It’s been a good couple of years for Matt Haig and he credits this success to stopping trying to be Ian McEwan: “It took me at least all my 20s and some of my 30s to get the confidence to realise I could just write about what I wanted to write about, without having to pass a test or look super clever.”
His books aren’t easy to categorise and don’t follow a pattern. The Humans was a novel that read like a nature documentary about the human race as seen by an alien and then he wrote Reasons to Stay Alive, a part memoir, part manual about his struggles with depression.
“I think we get too hung up on categories. Obviously the book market has to categorise things, and it makes it easier for a reader to go into a bookshop and choose, but as a writer it helps to get rid of all of that and imagine you are a storyteller around a campfire. Writing can be fun. I think the challenge is to convey interesting things in accessible ways and that’s what I aim to do in books.”
Haig’s new book, A Boy Called Christmas (Canongate), is a joyous story of how Father Christmas became the jovial, plump figure we know with his team of reindeer and love of giving. It will delight adults and children alike and has future classic written all over it. Rights are being sold all over the world and there is film news, but Haig says if he told me more he’d have to shoot me.
A Boy Called Christmas came about as a counter point response to Reasons to Stay Alive.
“I wasn’t depressed writing Reasons to Stay Alive but I was apprehensive about the effect of talking about it on a big book tour—it turned out all right in the end— and I was determined not to spend the rest of my life as Mr Depression. I was wondering what the opposite of depression would be. It was November and my son asked me what Father Christmas was like as a boy. I thought, that’s a good question.”
Initially the idea seemed so good that Haig thought it must have been done but he looked into the vast amounts of Christmas books and films and found it was still up for grabs. “So I just felt I had to do it and it was fun. I wanted to write a book that captured the spirit of Christmas because one of the saddest things about becoming an adult is that you lose that. I can really remember from November having that fluttery tingling in your stomach. I was a child of the ’80s so part of it was highlighting everything in the Radio Times. Then in your 20s you lose that completely and when you have children of your own you get it back a bit through them.”
Haig set about it by convincing himself that Father Christmas was real and then imagining a likely and logical back story for him: “It’s a sort of mystery story. It’s about why we have magic and why we want to believe and the sort of comfort that can give.”
There are jokes galore—do look out for the revenge of the reindeer—and forests full of elves, pixies and trolls. Haig enjoyed conjuring imaginary characters on to a real landscape: “I’ve got Norwegian family, so even though this isn’t set in Norway, I can remember holidays to Scandinavia and the forests, the countryside, the sparsely populated very clean land. A lot of that came in.”
A Boy Called Christmas is not a saccharine tale by any means. Our hero Nikolas is only 11 but has to endure bereavement, cruelty and hardship long before he ever gets sight of a candy cane. Does Haig feel a responsibility to be honest about the harsher side of life?
“Lots of children have had dark experiences, and if they’re not having direct dark experiences they are thinking about things and learning that life is fragile. You have to acknowledge that side of life to be able to then offer comfort and hope and goodwill.”
Haig never thought of himself as a moral author but having children has changed the way he views what he puts out into the world: “I’m just trying to remind myself, remind people, remind children, hopefully not in too worthy a way, that Christmas is actually about giving. The secular side of Christmas has become so over commercialised, and obviously I’m part of it now. I was just trying to find a really truly Christmas thing, which was a combination of my favourite Christmas books, from Dickens right through to Raymond Briggs, mixed with the spirit of Christmas films from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ to ‘Elf’ and everything in between.”
The book is a beautiful object, too. When Canongate acquired it they felt it should be illustrated and engaged Chris Mould.
Haig says: “He’s been amazing, really easy to work with and a nice guy. He totally got in tune with the book and brought his own humour to a lot of the pictures.”
What’s next for Haig? He currently has four Word documents open on his computer and is writing a bit into each, like a personal literary “X Factor” to see which will survive. He has an idea for a seasonal follow-up called A Girl Called Christmas and is writing scripts, which is very different to writing books.
“It’s a great exercise for a novelist to do scriptwriting because it teaches you about discipline, but it’s very collaborative and not always in a helpful way. I’m totally on the same page as my book editor, but sometimes with films, there are so many cooks and it can be confusing. At the same time I enjoy it.”
Whatever he does, he’s sticking to his promise to himself to not try to be clever, not try to be literary but keep focused on the story: “I think if you do anything honest, even in fiction, if you are true to yourself, almost brutally honest with yourself, then you hopefully tap into something other people feel. We fabricate all these differences between ourselves, and I think if you can connect with something that is really true, then even if someone hasn’t experienced what you’ve experienced, they will relate to it at some universal human level.”
Haig is also feeling good about the book industry as a whole: “There’s a lot of negativity around the book market and the future of books but I feel very positive. Maybe it’s just because in my career things are getting better but I think we are heading into an exciting space. Creatively there’s never been a better time. A lot of genre snobbery is fading away, and if you look at the younger end of the book market it’s so alive and positive and interesting. I think we have great reasons to be happy about the future.”
See some of Chris Mould's illustrations from A Boy Called Christmas here.