Matt Haig interview: the accidental mental health guru
When you accidentally become a national spokesperson on mental health it can feel overwhelming, admits author Matt Haig.
After overcoming suicidal depression, the novelist wrote a book about his experiences and recovery called Reasons to Stay Alive, which he thought would be of only modest interest to the general public.
But it rocketed to the top of the bestseller charts leaving Matt, who admits his own mental health can still be wobbly, to suddenly become an unofficial agony uncle fielding messages from thousands of readers touched by his insights.
Now he has written a new novel, The Midnight Library, which he hopes expands on the discoveries he made about finding acceptance and happiness in an imperfect life.
“There was a time a couple of years ago when I would honestly have pressed the button to have not written Reasons to Stay Alive because it was getting too much for me,” says Matt. “Now, I don’t think it is my best written book. I wrote it very quickly, not thinking many people would read it. And it used terms I wouldn’t use now, such as ‘depressive’ because that’s saying you are a depressed person rather than someone with depression. But out of all my books it has been the most useful to people so I’m very pleased I managed to do something people found some comfort and use in.”
Reasons to Stay Alive was Matt’s account of how, aged 24 and living in Ibiza, he became ill with a depression which was so sudden and frightening he found himself standing on the edge of a cliff, considering whether to jump off and take his own life.
I hear a lot of survival stories and I hear a lot of hope
With the help of his partner and family, he slowly made his way back to health and along the way discovered some of the things that helped his recovery – such as time in nature and taking pleasure in exercise. The book recorded those hopeful moments and struck such a chord with readers that it was in the top 10 bestsellers chart for 46 weeks.
Matt says: “It can be a lot of pressure when people contact you and they are often in a very bad state, but I should have expected it writing a book literally called Reasons to Stay Alive. That was the surprise, though, when the book was getting big and I was getting a lot of messages like that every day. There were messages that needed a response and I didn’t know how to respond; a few times it was really serious. There was one situation at the start of this year, pre-Covid, where this woman had done something. She had actually done something life-threatening, then told me about it in real time. I didn’t even have her full name in the message and I had to get on the internet and find out from people who she was and we had to get an ambulance and police to go around to her house. It did have a positive outcome and she survived, but that was an incredibly stressful experience.
“I didn’t know when I started writing about mental health that those sorts of things would start happening. It was incredibly frightening. Even when it’s not that dramatic, you often get people in very low states and when your own mental health isn’t 100 per cent perfect – that can be very hard to read and can be quite triggering. I have had to be much more careful and I don’t look at everything on social media now or I would spend my whole life just doing that. You have to have some sort of wall around you sometimes.”
Matt is coming to terms with his inspirational status and says it has helped him find comfort in hearing other people’s stories of recovery from mental illness and made him feel less alone with his experiences.
“The flip side, of course, is you actually find comfort in messages from strangers. I hear a lot of survival stories and I hear a lot of hope,” says Matt. “I think one of the reasons I started writing about mental health is I had been so quiet about it for over a decade. I hadn’t told anyone except my partner and my parents about it. I had lost friends because I had been different or cancelled things, so coming out and writing a book about it was quite a big way of empowering things. Actually, back when we were doing real-world book events, meeting people who had gone through similar things was incredibly empowering because the one thing I really remember from my experience of depression and anxiety was of being very alone and misunderstood and the feeling of being the only person in the world going through this; all these melodramatic things that aren’t particularly true, but it’s often the way depression makes you feel.”
Matt’s self-help books Reasons to Stay Alive and its sequel Notes on a Nervous Planet, have both been huge hits but his novels for adults, including How to Stop Time and The Humans, have also become bestsellers and his children’s book, A Boy Called Christmas, is being made into a movie by Netflix.
In his latest work, Matt tells the story of Nora Seed who finds herself in a mysterious place between life and death – the Midnight Library. Up until now, her life has been full of misery and regret. She feels she has let everyone down, including herself. But things are about to change.
The books in the Midnight Library enable Nora to live as if she had done things differently. With the help of an old friend, she can now undo every one of her regrets as she tries to work out her perfect life. What would have happened if she had married that boyfriend, stayed in her band or carried on with her swimming career? Would life have turned out better, happier? But things aren’t always what she imagined they’d be, and soon her choices place the library and herself in extreme danger. Before time runs out, she has to discover what is the best way to live.
This is the first time I had the central character have an official diagnosis that was similar to mine
The links between this book and Reasons to Stay Alive are obvious. Nora is suicidal at the beginning of the novel and seems to be in a situation she can’t escape. How much did Matt draw on his own memories of his breakdown when he was writing the book?
“I have obviously written about my own experiences directly in my non-fiction, but in my fiction this is the first time I had the central character have an official diagnosis that was similar to mine,” he says.
“And I think one of the reasons she’s a woman is that I wanted to make it clearly not me. That then almost gave me more freedom to put my own experiences in there, in a weird way, because my first draft of the book had a male character but I felt it was too obviously me or too close to me. So, I think changing the gender was one way to give me that sort of distance.”
