Max Porter | 'Booksellers should be publishers more; they know good books'

Max Porter | 'Booksellers should be publishers more; they know good books'

Although rooted in books and publishing, Max Porter has gone against the grain at almost every opportunity with his début book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Faber, £10).

It is a project that began on snippets of receipt paper during Porter’s time as manager of the Chelsea branch of Daunt Books; progressed into a Beckett-inspired graphic novelisation of Ted Hughes’ poetry collection Crow; and has finally settled into what Faber is describing as “part novella, part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief”. Porter’s experimentation and longstanding obsession with Hughes were pushed into this form after a meeting with the best friend of his late father, 25 years after his death. “He told me these really sad stories about my dad, truths that I didn’t really know,” Porter says. “It was as though a switch was flicked and I felt this incredible freedom to get this story down.”

Once these stories merged, Porter wrote Grief . . . in a few months, not telling anyone about it until it was finished: “I’d like to think that if I had a big house with loads of rooms I would have painted it, if I could play the guitar it would have become a song but as it was, I had a laptop and I got this out.”

The story is divided into three parts and told through three voices—two brothers as one, their father and Crow—in the aftermath of the boys’ mother’s death. While the crow is borne of Hughes’ poems, it is not the same character and Porter did not re-read Crow before writing Grief . . . “I didn’t want to be distracted by it and I would hate to exclude a reader who hadn’t read Crow. I will re-read it but it’s not Hughes’ crow, it’s my crow and it’s about the obsession of the father with the crow. There are in-jokes in there about Hughes and Faber but they’re only a device, I’d hate for people to feel they wouldn’t get it. I hope that by using Hughes I haven’t limited it in any way but it was so seductive to me, I couldn’t resist.”

Publishers that don’t go into bookshops are scary and publishers that don’t ask booksellers’ opinions are dangerous

Crow’s voice in the book is dark, tricky and lyrical, at times unpleasant but always captivating. It contrasts beautifully with the grief and anger of the father and the heartbreaking, impish innocence of the boys. Porter was keen to get this balance right: “The crow is what I loved writing but I tried to find the balance by not having too much of him and making sure that through the narrative arc of the book crow matures into something different. When he arrives he’s pure blackness, pure trauma, but he becomes more friendly and analytical and it’s all moving towards this moment when he can let them go.”

Porter says that he cannot remember a time when he did not read and obsess over Hughes, and cites Birthday Letters as one of his “desert island books”. But Crow always held a fascination for him: “I loved it and always thought it was such a dirty, messy, shocking thing for someone who was going to go on to be Poet Laureate to write, so I’d always had it in the back of my head.” Now Grief . . . is done, though, Porter feels like he can move on from Hughes. “There’s so much baggage with Hughes and it’s nice, after having obsessed about him for a while, to tick that box.”

Seeking originality

The other box that Porter feels he has ticked is to write something unlike anything else: “It couldn’t be imitative of anything else because I didn’t want any crossover with what I’m doing in the day or what anyone else is doing. But that won’t be such a preoccupation for me next time; I feel as though I’ve scratched that itch. I read so many conventional novels and non-fiction in my day job [as commissioning editor at Granta and Portobello Books] so I seek out children’s books and poetry and plays, always looking for that electric shock jolt of great things in hybrid forms.”

And so all the strands of Porter’s obsessions and preoccupations were woven together: “I had this incredible feeling that I could have everything I wanted but still have this playfulness, but also the fables and the true stuff, the grief stuff. I felt like I was building the perfect machine for me, everything I love as a reader. In a way it’s a really indulgent thing: I wanted to do the thing that was mine only, all my pleasures are in there. I was seeking ways to excite myself . . . I could have just watched ‘Game of Thrones’.”

Porter doesn’t have an agent, and sent the book straight to Hannah Griffiths at Faber, Hughes’ publisher. “We had a great chat about Hughes before I’d finished Grief . . . and Hannah had said she didn’t like Crow. So partly because she said that and partly because she has interesting taste in fiction, I thought I’d see what she thought of it and she went very quiet for a few weeks, but then phoned me in tears and said she loved it.”

Porter adds that if Faber hadn’t expressed an interest in the novel, he would not have tried other publishers: “There’s a sense to Faber doing it because it’s a love letter to much of what made Faber such an incredible publishing house and an amazing declaration on Faber’s behalf of the things that it loves doing. I think to get an agent and send it out would have been too exposing.”

Porter has nothing but praise for his experience of working with Faber as an author: “It was a private thing and [the staff at Faber] dealt with it as such, obviously they are publishing [the book] but they have been loving with it. It’s not easy as I’m part of the Faber Alliance but they been really grown-up and cool and can separate it from the me they know at Granta.”

Porter considered publishing the book under a pseudonym too, but was convinced not to: “Various people said that would be fearful. There’s been no shenanigans, no nepotism, but it’s been a learning curve for me in terms of saying that I’m a writer.”

Porter’s bookselling experiences come up again and again as we talk about Grief . . . “The thing about being a bookseller is that it’s so inspiring—you’re exposed to so much. It’s a healthy environment to be in if you’re creative but you also have this crushing anxiety of influence because every time you think you land on an idea you open up a box and there’s something else to be distracted or amazed by.” The links between publishing and bookselling are underestimated, in his opinion: “I love the hand-sell culture and really that’s what you’re doing as a publisher: you’re trying to hand-sell this stuff you believe in. Booksellers should be publishers more; they know good books. Publishers that don’t go into bookshops are scary and publishers that don’t ask booksellers’ opinions are dangerous.”

What next for Porter, who maintains that he is not a novelist? “I don’t know when the next book will happen. I’m aware that there’s nothing worse than people doing books for the sake of doing books. I would want it to come pouring out of me like this did. I have an idea at the moment for something set in London. But I’m all for the journey being the thing, so I need to get myself a nice clean new notebook and start thinking.”



Publication 17.09.15
Formats: EB (£9.99)/HB (£10)
ISBN: 9780571323777/760
Rights: sold in the US (Graywolf), Netherlands, Germany, France
Editor Hannah Griffiths, Faber