‘Part polyphonic fable, part essay on grief. Something funny, something sad, something about being in love with your family, with poetry, with this deeply strange world.’
A small book with big emotions, Grief is the Thing with Feathers is an enchanting book that tells a simple story. A father, two Sons and a Crow—three parts and a novella—the treatment of the story is unconventional yet compelling. It deals with human emotions, grief, hope and survival. Debut author, Max Porter has crafted his first book with full tact and presented us with a beautiful little tale that is deep and sad, funny and bizarre, real and surreal all perfectly balanced.
In an exclusive interview he delves more into the book and shares with us his balancing act between editor and writer.
Give us a little background about yourself—where did you grow up and what were your growing up years like?
I had a very idyllic English childhood. My siblings and I grew up an hour or so outside London in a small village. I went to school in the nearby riverside town, I climbed trees and my best friend lived on a farm. But we also knew our way around London as children, using the tube, going to galleries, visiting my step-dad’s offices in Soho.
When did your romance with stories, books and writing begin?
I read a lot as a child. I had a brilliant grandpa who gave us books every birthday. English fairytales, Greek myths, Norse myths, Shakespeare. As I grew older I loved making music and art and lacked the patience for reading, but I found my way back eventually.
You are an editor at Granta and have been editor to the Booker winning Eleanor Catton. Currently you play two roles, editor and writer—how did the editor help the writer in you? Did the editor ever leave the writer alone or was he constantly there?
I banished him. I turned off my phone, cleared my desk of all work-related material, and didn’t think about anything to do with my professional life. I didn’t want to think whether it was publishable, who would read it, what my authors would think. I truly went into a strange private zone and wrote the thing that pleased and excited and moved me most. It’s very indulgent in that respect.
What inspired the novel?
The children in the flat are loosely based on my brother and me following the death of my father when I was six years old. I wanted to create a single voice for the close sibling relationship during a time of trauma. A voice, which, includes the games, tricks, mis-remembrances and oddities of childhood. Then I realized that an interesting way of portraying a grieving family would be to invite in an imaginary character to care for them, in this case the physical manifestation of the father’s obsession with Ted Hughes’ Crow. I had a lot of fun with Crow because he is not Hughes’ Crow, he is mine, and others, and the real bird, and many linguistic things I love (nonsense poetry, rhyme, performance, fables). It took the style it took because I was keen to create a short book, which gave me the electric jolt of pleasure I get from reading between forms, or hybrid forms. Poetry, prose, children’s books, plays, comics.
Are there bits of your own reality in the novella?
My brother and I did kill a guppy fish in a pond. My brother and I did play a game called Dead Meat on fallen trees! But seriously, yes—my love of my brother, my wife and my children. It is a love letter to them. I changed all the relationships and invented the events, but the feelings are based on how I felt, how I feel now. If there is anything I wish, it is for readers to identify with these feelings of love and pain and relate them to their own experiences.
How did you decide on the structure of your book?
I have long been obsessed with triptychs, ever since I first saw the huge George Dyer triptych by Francis Bacon. And three is the magic number. It afforded me so much pleasure, the movement between the three voices, the interplay and the tension. I also read a great many ‘normal’ novels submitted to me as part of my job, and I knew I lacked the patience or skill to craft something like that. The unconventional structure is what turns me on, what excites me as a reader and a writer. I wanted it to be itself, completely.
How easy or challenging was it to draft out The Crow’s character, purpose and interaction?
Well, he changes. The raw trauma song-legend of part one was pure fun to write. The second part, where he is more analytical and sociable, was harder because I wanted him to move musically with the language and tone of the children, as a gesture of empathy and a sign of healing. The third part, when he prepares to leave, when he offers resolution and even friendship, was pleasurable to write. Perhaps because in the final part he has become someone I love, someone I would rather like to know.
Are you personally a Ted Hughes fan? If yes, what is it about his writing that fascinates you?
Yes. I think he is a giant of English letters. Sometimes terrible, often unfashionable or ill-advised, but always a true poet in the ancient sense—a visionary writer. Crow fascinates me, obviously, but in collections such as River we see one of the truest and most beautiful accounts of the natural world ever written in English. I have loved Ted Hughes ever since I was a child, and I keep discovering him, arguing with him, being surprised by him. He should be taken seriously…
Which of your two personalities do you enjoy more—Editor or Writer? And what changes do you see in yourself while switching roles?
Thanks for asking this difficult question! I am only now [doing the first public readings etc.] considering myself as a writer. I am absolutely dedicated to my day job, to the wonderful challenging work of publishing literature and caring for my writers. But I think really it’s all the same, the pleasures overlap; discussing ideas with people, thinking about form and tone, mapping one’s interests, following hunches, trying things, pushing things. Tuning in to the good frequencies! I hope my little book is something that hasn’t existed before and will give people pleasure, but I am also very excited to find writers out there who are doing something utterly different from me, and helping them write the books they have to write.
I’m keen to concentrate on work, and on my young family. I don’t think people should write books for the sake of it. But I am preoccupied with female saints, ecstasy and experience. I’d like to write a fake hagiography of a transgender saint or king…
Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra