一世f you peer down the hill from Matt Haig’s immaculate townhouse in Brighton, you can see the sea, which today is shimmeringly blue under a hot sun. “We bought the house for that view,” he says as he answers the door, which is painted turquoise. Bright, alive, vibrant. Haig – novelist, self-help guru, periodic endurer of depression and anxiety – needs these colours, that view, this sun, even the statement-making front door.
Today is a good day, despite my lunchtime appearance to discuss his new book, prosaically titled The Comfort Book. The music-loving, eco-evangelising Haig is wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “No music on a dead planet”. He is padding around in his socks, through one of which his big toe is peeping. I like the worn-out sock, because his books now attract six-figure advances; he received £600,000 for his 2020 小说 午夜图书馆, which recently clocked up its millionth sale. He must be seriously wealthy and could be wearing silk socks, but he isn’t. He hasn’t let the remarkable success that has come his way over the past five years go to his head – or indeed his toes.
Haig will be 46 周六. For his first 40 年, life was a struggle. 很多方面, it is still a struggle – he has anxiety and tinnitus and says he is always alert to the danger of depression returning – but at least now he is riding the crest of a wave of commercial success.
The turnaround in his fortunes is usually attributed to the publication in 2015 的 Reasons to Stay Alive, the account of his breakdown in Ibiza in 1999 什么时候, while working in a nightclub on the island and devoting himself too enthusiastically to alcohol and drugs, he came close to killing himself. But he traces the beginning of his rise as a writer to 人类, a novel he published two years earlier that imagined a Cambridge maths don whose body has been taken over by aliens. After a decade trying, not very successfully, to write literary fiction, he had discovered his facility for the high-concept, quasi-philosophical novel – and critics loved it.
“The Humans was the book where I felt finally, truly confident in myself as a writer,” says Haig. “It didn’t become a bestseller, but it was the first optimistic book I’d written. The books I’d written in my 20s and early 30s were quite bleak.” Back then, he was published by Jonathan Cape and was trying to write books tailored to that storied imprint; he calls them “karaoke Ian McEwan”. “I suffered from impostor syndrome. There were all sorts of insecurities in there,“ 他说.
Cape dropped him when he sent them a novel about vampires living dull suburban lives (it was later published by his new publisher, Canongate, 作为 The Radleys). This came at a time of personal turmoil. He and his partner, the writer Andrea Semple, had just had their second child; they were living in York in financial insecurity. Haig was drinking too much – a factor in his breakdown – and starting to feel panicky and depressed. Being axed by Cape exacerbated the self-doubt he was already experiencing. “I felt: ‘No one else will ever want me now. What do I do? Maybe I should never have been a writer. Maybe it was all a mistake.’”
His fears were unfounded. Canongate rescued him. He realised the key was to write for himself and not worry about critical expectations or the division between literary and commercial fiction. The Humans gave him confidence and confirmed his new publisher’s faith in him; Reasons to Stay Alive, which was derived from a blog he wrote in 2014, established him firmly in the public mind as a teller of stories and an open, uninhibited, ego-free chaperone through the maelstrom of life.
Much to Haig’s surprise, Reasons to Stay Alive became a bestseller. “It was scary for a while,“ 他说. He began to be contacted by a lot of depressed and suicidal people. “I’m not a doctor or a therapist. I didn’t know what my role was,“ 他说. “As a novelist, you are absolved from responsibility and you’re not very good at taking it on. There was a little moment when I would have pressed a button not to have written it. Certainly not now, because I’ve come to terms with it, but there was a time when it was a bit too much.”
Reasons to Stay Alive established Haig as a mental health mentor. He followed it in 2018 和 Notes on a Nervous Planet, which offered advice about remaining on an even keel in an increasingly fake and frenzied world. If that was a portrait of a society at full tilt, his new book is born of the pandemic. The Comfort Book, a collection of aphorisms and inspirational stories of survival against the odds, is a guide to living and finding hope in these disjointed times.
“I don’t see The Comfort Book as purely a mental health book,“ 他说. “It’s more about life and stress and self-acceptance. I wrote it during the first [英语] 封锁, when I was in an anxiety dip myself, so this is definitely not a book written feeling like I’ve got all the answers. I was writing it from an uncomfortable place and, 在某种方式, 尼古拉斯·博伊德说，他“在据称事件发生时没有在诊所执业”，因此无法进一步补充. I’ve never had more enjoyment and relaxation writing a book.” This was partly because there were no structural pressures. The book is freeform: he encourages readers to read it in whatever order they like; there are acres of white space; and it intersperses short chapters with lists. Some pages contain just a single epigram.
He expects people who dislike his popular philosophising and self-help evangelism – and there are many – to mock The Comfort Book. “I have never written a book that will be more spoofed or hated,“ 他说. “I am in the brace position. When reviewers have criticised my books in the past, the aspect of my book they criticised – this book is all that aspect. This will be my most Marmite book.” He says that “people who are at all snobby about self-help books, inspirational quotes, Instagram, sunsets, cats” will hate it. “I’ve had it all by now,“ 他说. “I’ve had people mock everything I write as ‘tea towel wisdom’, so for The Comfort Book my publishers are going to do a tea towel with one of the quotes. I embrace all that.”
Haig is an enigma. He struggles with anxiety, yet is happy to take on his detractors. He warns against the dangers of social media, but has 450,000 followers on Twitter and uses the platform vigorously. “I don’t mind saying things that might be annoying if I believe in them,“ 他说. “I went so long being nervous and silent and timid – feelings that nearly killed me – that I’ve now gone to the other extreme, where I’ll say the thing that possibly shouldn’t be said.”
