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Tin House Live Max Porter Interview

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David Naimon: Before we begin today’s live conversation with Max Porter, which occurred in May at Powell’s bookstore in Downtown, Portland, I wanted to provide a little background. For one, Max has been on the show before for his book Lanny, almost exactly four years ago and as I know, you can all relate that four years feels more like four lifetimes ago in so many ways. I was still at the radio station, Max and I met in person like I did for every conversation back then, and I even drove him back to his hotel afterwards. We kept in touch a little bit after our time together, infrequently, haphazardly. But he reached out to say how moved he was by the conversation with Teju Cole and he sent me a remarkable book by the British art historian T.J. Clark called Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come. Last year, when I was interested in seeing if PJ Harvey would want to be on Between the Covers to talk about her book of poetry written in the near extinct dialect of Dorset, Max was in conversation with Harvey about this very book in England, so I reached out to him to see if he might plant a seed on my behalf. He went even further and reached out to the Scottish Poet Don Paterson who Harvey mentored herself under, and Paterson reached out to the press about Between the Covers. Seeing Max once again in person, having another conversation on the other side of the pandemic lockdown, sharing the same space again was an exciting prospect and also a significant marking of time. His new book Shy, while a standalone book like all of his books, is also the third book in what some consider his trilogy of childhood or trilogy of boyhood. If you haven’t read his previous books in the triptych, Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Lanny, a couple times today, I reference figures from them, most notably the crow in his debut and the figure Dead Papa Toothwort in Lanny. Both of them are mythic figures that interact with and influence the story of the humans in those books. If you hear me in passing mention either, I wanted you to know that these are figures, not in the latest book Shy but in the books that precede it. The first time Max was on the show, he contributed a reading of a poem of his to the bonus audio archive. The singer-songwriter Joan Shelley had reached out to Max to express her love for his writing and they started corresponding, and this is a poem he wrote to her and for her as part of that. Since then, he’s written the lyrics of songs for her and for others. Singers from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, otherwise known as Will Oldham to Feist have used his words to make songs. Shortly after our time together, he was headed to Canada as part of his book tour to be in conversation with Feist about Shy. Since we last talked, his first book was adapted to the stage starring Cillian Murphy and it was announced that it was also going to be adapted to the screen starring Benedict Cumberbatch. If you haven’t read Max’s work, one of the first things you’ll encounter as we discuss it today are all of these other influences outside of prose, of poetry, of theater, of visual art, of music that changed not only the way the words are composed in Max’s books but also how they look on the page and more. The crowd today was decidedly artistic and literary. The author and head of Future Tense Books Kevin Sampsell was there. Many past guests on the show found early success with Future Tense including Chelsea Hodson, Genevieve Hudson, and Elissa Washuta. The novelist Patrick deWitt was there, probably best known for the book The Sisters Brothers but also who has a new book, The Librarianist, coming out this year. If you hear Max mention Patrick during the talk tonight, he’s referencing their time together earlier that same day. I should also mention that Max was in the middle of listening to the Christina Sharpe episode of Between the Covers when we talked, so that conversation also enters today’s conversation multiple times because it’s on Max’s mind. Laura Moulton, the head of Street Books was in the audience, the bicycle-powered mobile library serving people who live outside, which you can find out more about at The novelist with Small Beer Press, Kelly Link’s press, Ben Parzybok was there who was on the show for his novel Sherwood Nation and who also asks the first audience question near the end of today’s episode. I’m confident that no one left disappointed as this conversation was rich, deep, wide-ranging, funny, and philosophical. If you want to hear Max’s poem, which I’m sure you will after hearing him read in this episode today, and to learn about the innumerable other things in the bonus audio archive, and to check out the many other possible benefits of becoming a listener-supporter by joining the Between the Covers Community, head over to Now, for today’s episode with none other than Max Porter.

These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”

Host: Tonight, we are delighted to welcome Max Porter. He is the author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, winner of the International Dylan Thomas Prize, The Death of Francis Bacon and Lanny, which was long listed for the Booker Prize, and less prestigiously maybe, was my own personal pick for the best book of 2019. I don’t do that every year. I’m very lazy with my words, so I think that makes it even more prestigious but you be the judge. I’m excited about the new book and so is the brilliant novelist George Saunders who says, “Max Porter is one of my favorite writers in the world. Why? Because he’s always asking the most important questions and then finding ways—through innovative structures and that inimitable voice—of answering those questions soulfully, with his full attention, in ways that make the world seem stranger and more dear (or more dear because stranger). He gives his reader, in other words, bursts of new vision.” I love that blurb. The wonderful musician PJ Harvey says, “Max Porter has a way of writing unlike anyone else. I loved Shy. I finished it elated and tearful, joyful and terrified, changed by the journey. It moved me and surprised me and that is what I look for in my favourite artists.” I don’t think I’ve read a blurb by PJ Harvey before, I’ve got to say, so that’s high praise from someone who doesn’t give it out freely. Joining our author tonight, we are delighted to welcome David Naimon. He is the author of the Between the Covers podcast, which at this point is this incredible archive of over a decade of interviews with authors. It’s been praised by The Guardian and Book Riot, and author Gary Shteyngart calls it, “The most intense and awesome podcast I’ve ever been a part of.” Now, he does do a lot of blurbs so take that as it gets. [Laughter] Please welcome, Max Porter and David Naimon.


DN: Hi, Max.

Max Porter: Hi, David. Thanks so much for doing this. What an honor.

DN: Are we starting with a reading before we talk?

MP: Sure.

DN: Okay, great.

