“However bad things are, there’s a resilience inside us that can actually cope with more than it feels like we can in any given moment.” After completing The Midnight Library (which has now sold one million copies in the U.S.) at the start of the pandemic, Matt Haig wanted to create a book that was as comforting for others to read as it was for him to create. Having lived with anxiety, depression, and a panic disorder for most of his life, Matt compiled the most helpful habits, philosophies, and lessons to take readers along on a heartening mental health journey in The Comfort Book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Matt. I’m so excited to have you on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest, The Comfort Book, which is so amazing. Welcome.

Matt Haig: It is so nice to be here, Zibby. I’m really looking forward to our chat.

Zibby: You were so open. You put your heart on the page in this collection of thoughts and the occasional recipe and musings and quotes. I was blown away. I was just totally blown away by your transparency and insight and soulfulness and all of it, and your willingness to share it with readers. Tell me about how this became a book.

Matt: It was a very accidental book. It wasn’t part of any grand plan. I had finished writing The Midnight Library at the start of last year, 2020, that fateful year. I was editing it around February and March. I have a lot of nervous energy when I finish writing a book, especially that book because I was so worried. Because of what was going on on the news and in the world in terms of pandemic stuff and everything, I almost wanted to head in the other direction. I wanted to provide a counterbalance to myself, selfishly, firstly, to actually write something that’s calming and comforting. Over the years, whether to put up on the internet or just to put in a Word document and leave, I’ve often tried to condense things I’ve learned about my own mental health and experience of mental illness which I experienced quite severely in my twenties. I still have various little issues and bouts occasionally with anxiety and depression and panic. So things I’ve learned in recovery, things in life, things I’ve learned from other people, an excuse to go off and research inspiring life stories, comforting recipes, my favorite movies, just literally the ultimate counterbalance to the troublesome nature of the times we’re in, a book about acceptance and resilience, and format-wise, to do it in the most simple, easy, accessible, almost non-bookish kind of book. We say in England, we call them, it’s somewhere between a coffee table book and a toilet book. If I’m feeling classy, I will go for the coffee table.

Zibby: It could also be one of those books when you check out, when you have your arms packed with books like The Midnight Library, for instance. Then you’re checking out and you’re like, ooh, The Comfort Book. I’ve got to just throw that on the stack. How could I not want to be comforted? That’s an elemental human need.

Matt: Exactly. Even down to the title, The Comfort Book, literally, to try and do a book that is so obvious, it does what it says on the tin — I can remember in my most frazzled moments — I was having a bit of a frazzled moment, as many of us were, at the start of last year. Generally, in my worst, most stressed-out periods of time, the kind of books I’m able to cope with are often books that don’t demand that much of me. They don’t necessarily demand I sit there with an eight-hundred-page tome of Russian literature and start at the beginning and end at the end. There’s chapters that are about fifty pages long. Sometimes it’s just a little bit too much. I wanted this to be a book that no one would have to leave a chapter halfway through. I think it was something like that, four words or five words. I interspersed them. What I’m trying to do is I’m trying to have my cake and eat it. The ease of it, I feel, is a bit of a trojan horse. I’m actually trying to put some important bits of philosophy, not just my own philosophy, but other people’s philosophy in there, but to do it in a way that doesn’t feel like work for anyone, to actually help people reframe things, but without them actually feeling like it’s a self-help book in the sense that, okay, I’ve got to reorganize my life. I’ve got to change when I go to bed. I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to change my diet. I’ve got to get rid of gluten, all of that. I wanted it to be the world’s easiest self-help book, but it’s not really a self-help book. It’s a self-acceptance book. It’s just taking a breath where we are now.

Zibby: Maybe you can give this book with a big heaping of your favorite gluten treat. Now I’m thinking corn muffins and The Comfort Book.

Matt: I do reference pasta quite a bit. That’s one of my .

Zibby: Yes, that’s true.

