One night, long ago, when Matt Haig was trying to help his young son get to sleep, seven-year-old Lucas asked a question: “What was Father Christmas like as a boy?”
“I didn’t have an answer,” recalls the bestselling author. “But I went away and I wrote the answer.”
The result was the 2015 book, A Boy Called Christmas. In time for this festive season it has become a film, starring Jim Broadbent, Sally Hawkins, Toby Jones and Maggie Smith, and is created by the same people as the Paddington movies.
Haig has given Santa an origin story full of elves and reindeer and snow and magic… but within the tale, he also tackles feelings of grief and hopelessness.
“I feel like Christmas stories are a great way to explore darkness, but find the hope within the darkness,” Haig tells The Big Issue, on a video call from his book-lined home in Brighton.
“I’m kind of known for positive messages. But I like to think the positive messages are earned. I like to start in the bad place. I like to find some authentic sense of misery or loss but then within that, I try and find something nourishing.”
Haig has been in the bad place. Back in 1999, aged 24, he was hit with a depression so deep it nearly killed him. At the time he was living in Ibiza with his girlfriend Andrea (now his wife), selling tickets for party organisers Manumission. After three days with no sleep, he found himself standing on a cliffside. He came one step away from killing himself.
After his breakdown he and Andrea moved in with his parents in Newark, Nottinghamshire for a year. The couple then lived in Leeds, where Haig began writing his strange, captivating novels for adults and children.
Populated by aliens (The Humans), near-immortals (How to Stop Time), vampires (The Radleys) and Shakespearean dogs (The Last Family in England), his books straddle a line between popular and literary fiction.
It’s a sweet spot that’s seen Haig become a global favourite. His work has been translated into over 40 languages and his latest novel, The Midnight Library, has sold more than two million copies.
Haig’s fiction has always offered myriad paths out of despair. But it wasn’t until 16 years after his breakdown that he embarked on what he then saw as a side project – telling the true story of his depression and how he learned to manage it. Reasons to Stay Alive hit a nerve. His first non-fiction book became a number one bestseller, and he received thousands of emails from readers who thanked him for helping them to – like Haig – discover their own motivation to keep going.
In the months that followed, Haig was thrust into the role of mental health advocate. While he has “strong views about mental health and about stigma and about how there’s a lack of parity between mental and physical health in terms of treatment”, he doesn’t see himself as an activist. He worries he will “fail” his audience if they expect him to know the specifics of what needs to be done to tackle mental ill health.
“I do care a lot about these issues and about the people who are making real good positive change, it’s just a responsibility,” he explains. “I think because Reasons to Stay Alive itself struck at a time where the conversation was really taking off, I became centre of a conversation that I didn’t necessarily have the words for. It scared me a little bit.”
Creating the fantasy world of A Boy Called Christmas became a distraction and a balm. “When you’re writing for that sort of age group, like seven to 12 kind of age, you can naturally adopt a kind of storytelling voice, which is a nice thing to escape into,” says Haig. “It was a very therapeutic book to write.”
In a year when many will be dealing with their first Christmas without someone they love, the new movie adaptation of A Boy Called Christmas goes even further than the book to address bereavement. The original story has been wrapped in a modern context, with Father Christmas’s tale being told to a young family who are skipping the festive celebrations in response to the loss of their mother.
It’s an addition that Haig doesn’t take credit for, but he approves of the way it taps into the emotional complexity that sits alongside the tinsel. “I’ve had some of my worst experiences ever at Christmas time,” he says. “I mean, certainly, when I was younger, in my 20s – even parts where I was in recovery, and not really going through depression – Christmas would sort of trigger things and send me back.
“Christmas is problematic for a lot of people in terms of mental health, because of the excess alcohol, different routines, seeing family members that they may not want to or remembering family members they’ve lost.”
If you’re feeling that way, Haig says, remember that you’re not alone.
“It is easy to imagine the whole world is having this amazing festive party that you’re not invited to,” he explains. “As with any mental health crisis that’s related to a time of year, it’s really important to remember that it’s a transient temporary situation, and millions of other people are in that boat with you.
“You don’t have to drown in the whole John Lewis aspect of Christmas. It’s just about focusing on the bits that you can relate with.”
For Haig, it’s a time to see the world as he did when he was a boy. To feel once more “a literal magic setting in”. He vividly remembers how the sense of wonder would build from mid-November onward. “There was just something hopeful about it. A sort of collective experience,” he says. “Christmas is a way to connect with the child in us again.”
After a very quiet, Covid-stunted Christmas last year, Haig is looking forward to spending this one with family. They’re all planning to meet up at his house, where they’ll enjoy a big Christmas dinner. There’ll be no turkey on the table though, since Haig and a few other members of his family are vegans. But they’ll not be hard done by.
“I honestly think if you’re vegan, you overcompensate,” he says. “Especially if you’ve got any non-vegans there. You’re so determined to prove that it can be nice. So even your brussels sprouts are, like, super spicy, fried, brussels sprouts. So that’ll be good.”
A Boy Called Christmas is in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from November 26
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