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An Exclusive Interview with Max Porter on Shy

Posted on 16th March 2023 by Anna Orhanen

Full of deep sympathy, nuance and unexpected humour, Shy is the new novel from the acclaimed author of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers and the Waterstones Book of the Year-winning Lanny. Set in the mid-nineties, it follows a few hours in the life and mind of a drum and bass-obsessed teenage boy staying at the Last Chance – a home and school for ‘extremely disturbed young men’. In this exclusive interview, Max Porter talks to Anna Orhanen about Shy, the crisis of empathy, education, mental health, music and mortality.

AO: Why did you want to write this story and why now?

MP: I was working on some other projects, and I had researched a Victorian book and a medieval book and I’d written a book about a funeral train – and they had all been not right for now. One of them was too bleak, too unrelentingly angry about this country and the way in we which treat vulnerable people and perform or monetise or compete for authenticity in the arenas of grief and parenting; it had a kind of anger and hurt at the centre of it that I felt was actually not very nice for people to read. The medieval book I’d been researching, which had a character a bit like Shy in it, is now actually going to become a play.

So, I was feeling really blocked up and thought to myself ‘well, I don’t need to write a book, but where is this life that I seek? Why isn’t anything pouring out?’ And it was the end of the long summer of 2021, the day the kids went back to school, that I had this experience – I don’t want to use language like a trance or a flow, but it was very much a possession in me: I literally ran into my office and wrote Shy. I’d had a strange experience in the woods earlier and I’d had a dream of this person, this boy into whom other consciousnesses were sliding, both human and also ghosts – a teenage boy just being bombarded by all this – and I thought if I could find a way to translate this instinct about this person into a literary texture then that’s what I wanted to do. So I wrote Shy in a kind of trance – it poured out like nothing else. 

And to answer your question of why now, I suppose I am at a point in my career where my preoccupation about how to get inside the minds of others and how to use multiple voices to create a living collaborative thing on the page for the reader needed to reach its peak and has sort of reached its peak with this book. I think I am moving onto something different next time with my novels. 

And now also because we are in a crisis – a crisis of empathy that’s deranging human spirit, not least the moral spirit, in this country and elsewhere. I really wanted to do this thing of using beautiful tools, literary tools, to look at something as unhappy and as angry and conventionally deemed to be ugly as someone who wants to take their own life, and make it wholly understandable and very hopeful. That felt like a lovely response in me to the work I’ve done before but also to the existential crisis of living now.

AO: There’s so much to unpack here, but perhaps we can start with Shy himself and his impulse for self-harm. One of the things that moved me most in the novel was how it captures the pain of being a teenager, when you’re both missing things from your childhood and wanting to be an adult already – this in-betweenness, a sense of being, to use Shy’s phrase, ‘bullied by time’. Was there a specific reason you felt compelled to explore teenage experience and mental health in particular?

MP: I think we sometimes belittle or patronise teenage pain or seek to diagnose it, and when we write about children or teenagers who want to take their own life, there’s often a sense that ‘you’ll get over it’ or ‘you’ll start to think more clearly’. I wanted to take teenage mental health as seriously as possible. I didn't want to belittle that impulse; I wanted to flood the novel with idea that it's fine – not ‘fine’ in a way that enables Shy to hurt himself, but in a way that proposes that he is understood, that his desire isn’t a passing fad, and that he might live with it forever. 

The tendency in the pharmaceutical model in the recent years has been to find out what’s wrong with people and medicate them or diagnose them, and diagnostic language is incredibly problematic anyway. I was very influenced by my friend and Faber label-mate Nathan Filer’s book about schizophrenia, This Book Will Change Your Mind About Mental Health (first published under the title The Heartland), which is a brilliant read about what diagnostic language is – the way it can be a trap and exasperate inequality and the cruellest aspects of our society. And I wanted to rescue Shy from that – I didn’t want to write about Shy; I wanted to be him and feel as him in all the lost-ness and transience you describe, but also from the point of view of discussions about suicide, and my experience of suicide among young people.

AO: This brings me back to the crisis of empathy you mentioned, and the moral crisis in our society. How much did you as a writer want to explore, through the story of Shy, the question of social versus individual responsibility – that is, how much of Shy’s problems and the problems he is causing are cooked in the society he lives in? 

