Max Porter: Pushing the boundaries of the written word

The Grief Is the Thing with Feathers writer on following up his acclaimed debut novel

Behind stage doors at the Southbank Theatre in London, the crew of folk musicians from Alula Down arrive to prepare their soundtrack for the evening’s events. The actors Kenneth Cranham, Stephen Mangan and Lydia Wilson are due in soon to learn their parts, too. It’s a fitting launch event for Lanny – Max Porter’s book is as theatrical as novels get, down to the three-part structure, monologue format and written-in background chatter – much of which mirrors his award-winning debut Grief is a Thing with Feathers.

Lest we forget, Enda Walsh and Cillian Murphy brought Grief is a Thing with Feathers to the stage, depicting the surreal story of a writer with two children struggling to cope with the loss of his wife, and who finds support in the otherworldly Crow – an "antagonist, trickster, healer, babysitter".

Both the book and its adaption performed admirably; the book won the International Dylan Thomas Prize and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. The play’s debut made a significant impact at the Galway International Arts Festival and it currently has four Irish Theatre nominations ahead of the awards later this month. It makes its London debut at the Barbican around the same time.

Cillian would phone me and ask me precisely what this thing meant. It was like someone doing a PhD on your book. I loved my book becoming Irish for a year

“Enda is an extraordinary force,” says Porter, as we settle into a dressing room. “He’s not a normal practitioner, he’s an energy ball. With both Cillian and Enda, the goal was to make the production as true as it could be to the book. There were no changed endings or swapping one feature for another. Cillian would phone me and ask me precisely what this thing meant - it was like someone doing a PhD on your book. I fell in love with collaboration with them over the process. I loved my book becoming Irish for a year.”


The feeling is mutual – at the time Walsh said of the book “It floored me when I read it”.

Watching Porter discuss his collaborators with warmth and engagement, it’s evident that he has all the grounding one would expect from an avid arts lover who went from managing an independent bookshop to becoming a senior editor at Granta Publishing, to an award-winning, boundary-pushing novelist. (Earlier, recalling his visits to the Borris festival, he marvels: “You’re just sitting there having a cup of tea with Donna Tartt, and then Richard Ford comes and sits down and then Colm Tóibín walks in and you’re like ‘I do not belong here’”).

That’s perhaps why he’s open to the trinity of self-improvement that is observing, learning and developing. A clear example is the way in which Murphy commanded the audience and showed Porter what he was capable of when it came to Lanny.

“Cillian’s performance was charged,” he recalls. “It could command an astonishing amount of attention. That struck me as relatively similar to the power a novelist can and should have with the blank pages, which was very inspiring when I began Lanny. Part three definitely wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been working in theatre. That’s what gave me the courage to bring in a whole new set and change the theatrical relationship between cast and reader.”

Taking place in an anonymous English commuter village, the book’s three parts are certainly distinct. The first introduces us to the characters in the area: the aspiring novelist Jolie, her city worker husband Richard, her bright and eccentric son Lanny, the artist Peter Blythe, and Dead Papa Toothworth – a shape-shifting ominous mythical figure. In the second part, Lanny goes missing. The pace is upped in the third act, in which the structure changes and dynamics between the villagers intensify.

In a genre heavy with examples such as The Year of the Fog by Michelle Redmond and Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell which cover missing children, while on television, The Missing, Stranger Things and Kiri – it wasn’t a concern for Porter to tread familiar ground.

“There’s only certain subjects available to us, the seven basic plots I suppose,” he says. “It’s a question of how you do it. If you do the work and think carefully, there will be something new to uncover. Like with Normal People by Sally Rooney. The subject of teenage love and first relationships is well-trodden, but the book is extraordinarily fresh. So, as long as you’re doing the thinking behind it. And for me, it wasn’t so much about the missing child as the relationships after.”

I love people, so for me the village is a perfect place to nose around, read the noticeboards. I love going to coffee mornings and sitting, listening to two old people talking

The inventiveness of the book justifies the familiar subject matter. If it’s not the poetry hidden within the prose, most noticeably, there are snatches of local chatter sprinkled across the pages – quite literally, in typographical terms. It means thoughts like “backpacked round Asia and came back as much of a twat as he left” and “shame on them all” curl around the page and drop in and out, as a visual indicator of an aural display.

