An acclaimed Scottish writer and performer, Michael Pedersen is the author of two poetry collections, Play with Me and Oyster, and most recently a memoir titled Boy Friends, which celebrates the beauty and essentialness of male friendships.
The central relationship explored in Boy Friends is Pedersen’s close friendship with Scott Hutchison, an illustrator and the lead vocalist for the Scottish indie rock band, Frightened Rabbit. Days after the two embarked on an epic road trip across the Highlands, Hutchison died by suicide, leaving Pedersen and fans across the world immersed in grief.
Throughout their friendship, the two collaborated on artistic projects and traveled together extensively. In this spirit, Pedersen crafted his memoir, told in epistolary form, to preserve and honor their creative and emotional connection. Described as a “love letter to friendship,” Boy Friends is a bold, unique, and refreshing reflection on the way friendships can allow us to reveal our truest selves.
Over Zoom, we spoke about writing through grief, letting go of form, redefining masculinity, and the best oysters in Scotland.
The Rumpus: Your book is formatted as a diary of letters addressed to Scott Hutchison. The first entry is dated about two months after his death and the last one near the first anniversary of his passing. Is that how you actually wrote the first draft, chronicling your experience with grief as it was happening?
Michael Pedersen: When I first started writing the book, I found myself in the Curfew Tower, this old watch tower in Northern Ireland. I’d always planned to go there that year—I’d been booked to go about six months in advance—and initially I thought I’d be writing a third poetry collection. That was the plan. But obviously Scott passed in May and I found myself there in July. I feel like I fell out of the crash of Scott’s departure into the Curfew Tower. Before, I was surrounded by people that were sharing the grief, that didn’t need any preamble to know where I was physically, mentally. Then, all of sudden, I was surrounded by strangers in this spooky old watchtower with a dungeon below it and thinking, “Okay, things could go wrong here, but not if I start writing.”
To my surprise, I started writing the diary entries. It seemed easier, safer, and more accessible to write about the day-to-day activities. I felt that it was the gateway into writing more pertinent, confessional content. I was then able to write about Scotland. The first part I wrote from that perspective was the road trip, because it was the freshest, it was the closest, and I wanted to reinvestigate it, to make sure there was nothing that I hadn’t missed. Those were my favorite days of my life with Scott, and I wanted to revisit them on my terms. I wanted to separate them from the ferocity of his departure. I wanted to wedge open that juxtaposition and bask in the glory of those days and relive the fun of the moments as well, because otherwise the brain can cauterize wounds on your behalf. It can hide painful content away from you. And I thought, what if it bundles these beautiful days in alongside this tragic moment and pushes them away from me? So, I took the trip back before it was taken away.
Whenever I felt the teeth of grief coming over me, I would distract myself by writing about some of my favorite moments. They would make me reflect and ruminate and laugh and remind me of all the silliness and smartness that were the key ingredients of the friendship. It wasn’t this forlornness, it wasn’t this murkiness, it wasn’t this missingness, there wasn’t this gap to buttress over. There was just this beautiful friendship.
Rumpus: Did you know from the start that you were writing a memoir?
Pedersen: The plan was to create this big archive of our friendship in prose form and then to manipulate it into a poetry collection. Then, as the archive grew, the book just refused to be sculpted into poetry. I was met with this really stubborn opponent, and it’s like, “Well, shit, I’ve got a prose book now.” I’d written this pretty candid, unguarded form of prose, which—had it become poems—would have been obfuscated, would have been turned into metaphors, the masks would have been up. They might have been less direct in their parlance and their confessions. By then I didn’t want to meddle with the chemistry of the way that the book more viscerally came out.
But a prose book was never the intention, and then I had the impossible task of trying to build a narratorial arc out of something which was never meant to be narrative. Poetry can be so disloyal to chronology, to time, to reality. In some of the best poetry books, I think the poets throw moments up in the air and sequence them the way they fall down. This project was written with a scatter gun methodology that then had to be assembled together in a fashion which would be a pleasant read. There were a few renditions of the book that would have been very uncomfortable for the reader just because of how many timelines I was dancing around.
Rumpus: After you made peace with the prose form, did much change in the revision process?
Pedersen: Structurally, yes. Not in terms of the content or the words. I had all of the elements. There were little interludes that had to be written to make sure there was a clear overall narrative that was stitched together, but it was really about structuring the book. The number of times that I spilled all the pieces of writing across the floor and packaged them back together is uncountable. We went through five or six different incarnations of this book till we found one that worked. I definitely had a few eureka moments where I felt that we’d reached a Zen-like synergy of the book, and my editor would say, “Look, it’s just not quite there yet.”