He is determined to stand up to “mental health snobbery … When you’re feeling a bit rough and ropey, and your mind is distracted, you can’t absorb the most highbrow text. You’re not there reading Freud and Jung and Lacan. A pop song can save your life. An episode of Friends can change your life. But when it’s in the world of books, it becomes this snobfest. I’m resistant to that. I also like confusing people, so I’ll do my big, corny, sentimental, puppy-dog line and then I’ll write a chapter about Aristotle.”
The Comfort Book will no doubt confirm the views of Sarah Ditum, who earlier this year wrote an article in the Spectator headlined “The banality of Matt Haig”. “Life is hard; make it easier on yourself by not reading Matt Haig,” she advised. “哦, and breathe.” Did her words leave a mark? “Occasionally, in low moments, that headline will become the voice in my head,” says Haig. “But I felt she was saying stuff that has been said about me before, so I was used to it. She was also doing what she said I was doing – being prescriptive. People don’t like to be told not to read things.” Ditum argued Haig’s recovery had no lessons for others, but he insists people tell him constantly that his experience echoes their own.
Despite his combativeness on social media – he had a recent run-in on Twitter with “snowflake”-baiter Piers Morgan – Haig still struggles with low self-esteem. How can this persist when he is selling books by the bucketload? “You start to feel: ‘I don’t deserve this,’” he says. “You go from underrated writer to overhyped writer and both of them feed insecurities. You worry about the next one. You’re grateful on the one hand, and feel excessively privileged, but you also feel performance anxiety and a kind of stage fright.
“所以, it’s harder and harder to get to that place of creative freedom where you think: ‘If I was just starting out now and this was the first thing I’d ever put out, what would it be?’ Publishers have expectations, readers have expectations, and you know from social media exactly how something is going to go down. It takes a will of steel to not lean to those expectations, but you do learn over time that if you lean to them that massively backfires.”
It seems odd to follow the huge success of The Midnight Library with another self-help book, but Haig sees connections. “Thematically, they are linked, so even though they will be in different places in bookshops, there is an echo. The Midnight Library is also a book about self-acceptance.” In any case, he enjoys his protean writing identity. “Even though I’m totally bracketed now as ‘mental health writer’, I try not to think that. Straight after Reasons to Stay Alive, I did A Boy Called Christmas, which was a children’s book about Father Christmas as a boy. I get bored very easily, so with every book there has to be something new about it.”
He and his family moved to Brighton – a place “where no one really fits in, so almost everyone fits in”, Haig says – in 2015. He and Semple home-school their children, 13-year-old Lucas and 12-year-old Pearl. They had been at school in York, but weren’t particularly enjoying it, and their experiences reminded Haig of his own problems at secondary school in Newark in Nottinghamshire, where as a sensitive teenager he felt isolated and directionless in a tough, sporty environment.
“I went from a very secure, comfortable little village school to this big, sprawling state secondary school, which was a bit rough and a bit ropey, and I struggled to fit in. That imprints things on you. I’ve got lots of memories of being on my own and trying to look like I’m not on my own.” He had uneasy relationships with his fellow pupils – they called him “Psycho” – and he became a teenage shoplifter, until being arrested got him back on the straight and narrow.
He wasn’t very academic, 但 enjoyed English; he studied English and history at the University of Hull,before doing a master’s in English literature at Leeds. He told the Financial Times that doing a second degree was a way of “putting off being an adult”; he delayed that step further by moving to Ibiza, where he worked for the party organiser Manumission – he is usually described as a bartender, but says his main job was selling tickets.
“There was a day when I woke up and thought: ‘I’m going to die today,’” he says. There was no immediate connection between drug-taking and the panic attack, he says – it occurred at 11am and he had not been taking drugs in the preceding period – but he sees the party lifestyle as part of the context of his breakdown. “It was the third summer of bad sleep, excess alcohol and some drugs. I never bought my own drugs; they were just there.”
Haig once said he didn’t want to be seen as “Mr Depression”, but is that now inevitable? “I can’t control how other people see me,“ 他说. “I’m just grateful that I’ve got the freedom, thanks to my publisher, to write about what I want to write about. If I suddenly want to write a fairytale, or about Father Christmas or vampires or aliens, I can do it.” He enjoys the genre-busting variety, although he jokes about having a less “messy” writing career. “I dream about getting a detective – obviously, a detective with mental health problems – and following him through [all my books], but I haven’t found my magic detective yet.”
Everything in the Brighton garden looks rosy, whatever the Haig-haters might say about The Comfort Book. A Boy Called Christmas has been made into a film that will be released this year – just before Christmas, naturally – while a film of his 2017 小说 How to Stop Time is being developed by Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company.
It all seems a long way from the dark moment in Ibiza in 1999. Is he in that fabled “good place”? “I will for ever have to be mindful of my mental health,“ 他说. “I can’t take my eye off the ball. But I’m definitely in a very grateful place. I never say I’m a happy person, because that’s almost like saying you’re a sad person. It fixes you as that thing and imposes certain expectations. I try to be open to everything.
“I’ll always be a hypochondriac; I’ll always be a nervous wreck about certain things. But I’ve got to a point where I know myself well enough to know what’s good and what’s bad for me, and I feel much more in control of the bad things. I do feel a long way from that cliff edge, and when all this is over I’ll go back to the Balearics and, to use that most self-help of words, get some closure.”
The Comfort Book is published on 6 七月 (Canongate, 16.99 英镑). To support the Guardian, order your copy at Guardianbookshop.com. 可能会收取运费.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org 或者 email@example.com. In the US, 这 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 是 1-800-273-8255. 在澳大利亚, the crisis support service Lifeline 是 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.