Matt Haig - Human after all

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I was recently passed 'The Humans' by Matt Haig on holiday and it really left an impression on me.  Immediately after holiday I had to undergo knee surgery so had a further two weeks laid up so I read three more of his novels. The way this piece came about was really interesting.  I was wanting to recommend 'The Humans' to my followers on Twitter and found your address on the back cover so tagged you.  I was really surprised when you replied personally, nearly instantly.  I was then able to have a conversation with you on Twitter in real time while reading 'The Last Family in England'.  This is obviously a brand new way of how authors can talk to their readers, how do you feel about this development ?

Matt Haig - I think it's a good thing. It takes storytelling back to how it must have started, with people just talking to each other. I think the internet is forcing everyone down from their ivory towers and that's got to be good.

 'The Humans' is a lovely look at what it means to be part of the human race and what makes us tick. The main character is an alien who visits earth to kill a professor of mathematics who has finally proved the Riemann theory of prime numbers, which will advance the human race into an unacceptable position in the universe.  It really reminded me of something Douglas Adams (Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy) would have come up with. Is he an author that has inspired you?

Yes. I used to love the Hitchiker books. And I suppose THE HUMANS is kind of that in reverse. Like an alien's guide to Earth. But I also wanted to give it a bit of warmth, and make it about us, the human race. And get a bit philosophical here and there, but you're right Ralph. It was an influence.

 My favourite author is Haruki Murakami, I'm pretty sure I have read everything he has ever written.  You could say your work is in a similar style to Murakami. I believe the genre is called magical realism, but even surreal would be a reasonable way to describe it.  In my work in music I have always fought against being labelled and thrown into a genre or category but often they are a necessary evil so people can understand you and place your work in the right section in the stores. Do you feel you are contributing to a genre and would you be offended at being called a magical realist or your novels surreal?

Well yeah, I take your point about genre. It is important, but at the same time becomes silly. Dance music has about 7000 genres doesn't it? And books are the same. They are useful from the listeners/readers perspective but if you are creating something it can sometimes be limiting I think. I don't think brains work that way. I think a human mind can like all kinds of different stuff and mix it up. So with The Humans it becomes a bit slippy and doesn't really stay in one genre, it is a bit magic realism, a bit sci-fi, a bit comedy, a bit domestic drama, even a bit intergalactic soap opera. 

'The Humans' is very much about an outsider observing our existence from a different perspective. You also offer a lot of advice for how to get along successfully and happily on planet earth (most notably in your 'Advice for humans' chapter.)  After pointing out some of the many ridiculous and stupid things we do, your alien warms to the humans and we are left with some hope.  Hope and despair are closely linked and we constantly walk the fine line between them. We all have periods of both but hope is what keeps us going.  Are you hopeful that the Human race will advance in a more peaceful and intelligent way over the next century ?

I don't see MUCH sign of us learning our mistakes. Einstein said about 80 years ago that 'we are at a point where our technology has overtaken our humanity.' Even more the case now. Technology's great, but it's not the only form of progress. I think we should try and advance ourselves a bit more - learn a bit of that peace and love and empathy stuff - or we are going to be in trouble. 
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You are very upfront about discussing your own periods of despair, depression and illness before you started writing. For a while you wouldn't even leave the house. Andrea, your wife, suggested writing as a means to escape this period in your life. Is every book still a cathartic experience for you ?

Yes. It's a cheap form of therapy! 

You lived in Ibiza and worked at the infamous Manumission club during the late 90s and partied hard. Do you feel the lifestyle there contributed to your illness?  

Ha! Yes. But not just in the obvious ways you'd think. I mean, I was a bit down on myself at that point. I had no idea with what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a writer but I had no idea if I was good enough, and I would go out and escape life in Ibiza and put off getting an actual 9 to 5 job. And I got ill in September 1999, about a week before I knew I had to go home. It was like a premature midlife crisis, made worse by 3 hours sleep a night, partying too hard, and not having enough balance. All yang and no yin!

You have even mentioned that you were standing on the edge of a cliff, seriously contemplating jumping.  Suicide is prevalent in nearly all of your novels.  I have also had several friends end their lives. Your recovery from that point has been incredible. You give good advice to people who may be feeling that low, can you explain what the most important realisation needs to be for people who are struggling with living?

Well, I think the main thing is to realise that depression lies to you. It tells you that everything is shit, and that it is going to stay shit. In fact, it tells you that everything is going to get worse, but it isn't. If you are prepared to kill yourself then you are at the crappest bit of your life. There is only up from there. Minds aren't set in stone. They change. New emotions come, old emotions go. I felt I was going mad. I felt like I was underwater. I felt there was no way back. It took months, but I did get there. The oldest cliche is the truest. Time heals. Stick with it. You owe it to your future self.

I can get some grasp of how dark things can get by reading 'The Possession of Mr Cave', that's a tough, tough book Matt!!  Where did the idea for that one come from ?

Ha! Well, I don't know. I was going through my worst bout of post-Ibiza depression. Not in a great place. At first I wanted to do a modern day Jeckyll and Hyde story, but it became more psychological, then a kind of ghost story, with this almost demonic man who thinks he is protecting his daughter but who is actually putting her in massive danger. People who ONLY read that book think I am a right weirdo.
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Although you haven't written directly about Ibiza or even clubbing in Leeds you could be seen to be a writer from the rave generation. Not in the same way Irvine Welsh was so obviously associated through his books 'Trainspotting' or 'The Acid House', but in your own way.  Do you think that is something interesting for you or something to avoid ?   