I then started to get a bit trepidatious about putting out a prose book without any poetry in it, so I tried to Trojan Horse-in poems, and she was very resistant to that. She was like, “Look, we need to make sure this works as a piece of narratorial prose first and foremost. Then we can talk about whether you want to bring the poems in.” She was ruthless. I was flattening poems out, trying to hide them in different places. A couple of bits got through the gate, but mostly they were evacuated. By the time we’d completed it, I felt the poems were no longer necessary. I felt like, poetically, the book had found its own voice.
Rumpus: With vulnerability and precision, you capture the sharp, yet enduring pain of grief, particularly following a sudden death. I was moved by your lack of judgement toward Scott for taking his own life. It can be natural to feel anger when someone dies by suicide, even if they were deeply struggling, yet Boy Friends focuses on your gratitude toward Scott, for how hard he tried and for all the living he did do. How did you come to this perspective?
Pedersen: Lots of people have asked if I had a really angry chapter that I took out, but I genuinely didn’t. I understood that any storms that entered Scott’s mind were much bigger than me. There was only so far I could affect them or influence them. The fact that we spent some of his last days together—I just felt gratitude for that. It was enough of a pleasure to have soared with him for a while. Of course, there was hurt and there was upset, about his absence, but not at him. He tried as hard as he could, and I couldn’t have asked more of him than investing the love and the time that he did in this friendship.
Scott leaving this planet is one quick moment—six years of friendship with Scott is the time that I’ve got to bask in. All these lessons I’ve learned from those are edifying me still. I’m shaped by grief, but I’m shaped much more by his love and his friendship. That’s why there was no real anger there. I was never angry at him in life, so I don’t see how I could be angry at him in death. I wanted to be genuine to that friendship, to try and continue to speak socially in the way that I did speak to Scott. I guess that’s what the book was. I wasn’t ready to stop talking to him yet, which is why it became an epistolary form. It wasn’t a book about Scott. It was a book to Scott.
Rumpus: What do you think makes friendship, in comparison to family or a romantic relationship, so special and important?
Pedersen: You know, we’ll make, lose, mourn, fall out of love with, and become transpired with more friends than any other category of relation. Friendships have been the greatest love affairs of my life. I could punctuate every moment of my life based on a friend that shared that experience with me. And they’re so undervalued. They can be deemed superfluous or tangential once somebody gets a more nuclear family or lifelong partner. Friendships are often seen as disposable, but I’ve never felt that way. I feel like I’m as confident as I am in a romantic situation or socially with strangers because of my friendships. We can have so many different versions of ourselves that only relate directly to certain friends. We can split ourselves into all of these different parts. Friendship allows us to become all of the different versions of ourselves.
In the UK and America, there are a lot of young males who would say they don’t have a close friend. And by a close friend, I mean somebody they can have a conversation with that isn’t tied to work or a sporting ritual or drinking. It’s just being able to talk nakedly, unwaveringly, about emotional concerns, about happiness and joy and fears and shame without having to repackage it as something else, without having to bring it in the back door. Not having that close dialogue with a friend is causing a loneliness epidemic.
Rumpus: I was actually planning to ask you for some parenting advice on this topic because I have a three-year-old son. Boys and young men are often taught to hide any vulnerability, especially between themselves. In your memoir, you speak about breaking through constraints so you could have meaningful friendships with other guys. How did you do this? Do you have any suggestions for what people, particularly parents, can do to help encourage this important form of intimacy? I want my son to have close bonds with others. I can’t force it, obviously, but I want to try to foster the possibility.
Pedersen: I grew up with one sibling, an older sister, and then I was much closer to my mum. They were both pretty sociable people, so I grew up envious of their friendships, the physicality of them. My sister would link arms with her friends, they would sleep under the covers together and share secrets. It seemed much more akin to the type of exuberant romantic friendships that I’d read about in the literary books I loved. I was so frustrated with these male friendships around me that weren’t replicating that, and I would often give too much, too quickly and scare off potential friends. It took years of trying to shake off the algebra of what I was taught about male friendship, by my dad, by gnarly cousins. It took years of failures and humiliations before I started to attract the type of person that wanted that gooey, chemicals-spilling-over-everywhere friendship. But it was tough and you have to risk a lot of yourself and there was shame attached to it.