Matt: It should come with a content warning for celiacs. It’s a very personal book in some ways. Even though a lot of the stuff is quite general, I put a lot of myself in there. I think I was also feeling frustrated after writing a novel like The Midnight Library, which I’m obviously proud of writing, but structurally, it was very tricksy. Even though, hopefully, The Midnight Library is quite an easy read for people, it wasn’t an easy write in the sense that I had so many different locations and overlapping multiverses. It was like writing twelve mini-novels in one, and having to research. Also, it was a philosophical novel, but because it was a novel, you couldn’t just sort of step aside all the time and philosophize. I like philosophy. I feel people are intimidated by philosophy, so I try and do the most user-friendly, accessible bits of philosophy without, hopefully, dumbing anything down. I think there’s a challenge as a writer to actually keep things simple. It’s so easy, especially in my country, in England, certainly in the London literary scene, there’s a tendency to equate difficulty with depth and profundity. You get a lot of, actually, quite shallow books but are incredibly difficult to read which could’ve been a lot simpler. People are super impressed by them because they give you a headache.

Zibby: I am not impressed by books that give me a headache. Thank you for just telling it like it is there. That does not help anybody. The thing that you did, too, that’s so brilliant with these little missives is instead of — it’s like the ultimate show, don’t tell. In a lot of self-help books — I do read quite a few. They’ll say, you should repeat a mantra to yourself. You should tell yourself this. Instead, you have a whole thing. I am enough. I am enough. I am enough. When you read it, as the reader, you are already doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re saying these things to yourself or you’re taking the breaths or all that stuff in the way you’re ingesting the words. It’s very clever, in a way.

Matt: I suppose that’s it. I’m definitely not preaching from a mountain top. The book is the therapy by me doing it. Therefore, if you’re reading it, you’re doing the therapy alongside me rather than me being the therapist. I like that. No one’s put it like that. I like that. It wasn’t really planned, but yes. I feel like with all books, though, you have to kind of forget that other books exist, or the books in the genre you’re writing. We’re in a world full of books now. There’s so many books. If any of us are arrogant enough to feel like there needs to be another book out in the world, then the least you can do is to try and put something new in it and put something helpful or practical or something that makes something feel something. Literally with this, I wanted people to feel comfort, but it’s not the comfort of denial. We’re in a world right now where it’d be very easy to just spend the rest of our lives as ostriches and ignore terrible things happening in the world. It’s not that. It’s the comfort of, however bad things are, there’s a vastness inside us and a resilience inside us that can actually cope with more than we sometimes can feel like we can cope with in any given moment.

That goes back to my own life experience of suicidal depression and panic disorder and being, for years as a younger person, in a state of literally feeling trapped like I could not get out of my own mind and that feeling impossible. When I’m writing in a vaguely mental health area, I think my incentive is always trying to remember what I was like at my worst point and to see if there’s any words that would actually hack into that person. That said, I feel like compared to other nonfiction books I’ve written, this isn’t really a medical book. I’m not a therapist. I’m not a doctor. I shied away from, even with my own mental health, going into too much of the nitty-gritty about labels and diagnoses and stuff. I wanted this to be sort of general. I suppose it is a mental health book rather than a mental illness book, if that makes sense. We all have mental health. It’s something we all need to think about just as we all have to think about physical health.

Zibby: Amazing. There was one part I just wanted to read about words. It’s Words (two). It’s a continuation, but I like this part the best. You said, “So yes, words are important. Words can hurt. Words can heal. Words can comfort. There was a time when I couldn’t speak. There was a time when my depression was so heavy my tongue wouldn’t move, a time when the distance between the open gate of my mouth and the storm of my mind seemed too far. I could manage monosyllables sometimes. I could nod. I could mumble, but I sounded as if I were in slow motion underwater. I was lost. To want to speak was to want to live, and in those depths, I wanted neither. I just wanted to want, if that makes sense.” You just so put us there with you. You couldn’t even talk. Yet you’ve produced this whole book now. We know you’re going to get to the other side of it. Then you just want to see, how is he doing this? How did he get there? Then you’re like, oh, okay, by saying all this stuff. Great, now I know what to do, in a way. I’m so sorry you went through that and that you have to contend with this. Then towards the end, you feel your fear. I hope it’s not going to come back. I had this dose of insomnia at one point in my life. I’m always a little bit afraid. I hope it doesn’t come back. I don’t want to think about it too much or it’s going to come back. I felt like I related to that. You’re just hopeful, but it’s out of your control. It’s your head. You’re like, I don’t know. Then I got so devastated when I was on your social media after reading this. You said that you had had another relapse of sorts or something in the last year or two. I just wanted to ask what happened or what that was about. Now I feel so invested in your — I was like, oh, no, it happened. He was so worried about it. The worry didn’t stop it.