MP: I never want to spell this out, in the same way that I didn’t want Lanny to be a Brexit novel, but I guess all I’ve done is to make it obvious that the people working in that establishment [the Last Chance] are the best of us. To surround yourself with people who treat you like shit and swear at you all day, everyday, simply because you believe that we cannot be a society that just gives up on our most vulnerable people or condemns them to prison or poverty – to me, those people are our society.

AO: Yes, the question of how to offer and accept help really runs deep in Shy, and as a reader I felt that a lot of the hopefulness in this novel springs precisely from these relationships and friendships that grow – against all odds, as it were – in the Last Chance.

MP: Yes, in a way I wanted to create a sort of teen, smelly utopia among them. They don’t have the language to explain why they care about each other – they have these tools which are drum and bass, spliffs, cigarettes, and sudden bursts of incredible violence – but they do have between them, astonishingly, a sort of proto- or pre-linguistic or ghostly quality in their emotional terrain, which is where I think the hope ultimately lies in this book, yes. It is not a romantic book, though, because the day after the book ends Shy might take his own life or go and do something really stupid and end up in prison. But I hope that doesn't affect the fundamental hope that is in it.

I just read this book by Richard Reeds, Of Boys and Men, which is kind of about the malaise of men – suicide as an epidemic, underachieving educationally – and how across the board men are failing. It looks at the psychological implications of that for raising boys, what are the responsibilities of government, and why – when we’re dealing with the colossal scale of misogyny as a historical force – should we suddenly worry about how the boys are feeling. So, I was thinking about how you reconcile these different things as an individual, as an institution like a school, and then as a nation, and where does the writer – someone who makes up stories for a living – sit in between those things.

AO:  It's really visceral, the way the book captures this discrepancy between Shy’s inner life and the way he might appear to the world – as a sort of menace and perhaps a representative of toxic masculinity. Yet, as one of the adults running the Last Chance points out, Shy is also ‘a lucky little bastard’ – way more fortunate than most of his peers (he is white, his parents love him, he has a secure home, food, clothes, records, friends and he’s ended up at the Last Chance instead of a prison). Were you at any point concerned about writing about the pain of an angry white young man instead of someone perhaps less privileged?

MP: Yes, this is a big issue because we’re living in an age where we’re policing each other’s writing and we are rightly in a time of multiple identity crises. I can deal with that as a reader by reading as widely as I possibly can. As a reader I am completely free. But as a writer I do have to be more sophisticated in my choices and write into areas that are available to me without causing an offence. There’s enough offence in the world as it is. I believe in the freedom to cause and take offence, I just don't think it's often very interesting. And the answer to the (usually manufactured) crisis of ‘there’s nothing left for me to write about’ – is (a) bollocks, there's the whole world... and (b) well don't then. Writers should relish the chance to learn, and listen, and change, and if that's too gruelling then change jobs. 

So yes, Shy yearns to be like his best friend, who is Black, and his best friend yearns for Shy, who is white, to wake up and realise the enormous power imbalance between them – the vast gulf between their daily experiences growing up in suburban England. I only need do it glancingly, as part of their lives, they're not essays, they're characters living lives, and they are learning that if you’re awake in this world you shouldn’t be trampling on other people’s identities causing offence for clicks or kicks; you should be attuned to the way power and inequality function in this world, as a way of living. 

And Shy is both blindingly ignorant of it – because he’s an idiot teenage boy who is completely self-obsessed and really stoned – but he is also, weirdly, far more sophisticated than your average rent-a-gob tabloid prick talking about migrants, because he gets it. Shy gets it because at the Last Chance, they are living together, hurting together, growing together, so they are innately, intricately politically sophisticated in a way we might have lost in the "adult" world. 

AO: Beautifully put. I’d love to ask you about music next, it plays such an essential role in the book both in terms of the story, drum and bass being pretty much the only emotional release Shy has, and in the way the narrative is composed. You have all these different elements – Shy’s inner monologue, voices from the past, present and future, dreams, snippets of conversations and lyrics, all sampled together – coming in like various instruments and communicating with each other. How big an influence was music, and drum and bass in particular, for you in writing Shy?

MP: Music is important to me anyway, because it is my greatest love, and I always feel that if I can treat being a novelist more like being a musician then that would be a good thing. Both in terms of the craft – the concentration and practice that is required to get better at it – but also as a relationship with the audience. I want to create energy between the text and the reader that goes off into the world like music does, rather than the kind of insular within its own emotional and political parameters, self-policing thing that literature often does. I want the work to be more like music if I can, in various ways. 

