Matt Haig stops by the store tonight, February 8 at 7 p.m., to discuss his new novel How to Stop Time, which tells the story of a 439-year-old man who looks 41. Film rights have already been snatched up by Benedict Cumberbatch’s production company, SunnyMarch. Check out the interview with Haig below, courtesy of Penguin Random House.
Due to a rare genetic disorder, Tom Hazard, the protagonist and narrator of How to Stop Time, your international bestselling new novel, appears to be middle-aged yet is 439-years-old, physically aging fifteen-times slower than regular humans. How did you come up with this premise?
For quite a while I had wanted to tell the story of someone unfathomably old. I felt like it would be an interesting way to look at history by making it personal. I also think the best way at looking at human life is often to have a narrator who is a little bit beyond human. It’s like taking a step back from a painting to get a better view of it. I thought, for instance, it would help explore some very human things, such as how to cope with grief. If you live for centuries you are going to know about loss.
You’ve previously penned seven adult novels, seven children’s books, and a memoir Reasons to Stay Alive, which spent nearly a year on the UK bestseller list. By all accounts, however, with publishing rights sold in 33 countries to date, How to Stop Time seems poised to be your big, breakout book across the globe. Why do you think this novel is resonating with so many people?
I would love to say I knew the answer! I suppose the closest I can come is to say, sincerely, that this was a novel I felt very confident in writing. Maybe for the first time in my career I felt totally free to write precisely the kind of book I wanted to write. I forgot about all those constraining questions a writer can hear in their head – you know, like ‘what genre am I writing in?’, or ‘is this a historical novel or a contemporary novel?’ or ‘is this a literary highbrow book or a crowd-pleasing commercial book?’ I wanted to ignore everything around the story and just concentrate on the story itself. I had fun. It felt like a release and I think it made it a better book.
Your last book was a memoir called Reasons to Stay Alive, which chronicles your journey to overcome depression. Through the character of Tom Hazard, who lives in fear of his condition being discovered, you brilliantly trace how attitudes toward mental health have evolved over time, from witch-hunts to asylums to a greater level of acceptance and understanding today. Could you discuss how your personal experience with mental health informed the novel? What do you hope readers will take away from this aspect of the story?
I think when you are depressed or experiencing serious anxiety you can easily become obsessed with time. When I had my breakdown I used to count days the way people count money. I was often convinced I wouldn’t make it until tomorrow so telling myself ‘you’ve lived with this for 23 days/two months/three years was a kind of therapy in itself. Time heals is the world’s oldest cliché for a reason. The one thing bigger than depression is time. But of course, time is relative. After three years of anxiety and depression it almost felt like I myself was 439 years old. So in a weird way there is an autobiographical element to the novel.
How to Stop Time has elements of a fantasy, a romance, a comedy, an adventure story, a journey through history, a meditation on the human condition, and even a bit of a thriller at times. It’s genre-defying in the best possible way. Did you intend to thread all these styles into the story when you set out to write it? What was your writing process like?
Yes. I deliberately didn’t want to write just a love story, or just an adventure. I’m a bit greedy as a writer and a reader. I like to have everything in there, especially with a book like this, which is about a long life, full of incident. I don’t write in a chronological order, and I deliberately didn’t want the book to be chronological. I wanted it to reflect the randomness of memory. That is also why the chapters are short. To make them feel as immediate as memories.
In today’s society, we’re constantly being sold anti-wrinkle creams, fad diets, and pharmaceutical drugs that will supposedly make us look younger and live longer. Yet, with a life expectancy of close to a thousand years, instead of bringing Tom a godlike pleasure, his condition, as one reviewer describes it, puts him at “a mourningful distance from the rest of humanity, doomed to see everyone he loves age and die” (The Guardian). Against our societal push towards anti-aging, Tom wishes nothing more than to live and die like normal people. Did you set out to write a social commentary or did it happen more organically?
I always like to explore things in novels. I think that can be a part of the story if you do it right. I think we live in a strange world. On the one hand, we live longer than ever before. But on the other, we are encouraged – via marketing and the internet, largely – to worry more than ever about the ageing process. I am quite a hypochondriac myself, so in a way writing about age and the difficult skill of accepting time was a therapeutic exercise for me.
Told in a braided narrative, How to Stop Time switches between present day and 500 years-worth of history. Born in 1581, Tom bears witness to some of history’s most exciting periods—he befriends Shakespeare, sails the high seas with Captain Cook, and even plays piano for F. Scott Fitzgerald in the roaring 20s. How and why did you choose to tell Tom’s story in these particular time periods?
This was the most fun and freeing aspect of the whole writing process. I used the novel as my own personal time machine, travelling to places I would be interested in visiting. I debated whether to include famous characters in the novel. Especially Shakespeare. That seemed a huge risk, for obvious reasons. But I knew that if I actually travelled back to Elizabethan England the thing I would want to do most is meet Shakespeare. And after all, a lot of real human beings did actually meet Shakespeare, and he was quite an accessible figure at the time, especially as London was a far smaller place than it is today. The only rule I had was to include at least one experience per century. I wanted to give Tom as varied a life as possible. A life that would lead him to travel the world and meet some great and some terrible human beings. I wanted to give a true sense of the weight of time and the idea that the past was never really lived as ‘the past’. It was always just another present.
How to Stop Time beautifully addresses sophisticated concepts of time and the human condition, but it is also very accessible and includes fantasy and adventure elements that appeal to younger readers. How were you able to weave together a story that transcends both genre and generation and why was that important?
I have written children’s books before, and I think it teaches you a lot about storytelling. About the sheer old-fashioned fun of telling a story. Because when I am writing I try to remember – more than ‘writing a novel’ – I am telling a story. It’s quite liberating to make that psychological distinction.
How to Stop Time builds so much suspense along the way that readers won’t be able to stop turning the pages. But you offer such a moving examination of the burden and wonder of living a long life, that readers will find themselves slowing down to appreciate your phrasings, humor, and observations in story. It seems like you are playing with time as a writer – keeping us, the readers, on our toes with the pacing – speeding us up, then slowing us down. Was this intentional?
It wasn’t conscious really, but I do think part of writing is about finding the rhythm of a story. It’s quite musical, working out when to be fast, or slow, when to have things explode and when to be quiet. I think the ending was me doing my big crescendo on the drums. I wanted it to be a sudden change in pace, because this novel is partly about how life can be quiet for centuries and then things can happen all at once.
Benedict Cumberbatch is slated to star as Tom Hazard in the film adaption of your book. What will it be like to see your novel come to life onscreen?
It has already been fantastic, just hearing the enthusiasm from Benedict and the team at his production company. The fact that they now have an exceptional screenwriter, Anthony McCarten on board is incredibly exciting. He wrote The Theory of Everything – the film about Stephen Hawking and one of my favorites of the last few years – and so I feel with him, and Benedict and Sunnymarch and with the backing of Studio Canal it’s all in great hands. Seeing the film take shape on the screen will be incredible.
What would you like people to take away from reading How to Stop Time?
Well, firstly I hope they have a good time reading it. I hope they enjoy it. People – writers – can sometimes be a bit snobby about the idea of literature as enjoyment, which is something I never understand. Beyond that, I don’t know. I suppose all I can say is that when I was writing it I felt like I was trying to write a book about how to truly live now, in this moment, without all those fears that a known past and an unknown future can give. Emily Dickinson told us that ‘Forever is composed of nows.’ I suppose this book is my attempt to help us to inhabit the now that we are living inside. Ultimately though, I hope they enjoy reading the story.