Matt Haig is asking me for news of Edinburgh. “We’re always in Edinburgh in August, we’re one of those annoying families who come and fill up your town. We get totally into the spirit of things. So what’s it like? What does the Royal Mile feel like?”
I tell him that the Royal Mile is quiet, that Charlotte Square is tent-free, that the Fringe venues are silent. Haig, meanwhile, is at home in Brighton, taking part in the online Edinburgh International Book Festival from his own front room.
A prolific writer for both adults and children, Haig is also, since his best-selling memoir of breakdown and recovery, Reasons to Stay Alive, an acclaimed writer on mental health. His 2018 book, Notes on a Nervous planet, explored the ways in which 21st-century life makes us more anxious, but even he could not have predicted how nervous the planet would become in the first half of 2020.
“It is interesting how much the pandemic has echoed my experience of having a breakdown,” he says. “It’s a kind of collective anxiety. It is literally telling agoraphobics, ‘yes, you should fear going outside’. At one point in March or April when it was getting really scary, even just going out and walking the dog and inhaling air felt dangerous.”
But lockdown has been “a mixed experience”, with times of intense anxiety in a life which has felt largely normal: as a writer, he works from home, and he and his wife Andrea already home school their children. “To be honest I’m a little skeptical about the way mental health has been talked about this year. It has been used as an incentive to get the economy going because it’s impacting mental health, to get the schools back because it’s impacting on children’s mental health. In some cases that’s true, but there are plenty of children whose mental health has been enhanced by not being at school. Or people who found a simpler life without commuting. It’s far too early to rush to any blanket statements.”
His new novel, The Midnight Library, while finished before the pandemic, is partly inspired by his own experience of mental illness. Our heroine, Nora Seed, after a series of losses in her own life, takes an overdose of antidepressants. However, instead of the oblivion she hopes for, she wakes in the eponymous library where she discovers each book represents a parallel life, a path she might have taken if things had turned out differently.
In a fast-paced book hard-to-put-down story, Nora has the chance to try on other lives: the one where she becomes an Olympic swimmer, the one where she’s a rock star, the one where she marries her boyfriend and opens a country pub. Having felt that she failed to fulfil her potential in her “root life”, she can explore lives in which she is richer, more famous, occasionally even happier. But can she find a life which fits her so well she wants to stay there?
Haig says: “I’m fascinated by parallel lives, and I love that there’s now a science that backs all that up. I wanted to write something quite philosophical and fun and about mental health, because I’ve never explored mental health in fiction before. As soon I had the idea of the library being a portal between worlds, I thought that was perfect because that’s kind of what a library is anyway.
“I think, now more than ever, we’re all encouraged to feel a lack. We’re continually encouraged to achieve stuff through consumer culture and the media. The whole reality TV format is about seeking salvation from an ordinary life into a life of fame or fortune. It’s a constant narrative that we’re fed that we’re these works in progress who need to do something to add value to their lives. I wanted to address that.”
While Haig is prolific on Twitter, he is also concerned by the ways in which social media can impact on our wellbeing. He speaks about Dunbar’s Number - the theory that human beings are designed to know about 150 other people, the typical number of people in a neolithic village. “Now we can encounter 150 people on the internet before we’re even out of bed, and those people are often the most exceptional people in the world. It’s inevitable that we start to feel like our normal, perfectly legitimate human selves are somehow inadequate.”
Haig, 45, says he became a writer in part because of his breakdown. “We needed money and I was still agoraphobic, I needed something I could do from home and writing was it.” After working for a time as a technology journalist - “anyone could be an internet expert at that point because the internet was a new thing” - he was commissioned to write a series of business books. Then he wrote his first novel, The Last Family in England: “very strange and dark and quirky and weird, based on Henry IV Part I - with talking dogs”.
He has gone on to achieve success with novels such as The Humans and Reasons to Stop Time (optioned as a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch) and children’s books such as The Truth Pixie and A Boy Called Christmas (the film of which is due out later this year).
But are there any other versions of his life he would like to explore? He smiles. “I learned piano up to the age of about 12 or 13, and then I gave up. I’m a frustrated musician. I would like to see that life where I hadn’t been a self-conscious teenage boy who didn’t like telling his mates that he went to piano lessons with Mrs Peters. But, you know, I am also getting more accepting of life. That’s another reason why I wrote the book, because I often feel that our biggest regrets and our worst moments can lead, a lot further down the line, to good things.”
He said the first version of Nora Seed was a male character, but found this “almost too autobiographical”.
“In a strange way it was easier writing someone who definitely wasn’t me. In terms of suicidal thinking, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, all of that is very there for me and very real. But it also helped me, being a male writer writing a woman, because it was a key dimension to her which was also a key dimension to me.
“It was interesting writing about mental health as fiction. With Reasons to Stay Alive, I felt a bit constrained. I was honest with everything I put in the book but, obviously, you have to think about your parents, your partner, your kids. With fiction, you’re not likely to offend anybody because you’re writing about made-up people. In a paradoxical way, you can sometimes be truer and freer.”
Matt Haig will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday 31 August, 2.30pm-3.30pm on www.edbookfest.co.uk, and on catch-up. The Midnight Library is out now, published by Canongate.
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