It's lovely that you say multiple instruments because I think of it like a sequenced piece of electronic music: in comes the bassline, and in come all these various different elements – the badgers, the ghosts, the voices of adults – that are sequenced as if it’s on Logic or something. And then I thought what would be the bassline for the novel – would it be Shy, or his suicidal impulse, or education? Ultimately I decided that the bassline in this book is the kind of hauntology – the reader’s sense that the consciousness is fluid.

With drum and bass, once I’d decided that would be the thing that Shy loves I pitched him as a junglist – which is obviously quite a specific cultural tribe – because that would come with various different attitudes for him. Where does he position himself in relation to the mainstream? Therefore how old is he? Therefore what’s the experience? I had to think what kind of fan he is, and that’s why it was crucial for the story to be pre-internet since the fundamental concept and behaviour of fandom has so completely changed with online culture. That stuff is so different now that I wanted it to be a historical novel in that regard. 

I think you can write really good historical novels about, like, a week ago, because it’s all about being disciplined and using your research and then removing your research from the textual level. But then with Shy I asked myself ‘Well, will I break the rules here and show the research?’ Because this is a teenage boy who is all brag, all show, he can go on listing names of songs, clubs and DJs, in a way that would repulse me if it was a Tudor novel with a character walking down the street describing what ruff he’s wearing or what stick he’s carrying or going ‘oh look, there’s Thomas More’ – now that would be ghastly! – but in the mind of an obsessed teenage boy who, as you say, puts so much emotional freight in music, it was a sense that I wanted. 

So the whole thing became a sort of study in how to make a musical piece, which also happens to have music as a kind of cameo character. It is my most intricately patterned book – which seems like a funny thing to say about a book that is fundamentally kids shouting at each other, but they’re shouting at each other in a way that is, I hope, a part of a musical texture.

AO: Yes, and reading Shy felt like a musical experience also because of this refrain and recall effect in the text – how your memory moves between certain phrases and images within the book as you read.

MP: Yes, and Shy has precognition as well. I wanted the past and the future to be haunting him in the way that music can – in the way music can plant ideas in your head that aren’t fully realised until much later on and they trigger recognition. And I don’t see why literature shouldn’t be so. So I guess Shy has an intention of a poem built into it, so as to achieve those effects.

It’s really nice to hear it was successful to you because that work has to be completed by the reader – it’s a sort of audience participation thing. Not that they have to be into drum and bass or anything – I would never want to do anything that prescriptive – but it is in the body of the book.

AO: You said education was one of the potential basslines for the novel, and I loved those moments in the novel where Shy’s massive yearning for knowledge and learning spills out. Could you talk a bit more about that aspect, and the fact Shy is set in this educational establishment – albeit an unusual one?

MP: Some of the mentoring I do is with kids who are having a difficult time at school or have been booted out, and in the wheel of my mentoring – with novelists, poets, people that come from different walks of life – they are the heart of it for me, because they are the ones who don’t think literature is for them. They come in and they just want to muck around in the room, eat their chicken, take the piss out of me and then go home, right? 

It’s not a confidence trick; all I do is go in and talk with them about language, of any kind, and sure enough, it is for them – whether it’s manga or writing text messages to each other or talking about their science fiction novels with trans-vampires with knives for eyes. Literature is theirs, and all you need to do is show that to them without being a prick – and suddenly they’re wide awake and don’t want it to end. And I don’t chalk this up as some kind of victory for my campaign in literacy; I chalk it up as giving a teenager five minutes on their own terms – chatting to them about what I do without wanting to load something up into them, or have them jump through a certain pre-existing hoop. 

So I guess the educational side of it is where the love-letter is for me in the book. I just don’t think there is anything more important. And the way that we’ve devalued teachers to the extent that they’re eating out of food-banks when without them we have no society – the way we have this elite system and the crumbling state system – is really alarming, when it’s so profoundly obvious – the data couldn’t be any clearer – that a healthy education system is how you have a healthy, functioning society. If you deny people literacy you deny them everything – employment, robust emotional relationships, intelligence, the ability to move around language. Everything. The idea that we would have libraries closing and children who haven’t seen a book in their lives is so insane and suicidal as a society. 

I wanted to show the sort of electrical signal popping in an educational environment. Everyone is clever; everyone has a natural cleverness in them that just needs finding, and brilliant teachers find it, right? And that’s why they should be on huge salaries, because it is an amazing gift.

