Haig’s new novel shows us what it is to be human

Matt Haigh
Matt Haigh
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Matt Haig’s latest novel is about life, love and the great mystery of being human. Chris Bond talks to the York-based writer.

MATT Haig wanted to write his latest novel for a long time.

“I’ve written eight books now, but this was the first idea I ever had for a story. It’s a very simple idea that’s been done in many different ways before about an alien coming to Earth,” he says, sitting in his living room overlooking the picturesque River Ouse.

The Humans, published this week, revolves around a Cambridge University professor who solves the world’s greatest mathematical riddle and then promptly disappears. But when he’s found walking naked along a road, he appears to be different.

It’s a touching and funny tale, although as Haig points out it dates back to a darker period in his life. “Between 1999 and 2001 I suffered a bit of depression and had a kind of early mid-life crisis in my 20s. I felt quite detached at the time, a bit like an alien in some ways, and that’s where the idea first came from,” he says.

“But I was scared of writing it because I’m not really a science-fiction writer. It also felt very personal because it came from quite a dark place and I just needed to get the confidence up through doing the other books to write what I really wanted to write.

“It’s taken me a long time to get here but it feels to me like my first book, in a good way. I’m proud of all my books but sometimes it feels like work whereas this one felt fun to write.”

Haig has become known for his fertile imagination, creating worlds where one-eyed trolls and strange witches vie for your attention with talking dogs and bloodstained ghosts. His first novel, The Last Family In England, told the story told the story of Adam and Kate Hunter and their teenage children Hal and Charlotte, whose life together becomes increasingly threatened by the arrival of an intriguing new couple and their out-of-control springer spaniel, Falstaff.

Narrated by the family’s pet labrador, Prince, and loosely based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, the book went on to sell more than 200,000 copies.

“It was like a dream come true, although I look back and think I was a bit naive because I thought that would be it. But it’s not like that and you have to treat it like a job because for every new writer being taken on there’s another one dropped.”

He’s pleased with his latest novel but says it changed along the way. “From the first draft to the finished book it’s changed more than any other book. It was very science fiction orientated to begin with and I showed it to a few people and they thought it was fun but could be a bit more universal.

“I disagreed with them but I put it aside for a couple of months and when I went back to it I saw it through their eyes and realised they were right. You don’t always listen to your editors but equally there’s no point being the stubborn, precious artist.”

Even the title of the book changed. “Originally it was going to be called The Earth Correspondent, which I liked but it made the book sound too science fiction and eventually I came up with The Humans, which is basically me doing a David Attenborough job on us.”

Haig believes that novels should be inclusive, not exclusive. “It was people like TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf who created this elitist idea of storytelling. But if you go back to Shakespeare his plays were for royalty but they were also for the groundlings who couldn’t read, they were for everyone.

“I think the real challenge for a writer is to include as many people as possible while still writing the story you want to tell and that’s always what I try to do.”

The Humans, published by Canongate Books, is out now priced £12.99.

A literary star on the rise

Matt Haig was born in Sheffield in 1975.

He is the author of eight books, including novels for both adults and children.

His wife is successful romantic fiction writer Andrea Semple, whose books include The Ex-Factor and The Make-Up Girl.

They ran a PR firm in Leeds together before embarking on a literary career.

Haig’s adult novels include the bestsellers The Last Family in England, the film rights of which were sold to Brad Pitt, and The Radleys, which was a TV Book Club ‘Best Read.’

His first children’s novel, Shadow Forest, won a gold medal in the 2009 Nestlé Children’s Book Prize competition.

The Humans, his latest book, has drawn praise from the likes of Jeanette Winterson, Joanne Harris and SJ Watson.