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A Waterstones Exclusive Interview with Matt Haig

Posted on 6th July 2017 by Martha Greengrass

“Novels are a form of exploring uncharted imagination”

A quick-footed, time-traversing dance of a novel that features a brush with Shakespeare and a cocktail with Fitzgerald, Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time is a refreshingly modern take on a historical novel.  Described by the Guardian as a ‘high concept romance… with a modern twist’ it already has a film adaptation snapping at its heels with Benedict Cumberbatch set to take the leading role. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, the author talks about the pull of getting lost in time.

Author Image: Matt Haig by Ken Railey

‘All you can do with the past’, contemplates Tom Hazard, ‘is carry it around’. He would certainly know. For Tom, the world-weary, everyman narrator of Matt Haig’s latest, reality-shifting novel, How to Stop Time, has more past than most to contend with. Masquerading as a 41-year-old history teacher, Tom has actually been alive since 1581, owing to a rare condition that causes him to age almost imperceptibly slowly. Both protected by and in thrall to a secret society of fellow so-called ‘albatrosses’ ('albas' for short) he has been forced to run from life to life, never standing still, never falling in love; he is a relic, a survivor of history, shipwrecked in time.

Anyone familiar with Matt Haig’s fiction will know that this kind of cocktail of fantasy and reality is his bread and butter; his previous novels having featured plots involving vampires in the suburbs and pseudo-alien encounters. It’s a blend that Haig says he finds himself repeatedly drawn to: "I always have two novels on the go at the same time,’ he says, ‘and so I was also working on a very contemporary, realistic novel but How to Stop Time was just much more attractive. It was like having my own personal time-machine."

The scope of How to Stop Time must certainly, I suggest, have been a tempting toy-box for any writer, offering Haig the opportunity to include some serendipitous time-travel moments, including a spell in Shakespeare’s company and a chance-encounter with F. Scott Fitzgerald. He readily admits to allowing himself some "Forest Gump moments" but these are largely overshadowed by a story shaped by memory. It makes for an emphatically personal journey through the ages, the moments of overarching historical import paling against the overriding focus on a man who has been forced to re-evaluate his place in time. For Haig it is these individual choices, the things Tom chooses to remember, that define him as a character: "He’s chosen to become a modestly paid secondary school teacher in a comprehensive school" Haig emphasises, "not become an astronaut or a world leader or live in The Bahamas. He’s worked out that having the most meaningful life is about helping other people." 

It’s that reflection on an altered perception of what constitutes our own history that Haig seems most keen to interrogate through this novel: "What I like about novels is that they allow you to explore things from different perspectives and I think one of the reasons I never have a straightforwardly, human narrator, or I rarely do, is because you’ve got this opportunity, through fantasy, to have a little bit of extra perspective. So, in The Humans it was space and in this novel it is time. That perspective is useful and one of the reasons people write, I think, is to explore and learn about yourself. So although there’s a theme of exploration in the novel, novels themselves are a form of exploring uncharted imagination and you can go further reading and writing novels than in almost any other art form."

Haig is fascinated by our collective urge to parcel-off history and how that behaviour is reproduced in our own lives: "We tend to see history as little chapters and periods and we fail to see that history was just the present that happened somewhere else. We divide it up into periods but there’s a flow. Social history is slow evolution", he says. "To have lived through those moments, you must have days and days the same with nothing appearing to change and then, looking back, you see that everything changed and that’s fascinating to me. All lives do that, just on a smaller scale."

The expansive canvas of How to Stop Time, which marks a change from the domestic arenas of Haig’s previous fiction,  allows him the opportunity to expand on themes that have dominated his recent work, in particular the contemplation of what fundamentally makes us human. Distanced from those around him, Tom and his fellow Albas operate at a remove from the world’s dominant crises. Tom offers a time-traveller’s view on history: ‘The longer you live, the more you realise that nothing is fixed. Everyone will become a refugee if they live long enough. Everyone would realise their nationality means little in the long run. Everyone would see their worldviews challenged and disproved. Everyone would realise that the thing that defines a human being is being a human.’ 

It’s an inclusive world view that Haig is clearly deeply passionate about: "We often forget it", he says. "We tend to see ourselves as citizens of a nation or members of a religion or supporters of a football team, or fans of a TV programme and we don’t have a holistic view of ourselves. We always have to divide up and tribalise people and although the internet has been very good at bringing people together, it’s also been very good at splitting us up into our little echo chambers. I think if we had a sense of ourselves as one of nine-million species rather than one of six major religions or however many countries it would be a healthier thing to do and healthier for the planet."

For a novel so deeply rooted in the past, How to Stop Time, nevertheless seems particularly apt for our time, speaking, as it does, directly to a readership steeped in social media; so obsessed with cataloguing our world as to be uniquely divorced from it. It’s something Haig is quick to recognise: "That desire we have to grasp on to something good in your life and stop it right there, that has become more intense and harder to do because we’re so fractured and split up."

It’s perhaps no surprise, that Haig, who is himself a master of the perfectly pitched tweet, has a particular interest in the many different ways we connect, or fail to.  "I enjoy working out ways to communicate; whether it’s a status update, a tweet or a song or a poem, a book, a screenplay - it’s all different and yet fundamentally the same. I love the challenge of writing in different ways." How to Stop Time contains some of Haig’s own poetry and the book is suffused with references to music, both real and imagined. It even inspired Haig to work on music of his own, collaborating with We Are Scientists' Andy Burrows on an album of songs inspired by the book.

That How to Stop Time should be a novel about a character moving from a life removed from time towards a greater, more acute sense of what makes life meaningful, seems to respond directly to Haig’s phenomenally successful memoir of his life with depression, Reasons to Stay Alive. Haig is open about the fact that his own interest in reflecting time’s paradoxical potential as both a prison and a gift comes directly these experiences:

"It’s cliché that time heals but it’s ultimately true. Not a lot of things feel bigger than depression but time does and I think as you get more experienced the knowledge of time and the knowledge that it won’t last, becomes stronger than your brain. That’s what gets you through – the awareness of yourself in time. When I was ill in my twenties I definitely thought that was it forever and it was only going to get worse and so one thing time has done for me is to show me that pessimism can be as wrong as optimism and that is something that’s increasingly present in my books. I wouldn’t say that they’re always happy books but I definitely try and put some kind of optimism in there. One of the horrible things about most mental illnesses is that you get stuck in the feedback-loop of your own head and it may last but it doesn’t last forever. Life isn’t an upward or downward line; it’s curving all the time."

This understanding of life’s endless capacity for change is, ultimately, the hope that powers How to Stop Time; a synthesis of what is inexplicably necessary to human existence, in particular the endless, indomitable human ability to love. As Tom spins the winding story of his travels through time, he is faced with the realisation that, in spite of it all, the world still has the capacity to surprise him. As one character in the novel puts it: ‘You simply can’t fall in love and not think there is something bigger ruling us… we are mysteries to ourselves’. 

If Reasons to Stay Alive was about a way back from the darkness, How to Stop Time is, perhaps, a celebration of life on the other side. Tom’s shadowy Albatross mentor Heindrich gifts him one salutary piece of advice to survive the slow ravages of time, ‘try to feel as little as you possibly can’, he says, ‘because otherwise you will slowly lose your mind.’ This novel’s lingering message seems to be quite the opposite; feel it all, it seems to say. Feel it all and live.

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