“It Felt Like A Fever” – Author Max Porter On Creating His New Novel Shy
In the summer of 2021, the author Max Porter dreamed of a boy walking through the woods that encircle his home city of Bath in England. “The membrane between the boy and the woods was thin, like he was glitching,” he recalls, sitting on a lock gate by the Kennet and Avon Canal, pointing towards the apparently haunted woodland where he imagined the boy. Porter had spent the previous year on projects unrelated to prose (including an art installation film with the actor Cillian Murphy and writing lyrics to music with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy). Waiting for his next novel to come along “was starting to feel like a fever”, he says. Then all of a sudden he woke up one day and it was there: his emotionally tormented, soon-to-be protagonist was “in [me] like a poltergeist”. Shy is the book that spilled out; the entire first draft written in just three weeks.
It doesn’t usually happen like this. It was, says Porter, “the first time I’d done no drawings or research”, but he has grown used to the unexpected. His 2015 debut novel Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, about a father and his two sons mourning the loss of their matriarch in the company of a cacophonous crow, was bought by its American publisher for £1,000. They expected it to sell 60 copies. The now-bestseller has been translated into 27 languages and adapted into a celebrated stage play.
Despite his debut’s unexpected success, the pressure hasn’t changed how Porter writes. “I’ve been lucky enough that that’s always been my starting point: making the work I love,” he says. “I don’t have to steer my ship back towards what I want to do.”
His latest novel is the story of a disenfranchised teenager named Shy making a morbid pilgrimage to take his own life. Porter explores the boy’s past through the detached voices of others: his anguished mother, a ghost, and the staff at the school for troubled children where he lives.
The author speaks of his characters as if he didn’t create them but discovered them in his dreams. Shy, he says, “might not be able to express himself very well but his political compass is impeccable”. Irish actor Murphy, who starred in the stage version of Grief, noticed this too: “There is a humanity and a fragility to [Porter’s] characters and work that breaks your heart,” he told Service95. “But he does it with wit and care.”
In both Grief and Shy, children and young people are written with the kind of respect and emotional precision they’re seldom afforded outside young adult fiction. It’s a reflection of Porter’s perspective on the power found in adolescence. “I hate that we belittle the ferocity of the teenage experience,” he says. “It’s an in-built psychological snobbery that I think is not only antiquated but dangerous, and counterproductive. As a society we could listen better to teenagers. We wish adult society could be like that.”
Shy may primarily be a period piece about a boy and his sadness, but it also functions as a modern parable for the way we’re crying out for help in a world on fire. The morning Max and I meet, the IPCC has issued a ‘final warning’ to policy makers to combat the climate crisis or face irreversible damage. “There’s this sense that scientists are just screaming at the world to listen to them,” says Porter. “That felt very Shy-like to me.”
London-based writer Douglas Greenwood is a contributing editor at i-D magazine, and has written for titles including the New York Times, GQ and Vogue