[Max Porter reads from Shy]


DN: First, just let me say how excited I think I could speak for all of us that you have a three-city American tour and you’ve chosen Portland as one of those towns, so thank you for that. Speaking of threes, other people have framed three of your four books as a trilogy. It’s a trilogy of boyhood and it’s something that you’ve welcomed. You’ve seen that framing as potentially useful for you as a framing. I don’t want to say that there’s something more dark about this book because I would say that losing a parent when you’re a child is really dark. But there’s something about Shy as a character where you could imagine if the wrong things happen, he could end up in the gutter or he could end up in a prison. He’s at a really crucial juncture in his life and he’s pretty outside of normative society I guess we could say at this point. Your description of them in the book, “A child who has sprayed, snorted, smoked, sworn, stolen, cut, punched, run, jumped, crashed an escort, smashed up a shop, trashed a house, broken a nose,” maybe we could just start with you orienting us or introducing us.

MP: You missed out that he stabbed his stepdad’s finger. [Laughter] That’s really important in his CV.

DN: It’s important. Why don’t you introduce us to Shy and also to why Shy, why is Shy the boy of the third part of your boyhood trilogy?

MP: Well, first, I just want to say how nice it is to be in Powell’s and in Portland, and to be with you. You’ve been in my ears so much. For those of you that listen to the podcast, you’ll know that they’re of such length, such depth, such integrity, and such detail that you are fully immersed in them when you’re in them. You’ve been living with me in the UK and that’s the miracle of the technology, of course, but also the miracle of your attention. Thank you. It’s an honor. 

DN: Thank you.

MP: The thing with the trilogy or the triptych is that I fetishize triptychs and love them. I’m a bit of a painter who just knocked off three pictures, then the gallery says, “It’s a triptych. Isn’t it, darling?” and you go, “Does that sell for more?” “Yeah, yeah, it’s great. Yeah, yeah.” [laughter] “Do people collect triptychs?” “Yeah, yeah.” But also, of course, they’re patterned across the hall in ways that writers mean and then don’t mean, so I’m pleased with that patterning. For me, why I wrote this book accidentally or in a storm, it poured out of me following a few projects that became other things or collaborations that were ongoing, then a book that I put in the drawer because my agent said it was too dark or it was too angry, it was about the English. It was a heartbroken book about a country I believe is broken and doesn’t necessarily need to be, and is enacting various different types of violence upon its citizens and others in a way that I think is unnecessary and heartbreaking but I hadn’t done enough with it. My agent was right. It was bitter and angry, so I was wondering what to do next, then I had a strange encounter in the woods and various things happened, and I’ve been working with some young people, then Shy just erupted, so I had to ask myself afterwards, “Why Shy?” I think it’s partly as my American publisher Graywolf pitch it, what happens to boyhood lostness, what happens to the existential condition of the cul-de-sac or of shame, rage, and also the teenage condition ordinarily but also in the Anthropocene, where does one get one’s answers from, particularly if the overriding condition for boys is that you are a pseudo abuser, you are a proto-violence in boy form, and you are a pure risk but you’re also drenched in shame. Shy is the clueless beneficiary of various forms of injustice, violence, White supremacy, and all sorts and where does that leave him other than with a vocabulary of just guilt and shame? He’s also a part of that sea of we have an epidemic of male suicide here in the UK, I think here as well and the numbers are really extraordinary but also boys are failing in various different ways, and I’m interested in that. I’m interested in ways that literature can approach something deemed to be ugly or lost and applied at certain type of attention, maybe a poetic attention to it. But also I love him, I have loved him, and I have lost, as we all have lost, someone like Shy. I was interested in this act of retrieval, also a non-judgmental way. If my first book was about trying to write about mourning with ecstasy, not getting better, not being fixed but the ongoing use of pain as love, then this was the same thing, this was how to approach someone who wants to take their own life or end their own life, and bathe it in a kind of understanding and that was a beautiful thing for me as a writer to work on because I realized I was going to be more or less wholly absent or certainly, some of the techniques I developed as a writer were going to be unnecessary or irrelevant. He came from simultaneously a technical and emotional impulse of mine.

DN: Well, let’s stay with masculinity a little bit longer. I went to your Wikipedia page. I don’t know if this is correct.

MP: I don’t know who did it. I think maybe AI did it.

DN: Really? 

MP: It certainly doesn’t bear much relation to me but what did you find?

DN: No, even if it’s wrong and I’d be curious if it is wrong, I want to connect this to something that I think runs through your books. [laughter] On the Wikipedia page, it says that after you studied art history, you got an MA in an improbable trio, another triptych, of radical performance art.

MP: Oh, this is true.

DN: Psychoanalysis and feminism.

MP: Yeah. They’re easy bedfellows of mine. [laughther]

DN: I was just listening to you on a parenting podcast called Brown Baby, and the episode is Max Porter And Dickheads Dads, you have three boys and you’re talking with the interviewer about the different challenges of being a father, particularly in this era but also just in any era being a father and about boyhood, and about a whole bunch of questions about masculinity, so I was wondering, thinking about that, thinking about this trio not just being a trio of childhood because it is a trio or triptych of childhood, but it is a triptych about masculinity also, so how would you characterize any animating questions specific to masculinity? Would you, as I suspect you probably would, connect this back to feminism in some fashion?

