Max Porter is a senior editor at Granta Books and an award-winning bookseller. His debut novel, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, examines the lives of a father of two boys after the sudden, accidental death of his wife who are visited by Crow. The crow is part antagonist, trickster, goad, protector, therapist, and babysitter. Porter lives in South London.
I spoke with Porter over email about what it means to be both an editor and a writer, about what genre his book falls into, and the changing role of editors.
The Rumpus: Graywolf has a reputation of putting out quality books, and I soon discovered that yours was no different. I know you published in the UK with Faber because of your relationship with a Hannah Griffiths. I was wondering if you could shed some light on the processes of getting your book published in the UK and in the US.
Max Porter: In the UK, I hadn’t considered getting it published, but once it was done I realized Faber would either totally get it, or sue me. I had a funny and friendly disagreement about which Ted Hughes books were best with Hannah Griffiths, so I sent it to her. And with Graywolf, they moved fast at the book fair and snapped it up. It’s perhaps the highest possible compliment anyone could pay the book, that it might belong on their list. Certainly I have been encouraged or inspired by books on their list, especially as regards hybridity and a certain fearlessness about blending forms. There is so much to celebrate about Graywolf’s taste and style. I think what I love most is the fierceness but fundamental kindness of their independent spirit. They’re not throwing their weight about, they are carefully and intelligently pursuing what they believe in. To be a part of that is an honor.
Rumpus: Where would you put your book in a bookstore? Aside from prominently displayed? Fiction? Poetry? If you could make up a category for your book to sit in, what would it be? “Families comforted by a bird” is one that comes to mind, as well as “Novels based on imagery from poet’s works.”
Porter: I accept that my book is an act of aggression against those categories. I hope if it’s shelved in poetry it hops, late at night, into fiction. I hope it can be spotted in many sections. Or is carried around the bookstore in the bookseller’s pocket like a troublesome pet. For a long time it was in the “Death and Bereavement” category on Amazon and I was acutely worried about people mistaking it for a self-help book. It might not help.
In most bookstores there is a staff picks section. My greatest pleasure is when I see it there, with a little handwritten note saying “just read it”. That’s the best. Booksellers read a lot, and know a lot, so if they’re saying “just read it” I must have done something right.
Rumpus: You mentioned in an interview that despite being mostly made up, this book is the most honest thing you’ve ever done. I read that you are most interested, not in the exact thing, but in the remembering and miss-remembering of things and that this can be helpful in finding the form of the piece. How did you discover the form of the novel?
Porter: For me the form of this book was built, rather than found, from the first decision, which was to see if I could create a character that was the sibling relationship. I knew I wanted that. I have obsessed about that for a long time. I felt that there was something in the fluidity, changeability, and gamesmanship of sibling relationships that might throw light on how a family unit or indeed an individual consciousness re-orders itself after a trauma. I hoped it might be fresher, or more truthful, more representative of chaotic lived experience, than two voices made distinct.
Then I worked on the Dad, who is kind of the architectural foundation, the realist pulse. And then, with a near manic obsession with triptychs, it was a case of finding a heavy center. Something which could throw these other voices into focus, harness them, bend them, let them play at the full stretch of their imaginative vocabulary. So in came Crow.
The closet comparisons for me are visual. I was as if I was working on three collages, and it suddenly seemed very fruitful and very generative if I let these three pieces speak to each other, pollute one another, riff of one another.
Rumpus: You didn’t tell anyone that you were writing this book. How has having a book published changed people’s expectations for what you are working on? Have family and friends begun demanding creatively written holiday cards?
Porter: Ha. People are pleasingly unsurprised. I was always making something. I draw a lot, I make boxes. I bored people for years with my ideas for an annotated Crow, annotated by a hindsight-rich and genre-melting crow. But my working life has changed. I have slowly felt able to think of myself as writer rather than an editor who accidentally wrote a book. I’ve wrestled with the two hats, realizing they are the same hat, realizing I need to be clearer with myself about that. And I worry that simply being busy is making me less good with my authors, less attentive. But they seem forgiving, so far!
The Rumpus: I recently had the pleasure of meeting John Freeman, former editor for Granta Magazine. I forgot to ask him, so I’ll ask you, have your paths crossed? Any fond anecdotes about his time there?
Max Porter: John and I overlapped only briefly at Granta but in that time I remember very often one of us would be discussing a writer and the other one would open their office door and yell “I LOVE THAT WRITER.” John is a passionate and colossally well-read champion of good writing. And he was great for a cigarette break with added literary gossip.
Rumpus: In an article in the Guardian about your relationship with novelist Eleanor Catton, there is mention of the demise of the Creative Editor. It seems that most people outside of the machinery of the industry have a view that editors mostly change commas and maintain style requirements. But there is so much more to that relationship, i.e. “Disguising pressures from [Catton] while letting you know that you were nudging terrible lateness.” Could you talk a bit about the dynamics of this relationship?
