Wednesday, 29 May 2013

MATT HAIG in conversation with Gillian Hamer

Book v Film

Matt Haig is one of the new generation of young writers. Prolific. Cross-genre. Multi-age-range. Rule-breaking. Technology-savvy. Social media friendly. And yet … most importantly, a good old-fashioned story-teller who passionately believes books will never die because of an intrinsic human need to tell stories.

His first novel, The Last Family in England, was published in 2005 and went on to be a UK best-seller, with film rights sold to Brad Pitt’s production company – not a bad debut! In the past eight years, Haig has produced a remarkable list of best-sellers for both adult and YA audiences which have been translated into twenty-nine languages. In 2011, his biggest success to date, The Radleys, won an ALA Alex Award in America, plus has been shortlisted for the Portico prize and nominated for the Carnegie Medal. It also won the TV Book Club Summer Read.

This is an author with both freshness and experience on his side, who isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers with some strong opinions along the way.

So, with one eye on this month’s topic of ‘The Future of Storytelling’ we sat down with Matt Haig and discussed some of today’s popular literary topics – including his recent announcement of a commission to write the screenplay of the film adaption of his latest novel, The Humans.


Matt, thanks for joining us at Words with Jam this month. So, for readers new to your work tell us about your new novel, THE HUMANS?
It is the first novel idea I ever had, but it has taken me a long time to pluck up the courage. I wanted to look at human life from the outside, so this is a story of a visitor from somewhere else, arriving here to look at all the strange and unfathomable habits we have. It starts off as a murder story and ends up a love story. I feel it is my best book by a long way, though readers might disagree.

The first book I read of yours was The Radleys, followed by The Possession of Mr Cave. You have some dark themes going on, even in your YA novels, so what motivates you in term of theme?
I find it hard to think about motives. I basically wait until a story wants to burst out and then let it lead the way. In full flow I write in a kind of frenzy. But I do tend to be drawn to the dark, but I think in my more recent writing I also offer readers a torch, a way out towards light.

You’re Yorkshire born and now live in the county, and seem to enjoy creating vivid landscapes in your books. Is location important to you? Do you prefer to write what you know or research further afield?
I start with a story idea. Sometimes that story demands research. For instance, in The Humans I write a lot about mathematics and prime numbers and a lot is set at Cambridge University. As someone who didn’t do A Level Maths a lot of research was involved. The story dictates, basically.

I love that you list Enid Blyton as one of your favourite authors, what are you reasons for choosing to write for children? How does it differ to writing for adults, and if you’re honest, which do you prefer and why?
I get more money for my adult stuff, but to be honest they both contain equal amounts of Heaven and Hell.

You’re a writer that divides and straddles genres. The Times once said of your work, “Weaves horror and humour into a terrific tale.” Where would you categorize your writing? 
Well I see tragedy and comedy as two sides of the same coin. Humour is the mechanism we humans have for coping with the dark stuff. I think both are intertwined in my writing because I see them intertwined in life.


So, your latest fantastic news is that THE HUMANS has been commissioned as a film? How did this come about and what were your initial thoughts? Or fears?
Well, I’ve had stuff sold for film before so my expectations are realistic. But it is exciting, and this one actually feels like it is going to be made. Plus, I’m writing the screenplay!

Did you have any concerns about how the plot and characters would come across on the big screen?
I’m working with a film producer I’ve worked with before – Tanya Seghatchian – and she is the kind of person you trust with these things.

Is your writing style a visual approach? Do you write scenes almost seeing them in your mind’s eye and imagining them acted out on the big screen?
Yes. Absolutely. I see what is happening and my job is to capture as much of it as possible with words.

You’ve been lucky enough to be commissioned as the scriptwriter for the film which is a fantastic accolade. How is that working out? How does it differ from writing the original novel?
It’s quicker. 20,000 words versus 80,000. I enjoy it as much. It’s very different in one sense, but the basics are the same. Storytelling is story telling.

Has the casting been sorted? Can you reveal any of the names?
No. I haven’t even finished the script…

What aspects of your writing do you think comes across well or is even enhanced in film?
I’m quite proud of my dialogue…

Other than the scriptwriting, how much involvement will you have with the actual production of the film?
No much, but that’s how I like it. Writers are writers. I’m fine about leaving the film people to do their job.

Are there any other novels you’ve written that you’d love to see in film? Or any offers in the wings?
I’ve sold the film rights to all my adult novels so I’d like to see all of them made…


What is currently on your reading list? Which of today’s authors do you admire?
I am now one of those writers who gets sent books so I have quite a few waiting for me to read. I admire tons of writers. Patrick Ness, Steven Hall, Jeanette Winterson (always have), as well as nice dollop of Steven King or Neil Gaiman.

Where do you stand on the ‘literary versus genre’ debate?
It’s a silly debate. There are good books and there are bad books, it is as simple as that. It’s not about what you write about, it’s how you write it. In theory a zombie novel could display more intelligence than a book about the Boer War. It’s about two things and two things only – snobbery and marketing, both of which are enemies of imagination.

Where do you stand on the ‘e-books versus paper’ debate?
Paper’s better. But one day they will converge. They have already developed electronic paper. In a decade or so we will see e-books that look like actual books. But I’m no fan of Kindles in their present incarnation. I think they are a very undeveloped technology, as opposed to a hardback, which has had centuries to develop and is pretty much perfect. But, that said, the medium is not the message. The words are the message. I’d prefer to read a good story on a Kindle than a bad one in a physical book.

Do you have a writing quote or mantra that works for you when the going gets tough?
Yes. It’s a silent one, that says you will never live long enough to get all your ideas down so don’t dilly, don’t dally…

You’ve been very honest about your mental health issues in your twenties, and you credit writing with saving your life. What do you believe it is about writing that is so cathartic and what does it add to your life today?
Writing releases thoughts, stops them building up, it is like a pressure cooker letting off steam. Creating things is also very good for the self-esteem, especially if you are proud of them. It is self-validation.

You have a brilliant blog that every writer should follow, and recently published a super post ’30 things every writer should know’ as featured in The Telegraph … If you could give just three top tips to a new writer venturing into your world, what would they be?
Write what you want, but work damn hard at it.

Lower your expectations of others, but expect more from yourself.

Don’t share until you’ve finished. Nothing kills a novel quicker than early exposure to critical eyes.


You're increasingly famous for your blog posts (Booktrust Blog) so clearly you embrace progress. Connected to this issue's theme, how do you see the Future of Storytelling?
The future of storytelling will be more interactive. It will be more inclusive of readers. It will be more like how stories were originally told, involving other voices. No-one knows exactly what will happen to books, but stories will be safe. Storytelling is a basic need and desire, and a key part of what makes us human.

The Humans is out in the UK on 9th May 2013 and 2nd July 2013 in USA

Reviews so far from those in the know …

The Humans is tremendous; a kind of Curious Incident meets The Man Who Fell to Earth. It's funny, touching and written in a highly appealing voice' Joanne Harris

'The Humans is a laugh-and-cry book. Troubling, thrilling, puzzling, believable and impossible. Matt Haig uses words like a tin-opener. We are the tin' Jeanette Winterson

'A brilliant exploration of what it is to love, and to be human, The Humans is both heartwarming and hilarious, weird, and utterly wonderful. One of the best books I've read in a very long time' S J Watson

'Excellent . . . very human and touching indeed' Patrick Ness

'Utterly wonderful' Mark Billingham

Gillian Hamer is a full-time company director and part-time author - who divides her time between her business in Birmingham and a remote cottage in Anglesey where she attempts to write. She has published three novels, The Charter, Closure and Complicit via Triskele

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