About The Author
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.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Max about the relationship between his book and Ted Hughes’ work, Crow; how a meeting with a friend of his late father helped him re-shape the role of Crow in his book, and how writing has changed him as an editor.
Plus, watch a video of Max reading an extract from his book below.
Author photo © Lucy Dickens
Questions & Answers
Could you say something about the – absolutely fundamental – relationship between your book and Ted Hughes’ work, Crow, which was written after a barren period following Sylvia Plath’s death, and which he described as an attempt to write what he called an epic folk-tale, a prose narrative with interspersed verses.
The fundamental relationship is critical admiration, and a consideration of what obsession can do. The father in the book is preoccupied with Crow to such an extent that it comes alive, and whether that is imaginary or real, the generative outcomes are the same. The Crow is not Hughes’ Crow, he is Dad’s, the Boys’, my own, any reader’s, and the bird itself, with all the literary, mythological, ornithological baggage. He is the literary subject once removed. I considered using something else. At one stage it was Telemachus. But really Crow kept on hopping about in my periphery and the complexities of Hughes and grief were too much to resist.
In your book the father character, a Ted Hughes scholar, has an idea for a complete works of Ted Hughes illustrated by Crow, ‘which would violate, illustrate and pollute Ted’s work’. How did your relationship to Ted Hughes and Crow change over the course of your writing?
Well originally I thought I might do exactly that, as a graphic novel. I did a graphic poem based on Beckett, as a practice run, and it took me ages and I didn’t like my drawings enough. I also assumed (probably correctly) that I would never get permission to fiddle about with Hughes’ poetry in that way. And then my desire to write a fable of my own, about childhood, about marriage, moved in with the Crow thoughts.
I didn’t read Crow before I started. I didn’t want his voice in my head. My Crow is gifted with hindsight, liberated from Hughes and able to enjoy that book being one of the roles he has played. To try and pastiche the ugliness and anti-poetic sound of Hughes’ Crow would have been fatal, I think. And the remembering, or misremembering as the case may be, seems to me to be the more interesting thing. The problematic effects of a book like that, the fear and shock and discomfort; those are the things I was keen to give the father character to fill the space in his broken life. But ultimately, once I committed to the three voices, the fun part was balancing and building and trying to control the pollution between voices and that had nothing to do with Hughes’ book. I suppose Crow has a Cameo role. There are in-jokes in there for Hughes fans, but I hope as one part of the triptych he doesn’t outweigh the others or alienate someone who hasn’t read Crow.
The Hughes I love is the Hughes of River, Moortown Diary, the letters. And I’m pleased to say I left all that alone. It’s a book about the reader of poems, not the poet.
Grief was partly inspired by your own grief as well, following a meeting with a friend of your long-dead father. How did that meeting provide the impetus for this novel?
Well, it reminded me (and shamed me for needing reminding) that there are very many truths or un-truths at work in any story. It got me thinking about responsibility, parenting and storytelling, and I suddenly saw quite clearly what it was that this Crow character would be doing for the family. The therapeutic role he could play, but also the fluidity of form and self-appraisal that he could inspire within the unit. I also just thought ‘fuck it, I’m going to write that book.’
Do you feel very exposed as an editor bringing out your own book?
Yes, at times. Less as real readers (by which I mean people outside publishing) have started to find it. I considered using a pseudonym, but someone rightly pointed out the unnecessary gamesmanship and fearful motivation of that. I didn’t think about publishing it while I was writing it, and I cleared all traces of work from the desk I wrote it at. It was my private pleasure. I think the length and the form protect me from feeling too exposed. It’s clearly not an attempt to move in on my author’s territory! Most people that know me, and have known me since I was a bookseller, probably guessed that I’d eventually get my shit together and write the prose/poetry hybrid that I’ve been banging on about for years. My authors seem to know me (dare I say it, like me) for who I am, which has helped. Life is short and we must stand up straight and do the things we can do. He says, hunched over, hiding, in the corner of his own book launch.
I think it’s made me a more empathetic editor. Which is good.
How easy was it to find the form, did you have to experiment with different ways of telling your story?
Once I had the three voices, and decided on Crow’s hinge mechanism of trauma and care, I was set. I fiddled a lot. I had a bit more Mum, I had some more fairytale sections. I had the boys playing with their voices a bit more. I also had some more pure prose in there from the father character, but it somehow violated the balance, so I stripped it out. The editing process was mainly playing with the volume of different bits.
You’ve adapted the words of Emily Dickinson, in which hope is the thing with feathers. There is much grief here, but there are also glimmers of hope aren’t there?
Absolutely, that’s why I use it. That decision began with Hughes too, actually. His consideration of Dickinson’s darkness, the unnameable third space, or third ‘thing’. As Helen Vendler points out, Dickinson’s THING means at least seven things. But yes, the basic offering is that grief is many things, perching in the soul, light and dark, unfixed, moving, proportioned to the life. Dickinson is the permission-giver. Again and again.
How long did it take you write to the book and how did you cope with the switch between everyday life and the demands of your own young family and what must have been a very intense period in your grief-laden invented world?
Honestly, some parts of it are a decade old. I wrote that story of the brothers in the wood when I was a student, when I was obsessed with seeing a deer in the forest. But I had a good little routine for the 3 or 4 months I was seriously writing it. Babies bathed and put to bed, meal cooked, my lovely wife happy with a book or a box-set, and then I would scurry into the little room where we dump stuff (it’s now a baby’s bedroom) and tap away. It was good. It was totally my own mental space and I was joyously locked in not thinking about who would read it or how long it would be or anything. I look forward to doing it again.
Was Faber, as Ted Hughes’ publisher, the first, perhaps only, home you’d have considered for your book?
Yes. My wife read it and said she had no idea what I should do with it. I sent it to my friend Hannah Westland who I trust on all things publishing and life. She said she loved it but had no idea what I could do with it. We talked about illustrations, or expanding it. It was incredibly helpful because I realised I wanted it to stay exactly as it was. I felt suddenly like I only had one option, and that option was to confess to Faber that it was done and see what they thought. It had some more, potentially riskier, stuff about Hughes in it at that stage. I remembered a conversation I’d had with Hannah Griffiths at Faber where she had admitted that she hadn’t got along so well with Crow. In my little notebook I had added her name to the list “things Crow is scared of”! So I sent it to Hannah. And from her very first response to this day Faber have treated it with remarkable care and affection, cherished it and understood it. They have kept it its own thing, while also letting it speak as a love letter to Hughes and Faber book design and many other things besides.