Storytelling is the Medicine: A Conversation with Max Porter, Author of Grief is the Thing with…

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Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers is one of those projects that makes you grateful for the people in publishing willing to take risks. It is a gorgeously weird project — almost clinically ballsy — a hybrid novel-in-verse with rotating points-of-view, quizzes, dreams, lots of white space, nonsense words, impossible sounds, two rambunctious boys, a grieving father, a dead mother, and a filthy, stinking, cruel, gentle, crass, hilarious, monstrous crow: a simultaneously ancient and postmodern trickster with origins in Ted Hughes’ poetry but with “thirty years hindsight.”

But it isn’t just Feathers’ form that walks a dodgy path. It’s a project about grief — a topic oft-explored in the literary world, a potential minefield of sentimentality and prose deadened with cliché. But Porter skips through the novel with unabashed pleasure, avoiding the obvious mines while setting off many of his own — some funny, some surprising, and some devastating.

Max Porter is the senior editor at Granta Books in the UK. Grief is a Thing with Feathers, his debut novel, was shortlisted the Guardian First Book Award. He answered my questions and talked about sentimentality, fanfiction, homage, and the pleasure of liminal space in May 2016.

[Ed. note — Read an excerpt from Grief is the Thing with Feathers on EL’s Recommended Reading.]

Carmen Machado: You use splintered form (fragmentation), shifting imagery (Crow’s changing size), and onomatopoeic sound throughout Feathers. Do you believe that grief is inherently fragmented? Distortive? Sonorous? Nonsensical? Lyrical?

Max Porter: I think it’s as individual as a thumbprint, and one’s expectations should be as bespoke as one’s behavior, nothing comparative, nothing marketed. Hence my disdain for sickly sweet notions of ‘moving on’. But yes, this particular grief needed a form equal to the shock of the trauma, the chaos of the boys’ imaginations, the disorder of the father’s emotional architecture. Shock is different, anyway. A book in which someone is slowly dying, preparing to die, even investigating the possibility of preparedness — that would have demanded something quite different I think.

But ultimately, to answer your question, yes. Fragmentary seemed the truest way of getting at what I wanted to get at. I’d even call it realistic, which is odd given the giant crow entering on page three. That switch from lush sentimentality to crushing domestic drudgery; from unfathomably deep depression to the wicked resilience of kid’s humor, those are the switches that the fragmentary form allowed that seemed to me to be truthful and recognizable, and possibly generative.

CM: So you think the trauma of the mother’s loss — the suddenness of it — shattered the novel, in a way? Can you talk more about that?

MP: The suddenness shattered the possibility of a smooth prose style, I think. We begin with a situation where the architecture of a family unit has been shockingly smashed, and therefore the architecture of conventional novelistic form needs to be comparably shattered. Otherwise a translation has already occurred, a neatening, an ordering, and that would already be a loss of truth, a loss of energy. I was also slightly borrowing from fables and fairy tales where there’s no prettying. There’s no three-hundred page contextual build-up to the death of the character, the character is dead on page one and everything begins from the pain, rather than building pain against an established normality.

CM: The title of your book comes from an Emily Dickinson poem, and the character of Crow comes from Ted Hughes’ Crow. What drew you to adapting and integrating Crow into Feathers? What is your relationship to the concept of fanfiction? Besides Crow, what would you consider the texts or authors that have been the most influential on this project?

MP: I wanted a heavy baggage-laden center to the triptych, and I wanted to say something about the possibility of affectionate critical homage. Dead poets being nudged, being read on our terms, being vandalized with a loving energy. I thought if I was going to bring a poetic obsession alive, it would be cruel and pointless to not give him his own identity. So fanfiction is a really helpful concept here. He isn’t Ted Hughes’ Crow because he has thirty years hindsight, he’s drunker on language, he takes himself a lot less seriously, he’s guiltier, sillier, he’s aware of the almost endless other Crows he can be, he can perform or channel or mock. He has much more in common with a spank-fetish Harry Potter in fanfiction than he does with any officially endorsed Harry Potter tie-in, and that’s partly my way of saying that poetry belongs to the reader, not to the canon, not to the textbooks.