Matt: It’s true. Anxiety is a bigger thing for me than depression. Depression’s quite rare. I had depression for a few years when I was younger. Since then, that’s been an occasional bout of about three weeks of depression. The difference is, though, nowadays, is that when I first became ill, I had no idea. I had no idea. I didn’t even know what I was experiencing until I got the labels given to me. I felt like I was in this totally new land and I would never get out of it. I wouldn’t get out of it because I didn’t know how I’d got into it. It sounds absolutely appalling, but I used to wish something bad had happened so I could have a reason why I felt like that. I wanted a cause and effect. It wasn’t that simple. There were obviously causes. There are always causes, but there was no backstory. There was no exciting backstory of some tragic incident. I didn’t have an easy therapy to address a thing because that thing was me. It was so many things. It was my whole life of various things and low self-esteem and a million other things, just my brain chemistry and all of that. That felt impossible to undo. The difference is, nowadays if I become ill, I’ll know that I’m not there forever. It’s horrible. Anything is horrible. Can you imagine if you experience something like flu but instead of thinking, oh, it’s flu, you thought, I’m going to have this flu for fifty years? This flu is going to be forever. Then it becomes a psychologically different thing.

I feel like a lot of what we’ve been going through this last year with the pandemic, what’s made it so scary is the uncertainty around it. When you don’t know what you’re dealing with, it’s a lot harder. That was definitely me in the early days with mental illness. I didn’t understand it. Now I can have the physical and mental feelings that aren’t as bad. There’s another level where I’m kind of watching myself in a way I wasn’t. Even the way I speak about myself has changed. Even a few years ago, I would talk about myself as a depressive. Whereas now if I’m ever feeling depressed, I will say, I am feeling depressed. I’m experiencing depression. I have a bout of depression. There will be a separation between me and the thing. People can talk about their own conditions how they want to. I’m not here to preach that. I’m saying in my terms, if I call myself a depressive, I will start to feel that I’m defining myself by this thing. Therefore, this thing is kind of bigger than me because I’m a part of this thing rather than this thing being a part of me. It sounds like a little semantic point, but it was a very big thing for me to actually see it almost as weather. It’s not to belittle the weather. Weather can be very scary. You can be caught in a hurricane. It can be fatal. It can be dangerous. It can knock you off your feet and all of that. It’s not to belittle anything. It is to say that there’s a separation between you and the hurricane. If you’re caught in a hurricane, you’re not the hurricane. You’re the person experiencing it.

We don’t stay in one state of mind forever, just as no country — even a rainy country like England has a glorious sunny day sometimes. I’ve been swimming in the sea, which you can’t do every day. You learn to appreciate the moments, metaphorically, when you can swim in the sea and you can go out in the sunshine. I definitely don’t ever want people to feel sorry for me. People think I’m a bit strange when I say this. I’ve honestly known more happiness and moments of joy and gratitude this side of my breakdown than I ever did prior to my breakdown. Part of my therapy and recovery has been to actually, rather than be so intimidated by it — I used to be so intimidated by panic disorder because it’s just scary. That’s what the definition of the symptoms is. It’s just to be scared all the time, and depression. To try and actually be grateful for this impossible thing, this horrible thing, to actually be grateful, not for the experience — that, I wouldn’t want to go through again — but for the stuff that has come in its wake, for the sense of gratitude, for not , if nothing else, it’s given me an appreciation of normal, ordinary, boring things that before, I used to think were the worst things ever. Now you’re just grateful for life lived at a low volume and just being with people you love and going for a walk and all of that stuff. It has helped me in terms of perspective. I think I used to be quite selfish, not horrible, but just a bit too self-absorbed as a young man. It’s given me a better sense of perspective, I suppose.

