A Tapestry of Linked Concerns: A Q&A with Max Porter

Talking crows. Troublesome earth spirits. The worlds Max Porter weaves in his fiction are fantastical ones, where myth bleeds constantly into reality. Yet the concerns of his prose--even as he reinvents the concept with his poetic and formal experimentation--are always completely human. Dead parents. Missing children. The need for an explanation. The need to place blame. With Lanny (out 5/14 from Graywolf Press), these concerns come to a head when an odd child meets an implacable and timeless force. And as Max has already shown us, the outcome will lead beyond the bounds of reason, where the pulse of primal stories continue to shape the world around us. No matter how unseen.

Keaton: Both Lanny and your previous novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, are almost entirely derived from and driven by a rich tapestry of voices. So I can’t help but wonder, when you’re starting on a new work, what comes first for you--a story or a voice? And how does one influence the other as that idea develops?

Max Porter: I can always get to the voices, that's no problem, but I can't do much until I've got myself a good structural system. I'm all adrift until the structure lands. I'll have lines I'm happy with, basically little shards of almost-poetry, and I'll be all ready to build on them, tease them out into prose (or not! I'm kind of resistant to prose as you'll have noticed) and build, like collage, until the necessary energy exists between pieces, at which point I start thinking about the whole, and how to set detail against the broader shape. It occurred to me recently that I am still, first and foremost, an editor. That's my natural mode, to be cutting, or shaping, even as I'm writing the bloody thing in the first place. Very often in the time it's taken for a thought to go from brain to hand and hit the page or keyboard another part of my brain has already cut the fucker. And that's a good thing. I'm grateful for that.

KP: In the same vein, the deep inner monologues of Dead Papa Toothwort called for some seriously inventive typesetting. How did that form come about for you, and what effect do you hope it has on your readers? Also, I’d love to know what your editor thought about these sprawling, serpentine lines.

MP: That stuff, his overheard nourishment, his fodder, was going to be more ornamental, giving the reader the choice of whether to engage. My American editor Ethan Nosowsky made the case for it being interesting enough for the reader that it should be in the body of the book, at which point I committed to putting a lot more plot in there, and some character and politics and so on, patterning the book across itself with a sort of tapestry of linked concerns, which the reader really does need to pay attention to in order to fully experience the latter parts and the games I want them to play with absence and presence, complicity and community and so on.

So then the job was to make it look like sound. It had to not be bound by the conventions of the page, ie not be literature. And the moving about, the dancing, that merely suggests sound on the airwaves, sound being sucked by someone very hungry for it. And then the darkening, tightening, this is reflecting the darkening and tightening both of the mythic intent, and the book's plot. There's a kind lady at Faber called Kate Ward (imagine MC Toothwort at the rave slobbering all over the mic screaming " Yes Big up Kate Ward for giving me voice") and she sat with me for many hours with pencils and we drew on the text and made it move. It was FUN.

KP: Is there any basis in British mythology for a mischievous nature spirit like Dead Papa Toothwort? Either in whole or in part? If not, what kind of inspiration were you drawn toward during his creation?

MP: Endless. Obviously we have the green man, a tradition to which DPT is nodding, affectionately, but also with healthy post-modern acknowledgement of what a myth like that is. He gargles with the job, knowing he's kitsch, knowing he's a symbol, knowing he has a practical function in the community whether it's to make kids brush their teeth, or to bolster lazy ideas of belonging and otherness. He has certain things in common with the Crow in my first book, a mythic celebrity who is having some fun with their literary function, as well as taking the job very seriously, ie rekindling the actual social or political threat inherent in the myth.

Every family/village/town/country/planet has these figures, so it's up to the reader to do some of the literary criticism necessary to animate and indulge him. For me personally there's Fungus the Bogeyman, and some childcatcher, and some Jack of the green, and some good old fashioned Christian guilt bullshit.

KP: Grief… has opened as a play to terrific reviews, and Lanny has already been optioned for a film even before the novel releases. As an author, how does it feel to see your work adapted into these other mediums?

MP: I won't lie, it's extremely strange. One has to let go of the book. With my first book that was natural, and a pleasure, because it was a bird, so I was delighted to see it fly off. With Lanny that may be harder because some interpretive pathways will be deeply alarming to me. But collaborating is joy. So as long as the conversations are good, and not rushed, and serious, which so far they really have been, then I just have to let people do their jobs and believe the initial call, which was to make beautiful art.

So far the adaptations have meant meeting very clever and brilliant people, and having invigorating conversations about translation, which is what we're really doing. So, I can only be humbled and glad and hope to learn from these people.

Max Porter’s Three Items of Interest:

1. The Löwenmensch figurine or Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel

2. The Billy Woods and Kenny Segal record

3. This Post-it note: 

Lanny: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555978402
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Graywolf Press - May 14th, 2019

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