Max Porter is a senior editor at Granta Books and Portobello Books. He previously managed an independent bookshop and won the Young Bookseller of the Year award. He lives in South London with his wife and children.
His debut, the novella Grief is the Thing with Feathers opens in a London flat, as two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their mother’s sudden death. Their father, a Ted Hughes scholar and scruffy romantic, imagines a future of well-meaning visitors and emptiness. In their moment of despair they are visited by Crow – antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter. This self-described sentimental bird is attracted to the grieving family and threatens to stay until they no longer need him. As weeks turn to months and physical pain of loss gives way to memories, this little unit of three begin to heal.
J: I understand you’re working on some new projects. Do you want to tell us anything more about them?
M: I haven’t got the time to work on a book properly. I’ve got this day job which is fairly demanding. I’m still having to do a lot of travel for the book, for the foreign editions. For each one of those there are a load of questions from a translator, some publicity. And I’ve got three young kids.
What I am doing is saying yes to collaborations that come along. I’ve written a piece for a sculptor, for her exhibition catalogue, which I’m really happy with. It’s the first thing I’ve written since the book that I felt I was making some progress with. And I’ve agreed to write a ghost story and I’m doing a thing with a painter, an artist friend of mine, who’s doing a sequence of images I’m going to respond to for an artist book-type-thing. So enough to be keeping busy but nothing major.
J: You did an MA in History of Art, I’ve heard you reference Rothko for example in interviews, are there references outside of literature that you draw upon for your work
M: Constantly. I think that anyone who’s making any type of work is a kind of porous membrane for everything.
The cliché that writers are everything they’ve read extends, I think, right out. Especially these days where the borders between different forms is so much more fluid than it used to be. The art you look at, the TV you watch, the politics you’re immersed in.
I’d be as influenced by Crow videos on YouTube, or the paintings of Francis Bacon, as I am by any literary stuff. It happens I made the character in this book have a literary job, so that I could get him to think about some of the things I wanted him to think about, to do with literary influence, and anxiety and homage, critical culture. But I could have made him interested in art, I think, quite easily.
Bacon was important for this book because he was important to me at a certain age, his use of triptychs was important, but also the sense of a rich visual culture and a rich symbolic culture. Crow is all these different Crows, he’s been part of a storytelling tradition that goes way outside of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. He’s always been a superstar in those traditions but also he might crop up in a children’s fairytale, he might crop up in certain paintings, he might crop up in a children’s book. The truth is crow is everywhere. It felt like one of those books where to draw any imaginary line between literary influence and artistic influence and musical influence would have been false.
J: On the subject of mythology and fairy tales, one of the many interesting things about Grief was the way you intertwined mythology into the everyday. Do you think mythology and shared stories are becoming more important for writers? As individuals and states seem to isolate themselves?
M: That’s an interesting thought. We were saying that the other day at one of our meetings here that myth keeps cropping up in contemporary writers work.
The truth is there’s no new stories under the sun and that everything you do you’re contributing to this incredibly rich tradition that’s come before you.
We’re quite highly developed as a literary culture now. Readers are quite good at spotting acts of collage and pastiche and the borrowing of things from previous traditions and repurposing them.
It’s quite important to me. I knew if I was going to invite the Crow in, he’s a famous device, a lot of people have used crows, I thought it would have to be in a knowing way. It would be so dull if it was just Ted Hughes’s Crow. He’s got to be somebody who plays with all those things because he knows he’s part of a novel, he knows he’s a storytelling device, a myth to be slipped into, to fit different roles at different times. His primary role in this book is to help these children and he knows that children love stories. Storytelling is a way to get into children’s heads, to teach them about the world, to show them different things, to take them outside of their life. Storytelling is his medicine. And myth is the basic building block of all that.
