“I don’t think time heals all wounds, but occasionally it can let us accept those wounds.”
Matt Haig’s new character, Tom Hazard, looks 40, but due to a rare genetic disorder, he’s nearly 400 years old.
Soon to be adapted as a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, How to Stop Time leaps back and forth from the 16th century to present-day London to eras in between, revealing the story of a man haunted by the pain of his past and the uncertainty of his future, who nevertheless searches for a reason to keep living.
How to Stop Time shifts dramatically in timing and setting. How did you ensure that structure would make emotional sense to the reader?
The book darts all over the place, but Tom is telling the story from the present, from his perspective now. Each of his memories has helped shape him. They each add to the whole.
There’s always a temptation to have a character like Tom meet all sorts of famous people, but the figures he runs into are well placed and vital to the story. Why did you pick the people you did?
Some of them were there purely to serve the story—Captain Cook and his crew are there for the sheer reason that I wanted Tom to get out of England. I did not want to write 500 years of history in the same country. Shakespeare is there because he was alive when Tom was born, and is still such a big part of our present. Shakespeare’s wisdom on time shaped the book to an extent. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a little bit of an author indulgence. I simply enjoyed writing about him.
You’ve said that Tom’s psychology is inspired by your own experiences with depression, and his mental state after 400 years is a “nightmare version of mindfulness.” Why did you extrapolate your own experiences to this character?
The whole idea came about when I was recovering from anxiety and depression. After three years of continuous mental illness, you actually feel as if you have lived for 400 years. And the questions you face during that time—the point of life, of going on, of the desperate search for hope—would be the same for someone who was alive for centuries.
What do you think Tom misses most about the time period he was born into?
Well, apart from the first love of his life—Rose—I think he misses the old London. The theaters, the inns, the absence of cars and where social life happened on the streets, not on the internet.
What are you most excited to see in the movie adaptation?
It will be incredible to see Benedict Cumberbatch bringing Tom to life. That intensity of centuries. Also, it will be fun to see the South Pacific and his adventures there.
Given enough time, do you think Tom would ever get over the hardships he’s experienced? Can time really heal all wounds?
I think Tom is reaching the point in his life where that is beginning to happen. For centuries, he has been struggling, but now he is reaching a real point of change. Despite it all, I feel optimistic about his chances. I don’t think time heals all wounds, but occasionally it can let us accept those wounds.
What part of How to Stop Time was the most difficult to get right?
Well, the Elizabethan stuff, I think. For one thing, it took a lot of research. A lot of social history. I have a degree in history, but political history and social history are totally different things. I wouldn’t have known before, for instance, that children would drink beer because it was safer than water. New York in the 1890s took a lot of research, too, and early 20th-century Arizona—even though it is only one chapter—required quite a bit of study.
It was hard also because it is tempting to treat those time periods as the past, but at the time, it was the present. It was modern.
And of course, Shakespeare himself. Putting words into Shakespeare’s mouth risks hubris. But I wrote this book with a rare (for me) spirit of courage. I was determined to go precisely where the story wanted to go. I wasn’t going to hide from hard stuff.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of How to Stop Time.
Author photo by Ken Lailey.