‘We Can Work Harder to Mourn’: Q&A with ‘Grief Is the Thing …’ Author Max Porter

Max Porter (photo by Lucy Dickens)
Max Porter (photo by Lucy Dickens)

Max Porter’s experimental novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers (128 pages; Graywolf) follows a father and his two sons as they come to grips with their wife and mother’s sudden death. They do so with the help of an unusual houseguest: Crow, an anthropomorphic projection of the father’s obsession with Ted Hughes’ 1970 poetry collection Crow. Part mythic trickster, part grief counselor, Crow leads the family through an idiosyncratic and irreverent mourning. His air of mischievousness colors the entire novel, lending it a kaleidoscopic tone that renders the mourning process unrecognizable.

For Porter, who works as an editor at Granta, this unrecognizability is precisely the point. In giving his audience a mythologized, unfamiliar representation of grief, Porter intends for his readers to rethink mourning’s generative possibilities and private grief’s relationship to public life. Via email, I spoke with Porter about his novel and about grief, vandalism, and new languages of crisis.

ZYZZYVA: A lot has been said about how Ted Hughes’ shadow looms over this novel, but less has been said regarding Emily Dickinson and how she informs the novel’s exploration of grief. I’m particularly intrigued by the amended poem you include as the novel’s epigraph. That poem is about the myopia love engenders in us, the way we can’t perceive it as anything other than an undifferentiated totality. Your insertions of “crow” heighten that myopia, so that the poem doesn’t even give us the ambiguous comfort of proportioned freight. Instead, we get the all-encompassing image of crow. What is the relationship of those edits, if any, to how the novel depicts the grieving process? Is the epigraph implying there is a relationship between love and mourning?

Max Porter: I hope the implication is there, yes, that the generative possibilities of mourning are comparable.

The epigraph is a key to the book inasmuch as all my intentions are made visible by the vandalism. If Crow did it, then, yes, it is a statement of his all-encompassing symbolic stature, and a symptom of his hubris, his manic ego. If Dad did it, then it’s a comment—made in hindsight—about the possibility of gamesmanship with the poets we read or become obsessed with, a statement that the vertical axis of influence (Say, Whitman, Dickinson, Hughes/Plath, Dad. Or indeed Canon-Reader via biography) is to be messed with, lovingly. The word “love” is pointedly not obscured; Dickinson’s devastatingly exact repetition is visible, and Crow’s vandalism is hand-written, i.e., an engagement through craft, a note, a doodle, a thought in process.

My relationship with Dickinson is simple. I think she’s the far reach, the inexhaustible, especially if one’s subjects are death, love, faith, sink holes, ecstasy.

Z: I like that you describe the emendations to the Dickinson poem as acts of vandalism. Vandalism implies destruction of and disrespect for the beautiful. It’s about barbarity and butting up against societal norms. Is something about the Crow redolent of the Vandals to you? There are, after all, some pretty gruesome scenes involving Crow.

MP: Well, the vandals damage or extend the culture they attack depending on which historian you read, and I guess there’s something beautifully crow-like about that. My crow has a long symbolic baggage, and he has chosen to come here into this house because motherless children fascinate him. I suppose if you’ve been a symbolic superstar for a long time you might be keen to shed one set of clothes (trickster) to show that beneath the surface there is something kinder going on. What appears to be violence is in fact strategic care. What appears to be vulgarity is in fact a carefully weighted invitation to the children to be themselves, explore language, play with stories, check their narratives against each other’s. But I think all this came to me from Freud (BORING, says Crow) and the slightly lost idea of wild analysis where the frame between analyst and patient is dissolved. By that logic of care through sharing, the vandalized poem is a refusal to respect prescribed boundaries between reader and work. He wants more. He has earned more, and can be trusted with it.

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Z: Speaking of Crow’s gruesome qualities, he typifies something I love about this book: the way it juxtaposes extraordinarily dissonant tones. With Crow, we have a figure who’s simultaneously cruel and caring, hard-edged and sentimental. At some moments, the novel gives us crystalline evocations of melancholy on par with Didion; at others, it veers toward fart jokes. How did you arrive at such an eclectic assemblage of tones in a book about grieving? I imagine that some people will read the book and think that it doesn’t reflect their experience of loss, but do you think of its tone as true to your own experience?

MP: Yeah, some people are extraordinarily offended by it, as if it pollutes something they believe must be kept clean on their own terms. I knew when I saw those reactions that I’d done something right.

Yes, for me it’s true to my own experiences. Time is disrupted, and the brain behaves strangely. One minute lofty polished sentences, one minute chaos, silliness, silence. When writing about grief we often underplay the domestic and the practical registers, and I was especially keen to address that. Someone has died, and we have a grand poetic and philosophical tradition to lean on so as to best express our vast pain. But we are also still these strange creatures that need to sleep and poop. I suppose it’s a nod to the Martian school in that respect. It takes a crow to visit from another planet (i.e., the pages of books) to remind us how silly we are, traipsing around with our little sex parts, our strange hair, our wallets in our pockets, our little metal objects that let us into houses, and the rows and rows of beds-to-die-in in the big white buildings where nobody laughs.

Z: Two questions regarding form: firstly, the book is billed as “a novel,” but it’s quite an eclectic text. It’s not a novel so much as a collision of poetry, flash fiction, myth, essay, and stage drama. Was the decision to call the book a novel yours? If so, how did you arrive at that decision? What about the text seems novelistic to you, and what does that categorization afford you?

Grief MP: Ha. Well, a publisher has to do what a publisher has to do. It was their decision. It’s got to belong somewhere in the bookshop, even if by its very existence it is a big “fuck you” to categorical ways of thinking about fiction. It’s an affront to algorithms, I hope.

But yes, I think it is a novel. I think the novel is old enough, resilient enough, to shrink and swell and dress up in strange outfits. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable to think of it as a novel, as something in conversation with what the novel is. Whereas I’d have been mortified if they’d called it poetry. It is not poems.

I suppose I was at a point in my life, reading a lot of quite bad novels for work, as well as some exhilarating ones, where I didn’t think novels needed so many tired ways of saying they were novels: architectural things, plot things, and mannerisms. I felt you could do in three pages what some of these bloody awful books were hacking and coughing up over 300. That sounds monstrously arrogant, but I can’t deny it was one of my impulses, and it’s not for me to say if I pulled it off.

Z: Secondly, what compelled you towards this form? There’s a beautiful passage where the Boys reflect on the prosaic nature of their mother’s death: “There should be men in helmets speaking a new and dramatic language of crisis. There should be horrible levels of noise, completely foreign and inappropriate for our cozy London flat … There were no crowds and no uniformed strangers and there was no new language of crisis.” In your mind, does this novel’s unusual writing approximate the “language of crisis” that the boys expect? Is it an attempt to find a form proportioned to grief’s freight? 

MP: [Conventional] prose, certainly, felt labored and inappropriate. And I didn’t have the time or space or patience for sustained prose. So yes, I hope the form is relevant for a book about emotional chaos, collapse, shock, the unruly emotions of grieving boys of any age.

But more than that I wanted it to be bird-like. I wanted it to move like a crow, hopping in the dirt one minute, soaring the next. And the fact that there may be much in common between mourning and the behavior of birds was something which struck me gently and naturally and pleasingly as I assembled it.

A form proportioned to grief’s freight? Perhaps, yes. Maybe in knowing as forcefully as I did that I wanted Crow to collapse English as his opening gambit—that I wanted fables to do better (hold more, serve more) than clichés or familiar tropes of recovery—maybe in knowing these things I was subliminally working toward a form that was proportioned to the subject. Every time I tried longer pieces I could literally hear the book squealing in protest. I could hear the boys saying, “You are spoiling our bits.” I could hear Crow saying, “BOOOORING,” and most importantly I could hear Dad saying, “It was not like that.”

But of course [the novel is] a triptych, so what is true of section one (a new language of crisis, perhaps, drawn from the dark depths of trauma and violation) is not true of the other two, where the languages are broader and kinder, languages of friendship, analysis, care, collaboration.

Z: A related question: Dad and the Boys are unusual protagonists in that they’re never named, and we’re not privy to some important details of their lives. For example, we don’t know where the family lives, what the Dad does, how he met Mother, etc. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t round characters, in Forster’s since of round characters; they are. But they are also fragmented, somewhat distant figures, as fragmented as the narrative itself. In some instances, they possess a mythical quality on par with Crow’s. Why is this?

MP: I don’t really know. Economy? A certain faith in sturdy drawing and solid schemes? Laziness? I whittled a lot away. Most of the naming I did struck me as powerfully irrelevant, so I got rid of it.

I think archetypes can do a lot. I wanted readers to do some coloring in themselves, and I wanted to give the boys a fairytale template, a two-dimensional canvas, upon which they could act, and play.