MP: You do this, you know? [Laughter] A combination of research and aggressive insight for which we’re also grateful, the recipients of it. [Laughter] Well, some of it is to do with the books as anti-denial mechanisms, to do with the body and to do with domesticity, in lots of writing in the social realist mode, “Dads do this, dads do that,” in literature and elsewhere, and I’ve always thought, “What about the other stuff? Why, in the conventional model, are men absent from the changing of the nappies, the cooking of the dinner, or whatever?” There are economic and social reasons for that that I wanted to interrogate. Also, the language that men use and is used about men seems to me to give everybody an easy pass emotionally, that you’re suspended from an emotional interrogation about the nuances of your behavioral language because you’re doing whatever the late capitalist scenario encourages you to be doing. One of the things that results in for me is a great lack of ambition in male company about what we might talk about and what we might achieve as people. It results in these strange pre-established linguistic and social rituals often to do with work, sport, or these template-ready bits of information that men exchange. I find it hilarious, baffling, and rightful satire a lot of the time. I often get trapped in these conversations and feel like, “Come on buddy, that’s enough. Let’s talk.” “How’s your wife? How are the kids?” “Oh, it’s hard.” [Laughter] “Oh you’re still with the Citroën, I see,” like, “Yeah. I still drive a Citroën.” [Laughter] An attempt to get past that but also credit people with adaptive feeling but also recapture from some feminist discourse, and feminist theory perhaps separately to that, a psychological complexity of childrearing and also loss, particularly grief and loss for boys, for boyhood. Partly, that comes from very culturally conservative times in the UK at the moment but also relatively in our diagnostic tools, even about things like toxic masculinity, we leap to the buzzword, it’s a bit like the diversity drive in publishing, it’s of economically-determined tokenism. All the time, we leap to a buzzword, we’ve got a mental health crisis and that’s where it ends. You might start a charity, you might do some funding, you might come up with a smart logo or some badges but actually, the work that’s done to look at the level of the language, the level of education, the level of social injustice, why is it that some boys aren’t reading? What happens to those boys? Of course, the data maps exactly. They underperform in the job market. They underperform educationally. They usually turn into drug users, alcohol-dependent people, or domestic abusers. That is exact, and rather than deal with that on a systemic, structural level, or at a funding level, the ideological decisions are to just put that problem over there. I’m not an essayist, I’m not an anthropologist, it’s not like I can map these models. One of the tools of the novelist is ambivalence, to restore the charged ambiguity about male behavior back to it, and often, with the study of boyhood, but particularly for this book, realize that what we deem as society’s no-hopers or people as a supposed dead end are in fact incredibly sophisticated and capable of innate and intuitive development between them, and the ecosystem always go to trees but that’s my tendency, but in the nutrient system of the boyhood in an institution, a crucially progressive institution like this, which has been defunded in a shot now, mainly in the UK, they’re achieving between them, really very sophisticated ways of discussing gender, race, violence, and trauma. The book doesn’t have a trauma plot. I never tell you what happened to Shy, if at all, that would make him behave in this way. But the boys are asking and they’re not using diagnostic language, they’re not using pharmaceutical drugs or anything. They’re listening to one another over time and that’s the crucial thing is you let time do its extraordinary work, and you allow things like the architectural uncanny or the incredibly politically charged space of the English class system, you let those things happen and out of it, language will emerge. That is, to my mind, at least a more productive discussion of masculinity than the question of, “What are we going to do about Andrew Tate? What are we going to do about Andrew Tate?” But even a book like this is really interesting, like male reviewers rush to label this book sentimental in a way I find hugely alarming because sentimentality, by definition, is an excessive tenderness but the alternatives have failed us quite profoundly. It’s a joke I think. I don’t find it very funny but it’s not a good review but the guy says at the end, “Seinfeld’s no hugging review is not followed at the end of this book.” Well, no. It’s a progressive educational establishment to rehabilitate young boys who’ve all done very violent and difficult things. One of them just tried to take his own life, then destroyed [inaudible] of building and is standing in his underpants on a lawn. There is not a no-hugging rule in that situation. It’s a carefully calibrated professional response to touch as midwives have, as palliative carers have. To say, “See that as some failing of masculinity” on my part as a novelist is bonkers. It’s really weird. I think it possibly, from the feminist point of view, derives from, I used to read a lot of Klaus Theweleit, did you read him? He’s a theorist of that pre-World War l fire corpse, that kind of, “We are stronger as a team proto-fascistic,” f*ck the world language but also militaristic thinking about the weakness of the individual, the strength of the team, and all this stuff. He’s hugely influential and worrying, and very Andrew Tate. I think that even if the critical culture itself is borrowing that language, it’s a little bit like how you discuss with the Christina Sharpe interview that is so extraordinary on David’s podcast, but this question of leaning back into the brutality of fact again and again. Even when you’re purporting to investigate it on a podcast, on a TV show with a government initiative about mental health, you are in fact simply reinforcing it again and again, and again, potentially even exacerbating it. I was delighted to see the verdict of the book confirmed in these reviews that suggest it’s somehow soft or even weirdly because almost anti-intellectualism and misogyny weirdly work hand in hand, so there’s almost a whiff of homophobia about this. It’s as if I’m being weak or failing the virile tradition of the literary novelist in these subjects by allowing things such as touch or compassion, which is interesting and worrying.

DN: Well, since we’re speaking about critical response and since this is one of your few North American stops, tell us about America versus Britain in this regard. I remember with Lanny that you’d mentioned that the main character in America was often diagnosed, even though there’s nothing stated in Lanny saying he has a diagnosis, he was often referred to as on the spectrum in some fashion as being autistic or on the spectrum. 

MP: He was called autistic, yeah.

DN: And not in the UK. But also known in the UK, for instance, with Lanny, the figure of the green man is something that most Americans are not familiar with and this book is set in mid-90s England. Probably, we share some aspects. I know if we imagine a last-chance home for troubled boys getting defunded, I don’t think that’s hard for Americans to understand. But I guess I’m curious about two things. One, is there something you’d want to orient an American readership to that maybe wouldn’t be obvious, similar to the Green Man? Are there ways in which you’re seeing the book framed that are particularly American?

MP: I guess I would take as an example, and this didn’t occur to me until the book came out, there was a thing in the book called the ha-ha. How many of you would know what a ha-ha is? English. Often, in big manor houses or country estates, the lawn has an edge where they’ve built a three or four-foot-high wall and it was to keep cattle out. I’ve been pushed off a ha-ha at Benjamin Disraeli’s country estate where we went with my mother-in-law for a walk and my little nephew or someone just dropped me off it, [laughter] and there’s a scene in the book where they all joke about because of the ha-ha, ha-ha and a child is violently attacked and left bleeding on the other side of the ha-ha and the question is asked, “Why did no one see that he was there?” and they all joked because of the ha-ha. But it is a status symbol and it is something that only the rich could afford. It is a dividing line. It’s the dividing line in the book between the mythic realm that Shy slips into during his escapade and the material world of the house, the institution, the teachers, and the pedagogical imperatives that work there. These sorts of dividing lines are a form of specificity in the work to do with England, particularly to do the class system. We’ll maybe get on to this, but one of the reasons the book is set in 1995 before the New Labor moment where a long period of conservative rule had done certain types of damage to certain types of people, I say it’s ideologically determined, it really is and the symptoms of it are really easy to trace, so joblessness but also economic deprivation in coastal areas, economic deprivation in inner city areas, particularly in the North and North is starved economically, so on and so forth. These are things that conservative governments repeatedly achieve. It will be a badge of honor for a conservative government to make these achievements, yet again they’ve done it. I suppose that an American reader might not be so attuned to them but the general picture would be familiar I think. The diagnostic stuff, because I read that Richard Reeves book on boys, I think it’s Of Boys and Men and it’s a book written about America where the problem is so much more exacerbated by the incarceration system, and it’s not an abolitionist book at all in some other alarming ways. But the statistics are comparable and he talks about the UK quite a lot, and talks about the White working class in the UK, and so on and so forth. It’s interesting in terms of the data, which is unarguable and it’s interesting in his attempts to say, “I’m not belittling or ignoring some of the broader problems,” the history of institutional sexism or something, but these are parallel problems and perhaps we ought to think more carefully about the way they are the same problem, and the way they are organically tied. The specificity usually with Lanny, the more I worked on it being a British, so the overheard material in Lanny, the pulling of the pints, the jokes, the level of immigration to that village, the history of the church, the mythic stuff, I felt that the more specific I made it, the more trans weirdly it had of traveling. Whereas, if you try and make something generic or universal, it’s just less good and the goodness should be the thing with literature, that should be what we’re paying attention to. With this one, I’m not so sure. I broke Hilary Mantel’s rule in this book of taking all the research out. It’s about a teenage boy and the culture is brag, and the culture is extremely specific about, “Which DJs do you love? Which ones have you seen play live? Who was the emcee that night? Was it a tape or a CD? Have you got the label?” etc. Shy is all show. I was joking earlier with Patrick about my American cousins coming over from DC and even in their first utterance like, “We want to hear about drum and bass,” we’re like, “Oh, so embarrassing. You don’t know anything about drum and bass.” [Laughs] That kind of extreme snobbery that any kind of tribal behavior engenders, particularly with music, particularly in the pre-digital era. You could spot Shy 50 yards down the road and tell you what type of music he was in because it was all on the body. One of the things I’ve learned from mentoring young people with these books and one of the things that I feel so ill-equipped to understand about the present is that the stuff is no longer visible. Young people these days laughed at me when I said, “But you all wear tracks, bottoms, trousers, and Nike Air Force exactly the same,” and they’re like, “Because our cultural styling is done online, so we’ve all got wildly different identities if you look at our snaps and you look at our, I don’t even know what they’re doing. [Laughter] Whereas we did it on the body. I think maybe those sorts of things, there’s more of a slippage between the American newest edition this time, yet American reviewers have engaged much more with how that’s done in the language of the book. The bombardment that Shy is in, the weather system in which he moves, social, political, colossal, anxiety, very, very violent bullying, these sorts of things, the way that I’ve done that as a series of juxtapositional collage elements is much more understood by the American reviewer as a literary tactic to try and get at something emotional. Maybe the specificity is in fact a block because English reviewers will go on about, “It’s Lynx Africa,” or “It’s 1995. He listens to tapes,” and that’s actually of course not the point. Those are the surface things.

DN: Yeah. You’ve described yourself as childlike and your books are all playful in a whole bunch of different ways. Some of your influences include poetry, comics, theater, music in this book and you see your use of the visual, the way things are laid out on the page, the use of white space, the attention to syntax, then I think with comics also, the way you play with the size of the fonts, changing fonts, so when we’re thinking about playfulness and the way you have characters in your previous books that hold the space of both the non-human and something outside of language beyond what you’re doing formally, so the crow and Dead Papa Toothwort, there doesn’t really seem to be that force in the same way. I won’t speak into some things that I think would be spoilers but in a way, it feels like we get all of these voices. There’s a mystery between the way your books are really small and also very spare but are read in a way that feels very maximalist and abundant. There’s an overflowing of voices, there’s an overflowing of sensation, there’s an overflowing of the musicality of the language and sometimes the words literally can’t be contained by the dimension of a page. But Shy doesn’t seem to have someone to talk to, the way, in your first two books, you have these non-natural voices. In a way, he feels adrift within this maximal sea of other people’s voices and the music in a weird way feels like maybe the refuge, the non-connotative refuge within a sea of everyone else’s words. This isn’t really a question but I guess I wanted to hear whether you recognize something about Shy in that description.

