interview

Matt Haig: ‘I ignored a phone call from Meghan Markle’

The bestselling author of ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ speaks to Olivia Petter about his royal faux pas, his tempestuous relationship with Twitter, the hypocrisy of the mental health conversation today, and how it feels to be accused of making money from it

Tuesday 11 August 2020 12:08
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Matt Haig’s latest novel is called ‘The Midnight Library’
Matt Haig’s latest novel is called ‘The Midnight Library’

Matt Haig was on holiday in the south of France when the phone rang. It was someone from British Vogue calling to discuss one of his poems that would be appearing in the September issue. “I was not in work mode, the last thing I wanted to do was have a serious conversation with a journalist,” he recalls. “I just wanted to go in the swimming pool.” Haig ignored the call. The next day, it was announced that the Duchess of Sussex had guest edited the magazine that month and had personally selected Haig’s poem – “A Note from The Beach” – as one of her favourites. She had tried to call Haig to say thank you. “Yeah...” he sighs, laughing. “I probably should have picked up the phone.”

Meghan Markle is just one of Haig’s high-profile fans. The 45-year-old has amassed a substantial following since the publication of his bestselling memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive. Published in 2015, the book begins with Haig walking to a cliff edge planning to take his own life. One step away, he stops. Haig was already a novelist when it came out, but the book’s visceral depiction of depression struck a special kind of chord. Overwhelmed by his newfound fame, Haig retreated and wrote something entirely different: a children’s book. A Boy Called Christmas (also published in 2015) was lauded by critics and has since been made into a film starring Dame Maggie Smith and Kristen Wiig that will be out later this year. “As soon as Reasons to Stay Alive became big, I was like, ‘ahh I’m going to run away and write about kids and Christmas,’” he recalls.

If Haig was running away then, he’s coming back now. While he has written seven books since A Boy Called Christmas – six children’s books and one adult novel – Haig’s latest, The Midnight Library, will resonate most with fans of Reasons to Stay Alive. The novel tells the story of Nora Seed, who, after attempting to take her own life, finds herself in limbo, or rather, in a library. The librarian is a former school teacher who speaks in aphorisms (“you have a lack problem rather than a want problem”) and the books are alternative versions of Nora’s life that she can experience by simply opening.

And so she does, going on to find answers to questions like: what if she never left the fiance who wanted to open a pub with her? What if she carried on pursuing her dream of being an Olympic swimmer? And what if she became an internationally famous rockstar? Haig takes us through the minutiae of Nora’s multiple lives, showing the reader how her character, wardrobe and social media presence differ in each. Each one offers thoughtful meditations on fame, relationships and the climate crisis, but at its core, this is a book about mental health. It’s classic Haig. In other words, it’s about finding a reason to stay alive.

“This book has more of my life in it than any of my other novels,” Haig explains, keen to stress that Nora’s depression is situational rather than clinical. “Nora is very similar to me in my twenties; it’s emotionally quite autobiographical.” As for the novel’s concept, an obvious comparison would be to Frank Capra’s beloved 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, which is about a man who, on the brink of suicide, is shown what the world would look like if he had never been born. “It’s the big influence,” says Haig, explaining how he wanted to capture the film’s unlikely fusion of sentimentality and darkness. “In my story, while there are flippant moments, Nora is still someone who has had a suicide attempt and is in between life and death.”

Social media was a pretty big influence, too. “I was thinking about how we’re in danger of falling through that gap between who we are and how we present ourselves to be,” Haig explains. Just like Nora can choose to live any version of her life by picking up a different book in the midnight library, we can choose to perform any version of ourselves online. “We’re encouraged to do that,” he adds. “We live in an age of consumerism that encourages us to have this mentality of never being completely comfortable with ourselves.

“Everything is about self-improvement and it’s bloody exhausting. There’s no space where we can just sort of be and absorb. Although reading books gives us that – they’re interactive but only in a philosophical sense, they’re not expecting us to have a quick response to them or give them an emoji.” Is that why Nora’s limbo is a library rather than, say, a DVD shop as it is for another character? “Yes!” Haig replies gleefully, as if he’s just realised the link himself.

Haig is prolific on Twitter, where he frequently goes viral for his pithy observations about politics, mental health, and Donald Trump, whom he recently called a “fake tanned f***face of a president”. With more than 413,000 followers, he is no stranger to trolls – one recently told him he’d “failed” at suicide – and controversies. Most recently, he faced a backlash for taking part in #PublishingPaidMe, a social media trend created to highlight inequality in the publishing industry. Haig revealed that he’d earned six-figure advances for each of his last four books, getting £600,000 for the most recent one alone. “People were complaining that no white people were doing it. I thought it was a good thing to do. But it was a classic thing that brings out hate from every side. It brings out hate from the right because they’re like, ‘Oh why are you pandering to liberals?’, and hate from the left, who asked why anyone would pay me that much. So you get it everywhere. But you’re doing a good thing, so you just have to hold onto that, but as a human being who’s got self-esteem issues, you struggle.” He was also recently dubbed a “snake oil salesman” after a book shop started giving away free copies of Reasons to Stay Alive in the wake of Caroline Flack’s suicide, despite the fact that he had nothing to do with the initiative. “I am not a GP or psychiatrist. Just a person who went through something and got over it and wrote about it,” he tweeted at the time.

