Matt Haig's latest book The Radleys has been cast as a 'thinking person's vampire novel.'
New vampire novel
Ben East talks to the author Matt Haig about his latest book The Radleys, cast as a 'thinking person's vampire novel'
When the cultural history of the 21st century's nascent years is written, it may well mention the discordant groan of the zombie as it rampaged through films, books and videogames. A schoolboy wizard with a strange scar will no doubt loom large. But sinking a bloodthirsty fang into the neck of such pretenders will undoubtedly be the vampire. Buffy tried to slay evil forces in seven memorable television seasons. True Blood brought darkly adult themes to vampirism, and the Swedish arthouse film Let the Right One In cornered the high-brow blood-drinking market. And then, of course, there's the literary and cinematic behemoth that is Twilight.
And yet, writing another vampire tale is actually something of a gamble. These books and television series are so dominant, an author can easily be accused of opportunism if they deign to write about the strange delights of foreboding figures with sharp teeth and a penchant for blood. And if not opportunism, then pure laziness.
So it's understandable that the novelist Matt Haig visibly winces when I mention Twilight. After all, it's name-checked every time he talks about his latest book, The Radleys. This 35-year-old British writer has carefully crafted a reputation as a literary author via three previous novels exploring a family through the eyes of its pet labrador, an update of Hamlet and a Gothic nightmare. But in setting his fourth amid a family of abstaining vampires trying to make sense of their place in the world, he's set himself a huge task: to be inventive and original where it would be so easy to settle for genre convention.
"I actually began the first draft of a Radleys screenplay in 2007," Haig explains when we meet in York. "At that time, it honestly did seem like an original idea: I'll admit Twilight was just out as a book in America, but it wasn't the colossus it has become. As time went on, of course, I did worry about where it would fit, and I can't imagine I would have followed up the initial idea of The Radleys if I'd known how deeply vampires would permeate the popular consciousness. But I was quite a long way into it, so I wanted to see it through. And then Alfonso Cuaron expressed an interest in filming it."
The Oscar-nominated director of Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children Of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban didn't know much about Twilight at that point either.
But he certainly could recognise the unrestrained zeal with which Haig wrote about vampires. Of course, vampire-lit was popular well before Stephenie Meyer's story came to her in a dream, so what is it about these strange creatures that is so alluring?
"Well, in my book, the practising vampires are unrestrained and free from rules," he says.
"Complete anarchists who don't care about society or doing the right thing. That's exciting, isn't it? I mean, I used to love The Lost Boys for that - I even wanted to dye my hair like Kiefer Sutherland. So in The Radleys, it was important to get across the notion that the uncle, Will, could be completely amoral - but attractive at the same time." It's these kinds of complex ideas that made The Radleys attractive to Cuaron - but also alerted the respected literary imprint Canongate, when Haig decided to broaden it out into a novel. Three years since that first draft of the screenplay, the book was published in July, cast as something of a "thinking person's vampire story".
But the beauty of The Radleys is that it genuinely can be all things to all people. Haig says it can be read as a satire of the middle classes, of the pettiness of suburban and village life - all twitching curtains and gossip over the garden fence. This is a very British suburbia, recognisable to anyone who's read Roald Dahl's books or enjoyed the non-Hogwarts scenes in Harry Potter. But it's also a coming-of-age tale as the Radley children realise there is more to their growing pains than simple teenage angst - and to that end the book has a completely different, B-movie-esque cover to ensnare the young adult market.
"I hope it speaks to all camps," says Haig. "All my books have teenagers in them, actually, and The Radleys does talk about parenting, how set ideas about bringing up children don't always allow them to live fully. I do tend to gravitate towards the family unit in my work, and particularly families in peril. It's odd, really, because I had a nice upbringing. Mum and Dad stayed together, there were two kids, a dog. All very normal. I'm drawn towards the things I'm not supposed to write about I think, and for a young novelist, writing about family and teenagers is just not fashionable."
Haig feels when he writes about family, he's actually talking about society. But for all The Radleys' lofty subtexts, it has a beautifully comic touch. The children become wonderfully self-aware when the parents reveal their terrible secret - that the family are vampires. So after a heated argument with sister Clara, Rowan asks with some glee: "Is this where she turns into a bat?".
Haig also revels in casting famous celebrities from history as vampires. "I did have a set of criteria for that," he laughs. "There had to be a side of their personality that in some way could fit. Dean Martin, for example, was a darkly good-looking alcoholic who had a bit of a dark side. Clearly a vampire!" Yet, without giving too much away, it's fair to say that the family we are invited to feel sympathy for have indeed been responsible for their fair share of murderous mayhem. It's in these passages, where Haig toys with the very notion of evil, that The Radleys confirms itself as an impressive addition to the vampire-lit canon, rather than just another cash-in.
"But I like to ask questions of my readers," he says. "And of course there's no greater challenge as a writer than to make murderers likeable. In my mind, I liken what my vampires do to an addiction that needs feeding, like an alcoholic. That is their nature. But it's all done with a sense of humour, I hope."
And, thankfully, a sense of originality.