Max Porter’s first book ‘Grief Is The Thing With Feathers’ was published in 2015 by Faber, and will be translated into 15 languages. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First book award, The Goldsmith’s Prize, and Longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Max joins us to discuss his remarkable debut novel on 10 May in the Old Library, Dulwich College.
Writing or reading about grief is difficult and yet often so very important for so many people. Why do you think we turn to the written word at times like that?
I think when any writer attempts to find a language to describe an emotional state as fraught but universal as grief, people will want to see if it matches or clashes with their own experience. For order, for reflection, for catharsis, or for the simple company of it. In some cases for the exactitude and enlightening satisfaction of someone getting it just right (I think this explains the ongoing appeal of CS Lewis’ Grief Observed, or Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking; masterly handlers of language, seeking to think better, elucidate better the experience of loss). People want signposts, or company, and the written word often offers those things. It also very often offers banalities or clichés, and that’s fine too, some readers need such things, even cling to such things.
Samuel Johnson said that the only end of writing should be to help a reader to ‘better enjoy life or better to endure it’ (and Grief Is The Thing With Feathers will surely have achieved both of these for many readers). What have you read that’s helped you to ‘enjoy and endure’ life?
Everything! I’m a great believer in ravenous, non-genre-defined reading. But if forced to identify work that has helped, it is poetry and kid’s books. Poetry for the privacy of the reader’s relationship with a poem, for the speed and skill with which a good poem says a huge amount, for the deep and basic pleasure of a single line which knocks your socks off, which is so good and unfathomably well crafted that you want to read it again and again and think about it for a long time. And children’s stories and fables for the freedom, for the ‘heavy words lightly thrown’, the superior plotting, the emotional directness, and so on. I read a lot for my day job and nothing gives me greater pleasure than putting down my stack of manuscripts and reading I Want My Hat Back.
We often ask people about what they’ve read for inspiration. What might be interesting to also learn is what you haven’t read that you’d love to…?
I’d love to spend a year reading and re-reading Shakespeare. I’d love to be better acquainted with the Icelandic Sagas. I’ve never read Anna Karenina. I’ve never read Zola. There’s a lot of poetry I’d like to read. And there’s a good number of fantasy and sci-fi novels I have on a wish list.
I’d love to re-read more. I’d love to read Dickinson again and again and again.
There’s a lot of poetry in other languages I yearn to read in the original, especially Russian. So if I could quickly learn Russian…
In Grief Is The Thing With Feathers you evoke Ted Hughes’ Crow as a character that visits and assists a bereaved family. Could you imagine bringing any other literary creations into your writing in future? If so who?
Funny you should say that.. Yes, I would do it again, despite the many misreadings of my book that have resulted from me choosing such a baggage-laden cameo. I’m interested in influence, in how we speak to what has come before, and whether a critical interrogation can be generative, affectionate or creative.
Was it difficult working with a figure from someone else’s writing? Or did you find that Crow presented himself as fully to you as he did to the characters in your book?
Any difficulties were integral to the idea of the book, so I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Because he isn’t Hughes’ Crow, and doesn’t speak with Hughes’ voice, and even laughs at the Dad’s obsession with that version of himself, he is able to play with a huge range of symbolic and literary roles at the same time as he is the manifestation of one man’s obsession with a book of poems. He is also interested in play, in fiddling with identity and character. Especially at the start where he is badly-behaved and violent and his language is a weapon in that bad behaviour. Then as he mellows across the triptych into analyst, care-giver and ultimately friend, his character begins to settle. He speaks at the end of the book, for the first time, as himself, with no games. And yes, I always had this voice in my head as a conclusion. And I didn’t read any Ted Hughes while I was writing it because it would have violated that conclusion.
You mention in your book the idea of a complete collection of Hughes’ work, annotated and edited by Crow (which is a fabulous idea!). Could you see yourself constructing that?
I’d want to draw it, I think. A graphic critical annotation. But would Faber or Carol Hughes give me permission to do it? I doubt it. And I’m no fan of The Unauthorised…
This was an astonishing debut achievement. What are you going to write next?
You’re very kind to say so. I don’t know. I have plenty of ideas and no time. I have been drawing in a notebook, which is how Grief was first worked-out, so that’s a good sign. I’m only slowly coming to terms with the fact of being a writer. I’m a bit shy about it.
Book tickets for Max’s appearance at the festival here: http://dulwichfestival.co.uk/product/max-porter-grief-is-the-thing-with-feathers/