Zibby: That’s something that you can’t be taught. You have to go through something really bad to then know how great it feels not to feel bad, whether it’s depression or loss or illness or whatever it is. That’s why people often say how lucky they feel. I’m so lucky that I went through — I just finished reading Claire Nelson’s book about how she fell off a cliff and was stranded in the desert for three days. At the end, she’s like, “Oh, but I just feel so lucky because now life is so vibrant and clear.” We end up all feeling lucky for the pain because without it, life is in the middle. With the pain, then you get so much higher. I totally understand that. By the way, I just tried to teach my kids exactly what you were saying about, I am a depressive, I am depressed. This is such a random story. We were in the car. There was a guy on a skateboard in front of us, and texting. My son who’s only six was like —


Zibby: Right, which was ridiculous. My son goes, “What an idiot.” I was like, “You can’t say that. You can’t say that. You don’t know if he’s an idiot. You can’t say that.”

Matt: That’s an idiotic act.

Zibby: That’s what I said. I said, “He’s doing something idiotic. That person is doing something really idiotic,” or moronic or whatever. They’re like, “Oh, okay.” I’m like, “There are so many examples. Look at that guy driving.” It is so important because it teaches you not to judge others, but also not to judge yourself. Anything that we think and feel is just a thing. You can make a stupid decision. That doesn’t make you a stupid person. You can feel depressed.

Matt: Exactly. To have that binary system that’s so rigid of good people/bad people, the problem of it, selfishly, is that one day, you’re going to do something which is possibly on the bad side of the line where your judgement is your verbose slip or something in your own life. It’s not up to other people to forgive you, but if you want to stay living in your own skin, you’ve got to learn a little bit of self-forgiveness in less-than-perfect moments. That is a bit silly, isn’t it, texting on a skateboard?

Zibby: It’s not the best. It deserved a call-out.

Matt: It was a whole golden future ahead .

Zibby: I also relate to, you’re saying you wished something had been wrong when you were so upset. Sometimes even I get so upset and I’m like, how can be crying? I’m so lucky. I’m such a lucky person. There’s nothing that could justify why I’m crying right now. I can feel it on every sense. Then I feel like beating myself up about it just makes it so much worse.

Matt: I relate to that. I always say, from a mental health standpoint, one of the reasons it’s so hard to break the cycle sometimes is you get depressed about the depression. You get anxious about the anxiety. You panic about the panic attacks. It’s self-feeding. The only way out of that loop involves some deep, deep acceptance sometimes. Depression still is a mysterious thing. I definitely do not have the secret to how to beat depression. In terms of panic attacks, that’s one thing I’m really proud of. Panic attacks used to dog my life. I used to have multiple panic attacks a day. Between panic attacks, it wasn’t like I was in a nice zone. I was just in continual dread of the next panic attack. That dread was making the next panic attack. It was working on the next panic attack happening. You’d swing between this sort of depression and dread and then total heart-pounding fear. I’m not going to compare it anyone else’s experience, but in my own life, that was the worst thing I’ve ever known. Now I don’t have panic attacks. I haven’t had panic attacks for years. I have had feelings at the start of a panic attack which rise up for no reason. That was always a scary thing for me. If you’re panicking because there’s a bear that’s just broken into your house, then that’s terrifying because of the bear. When you’re panicking because of the panic, it’s terrifying because of you. You are the bear. It’s a whole different level.

Zibby: I’m sorry to even have you be thinking about this. I feel like I’m totally stressing you out by making you talk about this again. I’m sorry.

Matt: No, you’re not. It’s good. I’ve just been doing a lot of PR in England for The Comfort Book. It’s been hour after hour of turning into a therapy session. I’m probably just extending my therapy session here. I’m sorry.

