If you read this week’s My Book Pledge Featured Read post (or, let’s be real, any post that includes any of Matt Haig‘s books…) you will know that I am a gigantic fan of Matt Haig. His books have gotten me through a lot of very difficult times in my life, and when I worked as a bookseller, The Humans was one of my go-to recommendations for every reader. So, needless to say, I am incredibly geeked to share that the Savvy Reader got to interview Matt (via email, because COVID and time zones exist)! We chatted writing processes, music, literature, COVID coping strategies, and everything in between, and the result is just as insightful and as wonderful as you would expect. Okay, that’s enough nerding out from me. Let’s jump into the actual interview!
SR: Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? What was writing The Midnight Library like?
MH: I am an all-or-nothing kind of writer. I can go for months floundering with an idea bubbling away and then, suddenly, it will be there all at once and I will be in a rush to get it all down before it falls out of my ears. This was kind of what writing The Midnight Library was like. I had the idea simmering away for years and then it was written, really, in a little over three months.
SR: Who are the authors that influence your writing the most?
MH: So many. Graham Greene for being able to tell an accessible, page-turning story without shying from intense and thoughtful themes. Emily Dickinson for the power of a simple word. Jorge Louis Borges and Italo Calvino for their imagination coupled with philosophy. Margaret Atwood for showing how genre and literary fiction can be the same thing. Sylvia Plath for articulating the heights and depths a mind can reach.
SR: In your opinion, what makes a book great?
MH: A book that is purely itself. A book where the author knows entirely what they are doing and makes no compromises to their vision. There are many types of books that do this. From The Shining to The Bell Jar to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
SR: In your books, there are a ton of musical references. In one of my favourite passages of Reasons to Stay Alive, you mention “cry[ing] euphoric tears” while listening to the Beach Boys; in The Humans, one of the most beautiful scenes is when alien-Andrew goes through an entire catalogue of music from Holst and Morricone to Bowie and Coltrane; and, in The Midnight Library, Nora works in a music store and there’s even a subplot about a successful (or unsuccessful, depending on the timeline) band. Where does your love of music come from?
MH: I have always loved music. I play the piano (badly) and have even written lyrics to an album, by Andy Burrows (who has been in the bands Razorlight and We Are Scientists). This is going to sound really pretentious, but that has never stopped me before so I will say it: I think a book has its own kind of silent music. You can hear a story in your mind. Hear the tone and melody of it. And sometimes it actually helps to have an actualising in mind. With The Humans I thought of “This Must Be the Place” by Talking Heads. With How to Stop Time I kept on thinking about “Boys of Summer” for some reason. And with The Midnight Library there was a lot of Frank Ocean and Kacey Musgraves songs in my brain.
SR: Speaking of music, what songs/artists would make up an Essential Matt Haig playlist?
MH: Well, some of the above, for sure. Plus a lot of 80s. The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Lips Like Sugar,” New Order’s “True Faith,” Furniture’s “Brilliant Mind,” Soft Cell’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Secret Garden”… I also have a soft spot for dance music and old hip hop so there would be the Magician remix of Lykke Li’s “I Follow Rivers,” and maybe “Mo Money, Mo Problems” by Notorious B.I.G. The Diana Ross sample on that is genius. I also love musicals. From the Old Hollywood classics to Hamilton.
SR: A lot of our readers have mentioned that they’ve been struggling to get into the groove of reading since the pandemic started. Given everything that’s happened this year, I think it’s safe to say a lot of us are feeling quite anxious about both the present and the future. I know you talk about coping strategies quite a bit in Notes on a Nervous Planet, but I was wondering if you had any suggestions for our readers who are looking to disconnect from the news for a little while but are struggling to do so.
MH: I have been in the same boat. What has helped me this year has been having an actual day off. Every Sunday I ban myself from going near my phone and computer. I have the entire 24 hours off. That doesn’t just help me on the day itself but it gets me out of the rut of news addiction and social media scrolling for the rest of the week too. Also, I don’t take my phone to bed. Which means I can read without the itch to check my phone.
SR: Among the many threads that connect both your fiction and non-fiction is Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Can you talk a bit about how her poetry has influenced your own writing?
MH: The powerful simplicity, as I mentioned. The musicality of them. Her eccentric punctuation makes it feel like sheet music for the mind. The twin themes of death and immortality. The stubborn power of hope. Her incredibly beautiful succinct poetic truisms – “For ever is composed of nows,” “the brain is wider than the sky,” “hope is the thing with feathers,” That it will never come again, is what makes life so sweet”… Her profound love of nature. Her personality – the combination of presumed agoraphobia and anxiety with this spiritual transcendental power that infuses her writing.
SR: Can you give our followers a glimpse at what’s next for Matt Haig?
MH: I have written a non-fiction book called The Comfort Book, which is me writing down stuff I have learning in the hard times. Stuff that has got me through. Also there is a film of my kids book A Boy Called Christmas, starring Maggie Smith and Kristen Wiig, coming to Netflix and cinemas next year. And a film of The Midnight Library is in the works too.
Who else can’t wait for Netflix to drop A Boy Called Christmas?! And we’ll definitely be first in line to see The Midnight Library. Let us know your favourite Matt Haig books in the comments below or on Twitter @SavvyReader!
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