When she enters the library, Nora is asked to read a book on the shelves all about the regrets she had in her life, which Matt says was a way of explaining the experience of depression.
“Regret, I suppose, is the big theme of the book and how we deal with regret. It’s almost a modern condition in 2020 where we are having this existential moment and a lot of time to think about stuff and the uncertainty of things. I just thought it would be a nice way to illustrate that.
“Anyone who has had any experience of a mental health situation will know that the way it often manifests is you’re kind of drowning in lists in your head of regrets, things you wish you had done or hadn’t done. Often it is at a kind of subconscious level. So I thought it would be quite nice to make it quite literal and have it as one of the books in the library to show how our regrets are kind of never-ending but also futile. And as Nora tried out each different life, I wanted at the root of each life to be a regret that she could undo and see what happened.”
Very often the books I’m writing are things I feel that I need to read
The idea of the library is that it contains an infinite number of books, each telling the story of her parallel lives that are taking place somewhere in the multiverse. It’s an idea that has intrigued Matt for years.
“There’s one theory of parallel universes where there are infinite versions of you so, for example, there could be a place where each and every one of us could have learned the piano to the best standard we could. Piano was the big one for me because I used to play piano until the age of 13 when I stopped because I was a self- conscious teenage boy and I just didn’t want to be telling my friends I was having piano lessons or something silly. And so I have little regrets like that where I think ‘oh it would be nice to step into the life where I hadn’t given up piano lessons and to see if I could have become good at that or whatever’. But I also think nowadays, because of the internet and social media and comparison culture, we are surrounded by other people’s lives, if not our own versions of our lives, so there is always a reason to feel bad about yourself.
“With this book I was trying to offer a little counterweight to that and say ‘yes, there might be a life or many lives where you do something exceptional, or outwardly exceptional, like the life where you are rich or the life where you are famous’. In an infinite universe of possibilities there are probably versions where you could have done something differently or better. But I wanted to correct the ‘grass is greener’ effect in our heads and to hopefully give the reader some sort of feeling of acceptance of the life they are in.
“I already feel in terms of my mind and different states of beings that I have lived lots of different kinds of versions of myself in terms of my career of being a struggling writer and then a not-so-struggling writer, and then in terms of my health from being happy to suicidal; I’ve lived in various different places abroad and even with the different lives you live within your own life while it can look like everything changes. But nothing really changes.
“If you look at it in terms of emotions rather than in terms of things, the quality of your life is always accessible. The sadness, the joy, all the elements of emotion; we focus so much on the appearance of a life or the material surroundings of a life and less on the emotions of a life. I suppose once you concentrate on the inner feeling the whole universe is accessible to you. As soon as you give up on the idea that you need a certain thing, or have a regret to undo or want to live in Australia or to be a top scientist or whatever it is, once you give that up you realise you can access everything.”
He says he has been influenced to an extent by Buddhist writings – although he is not a Buddhist – which teach “the key to accepting life and of becoming a more complete person is to actually understand you need the despair and suffering in your life, you cannot run away from that if you also want the joy and in fact the joy and the pleasure of life is intertwined in many ways with despair as well. Very often, in the west, we want to run away from anything negative.
“I wanted to say that you feel like you need the world to change or the situation around you to fundamentally change things that you don’t necessarily have control over. You can’t go back in time, you can’t bring people back to life. Depression happens I feel when you feel like you are in a total cul- de-sac and you can’t do anything about it, so I wanted to take someone who was in that situation and sort of stays in that situation but finds a different way to view the situation.
“So much in life is about perspective. We have seen so many millionaire famous people absolutely cracking up and hitting the gutter and becoming suicidal to know that often these shiny external things that we are encouraged to think that we want or need aren’t necessarily the things we want or need and probably wouldn’t make a fundamental difference to our happiness.
“Just as with holidays, we always have to take ourselves with us. It’s the same with life – we have to reach some acceptance of ourselves, whatever stage we are at in life, because no external thing can change us magically. I suppose what I’m trying to do in The Midnight Library is to try to give the reader a little tiny perspective shift, like a feeling that ‘yes, there probably are other lives they could have taken but within this one they can feel everything they need to feel, and that we don’t have to want to be other people or other versions of ourselves or need to get jealous of the person on Instagram with 10million followers or whatever is making us feel a bit inadequate’.
“But I wouldn’t say that I’m always getting that right, and I’m certainly someone who in the past has often battled feelings of inferiority. When I was a writer in the early days I had major imposter syndrome and all of those insecurities. So very often I’m not like preaching this stuff from the mountain top, I’m very much trying to take it on board myself because I don’t always follow that advice or believe those things. Very often the books I’m writing are things I feel that I need to read rather than things I feel I have got totally fixed and sorted in my own life.”
Matt Haig will be speaking at The Cambridge Literary Festival about his new novel, The Midnight Library, on Friday November 20. Visit: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com