Zibby: No, no.

Matt: With panic attacks, I almost had to get to a point where I wanted them. I wanted this terrible thing. The way I justified it was that if you go to the gym and you’re doing a tough exercise, there’s people who want it to feel hard. I was wanting this thing that was mentally hard to see how I would respond to this mentally hard thing. Of course, once you start playing that little mind game, the panic starts to lose a little bit of interest because the panic doesn’t want to be wanted. Fear doesn’t want to be wanted. Fear wants to be feared. You have to hack into your body as many signals as possible that tells your body that actually, you’re not bothered about it. I think that’s why people bang on about breathing all the time because breathing is just a great way to change the barometer of your body to actually — I don’t think breathing is the cure for everything. When it comes to fear and anxiety, it’s kind of a good way to actually slow things down. Sometimes I’ll just slow my breathing down, lay on the floor, and just allow it to happen, do this called square breathing. Have you heard of square breathing?

Zibby: No.

Matt: I’m turning this into a wellness channel. I’m sorry.

Zibby: Perfect. Great. I’ll take all the help I can get. Bring it on.

Matt: Where you breathe slowly for four, hold for four, exhale for four, hold for four. As you’re doing it, you can close your eyes and you picture the square forming. You do it four times over. It’s a technique they use in the military. You feel like, if it’s a technique used by the military — whatever you think of the military, they’re not hippy-dippie. They’re not all dressed in hemp. I always feel like, okay, there might be some science behind that. I do square breathing quite a bit.

Zibby: I’m going to try that.

Matt: I’m rambling.

Zibby: No, that’s okay. I’m going to try square breathing. I think that’s awesome. Fantastic. Quickly then — there were so many other things I wanted to ask about your grandmother in Vienna and World War II. There’s so much other stuff in this book, by the way, which was amazing. I wanted to know if you’re working on anything else. I wanted to see if you had advice for aspiring authors, which I’m sure you get asked a lot, but I have to ask because I’m curious.

Matt: The working on anything else question, that is just — honestly, I would rather talk about my worst mental health experiences —

Zibby: — Okay, let’s skip it.

Matt: No, no, no, it’s fine. It’s good.

Zibby: I don’t care that much. Let’s skip it. I’ll just check the bookshelves.

Matt: It’s interesting in the sense that people imagine if you had quite a successful book — the first time I’ve had a really successful book in America is The Midnight Library. Some Americans even think it’s my first book. It’s like my twenty-first book. You imagine that after that you’d be on this craze of high and just wanting to be — I’ve really found it hard to actually get thinking of another novel. I have got ideas, but my ability to judge which ideas are the ones versus which ideas are the ones I should be ignoring is quite hard to do when you’re in the middle of publicity blitzes and things like that. I’m sure I’ll get some space. I have an idea about doing a kind of sequel to Hansel and Gretel set in the 1980s largely, a bit of present day, a bit of the 1300s as well, predominately focused on Gretel, but also Hansel. If you think of a fairy tale about overcoming trauma, Hansel and Gretel had the ultimate worst childhood experience. I thought there’s something sort of fun and interesting to do with them, but I don’t know. It’s not quite there yet. It’ll probably turn into something else. We will see.

Zibby: That does sound good, though, if you want a little focus group. I would be interested in that. Anyway, keep going.

Matt: The other question you asked about is about advice. I used to teach creative writing for a little bit. I was the world’s worst creative writing tutor. I’m really bad. I don’t know why. Teaching is its own separate skill, isn’t it? I’m bad at explaining my writing process, for a start, and saying how I do things or how people should do things. I think, really, the advice — firstly, read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. That’s a great book about writing.

Zibby: I love that book.