Porter: Each to their own, I guess. I’m an old-fashioned editor, with a pencil and a belief in the importance of the discursive relationship. Helping a book become most itself, shielding writers from the economic imperatives of modern publishing while also working full steam in that machinery to get the most for the book. It’s a tricky thing. The fundamental weirdness for me is that the editor is required to be an intellectual playmate for the author, as well as a cool and level-headed marketer, a player of the sometimes cynical games within an industrialized manufacturing process. I try to remember books are books. Authors (as well as readers) are unpredictable, unusual people. They need care. They need love. And they sometimes need terrible truths dripped into them over several months.
I don’t want to do anything to violate the gorgeous honor of working on people’s books with them. If at any point my writing life is unbalancing or interrupting the simple (yet richly complex) process of doing my best for an author’s book, then I will have to re-think. And I hope whatever happens, whatever life I’m living, I’ll keep an eye on the commas.
Rumpus: At dinner parties, are there questions that you hate being asked, questions that will cause you to storm out of the room in a fit of rage? Are there questions that set off a spark in you and have you talking a mile a minute for hours on end?
Porter: I’m too polite. There’s a certain right-wing philistine statistic-slinger who can have me chewing my fingers, but I’ll always sit it out for fear of causing a scene. But if they set me off, my current rant (connected to Crow’s revisionary disrupting of clichés about grief) is about the political classes in the UK, and their apparently limitless hypocrisy, especially where war, peace and moral obligation are concerned. There is much to be ashamed about, and it doesn’t take much for me to start flapping and stomping in a crow-like way about the hideously self-interested elite who govern us. What bothers me (and deeply offends Crow, who has been watching humans for a long time) is the peculiarly British way of lecturing the world on moral issues, while slipping off scene –smiling- to grease the wheels of the cruel world and pocket some profit.
As regards literature, I could talk all night, talk forever, about the painter/poet David Jones. He is my great obsession. Don’t start me on David Jones.
Rumpus: I was reading about how the literary interview started (in the 1880s), about how Henry James didn’t see the point in it and neither did the person interviewing him, and how even a few decades before that people wanted to know how famous writers lived. A sort of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous before television existed. Workstations aren’t static environments, they are places for creation and getting things done. I recently had to move my desk, which involved putting things in stacks, and I haven’t gotten around to putting the things back onto my desk, I rather like being able to see the grain in the wood. Without divulging any deeply seeded neurosis, could you briefly describe your work environments?
Porter: Books and music and walls covered with postcards and drawings. This has been my environment since I was a tiny child. I’m typing this at work, listening to the Ibeyi record for the hundredth time, and I’ve got books stacked up all over the place, this gorgeous Welsh novel I’m publishing staring me in the face, train tickets, expenses forms, two gifts from Jesse Ball on top of a Portuguese short story someone printed out for me, and the memory stick my chum Frank loads up with Game of Thrones episodes. There’s a plastic crow and a rubber stamp my Faber editor made me with my name in Albertus type. A few empty cups. A lighter. Some acquisition meeting minutes. A non-fiction book about forests I’m editing right now. This is all good. I can work like this. If I went home, the clutter would increase. I used to have a desk and it was a funny challenge trying to clear it. I would get my sons to come and take all their stuff (ninja turtle figurines, swords, Lego blocks, sticker books, plastic dinosaurs) and then I would clear away or at least cover up the work manuscripts, and then I would get my sketchbooks down and spend some time going through my drawings and notes. This is as close as I get to the calm ordered quiet of the writer’s workstation. It’s my domestic reality, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sure, I’d like to go watch rare migratory birds with Franzen and ponder my next book, but I would much rather be in this beautiful messy young-kids stage, and grab a little time to write if and when it’s possible. He can worry about the Great American Novel. I can worry about getting the shit stains out of my son’s sleepsuit.
But the dream for later in life, if you want to know, is this: I walk down a garden, and dive into a river. I swim a few hundred yards down the river. I hop out and walk to my wooden shed in among the beech trees. I get dry, brew some coffee, and write until I need to leap into water again. Repeat until oblivion. I don’t even really need for this dream to come true. The thought is enough.
Rumpus: We still have a little bit of time, if you wanted to mention a bit about David Jones.
Porter: You know I also have on my desk here at work a postcard by David Jones. Late in his life, on top of the extraordinary watercolors and the visionary poems, he started doing a lot of lettering. Sometimes for friends, as greeting cards, and sometimes for commissions and for the frontispieces of his poetry books. He was the most incredible designer of type. He would blend biblical texts, Latin and Welsh. Nothing better sums up his lifelong wrestle with image and text. The card I have here is the jacket design for EPOCH & ARTIST, and it has his signature melting of letter-forms together ND and NE, which evokes Saxon carving and medieval Church engraving, but also has a fluidity and serpentine charm which is directly his own, from his drawings of hills and horses and trees. It recalls Eric Gill, his controversial mentor, but is so much more a flora and fauna letter grown than a stone cut type.