“I love people, so for me the village is a perfect place to nose around, read the noticeboards. I love going to coffee mornings and sitting, listening to two old people talking,” say Porter, who recently moved from London to Bath with his wife and three little sons. “But the village isn’t a chorus voice in the way that Under Milk Wood might be. It’s like voyeurism. When you’re at the train station listening to people, you’re not doing it to laugh at them, you’re doing it because you’re fascinated by them.”

As judgement-free as the chatter is, our meeting takes place exactly a month before the UK is due to leave the EU, and the spectre of Brexit hangs just as heavy as that of Dead Papa Toothworth. But it’s outside of the book’s eyeline - instead, the themes are outsiders, insularism and a divided society: aspects which make it relatable outside of England too.

“The village voice - someone being coke-fucked, pints of piss-weak beer - is unmistakably English,” he says. “But I didn’t want it to be locked into Brexit, so the mechanisms are universal. I tried not to moralise, and showed village life how it is: you might not hate Mark next door because he’s a Guardian-reading liberal, but you might be suspicious of him and vice versa.”

The most Brexity aspect is Mrs Larton. “She isn’t a subtle creation. She reads a far-right newspaper that puts xenophobic ideas into her head and fetishises the British empire, and as a result she has an unpleasant attitude to the new people in her village.

“I didn’t feel any obligation to make her subtle, because look at the Daily Mail - it’s preposterous. The links between casual racism on our streets and the headlines about ‘swarms of migrants’ and ‘enough’s enough’ – that’s not subtle. But the balance was right to have a character like that, especially for the mother character, who I cared about deeply and wanted to be quite complex.”

I want to commit myself to closing the gap between literacy and the literary, because I think that gap is widening in a worrying way

Indeed, while the book might be named after Lanny, in many respects he’s a device for others to reveal their own characters. His mother Jolie in particular eludes many of the housewife clichés: her relationship with her husband fluctuates, she’s a gruesome thriller writer, and there’s a fierce streak that surfaces every so often (protective lioness or a little unhinged? You decide).

“This is a book about mothers, in the way that my first book was about a father,” says Porter. “I’m interested, in a psychoanalytical view, in what the maternal relationship is, and the dangers of it, and the ways in which society at large undermines the true emotional depth available to women to experience those early years. Some of those symbolic daydreams in the second part are my attempt to restore an almost surrealist dimension to having young children, and there should be an element of danger in there as well as affection. The bad mother should always be staring a good mother in her face. And I wanted her to be fully animated as an intellectual as well, as well as a caregiver for him, and defined absolutely outside of her relationship as wife to Robert.”

This rounded thinking was aided by his studies; his contemporary art MA covered the space in which psychoanalytic theory, feminist theory and radical performance art meet. It also made him all too aware of inequalities in the publishing industry, well before the current wave of feminism uncovered power imbalances in seemingly innocuous industries.

“If ever a sector needed a massive kick up the arse, it’s publishing,” he says. “It’s been very white and Oxbridge, and men have got all the top jobs even though the industry is dominated by women and caters for more women. That’s been not okay. And that’s changing, which is awesome.

“I had to be quiet when asked such things because I’m a white male who got a nice job in publishing, but now I’ve stepped outside and I hope someone more interesting than me gets that job and broadens the amount of voices.”

Full-time on his own creative endeavours since January, he’ll concentrate on nailing down plans to take Lanny beyond the book. There’s a worldwide tour of Grief is a Thing with Feathers to concern himself with too (it plans to go further afield without Cillian Murphy, once its New York run is finished), and a third book in the offing, this time about intimacy.

“And then I don’t know about afterwards. There’s some initiatives I’d like to be involved with. I want to commit myself to closing the gap between literacy and the literary, because I think that gap is widening in a worrying way, and I don’t think there’s any point in us publishing or writing books if we’re not growing new readers.”

But as far as the very next steps go, it’s time for Porter to join the others on the Purcell Room stage, and meet his new collaborators ready to bring Lanny to life.

Lanny is published by Faber & Faber