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Haig, Matt

Category: Writer

 

Matt Haig (born 3 July 1975) is a British novelist. He has written both fiction and non-fiction for children and adults.  His books have been translated into 30 languages. 

The Guardian has summed up his writing as 'funny, clever and quite, quite lovely'.  The Times and the New York Times have called him 'a writer of great talent'The Humans was chosen as the 2014 World Book Night title. His children's novels have won the Smarties Gold Medal, the Blue Peter Book of the Year, and he has been shortlisted for the Waterstones' Children's Book Prize and nominated for the Carnegie Medal three times.  He won the Nestlé Children's Book Prize in 2007.

And in 2009, he won the Yorkshire Young Achievers ‘Achievement in the Arts’ Award.

His books

 

Matt’s novels include the bestsellers The Last Family in England, The Radleys and The Humans, as well as Shadow Forest, To Be A Cat and Echo Boy. But perhaps his most special book is his semi-biographical book about his experience of depression, called Reasons To Stay Alive.

"For anyone who has faced the black dog, or felt despair, this marvellous book is a real comfort, dealing sympathetically with depression, written with candour and from first-hand experience. I think it is a small masterpiece. It might even save lives" JOANNA LUMLEY

There is a spooky underlying theme to many of Matt’s books – a trait he shares with film maker Tim Burton and for much the same reason.  Whereas Tim suffers from manic depression, Matt fell victim to depression at the age of 24.  His second novel, for example is called Dead Fathers Club and is based on Hamlet, telling the story of an introspective 11-year-old dealing with the recent death of his father and the subsequent appearance of his father's ghost.

His children's novel, Shadow Forest, is a fantasy that begins with the death of the protagonists' parents.

Samuel Blink hasn't the slightest clue Martha will disappear into Shadow Forest. A forest full of one-eyed trolls, the sinister huldre-folk, deadly Truth Pixies and a witch who steals shadows. A forest ruled by the evil Changemaker. A forest so dangerous that people who enter never return.

 

Matt describes himself as an ‘atheist’, but for an atheist he appears to have a remarkable belief in spirits, ghosts, life after death, trolls, aliens, and all things ‘spiritual’. 

He may not believe in God, but he certainly has a belief in ‘the other side’.

The more so perhaps, because he has had an out-of-body experience, an OBE moreover that must be unique on the site, for its cause was not depression, but passionflowers and stage fright! 

Matt Haig - Reasons to stay alive  
I love the way Grahame Greene wrote. I love the way he'd compare a solid thing to something abstract. 'He drank the brandy down like damnation.' I love this technique even more now, because the divide between the material and non-material worlds seemed to have blurred with depression.
Even my own physical body seemed unreal and abstract and partly fictional.

These are not the words of a believer in nothing.  Material and non-material worlds?  C'mon Matt!

Matt is also an enormous admirer and reader of Shakespeare, another believer in fairies, ghosts, spirits and all things spiritual.  Matt has said that

 “Everything is within Shakespeare, especially in his 10 greatest plays. They have life, meaning, understanding, the whole lot……   Listen to what Hamlet - literature's most famous depressive told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
'There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.'

The descent into depression

Matt was born on 3 July 1975 in Sheffield, studied English and History at the University of Hull, and then did an MA at Leeds.  Even at university there were signs that things were not quite as they should be.  Furthermore, it appears that his family were very prone to this illness.  His Mum suffered post-natal depression after he was born; his Great Grandmother on his father’s side committed suicide.

His descent into total depression happened in the unlikeliest of places – Ibiza whilst he was living there, and about 2 weeks before he was due to return to the UK.  Ibiza is a place of heavy clubbing, very loud music and over drinking, a rather shallow world, [all the more sad because it was once a very pretty place]

The Power and the Glory is about a 'whisky priest' travelling through Mexico …. … I had liked this story when I first read it at university, but I loved it now. Having been a borderline alcoholic in Ibiza, empathising with a borderline alcoholic in Mexico wasn't too hard.  It is a dark, intense book. But when you are feeling dark and intense these are the only kind of books that can speak to you. Yet there was an optimism too. The possibility of redemption. It is a book about the healing power of love.

 

 So bad was the depression whilst he was in Ibiza, that he tried to commit suicide and the only things that held him back were his love for his girlfriend, Andrea, and his fear that he might fail the attempt and end up paralysed.

Independent on Sunday interview by Nick Duerden Sunday 22 March 2015
When I was 24, I had a breakdown. I fell into a depression …... The 'd' word felt scary to say, like cancer. Back at the end of the 1990s, when I was severely depressed, I was in denial, even when I had a panic attack that lasted a week. The denial was powerful, but then I hadn't gone to a school where you could talk about feelings, so I wasn't used to opening up. As a society, we've come a long way since then.

 

Matt was initially prescribed Diazepam by doctors in Ibiza.  Diazepam is a benzodiazepine and has the same record as all the other benzodiazepines for causing a great deal of harm.  And it appears they did Matt a great deal of harm, as well as turning him from depressed to suicidal.

