Novelist Matt Haig Believes Voice Is Key To Driving the Plot

January 31, 2007
Written by

Explore More

book cover

The Dead Fathers Club
by Phillip Noble
Buy this book


An exclusive Authorlink interview with Matt Haig
Author of The Last Family in England and The Dead Fathers Club

by Ellen Birkett Morris

February 2007

An unusual perspective, a uniquely told tale, or a compelling narrative is often the result of the narrator’s voice. For many new writers finding their narrator’s voice is among the greatest challenges in writing a novel. Yet examples of strong narrative voices abound in literature, think Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield to name a few.

Add to their ranks, Phillip Noble, the eleven-year-old protagonist of The Dead Fathers Club. Noble is the creation of British author Matt Haig, whose book The Last Family in England was a bestseller in the U.K.

“The narrator is the story.
I cannot think of one
without the other. . .’


“For me, as someone who predominately writes in the first person, the narrator is everything,” said Haig, “The narrator is the story. I cannot think of one without the other, so choosing the narrator is choosing the novel.”

The book has been named as part of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program and one of Borders Original Voices. It has been optioned by the producer of the Harry Potter movies and will be made into a feature film.

When his father dies in a car accident, Phillip is confronted by his father’s bloodstained ghost who introduces him to the Dead Father’s Club, a band of ghosts who gather outside the family’s pub. His father charges Phillip with avenging his murder and says the murderer is Phillip’s Uncle Alan.

With shades of a modern day Hamlet, Phillip seeks to avenge his father’s murder while dealing with stuff of adolescence, bullies, a crush on a pretty girl and the anxiety of dealing with loss. The result is an offbeat, funny and emotional story of the search for truth.

". . .when I try to find the voice it doesn't happen. When I relax and stop looking it's suddenly there. . ."

Haig said finding Phillip’s voice was a matter letting the story emerge and take on a life of its own.

“I wish I could tell you about how I find the voice. You see, the paradox is this, when I try to find the voice it doesn't happen. When I relax and stop looking it's suddenly there, so I'm afraid I can't map my progress in that way. However, I can tell you that I know when I've found the right voice. It's like love, if you can excuse such an analogy. You don't know how to find it, but it smacks you hard once you're there,” said Haig.

The book opens with a scene of mourners in the family pub. In three short pages Phillip offers hilarious, touching descriptions of several key characters including Carla, who “always talked to men since her Divorce and since she stopped falling over and getting the bruises.”

"To be an adult is, through necessity, to be a liar of sorts."



Haig noted that having a young protagonist allowed him to be more truthful in describing characters. “To be an adult is, through necessity, to be a liar of sorts. We have to hide emotions and conceal impulses in a way children can't or don't. A child's voice can therefore help you cut to the truth a lot quicker than an adult's,” said Haig.

". . .putting the narrative before the narrator is putting the cart before the horse. . ."

Once he found his character’s voice, Haig tried to stay out of the way and let the story emerge rather than force the story to match his expectations. “Write something that comes from the voice itself, even if it's not what you had planned for the story. In my view, putting the narrative before the narrator is putting the cart before the horse. The voice is what drives the plot, not the other way round,” said Haig.

The Dead Fathers Club was originally going to be told from the perspective of the dead father. Haig dropped that idea in the interest of making the story more ambiguous.

“I didn't want to say the ghost is real, I wanted to say a boy is seeing his father's ghost and ultimately it is up to you if you believe him. I then found the story overlapping with that of Hamlet, so I decided to make some explicit references to the play while at the same time not feeling straight-jacketed by Shakespeare's plot,” noted Haig.

"My only question as I write is—
is this authentic? "


In order to portray the youthful energy and anxiety of Phillip, Haig played around with punctuation leaving out many commas and apostrophes, writing long sentences, and using lots of exclamation points.

“I felt all this rule-breaking was justified because it fits the sense of over-excitement and rambling breathlessness of this troubled eleven-year-old who narrates the story. My only question as I write is—is this authentic? If it feels more authentic breaking the rules then I'll break them,” said Haig.

He has written since childhood. His early stories involved cowboys or Star Wars style aliens. He recalled an early story his mother recently found about a cowboy called named Jake. “I'd rounded it up all nicely. He had married and beaten all the bad guys, but then the last line said: “Eleven years later Jake died in pain when he was strangled by a Red Indian.” I could never just let my characters be straightforwardly happy,” observed Haig.

"All writing has to come from experience. . .The main thing is to be true to the novel, not to your memory. . ."

While writing The Dead Father’s Club, Haig drew from his childhood experiences. Phillip attends the same school, walks the same streets, sleep-walks at night and experiences bullying at the same age as Haig. Haig also experienced panic attacks and was, like Philip, prescribed Diazepam for them.

“All writing has to come from experience, but that doesn't mean you have to be abducted by aliens before you write science fiction or that you need to be Chinese to set a novel in China,” said Haig, “The main thing is to be true to the novel, not to your memory, and not to over-indulge yourself. Just because something was significant in your life doesn't mean it will fit well within your novel, or find the same significance with readers. Everything, as I've said, comes from the narrator's voice. If the narration easily leads you to write about things that have happened to you then fine, but never force it.”

He works without an outline and employs “on-the-go” editing. “I find the best way to surprise the reader is to surprise myself. I let the writing itself dictate the story. Francoise Sagan said that "I write in order to think" and I believe it is definitely that way round with me,” said Haig.

". . .it is often by writing as someone else, a narrator who isn't you, that you can write your own truth. . ."

He counts being truthful as the greatest challenge posed by this and all novels.

“How can we be true to feelings and thoughts that we experience but can't always articulate? Paradoxically, it is often by writing as someone else, a narrator who isn't you, that you can write your own truth and Philip ultimately helped me write what I wanted to write far better than if it had been told by someone closer to my age,” observed Haig.

When revising, he looks at each character in turn to make sure they are consistent, both in act and dialogue. He turns to his girlfriend, a fellow novelist, for feedback.

Haig enjoys the collaboration of working with his agent and editor. His agent, Caradoc King, is the chairman of the A. P. Watt agency in London. Dan Franklin was his editor in the UK. “With this manuscript, his touch was very light. . . The voice of Philip was such, that the re-drafting process seemed to diminish more than it added,” noted Haig.

"Write what you really want to write, or what you would really want to read. . ."

While many writers seem obsessed with breaking into the business, Haig advised that they focus on the stories they have to tell.

“Write what you really want to write, or what you would really want to read, and spend time on finding the right voice in which that story must be told, advised Haig, “Really, it's all about voice. Get the voice right and everything will follow.”

The best piece of advice he ever received was from an agent who told him “don't be scared to make something happen.”

His advice to new writer is to be brave.

“Be persistent. Belief is contagious. If you truly believe in your work, and if your writing believes in itself, then you will eventually find someone who believes in it too.”

  Matt Haig was born in Yorkshire, England in 1975. His writing has appeared in various UK publications, including The Guardian, The Times and The Independent. The Dead Fathers Club is his American debut. He has just finished his third adult novel, The Possession of Mr. Cave, and is starting work on a sequel to Samuel Blink and the Forbidden Forest, a children's novel that will be published in the US in June
About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.


Categorised in: ,

This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris

Comments are closed here.