Matt Haig: 'Mrs Kerswel reminded me that books are fun'

The bestselling author explains how his English teacher taught him that writing was about communication, not perfect grammar and six-syllable words

Matt Haig

I wasn’t particularly great at school. I wasn’t the naughtiest kid, because I was quiet and shy. I was the daydreamer; I was the one who struggled to focus. In certain subjects, I was last – I got an F in GCSE science. But in others I got As – I was a bit of a mixed bag.

Mrs Kerswel was my English teacher. It’s hard to work out how old she was. When you’re a child, everyone’s old. She was middle-aged, with grey hair and a kind face, and she used to wear a lot of cardigans. 

Her lessons were a totally stress-free environment. I was really stressed, because I went from a village school with 28 people to the sort of big, rough and tough town secondary school. 

Made Beowulf interesting

I didn’t know anyone. No one from my primary school went there, because we all went to different schools. I really struggled in my first year to fit in, and Mrs Kerswel was really the sort of teacher you could have chats to, who read stuff that wasn’t on the syllabus just for fun.

She managed to make Beowulf interesting to a bunch of 11 and 12 year-olds. She was key in keeping my love of reading going. It was on shaky grounds because it certainly wasn’t a cool thing to be a boy of that age who loved reading as a pastime.

But she reminded me that books are fun, that it wasn’t just about learning or the curriculum. When I got a bit older, I’d talk to her about grown up books, like Catcher in the Rye or Stephen King: she was someone I could chat too. When I saw her name on my timetable on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I was always so relieved.

About communication

When I was 11 and 12, I wasn’t outstanding at writing necessarily – I was a bit lazy. But she encouraged me to write in a natural way. Unlike a lot of my other teachers, she told me that you don’t have to use the fanciest words. I learned that writing is about communication. Essentially, you’re having a conversation on a page, and so it made me realise that I didn’t have to stress about it too much. It didn’t matter if I made occasional grammatical mistakes or I didn’t know the longest six-syllable words – it was about good communication, being clear and having fun.

I saw her once, over 10 years ago. My writing career was underway, and she was proud. I thanked her for keeping the flame alight. 

Matt Haig was talking to Kate Parker

CV

Born: Sheffield, 1975

Education: Barnby Road Primary School, Newark, Averham Village School, Averham, Magdalene High School, Newark, Thomas Magnus Upper School, Newark 

Career: Matt Haig is a British novelist and journalist, best known for Reasons to Stay Alive and How to Stop Time

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