No drug in the universe will make you feel better, at the deepest level, than being kind to other people.

Initially on returning to the UK, Matt went to his parents, then he sought the care of Andrea.  He stopped the Diazepam – not an easy thing to do, as coming off all benzodiazepines is not dissimilar to going cold turkey on heroin.  Once his senses started to return to some form of normality, he started to assess what things made him feel better – what helped his depression.

Depression is Smaller than you.  Always, it is smaller than you, even when it feels vast.  It operates within you, you do not operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky, but - if that is the metaphor - you are the sky.  You were there before it. And the cloud can't exist without the sky, but the sky can exist without the cloud.

 

Pulling himself up by the bootstraps

Matt is possibly one of the best examples of the power of the ‘suppression’ activities on our site and their ability to heal and make the mind and body well again.  He appears to have tried just about every ‘action’ we have described.  All the words in italics are his:

Exercising and keeping fit

 Go for a run. Then do some yoga.
Listen to that yoga instructor on YouTube, and 'walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet'.
Like Haruki Murakami - whose excellent book What I Talk About when I Talk About Running I would later read - I found running to be a way of clearing the fog. 'Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running,' Murakami also said, which is something I've come to believe too, and is one of the reasons I believe it helps the mind.

 Dietary moderation

 

 Alcohol maths. Wine multiplies itself by itself. The more you have, the more you are likely to have. And if it's hard to stop at one glass, it will be impossible at three. Addition is multiplication.
Sip, don't gulp.

Beauty music and art

Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, …. Beauty cleans the mind.
How to escape time: music.

Communing with nature

Look at trees. Be near trees. Plant trees. (Trees are great.)

Squash the big I am

Look at the sky. Remind yourself of the cosmos. Seek vastness at every opportunity, in order to see the smallness of yourself.

 Love and making love

 

If someone loves you, let them. Believe in that love. Live for them, even when you feel there is no point…..  Jules Verne wrote of the 'Living Infinite'. This is the world of love and emotion that is like a 'sea'. If we can submerge ourselves in it, we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.
How to stop time: kiss.
Live. Love. Let go. The three Ls.
Be kind.

Dancing

“Dancing at three in the morning”;

Listening to good music

Independent on Sunday interview by Nick Duerden Sunday 22 March 2015
My depression struck during a summer in Ibiza, so hearing a pounding house track now might just send me into a panic attack! These days, it's Classic FM and country music. Country acknowledges that people get old, and live with regret, and I'm drawn to that…………………… Talking Heads. Kanye West's first album (I know, I know). The Beach Boys. Watching old soul singers on YouTube.

 

 

Being in the sun

[no indication as to whether he was naked, but being in the sun is still good];

If the sun is shining, and you can be outside, be outside

Sleeping

Be gentle with yourself. Work less. Sleep more.

Relaxation

Don't feel guilty about being idle. More harm is probably done to the world through work than idleness. But perfect your idleness. Make it mindful.
Just when you feel you have no time to relax, know that this is the moment you most need to make time to relax………….. Sit down. Lie down. Be still. Do nothing. Observe.  Listen to your mind. Let it do what it does without judging it. Let it go, like the Snow Queen in Frozen.

 

Warmth

Shower before noon.

Suppressing memory

Understand that thoughts are thoughts. If they are unreasonable, reason with them, even if you have no reason left. You are the observer of your mind, not its victim.

Reducing threats

Don't worry about things that probably won't happen.
Do not watch TV aimlessly. Do not go on social media aimlessly. Always be aware of what you are doing, and why you are doing it. Don't value TV less. Value it more. Then you will watch it less. Unchecked distractions will lead you to distraction.
Beware of the gap. The gap between where you are and where you want to be. Simply thinking of the gap widens it. And you end up falling through.
Don't worry about the time you lose to despair. The time you will have afterwards has just doubled its value.

Know yourself

Don't believe in good or bad, or winning and losing, or victory and defeat, or up and down. At your lowest and at your highest, whether you are happy or despairing or calm or angry, there is a kernel of you that stays the same. That is the you that matters.

Don’t hurt

 

Hate is a pointless emotion to have inside you. It is like eating a scorpion to punish it for stinging you.

Laughing

Things I have enjoyed since the time I thought I would never enjoy anything again
Laughing. Yes. Laughing so hard it hurts. Laughing as you bend forward and as your abdomen actually starts to hurt from so much pleasure, so much release, and then as you sit back and audibly groan and inhale deeply, staring at the person next to you, mopping up the joy.

The list could go on.

The key role of books and writing - creativity

Depression and destruction go together.  Black dog – the colour has been chosen with understanding  – is not a creative dog, he may be ‘clever’, have a fantastic memory, but he is not creative or artistic.  Thus one way to pull yourself out of depression is to read books full of imaginative writing and train yourself to be creative. 

Read a book without thinking about finishing it. just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don't wish for it to end, or for it to never end…………. Read Emily Dickinson. Read Graham Greene. Read Italo Calvino. Read Maya Angelou. Read anything you want. Just read. Books are possibilities. They are escape routes. They give you options when you have none. Each one can be a home for an uprooted mind.