Dickinson is the ultimate permission giver. I think she will hang over anything I do just because of the inexplicable, singular, genius of her language, and the vast complexity of her thinking about faith and love. But I don’t think I would ever interrogate her as I have done Hughes. She is too big, too special. Ecstatic admiration is enough.

Other important texts were the Russian Fairytales, various books about crows (real and mythical), David Jones, Basil Bunting, Anne Carson, Alice Oswald, Beckett. Always Beckett, but especially his translations, his other-people’s-poems.

CM: The brothers’ sections are mostly told in the plural first — a chorus of “we” — that sometimes break apart into “I.” (“I’m either brother.”) It made me think of Justin Torres’ We the Animals, and how trauma shapes and then shatters the “we.” Can you talk about the decision to include their voices in the narrative, and integrate them together as one?

MP: I loved that book and I ought to re-read it. I remember a scene in a lake, swimming, and leaves on the father’s back? But I’ve forgotten a lot. I remember arguing with myself and others about the ending of that book but now I can’t remember how it ends!

Have you read Agata Kristoff’s The Notebook? Holy shit. The kids in that destroyed me.

I thought for a long time about how to write a sibling relationship as a character, something fluid and changeable outside of two distinct identities.

The boys were my first aim. I thought for a long time about how to write a sibling relationship as a character, something fluid and changeable outside of two distinct identities. This comes from closeness with my brother, and a bit of gamesmanship between us as regards the unreliability of memory. We swapped things, borrowed things, took it in turns to be affected by certain things. And I think that the circumstances of our childhood (we were two brothers in an expanding and happy family of step-siblings) gave our brotherliness a solidity, almost like whatever other roles we had (son, husband, lover, uncle) we were brothers first and foremost. It was the identity against which all other functions were played out. I don’t know why I’m using the past-tense, it’s still happening.

CM: In Feathers, the widower struggles mightily with the contrast between the legitimate enormity of his grief and the cliché of it. (“Eugh, said Crow, you sound like a fridge magnet.”) Is this an in-text acknowledgement of your own concerns about writing about a topic like grieving, which can so easily veer into sentimentality? How do you go about walking this very fine line?

MP: Crow is devised precisely to check it, to interrogate it. He allows it, even encourages it, and then reminds them of its toxic potential. He recognizes it is a medicine these people will need, but also warns against it. It’s a tricky one for me, because I am deeply sentimental. I fall into it like it’s a warm bath, as a retreat from a cold, broken world, as a luxury, but I know it isn’t serving me well in the long-term. Perhaps it’s tied again to my dislike of the moving on concepts. Like, I should move on from missing my glorious wise bossy stubborn Welsh Grandmother? Fuck that, I want to wallow in the perfumed loveliness of her memory for as long as possible. I want that wallowing roped into how I live, work and parent. I’m being deliberately sentimental about her, putting her on a pedestal, being nostalgic, exploiting her memory to bolster my dislike of many things about the modern world and modern people, so be it. My crow would hop in here and say, “Sorry, sorry about this guy, he’s losing it.”

…there’s a lot of real shit written about grief under the shammy guise of self-help.

But yes, there’s a lot of real shit written about grief under the shammy guise of self-help. Most of it cliché, much of it is actively dangerous as it presupposes a state of normality, a fixedness, which is not only unattainable but also unhealthy. But there is also the need to investigate, to be exacting, to expose and investigate the emotional chaos of grief, and that has given us some incredible books, which we can all lean on or challenge or believe in. We can use them, if we want.

CM: You say “my crow.” If it’s not too personal to ask — what else would your crow say? What would he look like? Smell like? Sound like? How is he different than Feathers’ Crow? (Needless to say, I am also now thinking about my Crow.)

MP: Ah, this is me not being clear enough, I think. I meant the crow in my book. Who I’m keen to distinguish from Hughes’ Crow.