Well, I've never written a clubby or an obviously 'chemical generation' type book, because I think other people have done those very well, though I am writing a book about how I lost it a bit in Ibiza and how I got back on track so that's going to be a bit more like that. But I think every book has a kind of silent music and rhythm to it, and when I write I try and give it a kind of driving beat to it, to keep people reading and alert, which I suppose is a bit how dance music works.

I constantly look for fresh writers that have an interesting angle.  What other writing talent do we have in the UK at the moment  ?

Ooh, lots. I'd tell you to read Steven Hall's Raw Shark Texts. He's from Hull, so another Yorkshire writer. Scarlett Thomas's The End of Mr Y is amazing too. Geoff Dyer is fantastic. Read his book Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It. Dan Rhodes' Anthropology is a decade old but still great. Other UK writers I like are: Gavin Extence, Matt Greene, Ben Brooks (he's only 20, the git) and for something non-fiction I like John Gray, the philosopher. He wrote a book called Straw Dogs that is a mind-opener.

 You are from Sheffield, you lived in Leeds and now you live in York. Your books are littered with references to places in those cities except Sheffield. All those places could lay claim to you but the one thing that's for sure is that you are from Yorkshire. The Cockpit in Leeds features in 'The Possession of Mr Cave' , you also mention that the park in 'The Last Family in England' could be Hyde Park in Leeds. It's weird but I imagined Endcliffe Park in Sheffield. Why doesn't Sheffield feature yet in your books ?

Well, the thing is, that I was BORN in Sheffield but hardly lived there. My parents moved to Nottinghamshire when I was a baby. I love Sheffield though and have friends there. I just don't know it as well as the other places. It's funny you say that about the park. I do know Endcliffe Park. Actually, I think the park has elements of lots of places, but mainly a little park in Newark in Nottinghamshire where I used to walk my dog. 

Yorkshire tends to lose many creative people to bigger cities, especially those with more sunshine, can you see yourself needing to move to London or Santa Monica?

Not London. Have lived there before and it gives me a headache if I am there for more than a week. It is easy to lose yourself in London, I think. But Santa Monica would be nice. If I moved out of Yorkshire, it would be a proper out-of-the-country move.

I chose Santa Monica, firstly because you mention it in 'Humans', but also because you have now sold the film rights to all 5 of your novels and Santa Monica is full of movie people. You do make it clear in previous interviews that selling rights doesn't mean films get made but the way you're going sooner or later I can see it happening.  Brad Pitt's production company picked up on 'The Last Family in England'.  Personally this is my favourite book you've written and it is narrated by a labrador.  I am envisioning Hollywood turning it into a cute talking dog movie like 'Beethoven' or something!   Do you keep a level of control when signing rights away? Do you also write the screenplays ?

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I try where possible to keep a level of control, yeah. Not always easy. To be honest though, it is better to have a good film that is not like your book than a bad film that is too faithful to the book. Actually, there is a director attached to The Last Family In England and he is really good - Taika Waititi. He worked on The Flight of the Conchords on TV. He's written a great screenplay and it's reassuringly un-Beethoveny.

I can also see 'The Radleys' being great on screen if someone like Shane Meadows directed. Nice match don't you think?

Yes. It needs to be a director who is good at realism, because that was the point of that book, taking a fantasy premise and placing it in reality.

Do you sit down everyday and write 9 - 5 like it's a job or when you are working on a book do you have to concentrate on it fully and work silly hours around the clock ?

Yeah, it's more like silly hours. But it depends. As a rule I work better in the morning, as I slow down as the day progresses.
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So let's talk music. Music is obviously very important for you and references appear in all of your books. Most strikingly in 'The dog and the music' chapter in 'The Humans', where the alien sits and listens to music with the family dog all day.  It is very much the turning point in the alien's humanising. They listen to Ennio Morricone, Bowie, jazz, Beethoven, The Rolling Stones, Daft Punk, Prince, Talking Heads and more. I personally love Talking Heads and they also appear in Murakami's books.  I can tell they are a big one for you too as they feature several times and you also end the entire Humans book with the lyrics to 'This Must Be the Place'.  So a trio of music questions -

Do you listen to music when working ?  

Sometimes. Generally though it distracts me, because I think when you write something you are trying to find your own music, a kind of music in the words.

You first went to back to basics in 1994. Did you come often and do you have some favourite memories of particular nights ? 

I went about four times to Back to Basics, it was a bit of a trek (was at Hull Uni at the time). The memories are hazy! Definitely danced to some Ralph Lawson character though a few times. And I once met Dave Beer in the Met Bar, in 1998 or something!

Can you make us a top twenty list of music that all humans should hear ?

1.Talking Heads - This Must Be The Place
2.The Beatles - Here, There, Everywhere
3.The Beach Boys - God Only Knows
4.Prince - The Beautiful Ones
5. Marvin Gaye - I Want You' 
6. ET - Entire sondtrack
7. Pet Shop Boys - Suburbia
8. Jesus and Mary Chain - Just Like Honey
9. Psychedelic Furs - Pretty in Pink
10. The Clash - Lost in the Supermarket
11. A-Ha - The Sun Always Shines on TV
12. The Killers - Mr Brightside
13. PhD - I Won't Let You Down
14. The Cure - Just Like Heaven
15. Stone Roses - She Bangs the Drums
16. New Order - True Faith
16. Robin S - Show Me Love
17. Underworld - Born Slippy
18. Future Sound of London - Papua New Guinea
19. Rolling Stones - Get Off My Cloud
20. Kanye West - All Fall Down