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Max Porter in Conversation With Will Ashon

Posted on 3rd January 2021 by Anna Orhanen
For the first time in the history of the Waterstones Blog we have great the pleasure of witnessing a sprightly email dialogue between two writers – Max Porter, the award-winning author of Lanny and Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, and Will Ashon, the author of Chamber Music: About the Wu-Tang (in 36 Pieces). In this exclusive piece, they chat about Porter’s new book The Death of Francis Bacon, misanthropy, nuclear war and the superpowers of visual art, as well as Porter’s favourite beer (which incidentally isn't Porter).
Please note that the following text includes language that some people may find offensive.

Will Ashon:

Not sure if this is the best way to start this off, but I’m just going to leap straight in there with a wild, flailing request: talk to me about misanthropy.

Love, Will. 

Max Porter:

Hello Will, 

This is a Queen's Gambit style opening move of devilish complexity. Are you sure you don't want to know what my favourite Francis Bacon painting is? 

OK, very well. I think of the misanthropic impulse as somehow related to enlightenment, to working out what's what, at the same time as we worked out how to industrially slaughter one another, and we committed fairly wholeheartedly to slaughter, enslavement, exploitation, racism, and so on. The bloody project. To despise humanity is only to understand our wretched warped wrong turn within it, which is why there's rarely an equivalent to misanthropy in indigenous cultures, because they aren't poisoned as we are. But crucially I'd add that great rushing tenderness, sentimentality, yearning for aesthetic pleasure, intellectual refinement, these are all part and parcel of the mixed-up misanthrope's daily business. 

Misanthropy is a fungal sentiment that grows and supports many other living aspects of the human project; eroticism, altruism, bravery, corruption. It's also a beautiful excuse for people who can't be bothered to try and change the way the world works. I first discovered Bacon at the same time as I learned about nuclear war, and the same time I found I had no vocabulary to describe the ecstatic feeling that music and art could create in me. 

What about you, Will? What do you talk about when you talk about misanthropy? 

Will Ashon:

Ooh crikey, you have castled your bishop-rook – all is lost! (When I talk about misanthropy it’s mainly to do with people in cars trying to kill me on my bike – which I guess is the same thing, only more personal. It certainly feels personal).

The reason I ask is because it seems to me that one way to look at The Death of Francis Bacon as a ‘Max Porter’ book is to dig down into exactly this balance between love of humanity and disgust at humanity, which I think can be traced through all your work. However, your first two books have a non-human element (Crow and Big Papa Toothwort) whose role is to interact with and butt up against humanity – by turns quizzical, dismissive, helpful, angry, wild, other. I feel like Mr Bacon plays a similar role in this book (or perhaps plays both roles at once) and so I’m wondering if you could elaborate on what made you choose him?

But before we get on to that – nuclear war (which, as Sun Ra pointed out, is a motherfucker). I would’ve thought you were too young to remember the era when every right-thinking adolescent expected to die in a fiery apocalypse. Is the invention (and more importantly use) of the nuclear bomb the point at which the contradictions of the Enlightenment project become too stark to ignore? And is this in part what led you to Bacon? (His breakthrough work, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, was – as you no doubt know – first exhibited in April 1945, just as Allied troops reached Buchenwald and only four months before the first atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

(I was going to add a third question but instead spent the afternoon feeling bilious. I’ll send this now and hope to circle back to this Lost Question at some future point in the conversation).

((I have just realised that more of this text is in parentheses than not – what does that mean?))

Max Porter:

God I feel totally SEEN by this love/disgust observation. Yes, that's it. 

I was on a climate march last year and someone was holding up a sign saying 'this is our planet we need it' or something like that, and it struck me as fairly repulsive. Humans have only been here for about ten minutes, and we've made a catastrophic mess of the place, and now we're calling it ours? Anyway, I digress. 

Bacon in the book is not Bacon, in the same way as Crow was not a crow, or Hughes' CROW, and DPT wasn't the green man, or an ecological metaphor, but legion interpretations and functions all wobblingly embodied. So he's a literary device before he's ever anything like the actual biographical figure of Bacon, and yes that is part of the same non-human voice-project as in my other books. But here it's also trying to move past, or create a sensory experience in the reader, that is past the literary. I don't want him to function like a character, or a voice, I want him to collapse or evade attempts to understand him, or hold him still, because this seems to me one of the special superpowers of visual art, the evasion. Meaning isn't fixed. So, Bacon is unfixed, unframing himself, keeping us on our interpretive toes (which I hope helps energy flow from the text into the reader, sometimes bad energy, uncanny, erotic, disgust, as well as rapture, adrenalin, etc). 