Matt Haig: ‘This book has more of my life in it than any of my other novels’

For the most part, Haig says he can cope with criticism online. “If they’ve got no point and they’re coming from a place of fascism or something, then it’s easy to dismiss it. But when it’s someone who has a grain of a point... those voices can get in. And when you suffer from depression, they can stay in every time you feel bad about yourself.”

In 2015, Haig was labelled an “antifeminist” for suggesting his next book would tackle masculinity. “Maybe I am missing something. There may be too many books about and by men, but not many looking at the perils of masculinity. Am I wrong?” he tweeted, explaining that his argument would be that “men benefit more than women from sexism, but both would be better off with feminism”. The furore was vicious, partly because people misinterpreted Haig’s comments as a denial of female oppression, but mostly because they simply weren’t ready to talk about gender yet. At least not in nuanced terms. “It really affected me mentally,” Haig says, looking back. “I talk a lot about masculinity now and it’s fine, but at that point I hadn’t learnt how to do it. It was a different time. Twitter basically stopped me writing that book.” Haig insists that he hates Twitter, but can’t seem to wean himself off it. “You feel like such a pathetic person saying you hate Twitter when you’ve done 100,000 tweets, but I really do hate it,” he says before comparing it to being an alcoholic. “I admit I’ve got a problem, which is the first step.”

Haig is animated – full of vim and opinions, his Nottinghamshire accent lilting gently as we speak over Zoom. His mind moves fast; sentences often go unfinished, but thoughts are fully formed, so long as you can keep up. Whenever Haig catches himself speaking for longer than a few minutes without my interjection, which is often, he is deeply apologetic: “I put everything in that answer, sorry!” he bumbles, before later apologising again for “turning this into a therapy session”.

While Haig insists that he’s able to brush off most of the criticism he receives online, there’s one jibe that always gets him. “The most frustrating thing I get is that people think I’m making money out of mental health,” he says. “Obviously I am because I write books about it, but it’s really hard because you want to explain and say, ‘actually I got a quarter of the advance for that book than I did for a novel (£25,000, which was later topped up) and I was really discouraged from writing Reasons to Stay Alive’, but you don’t, cos it’s like, who cares?” Haig was told that writing his memoir would lead him to be known as “Mr Depression”, someone who speaks exclusively about mental health. But he doesn’t mind that so much. Particularly when there’s still so much more to be done in terms of tackling how mental illness is viewed in society.

Take Kanye West, whose recent behaviour and Twitter outbursts have become a major cause for concern. In one string of now-deleted tweets, West claimed his wife, Kim Kardashian-West, had tried to get a doctor to have him “locked up”, and also appeared to accuse her and his mother-in-law, Kris Jenner, of being white supremacists. Kardashian-West later released a statement reminding fans that West has bipolar disorder, which the rapper has been open about in the past, and said it’s “incredibly complicated and painful” for many to understand. I ask Haig what he makes of the public’s reaction to all this, given how much the stories have been sensationalised in the tabloid press.

“The mental health conversation has a lot of hypocrisy,” he says. “Everyone thinks we’re so good at talking about mental health, but when we’re talking because of mental health issues, we have zero compassion. We know that Kanye has bipolar – he once even described it as his “superpower” – and we know what bipolar is. We know it can create extreme highs and levels of erratic confidence and then the opposite. So I get confused at people who think they are in tune with mental health, and then when anyone in the public eye exhibits symptoms of mental illness, unless it comes with a warning sign saying ‘I’m going through a mental episode’, people don’t even factor it in. We need to learn how to accept people who do or say toxic things because of a potential mental illness.”

It’s almost time for Haig to go – his phone is ringing again, and I can sense he’s itching to answer it just in case another member of the royal family decides to call him out of the blue. Before he does, I ask what he’s working on at the moment: “a sort of mental health-y” book about comfort. “It’s looking at what comfort means in the modern age, and why being continually happy and perfect isn’t always comfortable,” he adds. What does comfort mean for him right now? “I’ve said no to so much this year,” he replies. “At the start of my career, I was so conditioned to say yes to everything. If you don’t want to do something, there’s no law that says you have to do it."

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is out on Thursday (£16.99, Canongate)

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