A Walk with Max Porter
Max Porter is a keen swimmer. This is the first thing I learn about him when we meet in Bath, where he lives with his wife and three sons, having moved out of south London four years ago. In summer he frequently cuts through the park at the back of his house and wades into the River Avon, letting the current carry him downstream beneath the low hanging trees. He can even swim to his local and climb into the beer garden from the riverbank, although this does require an accomplice to be waiting for him with a pint of cider. We agree his contactless card probably wouldn’t survive the swim.
Porter is also a concerned citizen. As we cross the playing field that leads down towards the river, he warns me of the amount of dog shit that plagues the park, and how his three young sons routinely end up covered in it. So perturbed is he with the constant fouling that he’s written a short piece for Radio 4 about the issue. Something that quickly becomes apparent in conversation with Porter is his restless creativity, and the variety of projects this creates.
He previously spent seven years working for British publishing house Granta (with his last two years spent as Editorial Director), editing acclaimed novels such as Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, before throwing his hat in the ring with the astonishing 2015 debut Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Grief was the result of a years-long email chain Porter had running with himself, sending bits and pieces back and forth which he eventually shaped into a book. As he mentions at one point, he still has ‘all sorts of detritus,’ from the process.
'Grief' was followed in 2019 by Lanny, Porter’s thrillingly experimental tale of a missing child in a commuter belt village that’s watched over by the ancient, voyeuristic, shape-shifting entity, Dead Papa Toothwort. Then, earlier this year he published The Death of Francis Bacon, Porter’s attempt to create ‘writing as painting.’ But his literary output is really only one facet of his work.
Were it not for the pandemic, Porter would have been on tour with Will Oldham, AKA Bonnie “Prince” Billy (another Drake’s associate), and guitarist Nathan Salsburg, performing their collaborative EP 'Three Feral Pieces', comprised of music by Oldham and Salsburg, and lyrics by Porter. He also hand painted the album’s artwork, which he shows me on his phone. Oldham and Porter first joined forces last year for a book-length game of “would you rather?”, which was published by Rough Trade.
We also discuss a short film he’s made with Cillian Murphy, who starred in Enda Walsh’s stage adaptation of Grief. Porter describes the film as an apology, first from a man to his family, then all men to all women, then humankind to the planet. ‘You know, wanky stuff like that,’ he adds. It isn’t hard to see why so many artists want to work with Porter. Engaging, generous with his time, and wholly unpretentious, he seems to be the ideal collaborator. That is, when he isn’t focusing on his next book.
As we walk alongside the river, he tells me that he’s beginning a new novel on Monday, when his kids finally return to school (we meet in early March 2021, when schools in the UK are preparing to reopen). For the past few months, Porter (along with nearly every other parent in the country) has also been a homeschooler. It sounds as if it’s been a challenge, with one or two Zoom-based literary festivals being partially derailed by his eldest son’s boisterous Call of Duty sessions just off camera. Though, as he’s careful to point out, he did write the entirety of The Death of Francis Bacon during the first lockdown, so it hasn’t exactly been an unproductive time.
The further we walk, the stranger our surroundings seem to become. We pass under a hulking concrete bridge daubed with Wu-Tang graffiti and bizarre covid conspiracy messages. We then reach the ruins of a sunken house which is gradually being unearthed and reassembled by a family that have claimed a small patch of land beside the river. Porter explains how a handful of people live wild along this stretch of the Avon, getting their water from a nearby spring that comes all the way down from the hills outside Bath.
As we arrive at an abandoned BMX track deeper in the wood, it begins to feel like we’re no longer a stone’s throw from the Morrisons carpark in the centre of town, but have instead wandered into a landscape straight from Porter’s imagination. It’s familiar but strange. Bucolic, yet oppressive in an unspecific way. Our environs feel ancient, but they’re peppered with reminders of modernity, like looming electricity pylons and bits of discarded tarpaulin.
Going on a walk like this in Porter’s company connects his fiction to his environment in a very real way. Looking around through a sort of Porter lens, you begin to see the raw materials that went into Lanny scattered everywhere. Lanny’s ostensible villain, Dead Papa Toothwort, is sometimes made up of used condoms or fly-tipped bathtubs, sometimes scraps of pottery from earlier civilisations: the things that are always under our feet but rarely noticed. This elevation of discarded things is reflected in Porter’s approach to language. Toothwort lies in the earth underneath pubs or hides in hedgerows to catch snippets of conversation – ‘a lemonade top not a bloody shandy,’ ‘man so sick of trappy beats’ – which seem to in some way sustain him. At times, Lanny reads like a celebration of the rhythm of everyday speech, the kind of genuine modern colloquialisms that we all recognise, but which never appear in literary fiction.
While the bird he’s most associated with might be a crow, Porter takes something of a magpie approach to his work, digging gems out of unlikely places, refusing to distinguish between high and low, trash and treasure, old and new. There’s perhaps even a certain Englishness to this ethos: as Porter points out, Lanny wasn’t quite as well received in the States, as Americans have ‘a different relationship to litter.’
It’s illuminating to see the world like this, and after Porter and I part ways, the filter lingers for a short time. How did that plastic bag get all the way up there? What’s that moving in the undergrowth? Is that crow looking at me?