I am a bit younger, yes. It was a bit unfashionable to be worried about nukes in my home counties yoof experience. I was given Apocalyptic modernist poetry at a young age by my Quaker grandmother. (Have you seen the new Carcanet anthology? Essential!) and my best friend was the grandson of an iconic English modernist, and my other grandparents took me to galleries and churches and flooded me with books, so I guess I was drenched in the sensibilities (anxieties?) of the post-war generation. Plus Where the Wind Blows was in the house (it's almost the same age as me, as is Riddley Walker), and I sniffed it out and ABSORBED it, horrendously, and I'm still dreaming about it now. 

I just bought myself a new CND t-shirt. Once bitten...

Back to Bacon, you say "plays both roles at once" and this is something we have in common in our fictions and non-fictions. We want to be authors but also strive to be hidden. We want some of the effects of narrative voice, of plot, or argument, but we also want to move past them – absent ourselves – and let found materials do the work. In your recent work you have been exploring a kind of weaving with voices, oral history, polyphonic accumulations which amount to portraiture. This is what I hoped might happen with Bacon, so much so that the reader gives up on the idea of knowing that's going on (interpretation, fact, work of art, biography etc) and lets the fabric of the language envelope them. I don't even hope to provide epiphany or nourishment... just depth of experience. 

Will Ashon:

I like this idea of being hidden (and my personal favourite, evasion). It’s a tricky balance, though, because there’s something potentially dishonest in pretending you’re not there, that you’re not pulling the levers. It makes me think of Oz behind his curtain. And thinking of The Great Oz takes me back to misanthropy. For me personally, the move to writing non-fiction was a liberation – from myself! (It’s admittedly a slow process of liberation that I’m still working out). What I’ve discovered is that I have a misanthropic or dystopic imagination, but that this never survives contact with actual humans. So part of what I do now is about forcing myself to meet people, to engage with people, to engage with the world more generally. We are, at best, silly, cruel and insignificant but we’re also all we have? Your Quaker gran sounds like a blast. I wonder whether for you that Quaker inheritance feeds into the need to be quiet? While at the same time babbling away like a glossalaic evangelist... (And could we map this back on to or over that love/disgust dichotomy?)

It’s funny that you mention the grandson of an iconic English modernist, because it struck me when I first read The Death of Francis Bacon that it’s a book steeped in the modernist project, which, as you point out, is supposed to be a move away from 'literature' as previously understood, an attempt to place ‘art’ back into the experience of life (to perhaps even break down the boundary between art and life). I like this idea of trying to push “past the literary” and wonder if it relates back to what I wanted to ask you about from your previous answer – the moment when you found you "had no vocabulary to describe the ecstatic feeling that music and art could create in me.” I remember when I began work on the Wu-Tang book thinking that the very last thing I wanted to do was to destroy the mystery of the record I was writing about. So much 'criticism' (so much writing full stop) seems to be a form of lepidoptery, a killing jar for what we claim to love, making it manageable or explicable, when its power – its life – comes from its unmanageability and inexplicability. And this tidying is largely about control, isn’t it? 

You mentioned unframing, which makes me think of the Overton window. Is there a political element to your project of unframing? And talk to me some more about your found materials… Also, tell me more about how energy flows from a text into the reader. And the fabric of language, texture, and reading as primary experience rather than secondary commentary. And last, how do we as writers (and more generally as humans) move past control, past being Oz? Nothing too difficult, haha!

Max Porter:

In real life I am quite friendly and affectionate towards fellow humans (BUT NOT IF THEY LET THEIR DOGS SHIT ON THE PAVEMENT), and I really rejoice in conversation, (remember, I insisted on long chatty editorial phone calls, not cold clinical emails?). But in my work I feel I can be more honest, and show a little more of the interesting stuff; disgust, loneliness, unease, perversion and so on. I agree that the whole project, my whole creative practise, is thick with dishonesties of one sort or another, but all at the service of a deeper motivation (never attained, only grasped at) which is a truth-telling impulse towards the strange business of being alive. I have never had therapy, and in conversations with people who have, and who recommend it, I often think 'well I get that from my writing.' 

Who am I kidding, I desperately need therapy. 

