, I have just decided to buy a narrow-boat. When I got my first publishing deal I gave a hundred quid to the Big Issue seller outside our flat. I am not into cars or anything (can’t drive) but I’m a sucker for a swanky hotel.
If you could time-travel and teleport, which literary world would you want to visit? Why?
Got to be back to 1816, Lake Geneva, to Byron, the Shelleys et al. telling each other horror stories.
Being a writer is a strange brand of “celebrity”. Tell us about your most memorable encounter.
Going to the BAFTAs made me feel the most celebrity-fied, I suppose, though I very nearly trod on Paul McCartney’s toes and made an idiot of myself in front of Alan Parker. But my favourite moment was having a three hour meeting with film director Alfonso Cuaron about adapting The Radleys. In terms of online encounters, the most amazing one was before I was published. Jeanette Winterson read my manuscript and endorsed it. I am grateful to this day for that.
What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done in pursuit of reading or writing?
Lost my mind. Or at least, fell into a deep depression I could see coming, to push my brain and finish writing a book. I’ve done this twice, actually.
If you were to write yourself as a character, what would be your most defining characteristic? (Write us a paragraph, too, if you like.)
ANXIETY: ‘Matt woke and for a brief moment he was so sleepy from the wine he had drunk last night that his mind was almost empty from worry. But then, in a swarm, the anxieties arrived. He had to do a reading today, in public, which was always difficult. He blamed it on his drama teacher mother for making him kiss his sister in a production of Sleeping Beauty when he was eleven.’
If you were to write a novel about an anti-hero/-heroine, what would his/her central flaw be?
Addiction, be it to alcohol, blood, drugs, sex, money, crime, or toast.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Why?
The ability to get a novel out of my head and onto the page without the slow pain of writing it.
If you were to find yourself in a Farenheit 451 world, which book would you save and why?
I own a second edition copy of Alice in Wonderland, so probably that. And I’d try and tuck John Gray’s brilliant Straw Dogs in there too.
What is the most valuable piece of advice you would give a person for a life well-lived?
Don’t worry about what people (parents/friends/reviewers etc.) will think. The only person who ultimately needs to approve of you, is you. It is better to be a flawed but authentic human than a fake perfect one. But be kind. Always be kind.
What question do you wish we’d asked you? Answer it.
LITRO: We think you are the most underrated novelist of your generation. Do you?
ME: Oh, don’t be silly. Of course not. I’m far too modest and insecure to think such a thing. But thanks for saying so.
What’s next for you, work- and life-wise?
I have a new novel coming out with Canongate in May called The Humans. I sincerely believe that it is the best thing I have ever written. It is a domestic black comedy drama that also happens to be science fiction, an alien’s view of the human race. It is my ‘big’ book in that it is about life and love and the universe and what it means to be human. I gave it everything I had. I have been wanting to write it since 2004 and finally gained the confidence to start it three years ago. As I said, we are in the process of buying a narrow-boat in London, so our life this year will be split between our increasingly flood-prone riverside house in York and our boat in London. Water, water everywhere…