Max Porter @ UEA Literature Festival

For some booksellers, their daily immersion in the literary world helps them in their own efforts at writing.

Max Porter, however, found the opposite, saying that it generated an anxiety that was far from helpful when it came to his writing career.

Indeed, it was only later on, when he was working as an editorial director in book publishing, that he released a book of his own, a novel called Grief is the Thing With Feathers.

At a UEA Literary Festival event, Porter admitted that his expectations for his 2015 debut novel were modest.

“I was fully expecting to sell [only] a few hundred copies, to my mates and my family,” he said at a discussion moderated by Dr Philip Langeskov, a senior lecturer in creative writing.

As someone who regularly edited the work of other writers, Porter even thought it was “ill advised” for him to release a book of his own.

However, he need not have worried, as Grief is the Thing With Feathers garnered enthusiastic reviews – The Guardian described it as “an astonishing debut” – and won the International Dylan Thomas Prize. It was also shortlisted for two other literary awards and has been widely translated.

Four years on and Porter is back with his second novel, Lanny, which centres on a couple who move out of London to a village 60 miles from the capital, only for their son, whom the book is named after, to go missing. The book also features contributions from Dead Papa Toothwort, described in an Evening Standard review as a “ghostly character”.

Max Porter at UEA Lit Fest

That same review praised the novel as a whole, but cautioned that Dead Papa Toothwort’s reveries of “long, nonsensical sentences curling around the page” were likely to appeal primarily to the more experimental reader.

During his appearance at the UEA, Porter was unabashed about his enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries of literary form.

“I’m interested in energy. I want the prose to have energy. I want the juxtaposition of different literary forms to have energy. You don’t tend to find that in standard literary prose,” he said.

“The realist mode and pure prose isn’t going to be my thing. What I’m interested in is hybridity. The main similarity between the two books is I write them as collage.”

When describing his method of writing, Porter indicated that it was no less straightforward than the finished product itself.

“I build again and take away again and I hope that way, good things happen,” he said.

“When you’re in the prose-poetry area, you hope what’s taken away is still present for the reader, or is at least white space through which the reader can move.”

An experienced book editor himself, Porter has enjoyed the tables being turned so that, instead, it is he who is being edited by others.

“I adore being edited. It’s like being lost in the woods, then suddenly they’re right there – people with snack bars and map and water,” he said, adding that different editors has a different “editorial sensibility” to each other.

During his own editing work at the publisher Granta, Porter said he tried to help the author write the book they were aiming to write – not write the book he wanted to write.

“When I was working at Granta, I was never making the books more Max Porter books,” he said.

Max Porter

Animated in his comments – he gave a particularly memorable reading from Lanny during which he moved between two microphones as he voiced the words of two characters – Porter indicated that talking his young children was helpful for his writing.

“If anything, what we lose as adults is the manoeuvrability between the existing and the imagination. Adults become boring, not to mention tiresomely self-conscious,” he said.

Porter’s success has moved beyond just the bookshops, with Lanny being turned into a film starring Rachael Weisz.

This screen adaptation follows on from Grief is the Things with Feathers having last year been turned into a play with the Irish actor Cillian Murphy.

Porter indicated that the turning of his debut novel into a play had been a very positive experience, saying that it has offered “extraordinary insight”.

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