Matt Haig: Big City Read’s closing event

By Malin Nilssen

Big City Read 2018 has come to an end. Matt Haig’s The Radleys was this year’s book, and has been devoured by many a reader, with 5000 copies handed out for free at York’s libraries. On 16 November, I went to the closing event of the Big City Read at Tang Hall Library, to hear lecturer John O’Connor from York St. John’s interview Matt Haig about his books. The hall is filled with fellow book lovers, of varying ages- though I do feel in the minority, most here being over 30. Around about the room I spot children and young adults, readers of Haig’s newest works: children’s books about Christmas. The latest, The Truth Pixie, is a new topic of conversation. The book, a contender to Reasons to stay alive, deals with anxious thoughts for children, and has gained huge popularity in its early days. The general vibe is excitement- probably, like for me, due to the prospect of seeing the lovely, lovable author Matt Haig in real life. As he walks in, looking slightly uncomfortable yet excited, I can tell it’s going to be an interesting and unusual book event.

Matt Haig has written for several genres: Children’s fiction, Young Adult fiction, YA non-fiction, adult fiction, adult non-fiction. He writes what he feels like writing, not having found “his genre”. Nevertheless, as he says himself, genre-defining an author is all part of marketing. It’s a relatively new thing storytellers have had to think about, and to stick to. Some do. Matt Haig says for him, it becomes boring. He likes to knock down the walls between genres, and include different elements within his books. As we can see from his bibliography, he has not stuck to one genre, and he vouches that he probably never will.

As a second part to the discussion of The Radleys, O’Connor can finally talk about the whole book, the audience having had time to read it. He begins by addressing the ending, asking Haig how he sees the family’s story continuing. The story is a metaphor for addiction, about the part of yourself you have to suppress, the vampirism being what the family need to hide. Written in a sleep-deprived stage of life, following the birth of his second child, Haig was struggling with adjusting to family life, with his first (of many) midlife crises, and decided to write a book exploring how to find the right balance.

Matt reveals that The Radleys was first written as a screenplay (a story written to explore how characters are made using dialogue, which is how characters are given life on screen). Characters are the hardest to get, Haig says: the first draft never has fully formed characters. Main characters are the most difficult, but with The Radleys he had to build several important characters, using a new technique: speech as the main building block. This ties into identity, a theme O’Connor recognizes in all of Haig’s work. Haig isn’t sure his starting point is always identity, but upon consideration thinks it probably is the thing he explores the most. Not being entirely sure of his own identity, especially not as a writer, he can’t say for sure how much the theme is a substantial drive.

As an author, Matt Haig likes to write with the reader’s imagination in mind. He loves writing for children, knowing their imaginations are much more concentrated, their minds focused only on the story while reading, not on life outside. With this in mind, he has written adult books in the same manner, trying to bring out our inner child. He believes we need fiction now more than ever. It’s a place where we can safely explore life, both by writing fiction and reading it.

The event didn’t focus solely on The Radleys. We listened to Haig talk about writing, about themes and the way stories can be so much more than just stories. He spent a lot of time talking about how he likes to include different narratives in his stories, voices that look at humanity from the outside in order to see the oddity of us as a species. Having read many of his books, I believe this explains his writing quite well. We see people from a different, often humorous angle, with serious issues in subtext, like addiction, anxiety and depression. As with his last book, The Truth Pixie, he writes beautifully about such issues, breaking boundaries surrounding the stigma of mental health. The event was wonderfully structured, thanks to John O’Connor’s well-prepared questions and prior knowledge, and I would recommend anyone who has the chance to attend similar events in the future.

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