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IT’S hard to stop worrying about time,” says Matt Haig, sipping from an apple juice in a Brighton coffee shop.
It’s a pertinent line for a number of interlinked reasons. Most pressingly, the Brighton-based author’s new book How To Stop Time, released last week, which concerns a man whose rare condition means he has been alive for more than 400 years.
Tom Hazard has met Shakespeare, F Scott Fitzgerald and Captain Cook and now works at a secondary school in East London.
Time is Tom’s tormentor, in the sense he is doomed to see loved ones come and go, whole generations pass by in a relatively short period. “All you can do with time is drag it around,” says one line in the book.
A film version is being lined up with Benedict Cumberbatch set to play the lead role.
“Tom has a future ahead of him, but it’s not going to be some sexy vampire future,” says Haig. “It’s a very long, protracted old age ahead of him.”
The book is, says Haig, “my take on mindfulness and trying to capture the moment – we’re all trying to do it but we don’t really know how.”
This hints at another, deeper reason as to why Haig has been preoccupied with the theme of time for a while and why How to Stop Time has been so long in the making.
In 2004, while he was working in Spain, Haig suffered a debilitating depressive episode which he later documented in his non-fiction book How To Stay Alive, a Sunday Times bestseller.
The author was almost continually ill for the next three years, a period which heavily influenced How To Stop Time.
As he says, “nothing makes you realise that time is relative more than depression. A week can feel like a lifetime.
“My first week of being properly ill after my breakdown was at least a year’s worth of pain compressed.”
Rather than write about a depressed person, Haig thought he would use Tom’s condition as a vehicle to subtly suggest mental health.
“I thought that would be a fun metaphor and one that wasn’t too heavy handed,” he says, adding that the novel, on top of his two books about Father Christmas, were designed to help cheer him up after writing Reasons To Stay Alive.
“I might go back to mental health territory soon but it was nice to escape that for a while,” he adds.
Haig released his first book, How Come You Don’t Have An E-Strategy, in 2002 and has since published 15 fiction and non-fiction works.
His creative writing is often based in familiar worlds with a surreal twist, sometimes incorporating vampires and aliens, as in The Radleys (2010) and The Humans (2013) respectively.
“I often start off with something quite realistic and it ends up quite bizarre,” says the author.
“Like recently I had an idea to write a book about an agoraphobic person but it keeps turning into an alien invasion book. I keep trying to do my very serious, potentially award-winning book, and then… aliens.”
He says he’s not interested in fantasy for its own sake and, as with How To Stop Time, his writing always has human interest in mind.
In the course of our conversation he discusses the ways advertising has the power to make us unhappy, why we aren’t getting as much sleep as we should and, in a broader sense, the detrimental impact of urban living on mental health.
Fundamentally, he’s curious about why we live in the way we do and much of this rumination makes its way into his novels.
Isn’t it draining to sit all day analysing the human condition?
“I think when you start thinking about these things it gives you weapons, it arms you,” he says. “I don’t know if contemplating it relaxes me or stresses me out, but it fascinates me.”
Haig has become quite the Twitter personality, commentating on everything from politics to the media to depression, and it’s not uncommon for one of his 155,000 followers to thank him for touching their lives with his work.
Yet with so much focus on the negative aspects of social media on mental health, what benefit does Haig see in Twitter?
“I think it’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “What’s good, and I know this from other people’s stories, is that it gives people who aren’t comfortable talking about their mental health a platform.
“It’s a very important lifeline to a lot of people, but at the same time I’m glad I was a teenager before social media. For teenagers now there is no ‘off’ time.”
I put it to Haig that in some ways Brighton, his home for almost two years now (he moved here from York), might be considered fairly anxiety inducing; especially in the bustling summer months.
“The great thing about Brighton is also the stressful thing about it,” he says. “It’s very lively and colourful and if you’re on a night out it can be stressful.
“I still prefer Brighton to London, though, because you’ve got the sea and people are friendly. I always judge a city by the drivers – cars let you out and the bus drivers are nice.”
Haig adds that while he likes to think of himself as someone who challenges the views of the status quo, that’s almost impossible in “right-on Brighton”.
“Everyone’s a rebel here – being a rebel is the conformist thing,” he laughs.
While Haig is looked to as a source of wisdom on all things mental health, he says he’s still searching for “understanding”.
Not that he’s alone in that journey – Haig says that “nobody has the answers” when it comes to depression, anxiety and other disorders because the science and education just isn’t there.
“I still think we’re not in an enlightened age.
“When you analyse it, it’s very hard to work out what’s happening to you and how much is internal and external.”
The author points to the barbaric method of trepanning (a surgical intervention used at various points across history to attempt to remove the “stone of madness” in the subject’s brain and thus relieve them of depression) as an example of how badly society can misunderstand mental issues.
“My other big soapbox is this divide we create between physical and mental health,” adds the author. “The first symptoms I got for depression were physical. My anxiety is very physical – I can feel it in my chest.”
Writing is a meditative process for Haig, as is yoga, which he took up recently. “I think because our society is to frenetic we seek out these therapies as a counterpoint,” he says.
He takes solace in two other, more abstract, comforts – time and space. He enjoys the sensation of feeling small in the universe. He finds it therapeutic.
“Collectively we’re so arrogant, we feel like everything that matters in the world is due to us, so it can feel a release to remember we are actually just a tiny point in time and space.”
It is no wonder, then, that Haig has circled back round to these universal themes for his new book.
It would be far too corny to fit into any of his work, but he remembers an episode that made him feel at once insignificant and momentarily at ease.
“When I was living in York during another bout of depression my calmest moment of the day was to stop and look at the stars at night,” he says.
“I know that sounds like a sixth form poet.”
l Matt Haig’s book How To Stop Time is out now.
He is giving a reading and taking audience questions at the Ropetackle Arts Centre in Shoreham next Thursday. Visit ropetacklecentre.co.uk for more information.
Source: The Argus