Matt: Obviously, there’s other classics like Stephen King’s On Writing and stuff. Anne Lamott is great at writing about writing. She’s a great American writer. We don’t really know much in our country, but I’m really always banging the drum for Anne Lamott. What else? Just be honest and true in all things. Be honest and true. Don’t be scared when you’re starting out of what you’re writing. Don’t have that stage fright when you start writing a book. I think there’s something about books. It is a little bit equivalent to theater where people are a little bit intimidated. There’s so many class connotations. There’s a sort of intimidating vibe that some people have towards books, at least when they put the author hat on. They feel they have to write in a slightly forced or pretentious way which isn’t necessarily natural to them. I think the most important thing is to find a voice that is true to yourself. That’s no easy thing. It took me many books. I was published as an author. Still, I would say, in my early books, I didn’t really have my voice.

I was published in 2004. I think it took me the best part of a decade. I published a book in 2013 called The Humans, which I think was the first book — it’s definitely not a perfect book. It’s got lots of uneven things in it. It was the first book that I actually realized who I was as a writer. It took me all that time. I wrote a book which was published, and it was even published in your country, called The Possession of Mr. Cave when I was younger. I would strongly advise people who like my more recent stuff to not read it. Being a writer, when you’ve done it for a few years, it’s like having lots of embarrassing old photos of haircuts. There’s occasionally times where you think, oh, I really look good in that. That hat was good. What was I worried about? There’s a lot of times you think, really? I was wearing cut-off dungarees and I had hair ? That’s one of those cut-off dungarees books. Basically, almost everyone dies in that book. I thought the job of a writer was to be as miserable and bleak as possible. If I wanted to be taken seriously by the literary establishment, whatever that is, I had to do this sort of thing.

I was very insecure because I’d already been published by this very high-brow imprint in the UK who publish all these Booker Prize books. I was doing this kind of karaoke of what I thought was serious literature. It did have some quite good reviews and stuff, but I see it now and I feel a bit like, yeah, that was when I was most lost as a writer. Then I reached a point where I sort of didn’t really care. I actually just wrote for myself, but in way of writing for myself where it’s hopefully for other people as well. The only reader you’re ever going to know is you. You have to be truly honest about what you want to read rather than what you would want to be seen reading or what you would want on your shelf. What do you actually want to read? I think truth and honesty. Even if you’re writing about unicorns and vampires, truth and honesty in your intentions and in the emotions is always the starting point.

Zibby: I don’t know why you think you’re bad a teacher. First of all, that was great advice and very inspiring. Second of all, you just gave me a little wellness class here this morning. You can take this show on the road if the writing thing doesn’t work out or whatever.

Matt: The weird thing about British people is, I could possibly think I’m the best teacher in the world, but I’d still have to say, I think I’m a terrible teacher. We’re a very confusing — we have to always self-deprecate. It’s what we do. We apologize. Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. We don’t say pardon or excuse me. We just say sorry if we’re in a shop and we’re getting in someone’s way. To be honest, I don’t think I’m actually that great at knowing how I write, the actual nuts and bolts of it. I’m quite good at giving the vague inspirational stuff. If I was sitting with you going through your work, I’d be useless at that.

Zibby: Writing is sort of like magic. The way we think, you can’t really describe what you do. I still like to ask.

Matt: I’m always interested when other writers talk about it because you will always get a different answer. It’ll never be a wrong answer. It’s not mathematics, is it? It’s the most subjective. Everything’s right and everything’s wrong all at once. I think that’s one of the great things about it.

Zibby: Matt, thank you so much. This was so fun. Thank you for all of your wisdom. Thanks for The Comfort Book. I love just thinking about how many people are going to be out there ingesting those words and saying them to themselves and then feeling better. I think that’s amazing.

Matt: The American jacket’s growing on me now, actually.

Zibby: Oh, I love it. You don’t like it?

Matt: I like the light blue sky. I really like it. It’s my favorite cover now. At the start, I was thinking, oh, no, is that too self-help? It’s such a nice light blue.

Zibby: I love it. It’s great. It’s my favorite color, so I’m biased. Have a great day, Matt.

Matt: You too.

Zibby: It was so nice connecting.

Matt: Good luck with skateboarders and texters and all of that.

Zibby: Thank you very much.

Matt: It was a pleasure. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts