The Midnight Library
Matt Haig didn’t really know what to expect from readers when his latest novel, The Midnight Library, arrived in bookstores last autumn.
And he definitely didn’t imagine an endorsement from Dolly Parton.
But this is a novel that has taken on its own unique life, becoming an immediate bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and triggering an astonishing response from readers. And yet it was the emergence of Parton as a fan that suggested a shift to a different dimension of popularity. Something unusual was happening that the 45-year-old writer had not anticipated when he started work on this book a couple of years ago.
Haig had long wanted to tackle a subject that fascinated him — the possibility of parallel universes in one’s life — but he was not prepared for this kind of outcome.
So he was flabbergasted when Parton told the world she currently had two books on her bedside table — the Bible and The Midnight Library.
“It was very surreal,” Haig says from his home in Southern England. “It’s amazing because I’ve never felt I’ve been noticed on anybody’s radar in America.” Yet Haig, a prolific writer of both adult and children’s fiction, was now finding that a country-and-western legend could significantly impact his life.
“I have always liked Dolly Parton,” he said. “She’s that rare thing in America — a unifying figure. Wherever you are — politically, musically or whatever — you like Dolly Parton.”
And now Parton was telling her world that she liked his novel, and her world was listening.
Haig, who has been open about his struggles with depression, admits that the writing of this, his 20th book, was a form of therapy. It’s about a young woman named Nora Seed who feels she has experienced the worst day of her life in the course of the worst year of her life. She’s ready to pack it in, but instead her suicidal actions take her to a strange limbo existence — to a nocturnal library whose contents are unending. It is presided over by a benign librarian named Mrs. Elm, who explains to Nora that each book on these spectral shelves offers the opportunity to make different choices and possibly reroute her destiny.
But as Nora seeks to create a perfect life for herself, she finds things are not quite that simple. She ultimately faces a more important question — what is the best life for her?
“I wrote it as a kind of self-therapy for me,” says Haig, who had a huge international success five years ago with a non-fiction work, Reasons to Stay Alive. “Doubt used to be a big thing with me — wishing that I’d done things differently.”
He had no desire to write a downer of a book. In fact, Haig cites the 1945 film classic It’s A Wonderful Life as a major inspiration. At the same time, he’s trying to figure out why The Midnight Library is enjoying such popularity.
“People don’t want complete dystopia at the moment. They don’t want a totally disturbing world, But here we have somebody who starts out in a dark place mentally and then through The Midnight Library has a kind of cathartic experience allowing her to come to terms with life a bit more. I suppose that has been resonating with people — it’s definitely not all rainbows and unicorns, but it does offer people some philosophical acceptance of things as they are.”
Although long interested in writing about the possibility of parallel lives, Haig had also worried it was now “a well-worn subject” in popular culture thanks to movies like Sliding Doors and It’s A Wonderful Life and to Kate Atkinson’s recent bestselling novel, Life After Life.
“I knew that if I didn’t have a reason to offer something new, it would just be white noise and ignored.” he says. So the idea went on the back burner until inspiration struck.
“I thought that a library would be the perfect space for a kind if quantum-reality multiverse. In a metaphorical sense, a library is an entry point into different worlds. You’re surrounded by books, and books are portals.”
Haig ran into trouble with his first draft “but what did please me (was) that the plot and theme were intertwined — for example the theme of regret, of wishing you had done something differently, has a natural sort of physical representation.” But he had erred in making his main character male.
“I didn’t complete the draft because of that problem,” he says. “I kept changing the character’s name, and that was a warning sign that this wasn’t the character I wanted. I realized that he was too much like me. I was putting too much of myself into a character who is of my own age and gender and has experienced depression.
“So I thought it would be easier for me to flip the gender,” he says. “And in a weird way it really did become therapeutic for me because it gave me the green card to put more of my mental health experience into it, because I now had the shield of a female character.”
Haig knew that as a male, he had to be more cautious with Nora. “You have to be conscious that you’re writing about something you’re not — but my first editor is my wife, Andrea, who gives very good straightforward advice.”
Haig has heard back from readers who have changed their jobs or found another situation in life or been led away from suicidal thoughts. Readers have embraced its positive note — its affirmation of life’s endless possibilities.
“There are many different lives we might have lived, a million relationships or crises we might be in,” Haig says. “We can never be all these things at once, so in dreaming of other lives where the grass is always greener, we can end up ignoring the glories and difficulties and wonders of the life we’re actually in.”
The Midnight Library was never designed as an antidote to the COVID 19 pandemic, although some see it that way. The book was completed and Haig was doing his final editing when the pandemic struck. “I wondered whether I should throw in a couple of references to COVID,” he says, “but decided to leave it as it was.”
Nevertheless, he’s aware that the success of The Midnight Library is part of the COVID story.
“People are reading again,” he points out. Indeed, some fans are telling him The Midnight Library is the first book they’ve read in years.
“People are rushing around less. They have a lot more time to read. They’re also becoming more philosophical. They want to reflect about life and the choices they have made.”
As for the book’s success in the midst of a pandemic: “From what people are saying,” he says, “it’s helping them come to terms with it.”
— Jamie Portman