The Wu-Tang point is exactly right. That's my starting point for the Bacon book. How to write about this stuff without pressing play on a load of re-hashed gloopy stereotypes about meat and fear and Soho and accidents and repression, while also keeping all these things in play because they were in play, Bacon kept them in play, again and again, staging his own critical reception, rehearsing his place in the history of image-makers in a very self-conscious way. Maybe just as you knew it would be actually evasive not to write about Kung fu films in a book about Wu-Tang. You had to find a way that was your own (half novelist half non-fiction mad professor!) way to write about Kung fu films, and organically grown as part of the book. And worthy of the shenanigans involved, OF them, not just about them. So too I had to chuck in Velazquez, Champagne, sham pain etc, all the residues which make up a proper Bacon stink. Palpable aspects of the maker's immersion in the work. Some of which is of course cliché, rich fruity usable cliché. 

Hmmm. You know I'm a bit Theatre of the Absurd when it comes to politics, so yes, unframing, unmasking, kronking, throwing in a bucket of blood and piss. Yes. Haha, the more complex the question, the more I will give one word answers. 

Found materials: I would recommend to any Bacon fans an extraordinary book called Francis Bacon: Incunabula. All the scraps and books and mags and crap from his studio. It excited me greatly and was revelatory about the picture-making process. It connects Bacon to the outside world (his "influences") in a way that really does electrify the paintings when you go back to them. It really demystifies things, which had the strange effect for me of re-enchanting things. I loved Bacon's gymnastics on canvas so much more once I spent a few days wallowing in this scrapbook of his studio junk. 

How do we move past control? I actually think writers are the worst people to answer this question. We have dedicated ourselves to granular obsession with humankind's most dangerous and wonderful invention; language. I've been reading about geology a lot recently and so my current answer would be 'travel back' or even less helpfully 'zoom out', escape the tyranny of the embodied ground-level position. See things from non-human perspectives. 

Will Ashon:

It is true that you are indeed extremely friendly and affectionate in real life. The only reason I didn’t want to talk on the phone was because I’m a terrible pleaser so all I ever say on the phone is yes. Then I get off the phone and howl NOOOOOOOOOOOOO. And that drives the neighbours nuts.  

A quick fire round of uncomplicated questions (some of them kind of your own):

Who would win in a fight between your Crow and Dead Papa Toothwort? (Just realised I called him Big Papa Toothwort earlier, in some deranged attempt to lay claim to him for the Big Dada empire)

Max Porter:

Ah sweet move! I love a little quickfire session at the end of an interview. Crow, because "holding the very globe in terror... And still he who never has been killed." 

Will Ashon:

Could your Francis Bacon better either of them in a bout of fisticuffs?

Max Porter:

He would leave lasting damage on their retinas, but he is very weak, ultimately. 

Will Ashon:

Why are you so interested in the bathrooms of doll’s houses?

Max Porter:

Because they are so well-made, such delightful time capsules of interior design, because I love miniature things (especially domestic things), because I love sets and collecting toys, because the Lundby ones we collect are Scandinavian design classics, at the cost of a pint. They're so beautiful! 

Will Ashon:

Do you miss being my editor and not having uncomfortable phone calls with me?

Max Porter:

Yes. I do. I loved that job. 

Will Ashon:

What is your favourite alcoholic beverage to consume in a pub with a hearty meal?

Max Porter:

Pint of Doom Bar please. 

Will Ashon:

What would the hearty meal be?

Max Porter:

I'm off the meat, so I'd go for a beetroot bhaji burger with mango chutney, garlic mayo and rosemary salt fries. 

Will Ashon:

When you recently read the whole of Grief Is the Thing With Feathers at the Union Chapel what was the biggest reading mistake you made? And the funniest?

Max Porter:

I think I only really made a couple of slips. I hadn't rehearsed it so there were some odd surprises, and a scratchy sneezy situation. I've blanked it out, it was a weirdly upsetting thing to do. I know I stopped and apologised for reading a section like Cillian, which proved unavoidable. I know there was a sound glitch and I could be heard saying "I'll make a joke about crow" which sort of ruined whatever crap joke I did make about crow. God, maybe it was awful. We raised a lot of money for the charity so the mistakes can be swallowed. 

Will Ashon:

What are you listening to?

Max Porter:

Pa Salieu.

Will Ashon:

How does it feel to be alive at this moment in time?

Max Porter:

Huge if true. 

Will Ashon:

Tell me something about rocks.

Max Porter:

Lewisian gneiss (a Scottish rock) is three thousand million years old. I like to sit and think about just how old that is, and maybe compare it to the age of some other things (homo sapiens, my dad, Wu-Tang's 36 Chambers) and just feel my brain cheerfully losing its grip on things. I can't make sense of such a thing, but I'm going to keep on trying. 

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