Matt allowed himself this one ‘addiction’.  He read enthusiastically and he took up writing earnestly.

Independent on Sunday interview by Nick Duerden Sunday 22 March 2015
One thing about depression is that it is plotless, there is no shape. Stories have shape – and books became my antidepressants. 

 

He now believes that reading and writing books changed and thus saved his life .

Kurt Vonnegut was right. 'Reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found.'

 Where is he now?

With the devotion and love of his girlfriend, Andrea, who stuck by him and supported him before he became ill and throughout his illness, a girlfriend who is now his wife and still sticking by him and supporting him, he pulled through.  By April 2000, he had started to appreciate the small things in life

Things I have enjoyed since the time I thought I would never enjoy anything again
SUNRISES, SUNSETS, THE thousand suns and worlds that aren't ours but shine in the night sky. Books. Cold beer. Fresh air. Dogs. Horses. Yellowing paperbacks. Skin against skin at one in the morning. Long, deep, meaningful kisses. Short, shallow, polite kisses. (All kisses.) Cold swimming pools. Oceans. Seas. Rivers. Lakes. Fiords. Ponds. Puddles. Roaring fires. Pub meals. Sitting outside and eating olives. The lights fading in the cinema, with a bucket of warm popcorn in your lap. Music. Love.

 

Matt now lives in Brighton with his writer wife – the girlfriend who stood by him all those years -  Andrea Semple and their children Lucas and Pearl, whom he home schools. 

Independent on Sunday interview by Nick Duerden Sunday 22 March 2015
We started home-schooling our children recently. But we had been living in York, where very few people home-school. So we've moved to Brighton ….. There are something like 800 families who home-school down here. There's a massive network.  Feed the child's mind, feed the parent's. Your average 12-year-old has more knowledge than you do because, on a day-to- day basis, they learn; adults don't. So I do as much homework as they do!

 

A fitting end to a wonderful story.  A man who healed himself.

Matt Haig is a marvellous writer: limpid; tender; passionate. In this memoir (and it's short, barely 200 pages long), he manages to articulate, both the bleakness of depression and the means of dealing with it, little by little, day by day, without ever sounding maudlin, or self-indulgent, or preachy. For everyone who has ever felt the snap of the black dog's teeth, this book is wise, funny, affirming and redemptive. Sometimes depression can be like falling into a wordless pit. Matt Haig finds the words. And he says them for all of us" JOANNE HARRIS

References

Books

  • Reasons to Stay Alive - 31 Dec 2015 – “Reasons to Stay Alive is wonderful. I read it in one sitting. Touching, funny, thought-provoking, with a huge heart. It should be read by anyone who has suffered, or known someone who has suffered (i.e.. everyone)" S J WATSON
  • A Boy Called Christmas - 3 Nov 2016 by Matt Haig and Chris Mould
  • The Humans - 3 Apr 2014 - After an 'incident' one wet Friday night where Professor Andrew Martin is found walking naked through the streets of Cambridge, he is not feeling quite himself. Food sickens him. Clothes confound him. Even his loving wife and teenage son are repulsive to him. He feels lost amongst a crazy alien species and hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton, and he's a dog.
  • To Be A Cat - 2 May 2013
  • Shadow Forest - 5 Dec 2007 - won the Nestle/Smarties Prize, the Blue Peter Book of the Year Award (2009) and eight regional awards.
  • Humans: An A-Z - 1 Jan 2015
  • The Radleys - won an ALA Alex Award in America, has been shortlisted for the Portico prize and nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and has been translated into 29 languages most recently Lithuanian. It won the TV Book Club Summer Read. It is being produced into a film by Alfonso Cuaron and BBC Films. It was written as an adult novel, but there is a young adult edition available in the UK.
  • The Last Family In England - (2004) was a UK bestseller. It was a Daily Mail Book Club selection, and the film rights have been sold to Brad Pitt’s production company.
  • The Runaway Troll (Shadow Forest) - 5 Aug 2010
  • Echo Boy - 26 Mar 2015
  • The Dead Fathers Club - 5 Apr 2007 - Philip Noble is an eleven-year-old in crisis. His pub landlord father has died in a road accident, and his mother is succumbing to the greasy charms of her dead husband's brother, Uncle Alan. The remaining certainties of Philip's life crumble away when his father's ghost appears in the pub and declares Uncle Alan murdered him.
  • The Possession of Mr Cave (2008) - Matt describes as ‘still the darkest thing I’ve ever written, by quite a long way’.
  • Samuel Blink and the Runaway Troll – 4 September 2008
  • The Runaway Troll (Shadow Forest) - 5 Feb 2009
  • Samuel Blink and the Forbidden Forest – 12 June 2008
  • Labrador Pact – 28 Feb 2008

Website

Matt Haig

Paintings

The paintings on this page are by Edward Hopper, one of Matt’s favourite artists, whom he admires for his ability to “capture the loneliness of the human soul

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.