The reason they’re not named and it’s not dated and it’s not specific where they live or anything like that is because I wanted them to have this total freedom to move within the templates. They are, as it were, just two dimensional bits of scenery that get rolled on. Boys, London flat, dad. But then once you’ve got those architects set up you can fill them in with hyper-realistic detail. Readers are accomplished enough to say, I see what you’re doing, it’s a sibling relationship and now you’re going to tell me stuff about the sibling relationship without any of that baggage novels have. How old is he? How tall is he? What does he look like? All that stuff can just drop right away. As I was writing I realised I didn’t need all of that clutter. I needed to get straight into it and the quickest way for me to get straight into it is with the little myths.
J: I saw Grief almost as much as a book for children as for adults in the way it simply dissected the subject matter. I wonder, is that a characterisation you’d recognise.
M: I think it’s not so much a novel for children as a love-letter to the range and depth of children’s literature. In children’s books you can do things so fast and so dark without all that clutter of the western novel as its come to be. In kids books you can say in 200 words what a novelist will faff around for 300 pages try to do.
I don’t know whether I’d give it to a kid. What I’m hoping for is that for an adult it’s rekindling some of that affection you felt for the stories you were read as a child and a recognition that children are able to handle dark things in books. You can sneak a lot of dark things into children’s books without any trickery. I suppose I wanted the adult reader to luxuriate in that a bit.
I mean people told me they read bits of it to their kids. I get nice letters from people, particularly bereaved people, saying I read a chunk of it to my daughter and it really rang true to her because it wasn’t cod therapy or it wasn’t realistic. The kind of fairytale aspect of it for some people I think made it easier to step into. Certainly for a lot of people it made it truer.
In the chaos of the grieving brain, of the traumatised brain, for many people the fairytale stuff was somehow truer than a realistic portrayal of a guy trying to book a funeral or trying to make sandwiches for everybody.
Have you ever read the Green Children? It’s about a farmer who goes out and sees these two green kids. It’s from the 15th century but it’s proper sci-fi, John Wyndham stuff. I think those tales, because they were oral to begin with, got shaped and nailed down at different points in history. The Victorian telling of these fairytales have a strong moralistic impulse and stories were told as quite innocent, but when you read earlier versions, or continental versions, children are not innocent. They’re the most scheming, Machiavellian, people in the play and it’s often them taking vengeance on the adult world.
J: Do you have any children’s books you’d recommend?
M: Right now my son’s very into animal conservation, so we’re reading Nicola Davies, who’s a brilliant, prolific writer of children’s books. She writes a little series of children’s books about children in different parts of the world interacting with nature. They’re about the real world, particularly the real world being affected by climate change, with these incredible Morpurgo-style encounters between children and animals. They’re pretty wonderful.
My eldest is pretty into the Greek myths. There’s an absolutely brilliant series by Lucy Coats called Beasts of Olympus, which is about Pandemonium. It’s the Greek myths retold through the lens of a kid.
One of the most revelatory reading experiences I’ve had recently was my author Eleanor Catton recommended to me a series of New Zealand children’s books by an author called Maurice Gee, called The Half-men of O, and they are just so, so, good. So many children’s books I’ve read since, like the Philip Pullman trilogy, which I love, or even J.K. Rowling, seem to me so indebted to this series. They’re written in the 80s I think, the Half-men of O, they’re absolutely wicked..
I love picture books. If I had to put together a space capsule to show the best I’d take John Burningham, Maurice Sendak. I’m named after Where the Wild Things are. One of my prize possessions is a signed copy of Where the Wild Things are signed from Max to Max.
John Burningham & Maurice Sendak
I was recently asked to choose my favourite books of all time and one of them is a book called Angry Arthur, which is a kids book that I thoroughly recommend. It’s a tiny little book about a kid that gets angry, he gets so angry he breaks his house, he gets so angry he breaks his street, then the whole country, then he floats up to Mars and he causes an entire universe quake, caused by 10 little Arthur’s, and then he can’t remember why he was so cross. For me it’s a huge book for what it says about childhood and masculinity.
J: Would you see you’re seen as an experimental writer? I’m interested in knowing how an experimental writer reacts to big political and economic changes.
M: That’s the big question of our time. I mean I don’t know where I stand. I can hardly function at the moment for shock and fear at the state of things.