MP: I think that my tendency to go to the mythic or the non-human was a way of speaking more accurately to the human concerns before, particularly from the voyeuristic point of view but also potentially from a cathartic or even a philosophical overview of humanity that might yield something for the present. That’s what Dead Papa Toothwort was doing, that’s what Crow is doing. He’s known humans back and back. I guess it tricks the mentality there from a literary point of view. In this book, I didn’t want to afford to try anything like that. I had to get me out of that and my techniques out of that, and to create his extraordinary loneliness. But I realized that in order to portray this loneliness, and indeed his despair, there’s no getting around it. Shy is heading to the pond with a backpack of rocks. You don’t need to have read a lot of Virginia Woolf to know what he’s going to do. I think that what I found was that without the music, it was impossible to create a credible emotional stay for him because despair on its own felt too much like me as saying around him as a literary invention. He was saying to me but this isn’t it because despair and ecstasy are so tethered, so one of the things that he became so much more real to me when I gave him the music and he suddenly became really nothing to do with me was because that refuge that the music affords him but also that it is in his body, that it is his two-step mentality, it is his baseline, and it is his ornamentation, it is the patterning of his selfhood in a way that is unimaginable when you’re out of it, looking back at the teenage obsessions with music, it becomes him. I was really keen to find out the thing that becomes him in the same way as the village becomes Dead Papa Toothwort or Dead Papa Toothwort becomes the child, that interchangeability. Then with no spoilers, the reason that there is a mythic interruption was because of the preoccupation really with the everyday miracle of another consciousness acting upon him and the sheer good fortune of that but also the possibility for all of us that can occur. That if you are paying attention, there are Crows, there are Dead Papa Toothworts, there are mythic undertows, and there are also, I mean I never spell this out in the book of course because it would be really [inaudible] and the alarm would go off that this is a Max Porter book, but the membrane between the human and non-human is thin. What our attention is dialed up to be receptive to as indigenous cultures knew and scientists are now finding out again is an incredibly narrow amount. My obsession, you’ve probably heard me talking about this but The Golden Mole that Katherine Rundell wrote so beautifully about this year, there’s this mole that is iridescent, like a hummingbird’s throat but this mole lives underground and is blind, so it’s evolutionarily a puzzle why it would still have this capability even though it can’t be used. It’s because of its fur and the incredible softness and receptiveness of its fur. But what she reveals at the end of this piece is that humans also glow, we glow but our retinas aren’t dialed enough to see it, so that’s what’s happening with Shy. I suppose that takes the function of the Dead Papa Toothwort and the crow is just to show him this extraordinary range outside his current perception of what he is both capable of, and doesn’t need to know he’s capable of. I suppose it’s a tiny little bit of an homage to Slaughterhouse-Five in that regard when the Tralfamadorians come down. But just that sense of abject failure and shame not to have anything to offer them, but what you realize when you go back through Shy and when Shy goes back through that night is how much he does know about music and about the 60-million-year-old flint that Steve has told him about, and about his friends, about his place in the culture, about his shame, and about his parents. Actually, he’s been soaking up information the entire time he’s been screaming. If I’d had a mythic device, it would have been less of a gift to Shy to realize that he has that capability within him already.

DN: Well, staying with this notion of what happens when he’s confronted with another consciousness, I wanted to ask you a little bit more about your contract with the reader as the other consciousness in this book because this book, contrary to what I just said, I think both of these things are true, it feels very maximalist but it feels very distilled. I feel like I can feel all the work that has been written, then pulled out of the book. You’ve said that, I don’t know if it’s related to what you’ve pulled out, but there’s not exposition in the book, there’s not backstory in the book but you said you wanted each reader to create their own Shy. I imagine the excavation that happened as a space for the reader’s consciousness to go in and co-create the book with you. This is my one really random thing because it made me think, and this has nothing to do with the book but I’m going to read this just to see if this sparks anything for you, but it made me think of this interview with the French director Jean-Luc Godard. He’s talking about the difference between cinema and television, of course, this is before the internet, so before streaming. But I’m just going to read his quotes, then I want to hear if this at all relates to you for you. He says, “With cinema, you look up, with television, you look down. On TV there is no projection. There is a rejection—you are rejected in your armchair or on your bed. In pictures you are projected, but you still have to decide what to be. In TV there is just transmission of something. It’s peculiar to cinema to project, yes” then he says, “Cinema generates memory, television oblivion.” Somehow, I feel like “In pictures you are projected, but you still have to decide what to be” feels connected to your books to me. I wondered if there’s any resonance for you around that.

MP: Well, someone, maybe Sam Harris actually talked a little bit about the cinema as a metaphor for the mind that you are in the film but, of course, you are only still in a black box in a building and it’s daytime outside. I liked that as an analogy for the engagement with the work of art of any kind, especially in the age where we’re interrogating the institutional framework of the encounter a lot and I have done in my book about Francis Bacon a little bit about that. Yes, with the book as to use another cinematic reference, the Eisenstein montage quote that I’m so fixated about in John Burgess telling a bit of the juxtapositional energy of a sequence and that a gap between two still images is where meaning resides, and it’s the hinge of a metaphor, I mean that’s slightly dated because I don’t think you could put modern streaming TV into that formulation. He’s talking about the TV as it was in the 20th century. I think yes, that’s it. There wasn’t really a question, was it? You just wanted me to say yeah. [laughter] Absolument, oui. [Laughter]. I think the absence of exposition is a way of crediting your reader with enough cultural baggage, enough books they’ve read, TV shows they’ve seen, films they’ve seen, life they’ve lived, to not need to spoon-feed them. I’ve spoken in a way about the tradition of the social realist novel as relying on certain expositionary strategies and that being patronizing, it’s not. It’s just the way the novel developed from its 19th-century peak as it were through [inaudible]. Some people have done it brilliantly of course. Masterpieces have emerged from that scaffolding and from the way that’s filled in. But I guess I’ve always felt that the ongoing experience, the ripple effect of poetry, of what happens in a reader’s mind when you give them images, when they’ve stopped reading, and that’s not credited to the author, I suppose it’s an authorless thing, that the author is off the pedestal. Like Joyce Carol Oates said that thing recently about the sheer size of her [inaudible] and she was like, “Well, it’s all the work and read bits.” You don’t have to read it or read the ones that interest you. Some will be good, some will be bad but this sense that you just leave the work and people will find it, I’d just like to leave my books lying around and people will find them. But what I’m therefore saying to the reader is unfixed, unfinished fluid. The white space is an invitation for you to think, especially if we’re thinking about a volatile atom and the membrane. I’m not a cellular biologist but the cell itself only becomes alive when the membrane around it is charged. That’s a planetary thing. As well as every single thing that is made up of anything in this world from the stars to ourselves requires that charge and I feel the same about the work. I can’t dictate the charge that you bring to it. You are the membrane between it and the world, and you will bring your own psychosexual, political, religious, spiritual heritage to it and that charge will be profoundly different, and that excites me rather than frustrates me. But I meet writers for whom that’s a terrifying failure on their part or a source of chronic anxiety because they want meaning, they want to control meaning. But I think to do that with other books definitely but with something like Shy, the proposition of an unhappy person who is prevented from being reached by traditional linguistic means has to be something that you finish yourself.

