Matt Haig and his Christmas story of festive hope

Matt Haig, pictured at his former home in York earlier this year.

Matt Haig, pictured at his former home in York earlier this year.

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Matt Haig’s new book is already being called a modern Christmas classic. The author talks to Chris Bond about the inspiration behind it and why he enjoys writing for children.

When Matt Haig’s son asked him a question about Father Christmas it stumped him.

“He asked me what Father Christmas was like as a boy and I didn’t have an answer at hand, so I decided to write a book as the answer,” he says.

The book in question is A Boy Called Christmas, the kind of life-affirming tale that could surely bring a smile to the face of even the sternest of Scrooges and is already tipped to become a festive classic, having being lavished with praise by the likes of Jeanette Winterston, Simon Mayo and Stephen Fry, who says it is “the most evergreen, immortal Christmas story to be published for decades.”

A Boy Called Christmas is set in a timeless, fairy-tale Finland and tells the story of 11-year-old Nikolas, whose nickname is Christmas because he was born on Christmas Day. He lives with his woodcutter father and because they are so poor Nikolas has only ever been given two Christmas presents - a sleigh his father built and a doll made out of an old turnip.

This sets the scene for a roller-coaster story involving elves, reindeer, an evil aunt and a sprinkling of magic. For Haig, whose previous book Reasons to Stay Alive addressed the myths and misconceptions which surround mental illness, it was a chance to throw himself into something lighter.

“I had just written a very serious book about depression and I’d spent the year talking about a very heavy subject night after night and I wanted to do something that was the complete opposite and writing a children’s book was an escape from that,” he says.

Starting with the premise of telling the story of Father Christmas as a boy he began doing his research, which yielded some unexpected results. “I thought there would have been lots of stories about the young Father Christmas but I was surprised to find that apart from one or two books it had never really been written about before.”

This gave him free rein to come up with his own story. “I tried to take everything we know about Father Christmas like why he drops presents down the chimney, the reindeer and elves, Lapland and the North Pole, all these basic elements and explain them.

“Father Christmas is like the best super hero, he speaks to reindeer and he makes the children of the world happy so I had a lot of fun writing this book.”

The story has been brilliantly illustrated by Chris Mould whose vibrant drawings add another humorous dimension to the festive tale.

He is quick to pay tribute to Mould’s “amazing” work. “The publishers were determined to get the book out this year and he had less than a month to do 60 illustrations, and he did it which was just incredible,” says the Sheffield-born writer.

Haig’s Yorkshire connections stretch beyond his home city. Having studied English and History at Hull University he did an MA in Leeds, where he lived for a time. He and his wife, fellow writer Andrea Semple, then moved to York with their two children before recently relocating to the south coast.

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 of a family whose life together is threatened by the arrival of a new couple and their out-of-control springer spaniel, Falstaff. Narrated by the family’s pet labrador, Prince, and loosely based on the Shakespearian tale, the book went on to sell more than 200,000 copies.

That was 11 years ago and now his latest book has drawn comparison with some of the great children’s writers who influenced him as he was growing up. “I read a lot of Raymond Briggs’s stuff and I was a massive Roald Dahl fan, his books were a key feature of my childhood.”

He was also inspired by another great writer, Charles Dickens. “If you I read A Christmas Carol the message from that is very much one of hope and goodwill, Dickens kind of invented the message of Christmas in popular culture.”

With A Boy Called Christmas, Haig has crafted a delightful story that is full of action and entertainment but, as with L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it has its darker moments, too. “It’s not a cosy story and some bad things do happen but ultimately it’s a happy story.”

Writing it proved cathartic in more ways than one. “You lose a bit of that Christmas magic as you get older but having kids and being able to read this story to them was a way of recapturing that magic,” he says.

“I feel totally free writing children’s books because children accept whatever fantastical worlds you create, they believe in magic, whereas adults can be snobbish when it comes to fantasy.

“Writing for children is, for me, the purest form storytelling because although kids have a smaller vocabulary they have broader imaginations.”

Not that children aren’t a demanding audience. “You can’t be boring for a second, every page has to have something going on.”

He also felt it was important to write a positive story. “I know from my own experience that you need a bit of optimism in life and a bit of hope. I think it’s important, especially for children, at a time when the world is getting more complicated and more dangerous, to have stories of hope and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

A Boy Called Christmas, published by Canongate Books, is out now.

10 OF THE BEST BOOKS TO BUY THIS CHRISTMAS

Staff at Waterstones in Sheffield choose their top picks.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

An edge of your seat psychological thriller that grabs you from the first page and refuses to let go. Who is the girl on the train and what happened to the woman she saw each day through the window?

The Jolly Christmas Postman by Janet Ahlberg

This book is a children’s dream. It’s interactive, it’s relatable, it’s funny and parent’s will enjoy it too... what more can we say?

The Bees by Lilliane Paul

This book has kicked up a storm for us this year. Told from the perspective of bees, this is the most original novel you will read this year.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The first in an amazing quartet of novels all set in Italy, this tells the story of life long friendship between two women and featured on many book clubs reading lists this year.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, this is an exquisite novel that follows the lives of four friends as they find their ways in New York, deeply moving, it will linger long after the final page.

SPQR by Mary Beard

Perfect for all history enthusiasts this is a look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. Beard explores over 1,000 years of history in what is an outstanding book.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

A novel that needs little introduction, the eagerly anticipated much hyped follow up to the outstanding To Kill a Mockingbird.

A Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

This examines a way of life that has been integral to James’s family for 600 years. A beautifully written book that is love song to the land in which he works.

Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig

This sailed its way on to the Waterstones Book of the Year shortlist. One of our booksellers, Leilah, says: “This book is half memoir, half life raft, spoken with a voice that combines honesty with wit, humour and tenderness.”

The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith

A perfect book that will delight both adults and children with its beautiful illustrations and wonderful story, Will Fox be brave enough to face the night without star to guide him?

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