I’ve read two things recently and nodded at them both, although they’re polar opposite in opinion. One was Marilynne Robinson, talking with incredible care and wisdom, and dry American patience, about the political situation and saying writers haven’t ever tended to take these things on directly. I found that very interesting. And then I read this thing with Howard Jacobson, he’s publishing this book called Pussy (a Trump satire), which he wrote since November and they’re rushing it out. He says there’s nothing else, it’s the big story in town, now can you focus on a novel when there’s this colossal thing going on? And I get that as well.
There’s a book I’ve been working on for a long long time, that I’d written as a poem before and was going to turn into a novel. It’s about a missing child, a relationship between an old man and a child and that child goes missing. And it’s set in a very claustrophobic English village and I couldn’t do it after Brexit. I sat down to write this village and all my characters were just sitting reading the Daily Mail, spouting all this aggressive stuff about the rest of the world and how they felt they were under siege from “otherness”. And I thought I’d can’t do this now, I’m too angry. It wouldn’t be a good piece of writing. So I binned that
It would be interesting to see what the great writers of our time do. Not that I’m including myself in that! But what would someone like Franzen do now? He’s been hammering away at the great American novel for years and years and years and that world is now irrelevant and gone. There’s no point. The nuances of his observations about domestic life mean nothing now. So it will be interesting.
For me I go to poetry. I want to know what the poets are doing. Even on a basic level I want to see how the language is going to change. Especially during this resurgence of extreme conservatism and the sudden demolition of all our environmental achievements over the last years. I wonder how that will immediately affect people’s language and whether conventional forms, such as the poetry collection or the public reading, whether they will be deemed actually not appropriate for this time. It’s an interesting time.
I don’t know that I would ever write an explicitly political book. But I certainly would write about masculinity, male fantasies of violence, or male preoccupations with identity politics. And that inevitably that would be part and parcel of my view of the world.
J: Do you see yourself as part of a movement, a new movement? There are a couple of other writers emerging at the moment, like Eimear McBride, who seem more experimental. Do you see yourself as part of “new experimentalism”?
M: I know Eimear and I admire her enormously. She’s an incredibly good writer. (But) I don’t think there’s much in common between us except perhaps a sense that it’s a hundred years since Joyce yet have any of the questions Joyce asked in Ulysses been answered?
I think it’s funny how conservative we have become formally. My favourite novel probably is Riddley Walker and it’s a long time since Riddley Walker came out. I’m not suggesting that all novels need to be written in an imaginary, post-apocalyptic dialect, but it’s funny how the vast bulk of novels now are conventionally written, conventionally built, realist in mode.
I think it’s good people are trying different things, are trying different stuff out. The conventions of the book are still capable of quite radical activity. I mean you can do a lot in the printed pages of a book. You don’t need enhanced e-book things, it can all be happening on the page of the book.
For me the point is hybridity, is getting rid of the silo mentality of genre, the idea that poetry and prose need to be separate, that crime fiction and romance never meet. Those are economic things, they’re economically determined and it’s therefore worth interrogating and mistrusting them as powerfully as you possibly can as a writer.
I have the greatest respect for people who can write in genre. The plotting of a complex chick lit novel is world class, incredible.
Same with crime. I treat myself occasionally to one of my favourite crime writers, someone like Fred Vargas for example. They’re so full of different types of cleverness, they’re intelligent and funny. But also the plotting. Just an absolute master class in how to deliver a character from A to B with a lot of different moving plates. I can only marvel at that.
I’m reading a book, because I’m doing a podcast about it in a couple of weeks, called The Horse’s Mouth, which is one of my favourite books. It’s by Joyce Carey and it’s one of those books that appears to be written in a single angry burst, like it’s got the feeling he just sat down and wrote it. And I read an interview with him when he said of all his books it’s the one that’s most carefully planned. Nothing happens by accident, there’s no stream of consciousness, Joycean poring out of feeling, it’s incredibly carefully built. And I love that. I think that would be the challenge to a writer like me. Can I build something big behind the scenes of what’s happening on the surface, behind a style that’s somewhere between prose and poetry? Behind that can I have a complex intellectual framework that I’m happy with and be in complete control of when that framework, that scaffolding, pokes through the surface of the book?
You asked me about experimental writers, I deeply resent experimentalism for the sake of it. You read a lot of stuff that is fundamentally masturbatory. Really, really clever but there’s nothing in there for the reader. There’s no soul, there’s no engagement. It might as well be an academic exercise. And that’s not for me, despite how much I like those texts that make you work really, really hard. I love putting in the work and getting rewarded in different ways but I don’t like putting in the work and there being nothing there.
J: There’s a game I like to play where you identify two books by different authors, written at different times, that should be read together. For example, Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Owl Service.
M: Only because you’ve said the Owl Service, but I would recommend the Stone Book Quartet and That They May Face The Rising Sun. Because they both, for me, have this ability to use dialogue so so accurately, so un-showily, that entire personalities come rushing at you off the page. Whole chunks of national identity and economic activity just lifts off the page because of the pure accuracy of the writing, the correctness of the writing.
What else? I have an obsession with the Iliad and I’ll always read different versions of the Iliad when they appear and one of the best things I think that has been written about the Iliad in our lifetime is Alice Oswald’s Memorial. It’s the Iliad but with the Gods removed, just basically an extraordinary role-call of violence and the dying of men. She has these repeated similes and you’re lulled into the oral tradition, you’re lulled into the way that poems would have been formed by being passed around and re-told and re-told. When I read that I cannot help but think back to my first reading of the myths.
I suppose I’d take a book like Ben Marcus’s last collection of short stories, which had an incredibly abstract thing, where language collapses, and link that back to (Emily) Dickinson, the challenge that Dickinson laid down. To try to get that complexity of consciousness and faith and love in an abstract way, partly through what’s left out. Ben Marcus’s stories really get you. Nothing is there for show. It’s all really carefully tailored to the visceral impact the story is going to have on it’s reader. Ben thinks of stories as machines that have the potential to break the hearts and minds of their readers, which is pretty much a working definition of Dickinson’s poems for me.
J: Do you have a best piece of advice you’ve received as a writer? Do you have any advice you’d offer to aspiring writers, in particular with regards to short story writing?
M: Stand by the work. You’ve put the work out there into the world, don’t fixate on what people think of it. It’s good advice but it’s the most difficult to follow because you’re inevitably fascinated by what people think of you. I could waste whole days reading people slag my book off. There’s a kind of masochism that’s difficult to overcome.
Always read. I meet so many writers who don’t read, so they’re not putting anything into the machine, the machine isn’t being fed. The famous thing about if you go back to somebody’s flat and they don’t have any books then don’t fuck them is I think true.
With short stories…I’m a big believer in short stories. I think it’s the most dangerous form, the most risky form. When done well it’s the most lethal of literary forms and when done badly it’s the greatest waste of space. Short stories need to satisfy in ways other forms don’t. They need to begin well, they need to end well, they need to pack punches in different ways. So my advice for short story writers is to read a lot of the great short story writers and try to almost mathematically analyse what’s occurred. How do the great short story writers deliver their punches? How and when in their stories. Then drafting again and again and again.
Real attention to detail. Short story writers have to take that to the nth degree. People that say they’re going to write short stories because they say they can’t handle the length of a novel? It’s a dangerous thing. It’s like saying you’re going to be in charge of doing the gargoyles on the front of a cathedral before you’ve ever carved a pillar. You have to be really good.
I think they’re the best practice for writers. I mean, I wouldn’t use my book as an example of a success story, because there’s things I’d change. But it came from years and years of drafting and discarding, drafting and discarding, hundreds of little versions of boys being the same character and talking to each other, loads and loads of fairy tales I wrote and then discarded.
A lot of the stories I read in short story competitions feel like somebody playing a perfectly adequate tune on a violin and they need to do a lot more hours practice I think. The reader of a short story is so highly attuned to weaknesses or inconsistencies.
So reading and re-drafting I think. The same old advice.
Interview by Joseph Surtees
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers was published by Faber & Faber on 17th Sept. 2015 and Graywolf Press on June 7th 2016.
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