DN: Yeah.

MP: I suppose the ambivalence built into the proposition of a novel in that way, they’re like ambivalence machines to me novels, therefore, in the same way, that has to be something you look up to from a position of mindful, it’s a bit like again, sorry, I’m listening to it right now, it’s a bit like Christina Sharpe talking about the making beauty. It’s an active thing. You have to actively come to this book and think about it. It’s not prescriptive or didactic in any way I hope. There was one bit in the first draft because I wrote Steve another 20,000 words, I wrote the mother another 20,000 words, I shuffled them, I played them and I realized I’d taken all the energy out of Shy. It had much more energy when I left it alone. There was one bit and I gave it to a great writer called Samantha Harvey who I saw in here earlier. She wrote an amazing book called The Shapeless Unease, which is about insomnia. She’s a really extraordinary and underappreciated stylist in the UK. She said, “Well, it’s great. I love Shy. It upset me.” She likened it to Mrs. Dalloway in terms of the consciousness, all very nice and she said, “But there’s one scene,” and before she even said what the scene was, I knew what she was going to refer to and it was when I had said what was wrong with Shy. The omnipotent narrator came in and said, “Because he’d done this thing, he felt this way.” Of course, once it’s pointed out to you, it’s crushingly terrible and appalling. But I can see looking back in a kind of analytical sense why I had done that was because I hadn’t trusted my reader or I had felt that I needed to predict or control their emotional response to it, which is fraudulent. You’d often just call that bad writing.

DN: Well, before we go to a Q&A, I did get one question from Twitter from the novelist Megan Barker who has a book Kit coming out and I discovered that your blurb is on this book actually.

MP: Before I stop blurbing. [laughter]

DN: But I’m going to join her question to something I’m curious about and make a hybrid question for you. To me, Shy seems trapped in the present tense. There’s no past, there’s no future, there’s no reflection in the book. It barrels forward, it’s full of a lot of interjections until he finds himself in the forest and only there it feels like the book enacts a continuity of thought. It feels to me like settle into Shy’s body as the protagonist. It made me think of a Jorie Graham line about deep time, “The practice of imagining the deep future is a mirroring activity of imagining the deep past.” It feels like that’s something that happens when he gets away from all these other voices and also makes me wonder if this is the one area that is really an ailment that we’re all suffering from, and it’s not Shy-specific. But Megan wonders, and this is a paraphrase, so this isn’t a quote but her questions about animism and her curiosity is how we reshape our sense of what it means to be human to change how we perceive to re-enter deep time would be my language, not only when we’re alone and meditative but among other voices and in the world. If you have any thoughts on animism, whether they’re related to time, I know that that’s something of interest to you and interests all these books.