AO: The Last Chance as just that not only for the boys who get sent there but for society as a whole – I love that. I wonder if we could lastly talk about the way death is present in the novel. There is, in all your books, this pre-occupation with it – with characters of different ages grappling with the question of mortality. But along with that, we always get the ‘reverse side’, too, these rapturous moments of appreciation for life, which I felt was particularly the case with Shy. 

PM: Well yes, all my books are sort of ecstatic accounts of the death drive, really – of reconciling oneself to the terrible heart-breaking nature of things, which is also where joy is. Those two things are within each other – in the same way as Eve [a ghost in Shy] is the badgers is Shy is Steve is my dead grandmother is me is my son is my great-grandson I’ll never meet. You know, the kernel of experience in them is that in the shortness and strangeness of life is the meaning of it. 

AO: Like that beautiful moment when Shy is wondering whether the dead badgers in the pond that stopped him in his tracks might have been spies from the twenty-first century saying to him ‘Hold on, you’re going to want to see this. There’s incredible music coming.’

MP: Yes, I guess Shy is – in his collaboration with the badgers – kind of ‘anti-space race’ in the sense that you don’t need to go to Mars or have loads of money or own a BMW or to be the most popular guy in the club for your life to have meaning; you can actually just find this sitting there in the middle of nowhere with your headphones on, thinking you’re about to drown in a pond. There it is. Like the ancient Christian mystics who realised that in order to communicate with god they just actually needed to sit down quietly in a cell, close the door, and let their mind wide open. So, Shy is in this sense a kind of very scruffy, very unaware mystic – which I hadn’t thought about before. 

A bit like in Tarjei Vesaas’ novel The Birds, there’s this character whom perhaps a novelist wouldn’t write today without getting in real trouble unless they themselves were neuro-divergent in a similar way, which is a problem for me in terms of literature because I think it’s one of the most beautiful, radical portrayals of being – as he is described in the book – ‘different’. In his difference to the other characters, he is much more attuned to the rhythms and the cycles of the natural world, he has this hyper awareness of nature and these miraculous visions of bird song and bird movement; he is like a time-lapsed camera – he’s just operating at an incredibly beautiful and different speed, which makes him prophetic and anti-social and weird. And that is the gift of literature – that’s why we read because we are finding things in invented characters that human life doesn’t allow us to express or share or divulge. 

AO: And I suppose there’s that same sense of moral transparency you mentioned earlier which children and teenagers have and which we tend to lose as we get older.

MP: Yes, one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed writing from a teenage point of view is that there is this moral clarity there. Shy is sort of end of my triptych of books with children – in Grief Is the Thing With Feathers there’s the babies with no mum, and then the lost boy in Lanny, and now this teenager – and I think I’ll put boyhood aside now. My next book is not going to be about these subjects, but I think across that trilogy of books there is a kind of naivety that equates, in my heart at least, or in my political compass, to a kind of extreme sophistication. Like Lanny talking about the leaflet that comes through the door saying a kid in Africa has no clean water to drink, and he’s asking ‘how can I sleep now I know that? How can adults sleep?’ I want that to be actually bursting out of the books in a way I’m really not embarrassed about that at all, even if people are kind of sneering – like ‘oh well, welcome to the world’. 

The Times called me a hippie for Lanny – but if I am a hippie then so be it, because it’s gone so terribly wrong. And the only people who are allowed to say it’s gone terribly wrong are either condemned as maniacs or eccentrics or hippies if they’re grown-ups, or there’s the depressed teenager who is told ‘you’ll grow out of it’. The idea that you should grow out a functioning moral compass, of this burning sense of social justice is insane.

AO: And that sense of moral urgency in your books always feels so impactful because of the way they invite the reader in – through the characters' eyes and ears and consicousnesses  as an active participant rather than just as a witness. You said you’ll be putting boyhood aside for now – would you be willing to share what’s next for you?

MP: Well, this is good to hear, because I am very deep in thought about my next book which I’m not going to write till next year – there’s a lot research I have to do before I start it, but it’s doing its work and it’s about this question of moral clarity in adult life and in political life, all in a historical novel of the possibility of goodness and what it might mean – who has it, who can trade on it and how. I’m also writing plays at the moment, so some of that work will go into my plays, some of it will go into my book.

AO: This is really exciting to hear, and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on Shy – it’s been a huge pleasure to talk to you.

MP: Thank you – and you know, the book is only really alive in the world when it meets its readers, so conversations like these will affect the way I think about it. It’s been nice to be able to formulate things with you – it’s Shy coming alive in conversations like these, so I am very grateful.

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