Interview with Max Porter, author of LANNY

By Kateri Kramer

Lanny* begins with a similarly unique aesthetic to Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. As you’re writing a first, or second, or third draft, how do you find the tone of the piece and what does that look like on the page to you?

It feels more like music, or one-pot-cookery, than writing. One thing feels right or true or has a certain interesting energy, and then I set the next thing up in relation to that, to move the energy where I want it to go. This usually starts from the line and develops upwards. I’ll have a turn of phrase and I might let that sit for a bit, or speak it out loud, and decide what’s needed next, growing the prose from whatever was in that original line. If I have to stop and doodle, or strip everything back and start again with the line I began with, then good. That’s the fun stuff.

Before, you’ve said that Grief Is the Thing with Feathers doesn’t fit neatly into any singular genre, which is one of the reasons that I love it. Do you feel the same about Lanny? Have you always found yourself drawn to hybrid work in your writing? In your reading?

I have, but Lanny also seems to me much more invested in and in dialogue with the conventions of the novel than Grief did. I want the reader of Lanny to be thinking about the novel, about where the ambiguity is, where the power is; where the artificiality of the set-up might ask the reader to consider inherent qualities of the experience of reading a novel that a less hybrid set-up might gloss over or deny. Lanny still borrows from other genres (especially play scripts and children’s books) but I don’t really think of it that way when I’m writing. I just make it how it needs to be made. It’s an almost pre-rational commitment to the sound and architecture of the language world. Only later can I see what I was up to, and possibly even say why!

It seems that hybridity and fiction might be trending in the same direction as non-fiction and hybridity, gaining a more predominant place on the bookshelf. When you were working as an editor at Granta, did you see a trend? Do you see anything differently as a writer?

I saw a very encouraging amount of play with form, in both fiction and nonfiction. I sometimes felt this experimentalism came at the expense of intellectual or technical rigour, but that’s why it’s exciting to follow writers as they develop and work in different areas. But you know writers have always been making interesting work, it’s publishers that were scared. Writers aren’t scared. And it took a few key successes for publishers to realise readers weren’t scared either. Readers don’t fixate on genre or need to be spoon-fed. Publishers tend to realise this in cycles. We are in a good cycle for brave, bold, challenging and beautiful work, especially in the lovely rich delta where poetry, memoir and fiction meet.

Human beings are, I think, by nature, hybrid beings. We’re made up of so many things––stories, cities, joy, sorrow, our mother’s influence, our father’s influence. Lanny seems to be the perfect example of this. A beautiful jumble of Mother-Father-Stories-Wonder-Pete-Daydreams-Art-Empathy. I’ve often wondered if hybridity, is then, the best way to convey the human condition on the page. The essence of a person distilled into words and whitespace. Have you found that need for hybridity in your own work that grapples with the messiness of what it is to be a person? And how important is hybridity to you?

That’s nice. Yes. You could go further and accept that we are fractured, there’s no such thing as personhood, we are just shifting (collapsing) constructions and there are these fortunate sweet spots when we encounter some art that speaks of this, and to this, and it’s briefly electrifying. Hybridity is evidently historically accurate, in terms of how culture evolves. But in terms of setting pen to paper, it isn’t as important to me as melody, or truth, or wit. Those are the things I’m worrying about. I wouldn’t think, as I write, of terms such as hybrid. Because if I’m doing it right I’m thinking about the macro stuff, utterly obsessed with the play of light on surface, and there’s no time for worrying about what form it is when you’re in deep like that.

In both Grief Is the Thing with Feathers and Lanny, (at least in the beginning), each character has their own section, delineated by a bolded title. Can you talk a little bit about why you made that decision?

Just pure straightforwardness and unashamed formal bareness, borrowed perhaps from the oral tradition. The speaker stands, announces himself, and begins the story.

Lanny is such a unique and beautiful character, a boy unlike any that I’ve read about before. What made you want to write about a boy like him?

Thank you, I’m glad you like him. I wanted to evoke eccentricity, but also something like natural goodness, at the same time as I’m severely questioning the dangers of such thinking. I wanted to make an absence (where is he? who is he?) that could be loved, and understood. And, because I see it in my own children and young people, I also wanted to make a direct connection between his love of the natural world and the kind of radical ecological re-thinking that is now very urgent. He intuits the Anthropocene. He hasn’t yet got caught up in the guzzling, frantic, complicit poisoning of adult life. In this respect he is purely and simply a pagan.

When you’re not working on a manuscript, what do you enjoy writing?

Just notes. Drawings. Little pieces. I start a thing, and pin a load of scraps of text on the wall, then I move on. Fiddling about, waiting for each project’s structural solution to arrive so I can get on with the fun stuff, the hard stuff.

You mentioned that when you were a bookseller, you’d jot down ideas on bus or tube tickets and scraps of paper. Do you still do this?

Never as much as I’d like, but yes. I’m sad to say I use NOTES on my iPhone more than I should. I’m totally enslaved to that piece of shit.

Last question: for those drawn to hybrid literature, regardless of genre, who are some authors or books you’d recommend?

  • Annie Ernaux
  • Fanny Howe
  • Susan Howe
  • Ocean Vuong (have you read his novel yet? Holy smokes)
  • Will Eaves
  • Sophie Collins
  • Will Harris

*Featured illustration by Kateri Kramer

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Kateri Kramer is a writer and illustrator living in Colorado. She is a graduate of the Mile High MFA at Regis University where she studied nonfiction. She also enjoys exploring the Rockies, baking, and rock climbing. Her work can be found at www.katerikramer.com. Kateri had the opportunity to meet Max in Albuquerque last winter during his promotion of Lanny.