This week, Catching the Comet’s Tail features author Matt Haig. I like to imagine that if, by some time-bending miracle, Rene Descartes could meet David Bowie at a space cafe where the only thing on the menu is peanut butter served on slices of philosophical bread, Matt would be there taking notes. Haig’s latest novel, The Humans, is a simple yet moving story that will have you weeping at the beauty and futility of it all. Welcome to the world of an author who puts the ‘sigh’ in sci-fi.
Matt on creativity…
“I think writing sometimes comes from intense experiences. You are not necessarily writing about those experiences but it helps me that I have had them. I think the body and the mind are very closely linked. When I used to have panic attacks, it was my heart and my mind going crazy together. You feel things and experience things and somehow these experiences turn into stories. It is a mystery. If you write non-fiction then you write with a clear knowledge of where your words stem from, but with fiction you are generally asking questions, not giving answers.”
Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early literary influences?
“I was quite bookish but didn’t go to a school where being bookish was a good thing, so I often used to hide the fact from my friends. I loved all the usuals – Dahl, Jansson, SE Hinton…then, as a teen, Stephen King in a major way. But I think a lot of the writer sensibility comes from staring out of windows. I used to do that a lot, wrapped up in the comfort of my own imagination. My parents also took me to the theatre a lot and our house was a house of books.”
How long did it take to write The Humans and can you recall the first spark of inspiration?
“The Humans took me over a decade, technically, because I first had the idea for it in 2000 when I was suffering from panic disorder, and feeling alienated from the rest of my species. However, I was scared of writing it as a first novel for 2 reasons – firstly, I didn’t want to be labelled as a sci-fi writer, which technically this story is (in subject if not in spirit), and secondly, even though it was a fantasy, the story felt strangely personal, and it took a while to get the degree of honesty necessary. I needed to look at myself properly, and when you are 25 and trying to be cool that’s hard. The concept changed through the editing process. I am deeply proud of this book and don’t mind shouting about it from the rooftops. I think it is by far the best thing I have ever done, but it only got that way with the help of my editor at Canongate, Francis Bickmore. You see, the first draft would have literally alienated most readers. He told me to think of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and feed the weirdness in gradually and that is what I tried to do. And you know [a book] is finished when you have exhausted your editor and he says it is finished.”
Who, what or where always inspires your creativity, no matter what? And what, if anything, is guaranteed to kill it?
“I can only work at home. Preferably in my attic. But I can have music on or even the TV. I have tinnitus, so quiet is more distracting than noise. Twitter is a creativity-killer though.”
What do you do when you feel blocked creatively?
“Go for a run. Or, if in a serious slump, get away on holiday.”
Please share a photo of something that connects with your writing process.
“My writing staple… peanut butter.”
Is there a collaborative element to your work?
“Well, I have a great editor. And my wife is a writer, so I show her stuff and she tells me what she likes and what she doesn’t. But I am a shut-myself-away kind of writer to be honest.”
Where do you most like to be when you write, and do you have a daily routine?
“I hate writing at a desk so I can normally be found lounging around my house. This is my favourite spot.
I work three times as well in the morning as the afternoon. For every sentence I write in the afernoon, I can write a paragraph in the morning. So my rule is: START EARLY, FINISH EARLY.”
Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master?
“I’d like to be a film director. My Dad is an architect. I’d love to design a building.”
How did becoming a parent affect your creativity?
“You have less time, so you become more productive. You use the time you have more wisely. You become more disciplined. I also think I have a more optimistic world-view. My style has become a little bit sunnier I think.”
What are you working on next?
“I have been asked to write a screenplay for The Humans. So, that!”