MP: Yeah. Good question. Thanks for marrying them together so skillfully. I mean Shy, I wanted to give him retrocognition, precognition. The book is a hauntological animist proposition and Shy is at various times a proto mystic. He doesn’t realize he’s having epiphanies that might actually be world-changingly important epiphanies until a dead animal speaks to him. [Laughs] I think the study of deep time, as someone like Jorie Graham has repeatedly told us in such startling lyric formulations, is simultaneously profoundly cathartic and existentially devastating for the human project. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t do it, that’s one of the reasons why we can’t connect it with our lived experience, is because it’s inexplicable, it’s too much. Shy has a backpack full of rocks but he’s learned from one of his teachers that one of them is 60 million years old. We know that fact is going to do something to a consciousness like Shy’s. It’s going to startle or terrify him in equal measure or maybe connect to the projects of taking his own life in ways that we might not be able to predict because it’s hugely personal. I have a rock in my rock collection that is Lewisian gneiss. It’s thirty thousand million years old. To hold something in your hand, it presents you with cosmic irreconcilable vastnesses within you that are irritating and bleach for all of us in into unexpected places, crippling anxiety, violence, one can react violently to that information because it’s like, “Don’t give a caged animal a terrifying, clarifying piece of information,” but also the spiritual. For me, the fundamental animist proposition that other things beyond the human have personhood is such a corrective to the supremacy of the homo sapien anyway but also to the violence that we have done to ourselves in such a short space of time and that we’ve done to the planet in such a short space of time. I think to answer Megan’s question, one of the things one might do is make interventions at times like this, crucially, at times like this rather than to the more receptive, to the keen-to-learn kindergarten kid or to the already-converted peaceful human beings we find growing next to us in the forest, to arm a person with that humbling sense of themselves in relationship to others because what we’ve got to stop doing in my view is having these epiphanies too late in the game. I felt this in my first book. One of the things that happened, I saw someone being interviewed, was it Michael? Who’s the guy that wrote Moneyball? Lewis, yeah, he was on TV talking about the tragic death of his daughter and he said, “So I got to the age of 65 and had this terrible thing, and realized there was this planet of the grieving and I joined them, loved them, knew them, and felt welcomed by them.” I thought, “Wonderful,” but also extraordinary that you have such a type of intelligence but you have such a colossal absence of intelligence in this other area that it’s taken you to be 65 before you realize that we’re all in pain. I remember my brother saying this where there was some bully in the school and I was like, “What the f*ck is that guy’s problem?” and my brother was like, “He’s probably never lost anyone.” It was a razor-sharp analysis of my eight or nine-year-old brother because all he was saying is he doesn’t have our superpower, which is loss, which is pain because what it grows in you, what it germinates in you is this capacity to take yourself down to it and we find again and again and again that’s why Amitav Ghosh’s book The Nutmeg’s Curse is so world-changingly brilliant in my view because it reminds us that that’s why colonialism and the environmental crisis are one and the same thing because they are this act of deafness to our interdependency. People get to their deathbeds, it’s what I mean about Michael Lewis, they get to their deathbeds and you know that amazing study at Harvard, The Happiness Project, as if we should be surprised by this, of course, people on their deathbeds don’t talk about wealth, success, their Amazon reviews or whether they got a blurb from George Saunders, they talk about their relationships. We are relational. We are interdependent species living and sharing nutrients. Therefore, the Wood Wide Web discoveries have been so profound for me not just because it’s incredible, the trees are altruistic but more than that, more refreshingly and useful for our purposes as educators of one another, of keepers of different forms of information and communicative strategies is that they’re also jealous, confrontational, and selfish. Species eradications happen all the time, so we’ve got to stop romanticizing this idea of the animus proposition and actually use it to survive. It’s a survival mechanism. We cannot do this with gadgetry, we cannot do it by flying to Mars or doing Twitter events with Ron DeSantis. [Laughter] That’s not how we’re going to be able to do it. But the problem is that capitalism at the caged animal is so violent that every attempt gets [belittled], that’s why the accusation of sentimentality actually delights me. It’s like, “Sentimental is the f*ck*ng first step. We’re going all the way. We’re going to actually have to love one another.” That’s why Rebecca Solnit’s new work about hope after such an extraordinary career as someone spreading the gospel of anxiety and fear, she’s way ahead of us because it’s going to be not just “You’re a hippie, you’re mad, you’re sentimental, you’re compassionate. Grow up. Stop being so naive,” all the things that the screaming teenager is saying, that’s not right. It’s not right. I think going backward to what we knew before and what we’ve unlearned, Shy’s bafflement to adult life, are we going to end up his stepdaddy and just playing golf and worrying about his gutters and buying his car? He’s right. It’s extremely strange. It’s extremely strange from a spiritual point of view as well as a practical one because there’s work to do. If Shy is frightened of that work and wants to bail, this is a completely non-judgmental book and it’s coming from a position of understanding that at the species level as well as an individual level, and I think some of that connecting where we are as individuals, that’s why Brexit was such a heartbreak to me because it’s such a daft, daft mentality. It has been so counterproductive and so detrimental to our species so many times in the past, so to repeat that mistake knowing what we now know is enraging. I’ve rambled, I’m sorry but it’s the ugliest book of mine so far but I hope the baseline concealed within it of hope and generosity to one another makes it my most loving book so far as well.

DN: Yeah, I think it is. Thank you, Max Porter.

MP: Thanks, David.


DN: We’re recording this, so if you’re okay being in the recording for the podcast, you can come up and I’ll give you the microphone and ask a question. If you’re not okay being in the recording, you can just ask a question from your seat. If you consent to potentially being in it, you can come up and I’ll hand you the microphone if anyone has any questions.

Audience 1: Thank you guys for the lovely, astute conversation. This is a little bit of a simpler question but pigging backing on talking about being on your deathbed and we come down to all relationships, and also your interest in collaboration, I’m really curious, in this [inaudible] of boyhood, how you have been influenced by or maybe in conversation with your children as you work on those books. Are they active participants? Or how do you have conversations in your mind in regards to parenting and their being active participants in your life?

MP: Beautiful. Thanks. I think one of the things I’ve been struck by is the temporal aspect to it all that Monday’s crisis can’t be resolved on Monday and will look very different on Tuesday. I’m a very impatient person, so I’ve found that to be quite a profound realization, so I’m married to someone that is very patient and is therefore fundamentally a better parent than I am. [Laughs] But we make quite a good team because I’m all explosive, a panic and she’s a calm, wise, intuitive person. You need a bit of both maybe sometimes. I had a thing recently when my eldest son who’s glued to his mobile phone as many people his age are, as many people as full stop are, he started telling me about something very unpleasant conspiracy theory and I erupted. I was really angry and shocked because it was a devastating thing to him, my child coming out with this stuff. Of course, it was the terrible mistake that people in this book make and that we make, and that I’ve observed other people making, which is I didn’t let him finish. What he was in fact going to tell me was it was an anti-semitic conspiracy theory and how shocking that was, and he’d been reading about it. The poor kid, it’s not like he was just looking at a show on YouTube, he was reading a History Today magazine article about the pernicious longevity of anti-semitic conspiracy theories in which he’s going to talk to me about it. I flew off the handle and said, “You’re not having your mobile phone anymore. I knew this would happen, blah-blah-blah. I’m going to put a Google block on.” I don’t know what’s a Google block, I don’t know. [laughter] “I’m going to talk to my close personal friend, Musk, about this.” But what it taught me was some of the insights I’m gaining as a writer in relation to made-up people in my books I’m not applying to my own life and I found that interesting and clarifying. One of the things, again, perhaps I’ve done better in my writing life than I have in my real life is the absence of comparative thinking, comparative parenting. You have to pay attention to the line you’re in. You have to make the books more themselves. It’s such a fool’s errand and rightist of all stages do it but you’re writing, then you read the new Jorie Graham, and you’re like, “Damn, I’m not as good as Jorie Graham,” and various imitative things would creep in, you’d be trying to make your work more like Jorie Graham or whatever. I really think with my children, I’ve worked incredibly hard to think of them as individuals and to not apply moral panics, diagnostic language, or cause-and-effect thinking. I’m not trying to cure these children. I’m trying to let them be and I’ve learned that slowly. I think also with boys, this sense that they are just in this linguistically and behaviorally, that they are in this pickle that we’ve got them in the boomer mentality also like, “We f*cked it, so you’re going to have to fix it,” which is so dangerous and is such a counterproductive mentality to give to young people because it’s giving them a problem before they even had a chance to make their own problems of course. Until we make our own problems, we can’t devise ways to fix them. I think I’ve been really attuned to the ways that they won’t be worried about the same things I’m worried about and they won’t have the same language I have for that concern, and that every generation of parents realize that as well I suppose, and sometimes too late. When they were younger, I worried that they didn’t draw, so I did this ridiculous panicked dash to Hobbycraft and bought more pencils, and of course, that’s not what makes them draw. But if I leave the paper around, sure enough, they’ll draw. Even if they weren’t drawing, I’m sure they’re doing something else. The trust economy that I’ve put so much freight in as a writer, trusting my collaborators, trusting my readers, why have I not applied the same to my children who of course have turned out wildly different than I expected and super cool and interesting. I don’t know if I answered your question but I’m learning. [Laughter] Not having a dad and realizing through this work and through going to palliative care conferences to deliver lectures and stuff, I realize the extent to which we trap our parents dead or alive in narrative frameworks to serve our purposes, like day-to-day emotional purposes or also longer-term political or spiritual purposes, and how cruel and unimaginative that is to them. Like the kids in my first book saying that we were careful to name her granny when dad became granddad, the sense always, again, it’s a hauntological thing I think of, there are ghosts in the room and we are remiss if we don’t remember that, the idea that we are here and the lived present is this privileged point of view, like we have to think of the scores decades billions behind us and that might help us think more fruitfully about the people that are to come. I think that works as a model agriculturally. I think it works as a model politically. The capitalist fetishization of the present profit over long-term gain is bizarre and frightening, and it’s nothing like having children to clarify that I suppose.

Audience 2: First, I wanted to say I don’t know how you do it as a parent write books that when you pick them up, you immediately are like, “I can’t put this down because I’m going to go to bed traumatized if this kid dies,” like how do you do that? [Laughs] But also, I was curious, I read this and I loved it when Lanny asked, “Which do you think is more patient, an idea or hope?” I noticed that in this book, then as you’ve been talking about your other books, a lot of your writing has to do with time and how you use that on your pages, obviously, you’re very artistic with how you do that, I love that, but what would you say, how would you answer that question: what do you think is more patient?

MP: Well, I would answer that question because I wrote that question as a question that would annoy Robert at 3:00 AM. [Laughter] Often, people quote that and say like, “If you like books where people say [inaudible] this to each other,” I’m like, “No, no, no. People don’t say [inaudible] to each other in this book.” One child says that at one point in his stressed dad’s life, when the dad’s got to get up in three hours and it’s a way of throwing into a shocked crisis that relationship, which is malfunctioning between Lanny and his father but I do think it’s a cool question. I suppose it’s like one of those riddles that doesn’t really have an answer but I have come to realize that it’s the same, that what people often call hope in a lazy way of something that is tethered to the future, it’s a bit like forgiveness needing both parts, so you can’t just make an apology, it has to be heard. The radical act of forgiving oneself or being forgiven requires the apology to be heard and accepted, and that requires in itself faith, so hope requires faith. You can’t just have hope notionally. It has to be built on or connected organically to a foundation of onward belief and that to me is what ideas are. They are gestures into the shared space. If I wasn’t a sleep-deprived city banker at 3:00 AM losing his temper with his son, I think I would want to sit down and talk about it because I think again, it’s just this tyranny of hope as a framework that we irresponsibly slide to younger generations. Literally like, “Oh, you come up with the tidal energy form,” or you’ll somehow unpick yourself from the way that these phones have enslaved you all and created a mental health disaster to the scale of which we could never have imagined even 10 or 15 years ago. Gotta have hope. [Laughter]  Hope, hope, hope. I remember during the pandemic, my neighbors wrote HOPE in big letters on their wall and I was like, “Why hope? Like vaccines, like global cooperation between nations to ensure vaccine equality but hope, I’m not sure.” Then good conversations with my kids who were like, “I think what it means is hope that people will do exactly that. Everyone’s hope is different, Dad.” I was like, “Alright, you brilliantly clever little guy.” I don’t know but I like that you would ask it. But also the terror is the thing, the anxiety, what I was saying about grief earlier, the crippling uncertainty, the restlessness to address with as much exactitude as we possibly can, the various different crises that we are in personally and as a group, that refusal to settle on pre-existing ideas of solution or even cause and effect, that’s when you have ideas, it’s in the crisis, it’s in the difficulty. It’s a bit like the question was, “Is difficult poetry worth persevering?” Because it is on your second or third attempt at a difficult thing that hope or clarification does emerge. They’d be manifestos, I always call them in the UK anti-tabloid devices books because the reproduction and regurgitation of existing narratives of bigotry, xenophobia, or racism, it’s just the unexamined life, it’s just a pure junk product being sold to the lowest common denominator, just for the recycling profit. What hope and complex crisis conversations and pain and healing, what those things allow is progress for us all as thinking, feeling beings.

DN: Well, sadly, we’re getting the signal we’re out of time.

MP: Who holds the signal? I didn’t see it. [Laughter] For our listeners, oh, it’s a beautiful modern dance only at Powell’s. [Laughter]

DN: I hope you’ll come back to Portland again. Let’s give a big round of applause to Max Porter. [Applause]

Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find out more about Max Porter’s work at If you enjoyed today’s conversation, consider joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation of things I discovered while preparing for the conversation, things referenced during it, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards including the bonus audio archive, which includes Max’s reading of the poem he wrote for the singer-songwriter Joan Shelley, the Tin House early readership subscription getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at