By Leslie Lindsay
A sublime, dazzling novel of what it means to make choices–and how non-choices are a choice, and then living a life well-lived.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
An instant New York Times bestseller
A GOOD MORNING AMERICA Book Club Pick
What’s not to love about a book that takes place in a library? At midnight? Okay, maybe the ‘midnight’ part, because, let’s face it, you can’t start a book at midnight like you can’t go to the 9pm movie. You’ll fall asleep. But, that’s beyond the point. I quickly fell into the rhythm of Matt Haig’s lovely and delightful THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY (Viking, September 2020) and I’m so glad I did. You know how certain books call out to you at ‘just the right time?’ This was one of those. Also, you’ve likely heard how a person can live multiple lives if s/he reads? Yep, that too. THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY, like many of my book selections, focus on mental health: depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation. But it’s not all gloom and doom. There’s joy and charm and magic, too.
Nora Seed is bummed. She’s 35 and bored and full of regret. Maybe she’s let everyone down, including herself: She is unmarried and just got fired/laid off and isn’t really sure if life is worth living. But things are about to change. She finds herself in the Midnight Library, a magical, mystical place filled with a limitless number of books containing the narratives to so many possible lives. They are a delightful mix of pain, despair, love, joy, luck, fame, and more. But is there any such thing as a ‘perfect life?’
Each of these lives offer Nora a new way of looking at the world, at her regrets, her choices. I found THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY brimming with gorgeous prose, profound insight, and meaningful scenes. It was a bit like A CHRISTMAS CAROL meets IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE with a toss of a fairy godmother (in the form of a sweet but sometimes stern librarian). This was a heady delight to read–and discuss, one I will go back to again, because I am sure I missed a few things, or will glean new insights on another read.
But first, please join me in conversation with the fabulously talented Matt Haig:
Matt, welcome! I am always so intrigued with that initial spark for a book. Where did the idea for THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY originate?
I’d had an idea about a library between life and death for a long time. I have always been fascinated with fantastical libraries, such as Jorge Luis Borges’s LIBRARY OF BABEL, because I feel libraries are a kind of magic in themselves. In the Midnight Library, each book on the shelf is another version of the protagonist, Nora Seed’s, life. There are infinite books and infinite versions, so – with the librarian’s help – she has a chance to undo some of her regrets. Every time she opens a book, she falls into that life. I think the idea of wondering how your life would have played out differently is one that a lot of us think about from time to time. Also, my own personal experience with mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, obviously informed some of Nora’s experience.
Your two nonfiction books, REASONS TO STAY ALIVE and NOTES ON A NERVOUS PLANET, discuss depression and anxiety, issues that are also at the heart of THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY. How do you blend your nonfiction writing with your fiction?
I think that whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, I always make sure I am writing the thing that interests me most at that time. I don’t think there has been a book that has fused my interests more closely than this one. It just turns out that fiction was the most obvious way to explore the ideas of regret and happiness that play out in this book.
When I was 24, I had a breakdown. I experienced depression, anxiety, and panic disorder, and was suicidal for quite a while. My recovery was long and slow. And yet despite all that, a lot of goodness came out of that experience. It made me a better, more grateful person, and one that wanted to write about these issues clearly and transparently and shamelessly. Non-fiction is great for this, but sometimes fiction allows you to go even deeper. It can allow you to use fantasy as a way of exploring ideas and experiences. For me, depression was often flavored with the desire to inhabit parallel lives, lives where I had done something differently and ended in a different place. THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY explores that idea and takes it to the next level, I suppose. Writing it was a kind of self-therapy.
THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY is your first adult novel written from a woman’s perspective. How did you approach writing from this different point of view, and how did it differ from writing from a man’s perspective? Or, did it?
When I started writing this book, the narrator was male, but for some reason, I couldn’t get a handle on the character – in some weird way – maybe because it was too close to me. So, I needed a narrator who was less obviously me and switching the gender helped do that. In terms of writing Nora’s character, there are certain moments – in terms of how she is treated by other people – where her gender plays a part, but to be honest I wasn’t seeing her as being defined by
her gender, more by her initially desperate state of mind and the lack of options she felt she faced.
In THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY, Nora gets the chance to live out alternate versions of her own life, based off her past regrets. During her exploration of these alternate realities, Nora becomes a pub owner, a glaciologist, a rock star, and an Olympic swimmer, to name a few. How did you come up with these alternate lives? Were any based on your own interests, or past regrets? And of all of Nora’s lives, which do you think you’d most enjoy? And which would not be for you?
I gave up piano lessons when I was twelve years old because I was a self-conscious boy trying to fit in. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to continue with music, so the musician strand of her life definitely overlaps with my own wish fulfillment. I never wanted to be a glaciologist or an Olympic swimmer though. I suppose as a British person I have had the odd fantasy of being a pub landlord, but I’m pretty sure that would be a bad idea. I would probably like to live in a vineyard in California, at least to give it a try. I am not that great in cold weather so I would probably skip being a glaciologist.
“If you’ve never pondered life’s contingencies—like what might’ve happened if you’d skipped the party where you met your spouse—then Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library will be an eye-opening experience… both enlightening and deeply satisfying.”
—BookPage (starred review)
Obviously, libraries play a key role in THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY. How I loved my childhood library–and librarian! Can you talk about libraries a bit?
Libraries have always been my safe space. When I was a kid, I used to spend a lot of time after school in my local library. There was a library in the center of the small town where I lived and it was my safe space. I think libraries should be especially valued these days, when particularly in my country, they are increasingly under threat. Libraries are one of the last public spaces that like us for who we are and not for our wallets. Libraries seemed the perfect metaphor for parallel lives as they are places that really do allow you to enter other worlds, if only for a while. In THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY, Nora encounters her school librarian from childhood, Mrs. Elm, who acts like a kind of guide, and she is an amalgam of various teachers and librarians I encountered in my youth. For other people in the world of the novel, their portal to other lives is something different, but I’d like to think mine, like Nora’s, would be a library.
During our current moment, when many of us can barely leave our own homes, I’m sure a lot of people would like to enter a library full of alternate realities they can slip into as easily as opening a book. How do you think THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY relates to the current state of the world?
I think that when we are feeling physically confined our imaginations tend to roam into wilder territory. The idea of a place where we could go and be absolutely anything at all is possibly even more attractive now than in 2019 when I wrote it.
What do you hope readers will take away from THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY?
Well firstly I just hope they enjoy the story, but I also hope it helps them to think about their own lives and offers some comfort when feeling a sense of inadequacy or regret about their own present situation. Ultimately, like a lot of my books, I wrote it for myself. A kind of therapy for myself, a way of dealing with my own doubts and worries about the passing of time. So, I hope readers find the same comfort in reading it as I did in writing it.
Artistic image of cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagrammer.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, TO CONNECT WITH MATT HAIG VIA SOCIAL MEDIA, OR TO PURCHASE A COPY OF THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY, PLEASE VISIT:
I was reminded of the work of Hazel Prior (ELLIE AND THE HARPMAKER and AWAY WITH THE PENGUINS) meets HOW TO FIND LOVE IN A BOOK SHOP (Veronica Henry), with a touch of OTHER PEOPLE’S PETS (R.L. Maizes)–oh! and a bit of THE STORY OF ARTHUR TRULUV (Elizabeth Berg)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Matt Haig is an internationally bestselling author well-known for his poignant perspectives on modern life; his works have been translated into over 30 languages. In 2018, Viking published his breakout novel, How to Stop Time, a time-traveling love story that was praised by the Washington Post, People, Esquire, and Bustle, and named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Haig is also widely beloved for his nonfiction, including Reasons to Stay Alive, a memoir chronicling his struggle with depression (which Entertainment Weekly calls “a modern classic”) and Notes on a Nervous Planet, “a wonderfully perceptive chronicle of life in the always-on social media age” (The Guardian).
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and others. Her cover art was featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal, and CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine and The Family Narrative Project; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available this fall. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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~UPDATED, 2nd Edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA coming soon from WOODBINE HOUSE!~
Recently completed MODEL HOME: Motherhood & Madness
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Penguin/Viking Books and used with permission. Author photo cred: Ken Lailey. Artistic image of cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagrammer]