After years steeped in books, as a bookseller for Daunt Books and currently commissioning editor for Granta Publishing, Max Porter has published his first novel. ‘Grief is the Thing With Feathers’ (Faber and Faber 2015). The book is part novella, part poem and part essay on the nature, progress and eventual resolution of grief.
The obvious question to ask any debut author is how long the book took to write?
“I guess like any debut work I’ve been working on it my whole life. But yes, an accumulation of ideas I’ve been having for a very long time, coming together with a sudden desire to get it down. I knew I wanted to do a story about two young children losing a parent, and I knew I wanted to do a triptych, and Crow kept on hopping about in my periphery asking to be the device invited in. Once I’d settled on the structure and gone through all the little notes I’d been keeping, the book came out fairly quickly, in a couple of months. Then I tweaked and tapped and listened back to it for a bit before deciding it was done.”
On an initial reading the novel is stylistically reminiscent of the great modernists such as Beckett, Joyce and indeed Eliot, was this a conscious decision?
“Well thank you! Not a conscious decision, no, but Beckett and Joyce especially are formal permission-givers for me. I’d never want to write like them, but I probably wouldn’t write (or read) the way I do without them. Very often when I’m moaning about lack of risk or innovation or sincerity in contemporary culture I say “It’s 100 fucking years since Joyce!”. So yes, if the book gives you those sort of feelings, I’m honoured and pleased.”
Max’s passion for Ted Hughes’ work is well documented, although he does find other poets and writers inspiring, some of whom may surprise his readers.
“I read a lot of children’s books. Fables and myths and picture books. And for my day job I read novels and non-fiction, so I’ll limit this list to poets I return to again and again and whose work filled my head in the years running up to writing this book. The nice thing about doing this has been that people have sent stuff my way, shared things they think I might like, so the reading map keeps enlarging and twisting off in new directions. I enjoy writers such as Basil Bunting, David Jones, Barry MacSweeney, Rosemary Tonks, Alice Oswald, Robert Bringhurst, Anne Carson, Caroline Bergval, John Burnside, Denise Riley, RS Thomas.”
Despite your love of Ted Hughes’ work you said that he didn’t re-read ‘Crow’, perhaps Hughes’ greatest creation and the forbear of Crow in your novel, before writing the book, why was that?
“I didn’t re-read ‘Crow’ because my Crow isn’t Hughes’ Crow, I didn’t want his voice too much in my head. That would have been disastrous I think. My Crow is the subject of that book once or twice removed, but also the cultural crow, the sacred crow, the ornithological crow, the pop crow. He has hindsight and self-knowledge about his various roles. Also Hughes’ book is a brutal exercise in anti-poetic ugliness and rage and stunning naked song. I wanted the effect of that on my character Dad, but not the thing itself. And finally, Crow is a heavy, heavy work of art. When I settle back down with it I want it to be on its own terms, for a fresh re-read, distinct from my book.”
As a commissioning editor for Granta were you surprised when Faber immediately expressed an interest in and agreed to publish the book?
“I hoped they’d want to do it rather than sue me for trespassing on the memory of the great Ted Hughes. What was wonderful was that they immediately understood that it was a loving interrogation of poetry’s impact on a person during a traumatic time. Yes there are Ted Hughes things in there (affectionate things, in-jokes, some commentary on my part about him and his legacy) but ultimately it is a story about a man and his children, about family, obsession, mourning and recovery. So the nicest thing anyone at Faber ever said to me was that it was completely its own thing and they wanted to share it with the world because they loved it.
Max will be reading from ‘Grief is the Thing With Feathers’ at Spike Island on 29 October as part of the Novel Writers series
For more information www.spikeisland.org.uk