I think poetry is great, I think literature is great. There are some very interesting guardians of new masculinity, a lot of the pop singers, a lot of the writers of this time, like Ocean Vuong in America or Andrew McMillan back here, who are not only becoming popularized but are becoming empowered from that perspective. There are these really poetic, expressive forms of masculinity—and it is masculinity, a vulnerable and emotionally heightened form of masculinity, but still a form of masculinity, nonetheless. If we label it unmasculine to feel this way, then we leave masculinity in much more dangerous hands. We leave it in the hands of the gatekeepers and the emotionally taciturn and nobody benefits from that. It’s the type of thing that causes major problems.
There are more avenues we can take to break cultural norms. Just picking up on sensitivities and talking about them. Why did it make you feel that way? Have you told other people about your experiences? Just asking people emotional questions in environments that are public, not asking them about their emotions after something’s happened or when hidden away. It is risky and will come with faults.
Rumpus: I hadn’t heard Scott’s music prior to reading your book, but I did listen to Frightened Rabbit after, and your works feel in conversation. You two often collaborated—he illustrated your poetry collection Oyster, and you frequently performed together. Could you speak to the synergistic effect of artistic collaboration? Do you feel that you and Scott are, in a way, still working together?
Pedersen: I definitely feel like this book was my way to keep talking to him. He’d made a public declaration that we were going to do the next book together. I think this is as close as I can get to that.
When you know each other artistically that well, you’ll find your way into each other’s work. By the end of the live shows or launching the book together, we had a full live show version of Oyster that Scott would be able to reference drawings and sing songs that bled into the poems. It felt like an interactive version of the book and that was really just because of how much we enjoyed each other’s company. We definitely found our own niche way into it through the poems and the illustrations, rather than trying to write this big spoken word song together.
But people inspire me more than anything. Whenever I’m asked, what makes you a better poet? I say reading poetry. I can’t read a poetry book or a novel without putting it down ten or twelve times and going off and writing a new piece. I’ve always been a harbor for other people’s ideas that spark off my own, whether in contention to them or in unison with them.
Scott was the artist in my life that pushed me furthest because he had such a natural proclivity for whatever he turned his hands to, he was always setting the standard. I was a few years younger and running behind him like a giddy puppy, and he was so supportive of that. That was just a really thrilling ride to be on, I think these people affect you physically as well. You feel the thrum of it in your body, just how excited you are to be around their essence, their artistry.
Rumpus: For you, what are some of the differences between writing poetry and performing it? Do the processes feel connected or like separate acts?
Pedersen: I love the writing first and foremost. I’ve always loved drafting poetry. I published my first pamphlets and chapbooks before I ever read live. I didn’t come up in a live environment. I came up reading Faber’s back catalog of poetry and finding my way into Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and all of these writers. It was books first, all about the creation of the book and the poem. Now, I’m aware sometimes when writing pieces which ones have a performance exuberance to them or a cadence that I think will work well in the live environment.
When you’ve written a book and there’s like forty, fifty poems in there, it’s quite exciting choosing the ones that you think are the live physical manifestation of it. Sometimes I change them a bit. I’ll throw in a bit of a rhyming vernacular or a bit more Scots language. So, the poems have minor different versions of themselves. Plus, I’m very chatty, as you might imagine. Sometimes if I’m doing a reading, I only get through four or five poems by the time I’ve told the stories that contextualize them.
Rumpus: To end, I’m going to ask a rather self-serving question. I adored all of the sensory details describing travel and food throughout your book, particular the seafood. If I ever make it to Scotland, which I hope I do, where is the best place to eat oysters?
Pedersen: I’ll give you a free piece. There’s a place called the Oyster Shed on the Isle of Skye on the west coast of Scotland where there’s…I’m going to call him an “auteur of oysters.” He farms all his oysters, shucks them. The whole place is like a TED Talk filled with interesting facts about oysters and their environmental impacts. I see him as the palmary practitioner of the mollusk in Scotland. There’s also an incredible place right on the northern tip of Scotland just called Tongue. In the north, the water is colder, it’s saltier, it’s fiercer. And then I’m going to recommend a place in Leith in Edinburgh called Fishers, which specializes in seafood, so we have something in the capital city, this big premier port.
So, we’ve got a central belt one, an Isle of Skye one, and a north one up at Tongue. I’ll draw you an oyster tour map.
Author photo courtesy of the author