Max Porter’s debut, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, newly released by Graywolf Press, is a beautiful, beguiling story of a Ted Hughes scholar and his young sons, whose lives are shattered after a senseless death. Enter Crow, a menacing, inquisitive, avian intruder that helps the family process the loss and cajoles the remaining members onward. The feather-light book, a hybrid of poetry and prose, is weighty with wordplay, literary references, and universal truths about love and grief. A gripping narrative with a rat-a-tat-tat rhythm and relentless momentum, it’ll tempt you to devour it cover-to-cover in one sitting.
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Porter, who is also the editor of Granta Books, spoke to City Pages from London, where he lives with his wife and children. He reads with Marlon James at Magers & Quinn on Thursday night.
City Pages: I understand your father died when you were six years old. Tell me about how that impacted you and how it influenced your book.
Max Porter: My mum and dad were separated, and they both married again. We used to go up to see my dad on weekends. We went up on a Friday night, and he died that night. I always have been really preoccupied with how to tell that story from a children’s point of view, but also especially when there’s two siblings like me and my brother and they’re very close.
CP: How does the experience of loss change over time?
MP: I was very fortunate because I had a really nice step-dad and I had step-siblings. We were very loved. But because the architecture of the family had changed, my brother and I were thrown together. We were a unit, partly because we spent a lot of time together, but partly because we were the leftovers of a relationship that no longer existed.
There was a time in my life when I really, really missed my dad and thought a lot about my dad and was quite sad about my dad. And my brother at that time was quite hard about it, like, “Get over it.” Now that we’re older, it’s my brother who’s more sentimental and nostalgic for a dad, whereas I’m a bit more emotionally robust about it now.
CP: In the book, it’s the mother who dies. Why did you switch the roles?
MP: Because I wanted to write fiction. If I wrote about a dead dad, it would be too close, and I didn’t want to write memoir. I needed a certain distance from myself. So I made this man up from scratch, almost to play with him, like I wanted to make a model and then hurt it.
In a way, they’re all me: the boys are me, the crow is me, the dad is me. But I needed a character different enough from me that I wouldn’t be thinking all the time, “Oh, how would I feel if my wife died?” I think that’s not such a constructive thing for writing.
And also, totally honestly, there are people still alive—my dad’s family—that don’t necessarily know the whole story and I didn’t feel it was my story to tell.
CP: How did your father die?
MP: No one really knows. Basically, he was very unhealthy. He’d been ill for a long time, and then he’d had a car crash. He probably died of a heart attack or a pulmonary embolism or something. He was not a healthy man.
CP: Crow’s speech is very different from the rest of the characters in the book. How did you channel that voice?
MP: I had fun. I’m a big fan of writing that veers into nonsense poetry. I knew if he was going to be an appropriate person to speak to this trauma and to help these children, then language would have to be redesigned for him. It wouldn’t be appropriate for him to speak in normal prose. Also, because he’s a figment, in some respects, of the dad’s imagination, and he’s a creation of the dad’s literary obsessions, he would have to be highly literary, almost like the ghost of a library came alive.
The whole book is patterned around these movements between sentimentality and toilet humor or fables and something much more like an essay. And the same with the bird: the crow should move between being totally wild and unpleasant and violent—if that’s what’s needed of him at that time—to being quite tender and quite friendly.
CP: In your experience, do we recover from grief? Or is it something that ebbs and flows our entire lives?
MP: I think the latter. Don’t you?
CP: Yeah, I think so. Grief seems to arise at strange moments. It’s never when you expect it.
MP: Yeah, I think we should accept that. And in some ways, embrace it. One of my leaping-off points for this book was that grief can be quite ecstatic. That if you work hard at it, if you think carefully about the people you’ve lost and the people who aren’t here, then you can enrich your experience and make it more like a celebratory thing. I think the idea that you get over it — that there’s a neat, linear path from pain to fixedness, or normality — is really gross. I don’t trust that.
I think the fact of human beings having great pain and great anguish and great inconsistency is part of being a human being; it’s what makes us remarkable. That was one of the things I wanted the book to suggest: that the movement forward should be organic, sideways — things should pollute one another. Remembering things is as important as forgetting things; making jokes is as important as paying one’s respects.
CP: Almost every review of the book immediately mentions the way you combine prose and poetry. Was that difficult to “sell” to publishers? Sometimes they’re resistant to genre-bending forms.
MP: That’s why I’m excited to be with Graywolf in the States, because that’s what they do so well. They’re totally fearless about it. They don’t even see it as a problem, they see it as an opportunity. They see it as their modus operandi to find the work that does interesting things with form. There’s a million publishers out there that publish good novels, but there’s not many, as you say, that would have the vision of how to package and sell a book like this.
CP: You’re the editor of Granta Books. What do you look for when you’re reading submissions?
MP: That’s a hard question. We’re quite a literary house. We don’t have such strict commercial imperatives, like we don’t have to publish a certain number of books per year. We don’t have to have huge commercial successes. So I look for good writing. In a way, it’s that easy. Beyond that, I look for something a bit different with storytelling. Basically, I guess I just want to fall in love when I’m reading.
IF YOU GO:
Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers
Magers & Quinn
7 p.m. Thursday, June 23
Magers & Quinn Booksellers