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Interview: Matt Haig

10 October 07 interview: James Walker

To celebrate World Mental Health Day we interviewed Matt Haig. Author of The Dead Fathers Club, a book which deals with a young child's grief...

Matt Haig will be familiar to readers as the best selling author of The Last Family in England (2004). His second novel, the Dead Fathers Club (2007), has recently gone to paperback, and has been optioned for film by Heyday Productions. That’s right, the ones who made Harry Potter.

Set in Matt’s former childhood town of Newark-on-Trent, the Dead Fathers Club follows the adventures of eleven year old Philip Noble who plans to murder his Uncle Alan after receiving instructions from beyond the grave. The book is a surreal, darkly humoured account of love, loss and revenge through the eyes of a confused depressed child coming to terms with grief. James K Walker selected this book to celebrate World Mental Health Day (12 October) and caught up with Matt to disgust ghosts, marketing and Ibiza.

We hear that you spent a couple of years working at Manumission in Ibiza, has this influenced your writing or life in any way? There is a lot of hugging or the need for hugging in the book...
It’s hard to say. Working in Ibiza eventually caused me to break down so I suppose it ‘helped’ in the sense that it made me totally reassess what I wanted to do with my life.

You have eight business books under your belt including the highly successful Brand Failures. Which gives you most pleasure writing, business or adult fiction?
Adult fiction. Business writing was just a day job and now, thankfully, I no longer have to do it. Although, I still believe there are at least as many talented brand consultants as there are novelists. The only difference is that when you are a novelist, you are the brand.

Why the lack of punctuation in the book, particularly given the target audience?
The lack of punctuation seemed to be a simple way I could capture Philip’s breathless state of mind.

Fish appear quite often in the novel, why is this?
I don’t know. I like fish, and kept tropical fish when I was a child. Philip is a child drowning in grief and conflicting emotions, so I suppose fish and water are obvious symbols of this.

I was unsure whether Phillip imagined hearing his dead father or whether it was all in his mind as part of the grieving process. Was this ambiguity deliberate or did you envisage a particular truth?
No. I like ambiguity. I think writers do a disservice by solving all the mysteries in their novels. If a novel is to be honest, and reflect experience, ambiguity has to be essential.

Philip reminded me a little of the kid in The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time. (Erratic, confused, funny with his idiosyncrasies) Are you happy with this comparison?
Well, people sometimes say this, and as comparisons go it’s certainly not an unpleasant one, but Philip is a child who isn’t suffering from a disorder in the same way. His panic and anxieties are a product of grief and it is this grief and how he deals with it that is, I hope, at the centre of the story.

Mental health seems to be surfacing in more and more novels recently. Ray Robinson’s Electricity springs to mind which we are reviewing next. Why do you think this is?   
I can’t speak for other writers but you’re right, this does seem to be a trend among novelists who concentrate on the present. People seem to be either writing about the past, or writing about the present from a slightly skewered perspective. I think the reality of the contemporary world in 2007 is quite scary. And fear can lead to escapism, or it can lead to madness, or it can lead to madness as escapism, so it is probably just a natural response to the society we inhabit. 

What are you working on at the moment?
I have just finished my next adult book, called The Possession of Mr Cave. It’s about a man’s obsession with his daughter, and it’s pretty dark. There’s a lot of death in it, and no happy ending.

Not even a glimmer of hope?
I think bleak endings can be positive, in a way. After all, everything crappy about the world right now is a result of misguided optimism – such as the misguided optimism that said it was possible for western military intervention to bring peace in Iraq. Bleak endings help turn people into cynics and pessimists and I don’t think we can be too cynical at the moment. So I’m on a crusade to make people miserable. No. I’m not really. Brand Failures (2003).

Which gives you most pleasure writing, business or adult fiction?
Adult fiction. Business writing was just a day job and now, thankfully, I no longer have to do it. Although, I still believe there are at least as many talented brand consultants as there are novelists. The only difference is that when you are a novelist, you are the brand.

Given your marketing background, do you arrange any promotions yourself? Is it frustrating relying on others?
I’m a control freak, so it is always frustrating relying on other people, but the truth is the publishers are the people who deal with the same book editors every week so aside from building a website and a myspace page I generally leave it to them.

Is writing from the perspective of a young adolescent difficult and what is the allure of this?
I wouldn’t say it is any more difficult writing as an adolescent than any other perspective.  All good writing is aiming for a childlike quality: the ability to see a tired reality with fresh eyes. And a child’s perspective is very tempting, and helpful, as it inevitably sends you back to your own childhood, and so you can tap in on all those powerful experiences. That’s the key thing in the process – memory. The older I get I realise there is no ‘adulthood’ just ‘ex-childhood’s’, and we manage to forget as much as we learn as we grow up.

The Dead Fathers Club is clearly influenced by elements of Hamlet. Was this your motivation or simply a coincidence that became clearer as the novel progressed?
Not quite a coincidence, but it certainly wasn’t the starting point. Originally I wanted to tell a ghost story from a ghost’s perspective, and then it became from the boy’s perspective, then I noticed it was gradually becoming Hamlet.

Given the above, is it possible to ever create something truly original or have we reached the full gamut of human expression?
I think humans don’t fundamentally change, even as society progresses, or regresses. The same human emotions stay constant. So, the stories we tell are always the same stories. Love stories. Revenge stories. Quest stories. The story of Hamlet was itself a borrowed story, but Shakespeare made something new and original with it.

The Dead Fathers Club is based in Newark-on-Trent. Is this because it is a particularly haunted region or somewhere you are familiar with?
It’s where I lived for most of my childhood and a place that would therefore help me get inside an 11-year-old’s mind.

Have you ever seen a ghost or do you believe in them?
I believe in them as a metaphor, but not necessarily as a reality. I thought I saw one when I was ten. An old woman in Victorian clothes walking past a bedroom doorway at my grandparents’ house but I did have an overheated imagination.

‘The bell went and Mrs Fell just looked at me with sad shoulders. I wanted her to hug me and to put my head in her warm boobs for ever. But that wasnt going to happen so I picked up my bag with my weapons in it and I went out’

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