How to Stop Time by best-selling author Matthew Haig is a new twist on the time travel genre.
How to Stop Time isn’t a tale about hopping among the present, past, and future. Rather, it’s a story of longevity. What if you could cheat time by prolonged aging?
The concept of How to Stop Time is that various people throughout history have a condition that first manifests itself in their early teens called anageria. It’s the opposite of the real-life genetic disorder called progeria, a condition that causes premature aging at a rapid pace. In Haig’s universe, those with anageria age 15 times more slowly than the rest of society. Tom Hazard, our protagonist, may pass himself off as a 41-year-old, but the reality is that he is 439.
When asked how he came up with this idea, Haig stated, “I wanted to write about someone with a longer life span, but not someone who was immortal. Mortality, grief, how to live in the present… would all be things he’d [Tom] have to face.” Disease is mitigated. Tom manages to avoid falling ill due to the Black Death, Spanish Influenza, and several other epidemics in his travels. On the other hand, Tom is no Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who. You can’t stab him, or shoot him expect him to pop back to life. Death by misfortune is entirely possible.
Despite the perks of a long life-span, anageria is no bed of roses. Those afflicted have to move every eight years or so to avoid detection. Every person afflicted is going to leave loved ones behind, as it’s not frequently hereditary. Depression, isolation, and loneliness are the result. Haig is no stranger to these feelings, “I’ve been quite candid about my experience with mental health problems that I experienced in my twenties: depression and anxiety, having a condition that people can’t readily see.” Tom’s journey is marked not only by losing the love of his life, Rose, to standard mortality, but also by losing track of his daughter, Marion, who has inherited his condition.
There is a kind of bravery in just saying, damn, actually I feel bad right now and I need help. So many people stop themselves from doing this. We need to make it easier for folk to say, I feel really bad.
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— Matt Haig (@matthaig1) February 10, 2018
At the same time, Haig wanted it to be clear that there is hope out of what seems like the never ending depths of despair. To that end, Tom does seek help from a doctor who he thinks will understand his condition. “I wanted to write about someone who would experience aging, but at a far different rate. I thought it would be more interesting from that perspective. Jonathan Hutchinson, the doctor Tom goes to in 19th century London for a better understanding of his condition, was an actual person. He was the one who first described progeria in 1886.” Tom goes to Hutchinson twice over the span of decades, desperate for help, hoping to be believed.
His encounter with Hutchinson results in more than he bargained for, as Tom discovers he’s not the only one with anageria. Tom is contacted by an agent, Agnes, of the Albatross Society, a clandestine organization for those with anageria. The “Albas” are a sort of a support group meet underworld survival society that helps their members deal with their extended life among the “mayfiles” a.k.a most humans.
The Albatross Society and its leader, Hendrich, agrees to help Tom try to find Marion, provided he agrees to the society’s rules, which are to essentially fly under the radar through life. Fears of revelation include everything from being tried as a witch, to scientific experimentation depending on the historical era. If you don’t want to live by these rules? Let’s just say going rogue isn’t an option.
Prior to meeting Hendrich, Tom encounters several fascinating historical characters. He works backstage with William Shakespeare at the Globe, and sails the high seas with Captain Cook. Post Hendrich, Tom does everything from playing at F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s favorite piano bar, to living in relative obscurity as a secondary school history teacher in present-day London.
When asked what came first, the characters Tom meets or the locations, Haig answered that, “For me it all starts with characters. A favorite quote of mine is from F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘Character is plot, plot is character.’ If you have interesting people, interesting relationships, it drives the journey.”
Once the age of photography, movies, and social media begins, the Albas have to be more circumspect about their lives. After living for some time in rural isolation, Tom begins his stint as a history teacher in a rougher neighborhood in London. When asked about Tom’s mundane choice, Haig chuckled, “He could go anywhere. Why doesn’t he simply choose to live in a lemon grove in Sicily?” It certainly would have been more carefree. On the other hand, Haig continued, “Tom makes the choice of wanting to do something that matters. History is living, and I was intrigued by the idea of someone who lived through history — a living historian — to say right around the corner this happened here because he lived it.”
If you’re thinking that all of this: the intrigue, the time travel, the inner psychology would make for an amazing film, you’re not the only one. The novel has been optioned by Benedict Cumberbatch for his production company. Haig is both thrilled and a bit overwhelmed by this turn of events, “Benedict Cumberbatch is set to play Tom, and Andrew McCarten, who did The Theory of Everything, is working on the script. It’s all a bit surreal, actually.”
Are there potentially more How to Stop Time universe novels in the works? Haig admits he’s thought about it, but it’s not on the immediate horizon. “It won’t be the next thing I write… if I went back I would’t focus on Tom. There’s more to Agnes’ story,” he said. Then again, if the Cummberbatch film takes off, Hollywood loves a sequel.