the Reading Guide that's been put together by
my US publishers:
AN INTRODUCTION TO The Dead Fathers
The plot may strike one as
oddly familiar. Following the premature death
of his beloved father, a young man is visited
by the father’s ghost. The spirit urges
the youth to take vengeance upon a morally
ambiguous uncle, who may have had a hand in
the father’s death and who now has romantic
designs on the dead man’s widow. Torn
between loyalty to his father and his moral
obligations to the living, the young man is
plagued by indecision. Although he yearns
to bring peace to his father’s soul
by killing the apparent murderer, he hesitates,
wondering what kind of peace can truly be
won by giving the wheel of violence another
CONVERSATION WITH MATT HAIG
Recognizable as it all seems, the scene of
Matt Haig’s ingenious novel The
Dead Fathers Club is not Denmark, but
the working-class English town of Newark-on-Trent.
The only castle in sight is not Elsinore,
but the Castle and Falcon pub, owned and operated
by Brian Noble until the suspicious car accident
that claimed his life. Furthermore, Haig’s
Hamlet figure is a far cry from the brooding,
intellectual scholar who returns from Wittenberg
to find his life in tatters. He is, instead,
eleven-year-old Philip Noble, an isolated,
introspective boy who wrestles with his dead
father’s stark, insistent command: he
must kill his seemingly kindly Uncle Alan,
who, as an experienced garage mechanic, possessed
both the knowledge and the opportunity to
tamper with his late brother’s car.
As Philip looks on, motive is soon added to
means and opportunity: Not only does Alan
swiftly step in to take charge of Brian’s
pub, but he also promptly proposes marriage
to Philip’s mother. As Philip contends
with powerful emotions of grief, anger, and
jealousy, he must also confront a battery
of almost unanswerable questions. Is his father’s
ghost telling him the truth, or is he duping
his son into committing a series of unconscionable
crimes? Is Uncle Alan sincere in his apparent
indulgence and generosity toward Philip, or
is he, as the ghost insists, secretly plotting
to kill both Philip and his mother? And, as
another writer once put it, is it nobler in
the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of
outrageous fortune, or to take arms against
a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them?
Enlivening this remarkable novel from start
to finish is the narrative voice of Philip
himself. Lonely, misunderstood, but thoughtful
beyond his years, Philip struggles to express
his complex fears of both life and death in
the journal that his school counselor encourages
him to keep. As Matt Haig leads us to question
the motives of Philip’s family and friends,
as well as the true nature of Philip’s
father’s ghost, he gradually evolves
a brilliant contradictory portrait of his
central character. Is he precociously philosophical
or pathetically mad? Is he a foolish boy,
or a fount of strange forbidden wisdom? Must
he follow Hamlet’s destiny to the bitter
end, or will he summon the courage to regain
control of his fate? Not until the shattering
conclusion do the deep mysteries of the story
In The Dead Fathers Club, you have
chosen to re-imagine not merely a classic
but arguably the classic work of English literature.
Where does one get the daring to wrestle with
a giant, and how did you go about making Shakespeare’s
story into your own?
Well, I didn’t begin with a conscious
desire to re-write Hamlet. I began
with the desire to tell a story about grief
from a child’s perspective and I found
myself gravitating increasingly towards these
grand Shakespearean themes. And yes, it’s
a massive risk, and I’m not the one
to judge if I’ve pulled it off. But
I think all writers feel the ghosts of literature
breathing down their neck, so I figured it
might as well be Shakespeare looking over
my shoulder as anyone else.
In your opinion, how important is it to your
readers’ enjoyment that
they have read or reread Hamlet recently?
My intention was to write a story that connects
with people emotionally and hopefully that
connection works the same with or without
an in-depth knowledge of Hamlet.
After all, Shakespeare himself was the king
of re-writes, and Hamlet itself echoes
earlier vengeance stories.
One of the greatest challenges a writer faces
is to sustain a narrative voice that differs
from his or her own natural mode of expression.
How were you able to think your way so successfully
into the mind and diction of an eleven-year-old
F. Scott Fitzgerald said when he wrote he
felt like he was holding his breath and swimming
under water. With The Dead Fathers Club
it was certainly written at quite a breathless,
intense level, and came from a place I can’t
easily locate. But once I had the voice, it
was there and I was able to see everything
through Philip’s eyes.
You do a fine job of evoking Philip’s
preadolescent alienation, both from his family
and his peers. What enabled you to write so
sensitively about Philip’s feelings
of inferiority and exclusion?
guess I too was a bit of a loner at that age,
and found it difficult fitting in at a large
new school. I ended up remembering a lot of
painful stuff about my own childhood –
the school side of it, rather than the family
side of it, as my home life was generally
happy. I think as a writer it’s actually
an advantage to have that feeling of being
outside things, because it sharpens your perspective.
At the same time, it’s very painful
as a child to feel like that because all you
want is to be accepted. As an adult it’s
almost a badge of honour to be a bit of an
outsider. But to get back to your question,
a lot of my experience was thrown in there.
For instance, some of the scenes with bullies
brought back my own memories and the scene
where Philip sleepwalks on a school-trip –
that was me.
5. In the prose style of your novel, as well
as in its concern for the inner reflections
of a troubled youth, some readers may catch
echoes of Burgess and Sillitoe. Apart, obviously,
from Shakespeare, whom do you look upon as
the major literary influences on this book?
terms of style, I’d say Joyce and all
those other experimenters gave me the freedom
to play fast and loose with punctuation, using
it as and how I wanted rather than as the
rules of English grammar dictate. I think
Updike said that for a novel to be truly original
it has to create its own language, and I definitely
tried to make Philip’s voice as unique
as I could. Novels like A Clockwork Orange
and even The God of Small Things
influenced my approach to creating the right
language, aiming to give words the freedom
and flexibility of thought. But generally
my literary heroes are those who understood
intelligent fiction can also be entertaining
and gripping. Anyone from Dickens to Twain
to Graham Greene. I think writers can experiment
and entertain, embracing all those crazy things
like plot and character that used to bring
Virginia Woolf out in a rash.
In the chapter titled “Slaves,”
Philip observes that true freedom is unattainable.
He suggests that, so long as human beings
remain in their bodies, they are subject to
constraints that at times become almost intolerable.
Do you have additional thoughts on the problem
of human freedom, in your novel or elsewhere?
I think freedom is a tricky concept for human
beings. Wars are now fought in its name, but
we still don’t really get a handle on
what true freedom means. It’s consciousness
that makes it such a problem. I don’t
think cats go around worrying about feline
freedom in quite the same way. Because we
are aware of this ‘mortal coil’
we spend our lives seeking answers –
in religion, in fiction, in each other. Human
freedom, I suppose, is only possible in the
imagination, which is why we need stories
and cats don’t.
7. A crisis in your story comes when Philip’s
girlfriend is in mortal danger and he has
to break out of the Hamlet story
line in order to save her. In that moment,
he reasons that life is not like a TV with
only one channel and that we have power to
“change the story.”
Why did you decide to have Philip “change
the story,” and is there anything further
you would like to say about Philip’s
This is the moment of empowerment for Philip,
who until this point has felt like everything
is out of his control. This, if anything,
is the message I wanted to get across: to
do the right thing we sometimes have to take
the unexpected path. It goes back to my belief
in instinct rather than pre-meditated thought
being a better way to go about things, whether
writing a novel or living a life that’s
true to itself.
Even though, as the author, you possess the
ultimate power to “change the story,”
you have chosen to give your novel an ending
that many readers may not feel is an optimistic
one. How did you come to this particular ending
for the book?
In theory, yes, the author has that ultimate
power but with this novel the ending was the
only one that fitted, and it dictated itself.
It is bleak in some ways, but there is optimism
there too. I hope.
What are you working on now?
novel that again looks like it’s heading
into some dark territory. It’s about
a man who, following the death of his wife
and son, goes to obsessive lengths to keep
his daughter safe. I’ve also got a children’s
novel coming out soon, called Samuel Blink
and the Forbidden Forest. Even that manages
to contain its fair share of tragedy amid
the lighter stuff. I try not to write stories
that are either consistently dark or light,
as life contains its share of both. Comedy
is how we cope with tragedy, so I don’t
see how you can exclude one from the other.
Life is the biggest black comedy there is.
During the course of his narrative, Philip
Noble, commits a series of crimes, which grow
increasingly serious. Despite his criminal
behavior, does he continue to move the sympathies
of the reader? By what means does he do so?
Leah confides to Philip that she hates God.
By contrast, her father, Mr. Fairview, has
turned enthusiastically toward religion after
the death of his wife. What commentary does
The Dead Fathers Club offer regarding
religion, and how does religion influence
events and relationships in the novel?
Philip observes, “If you speak to yourself
people think you are mad but if you write
the same things they think you are clever.”
Discuss examples from life or literature that
bear out this observation on the nature of
madness and intelligence.
Philip routinely omits standard punctuation
and sometimes arranges words on the page to
add visual meanings to the verbal significance
of his writing. How do these devices influence
the experience of reading the novel?
How might Philip’s mental disturbances
be influenced by matters relating to sexuality,
for example, his recent circumcision, his
attraction toward his mother, and his ambivalent
feelings about Leah?
Many of Haig’s characters, including
Uncle Alan (Claudius), Philip’s mother
(Gertrude), Leah (Ophelia), and Ross and Gary
(Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) have clear
parallels in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Nevertheless, these characters have been re-imagined
with traits and motivations that distinguish
them from their Shakespearean models. Choose
a character from The Dead Fathers Club
and reread the scenes involving that character’s
counterpart in Hamlet. How has Haig
altered the character? What do you think of
Philip takes a surprising interest in Roman
history, especially in the reign of Nero.
How does this interest relate to Philip’s
overall mental state, and how is it woven
into the novel’s plot?
Philip, who occasionally alludes to the wealth
of the Fairview family and comments that “clever
schools did Rugby and thick schools did Football,”
is aware of the social and intellectual class
system that surrounds him. To what extent
is Haig’s novel shaped by issues of
What is the most useful way to understand
the spirit that we come to know as Philip’s
father’s ghost? Should he be thought
of as a character, as an embodiment of Philip’s
anxieties, as a demonic presence, or as something
else? Why does Philip trust him for so long?
Philip grossly misjudges the people around
him and, because he tells the story, we view
these people only from his misguided perspective.
Nevertheless, by some miracle of narration,
we are able to see them more or less as they
are: as somewhat limited but basically well-meaning
human beings. How does Haig manage both to
immerse us in Philip’s point of view
and give us an objective understanding of
his other characters?
In a famous essay, T. S. Eliot complained
that Hamlet was artistically flawed
because the hero’s emotions were in
excess of the factual situation in which he
found himself. Does Haig’s retelling
of the story give Philip sufficient motives
for his extreme conduct? Do you find Philip
believable as a character? Why or why not?