But to answer the question, he’s all my favorite things. He’s the friend who lets you say the unspeakable things, checks you when you go too far, pops your bubble when it needs popping. As a character he combines some of the things I most love about children (freshness of observation, eccentricity of outlook, relentless play, sudden dreadful rage, bum jokes) with things I most love about my friends and family (sarcasm, tenderness, mischief).

CM: There are many embedded narratives within Feathers: stories and lies being told by Crow, Dad, and the Boys alike. They seem to serve as load-bearing walls that lift the rest of the novel — reality, or something like it — aloft. Why tell a story with other stories? Why did you choose to make storytelling part of the language of grief?

Storytelling is the medicine.

MP: I love the idea of them as load-bearing walls. Storytelling is the medicine. It’s what he brings in his toolbox. I suppose because with the archetypes of myth, with the deftness of touch and speed of narrative stripped back to its cleanest form you’re offering an unlimited range of interpretive avenues. Upon these wipe-clean templates which have done us well for thousands of years and don’t seem to be going anywhere, you can kick open all the doors, sexual, moral, political. I hoped the fables in this book would act a bit like blank space titillation, an invitation in. That invitation can be quite simple (Boys will be boys; that’s a story I can relate to the terrible war-hungry men of this world and my love and fear for those boys) or quite complex (what are my own symbolic associations, what archetypes have I employed or manipulated in order to firm up my own narrative, justify my own character).

Also, it’s a love letter to freedom of reading, to moving loosely and joyously between forms. It’s a celebration of the electric tingle I get when I go from, say, Sendak to Solnit. I love them both, I like what happens when they’re both knocking about in my head. All the stories.

CM: In this novel, Crow occupies a porous, interstitial territory between real and not real. He is deeply physical, and also a metaphor, and also possibly a hallucination of grief. This liminality seems to sync up beautifully with the project’s hybrid nature. Can you talk a little about the process of deciding upon and creating its form? Do you think this story would be possible without its shape?

MP: Deciding on a triptych was the crucial thing. Three voices, three collage boxes, three wooden bowls. Any truth I was hoping to get down about childhood, mourning, birds, relies on this play between the three. I would have been completely immobilized without the musicality of that play. I don’t think I’m cut out for prolonged prose. I had some in there (the mother had a voice, which was prose) and it violated the whole thing. It robbed the boys and the Dad of the chance to create her in absentia, and it felt sludgy and familiar and disingenuous.

CM: So you used to have sections in the mother’s voice, in prose? Can you talk more about the process of writing and then discarding that material?

MP: She wrote about her dying. But as I was doing it, I felt the triptych being unbalanced. Like I was cooking a risotto and I put so much white wine in suddenly that all the other flavours that I’d been careful to create were drowned. (Wow, a risotto analogy. What’s happening to me?)

And then I was edited, very beautifully by Hannah [Griffiths] in the UK and Ethan [Nosowsky] in the US, and they were very good at pointing out moments where Mum came back, or slipped away, and how best to evenly (or unevenly) distribute her memory, her presence, her ghost, between the remaining characters.

I discarded a lot, because I felt the movement between voices was asking a lot, and if I had too much it would run thin, or be wearying for the reader. And removing Mum was painful, it hurt me, and I recognised this hurt was a generative thing, was related to what I was trying to get at, so I let it spill into the way the boys think about their parents.

CM: But back to liminality…

I’d hate to be dragged back from the liminal space you describe and told to join the real world. I don’t really believe in it.

MP: I’ll be honest though, the porous territory between real and not real (again, thanks!) is simply a place that interests me and calls to me. I believe it is the good place, the true place. A place where the wide plains of dream and fantasy can be explored without denying the body world of eating, fucking, shitting, paying bills, catching buses. I’m not going full-out Martian school, but I am fairly committed to writing about a space that is simultaneously lushly imaginary and instructively mundane. The chitchat of children; the wisdom of old women; the brutal truth-snap of fables, these things seem true and magic and necessary. I’d hate to be dragged back from the liminal space you describe and told to join the real world. I don’t really believe in it.

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