Z: Why are the Boys undifferentiated? It is clear some of their chapters feature vignettes narrated in the first person; the two of them even narrate certain incidents from different perspectives, as with the guppy story. Why not separate the two and give them their own chapters? What led you to collapse their perspectives? 

MP: That was how I began, with that decision to create the sibling relationship as a character, rather than two. A vessel for all the fluid narrative play that occurs between two close siblings when there is a “thing” to be grown around. I did this because it interested me, and I found it fun, and it seemed somehow quickly true to life.

Also I’m spoiled, like a greedy kid eating candy. I felt third person, first person, historical present, all these “options” were not relevant here. This was not a book which was going to need to withstand technical scrutiny of that kind, or sign up to any pre-existing formulas of perspective, because of the giant imaginary/not imaginary death celebrity on page one. Inviting him in meant I didn’t need to worry about differentiating my boys. The boys had this trick to tell the truth; he has his. But I had to work incredibly hard to tighten it all down so as for that not to be floppy or indulgent. I re-arranged and re-arranged the juxtapositions so that their collapsed perspective was always pushing against something domestic, or vulgar, or ordered in another way. Otherwise you piss the reader off.

Not to say I didn’t piss a lot of readers off.

Z: What do you perceive to be mourning’s generative possibilities? Your phrasing is intriguing. It’s pointing to a tension between social norms and how people actually experience grief. We’re not supposed to linger there; it’s a phase we move through until we’re normal again. The book seems aware of this tension; at one point the dad talks about well wishers who “[tease] out a route and [tailor] it to us, and not a cliche in sight.” Is this tension between personal experiences of grief and the normative conception of grieving something you gave a lot of thought to while writing? If so, how do you think it structures the book? 

MP: I think I’ve always looked around at funerals, after death, during illness, at the normative conceptions you describe, and felt like we’re not getting it right. That the rituals aren’t up to speed with the way we all actually feel. Oddly, given the book I wrote, I’m fairly unsentimental when it comes to people dying. I never really grew out of the “hit by a bus” stage of my mortality complex. So I suppose what I mean by the generative possibilities is that we can work harder to mourn, get better at it, connect it better to how we live, how we care for people, how we educate people. It’s politics, for me. What good is commemorating war victims, for example, if you’re committed to selling arms? For me a society that truly grieves for the fallen should be a society committed to peace, and if it isn’t it’s because greed and hypocrisy have dominion. And if I extend that logic into the domestic, the local, then you have the situation on page 50 of my book. The Dad is reaching for lush poetic metaphors, for grand commemorative efforts, for romanticism, and it is Crow’s job to allow him some of this but to also point out that he sounds like a fridge magnet, that he sounds like a cute slogan intended to calm the masses, to cancel out their unruly feelings and replace them with something easy to swallow, which life is not.

Z: You’re an editor in your day job. Can you say more about how editing novels influenced the way you chose to write your own novel?

MP: Being short of time, and having to read hundreds of novels every year certainly resulted in the fragmentary form and the book’s length, yes. But I’m not sure, really. I should have some clarity on this by now but I don’t. I think perhaps I’m impatient with the 300-page novel about society. That bores me. But then again, you see one done well enough and it’s a miracle.

I think my writing has been my safe space from the day job, and is mostly unaffected. I know too much, obviously, about the process, so at certain points I performed a naiveté in order to let everyone do their job. And I make a point of never suggesting publishing things to my publishers unless I feel really strongly. But also the people I’ve worked with have been so good it’s been easy. For example the editorial note I got from Graywolf—which was mostly Ethan Nosowsky but had some Jeff Shotts and some Fiona McRae thrown in—that was so good, so smart and deft and insightful that if anything it made me realize I could be better at my day job!

Z: To zoom out for a bit, what propelled you to write this book when you did? You’ve spoken about how it emerged from a period of creative urgency, but why this particular story? And why Ted Hughes’s poetry collection Crow as a frame for that story? 

MP: It’s the story I’ve been most interested in for a long time, especially the siblings. I felt I owed it to myself and my brother, and to my deceased Dad, to write this fairytale. And then I knew this triptych needed a dark center, and I’d been obsessing about Hughes for years, and Crow was hopping about saying, ME ME ME, so it all clicked into place. I realized, of course, that some of the things I wanted to say about raising kids, and missing people, were the same things I was wanting to say about poetry, and poets. I guess that’s why this story, because it’s the story where many of my concerns and feelings converge. I can’t think of another way of saying it; it felt very natural indeed to write this book.

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