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Max Porter on his new novel 'Shy'


"Shy" by Max Porter is a short, fierce novel that can be a rant, a rumination, a reveal - blank verse and blunt talk. Shy, a troubled British teen in the mid-1990s, has been sent to the Last Chance boarding school and has loaded his rucksack in the middle of the night to break out of his dorm and escape the bunk beds, the therapy groups and the counseling sessions. Let's ask Max Porter to read what runs through the mind of the character he's created.

MAX PORTER: (Reading) His heart is bump, bump, bumping like he's scared. Idiot drama with no audience. Overthinking, overlapping voice-overs. We made such good progress today, Shy. I'm really delighted. He's sprayed, snorted, smoked, sworn, stolen, cut, punched, run, jumped, crashed an Escort, smashed up a shop, trashed a house, broken a nose, stabbed his stepdad's finger. But it's been a while since he's crept. Stressful work. Psychologically disturbed juveniles requiring special educational treatment? Or a bunch of teenage criminals on a taxpayer-funded countryside retreat?

SIMON: Max Porter, author of "Grief Is The Thing With Feathers" and other novels that have been translated into more than 30 languages, joins us now from Bath, England. Thank you so much for being with us.

PORTER: Thanks for having me. Hello.

SIMON: How did this character of Shy worm his way into your mind and heart?

PORTER: Well, he's there already 'cause I'm raising three sons, and I do a lot of mentoring with young people, and I'm watching the way this country is working and what its deciding to do with its vulnerable population and what it's deciding to do with inequality as a pressing issue. But this specific boy rose up out of a kind of dream I'd had about a boy who was see-through, who was porous. Through him would pour the dead and the living as well as the human and the nonhuman, and I wondered how he would react to being an unhappy teenager in the so-called real world. And I was preoccupied with him in a medieval context and then in a Victorian context. And he - as a work in progress, he eventually landed himself in 1995. And I thought, yep, that'll do it.

SIMON: Well, help us understand the play of his mind as thoughts run through them - to use your words again - loping along in odd repetitive chunks, running at him, stumbling.

PORTER: He's escaped this house, and the whole novel is a kind of nocturne that takes place over three hours as he makes his way to this pond and has a kind of mystical encounter there. But he's in a kind of weather system. He's being bombarded at all times by other people's sense of him, the judgment of his parents, their pleading, imploring desire for him to communicate better with them, the bullying of his peers. He has these kind of night terrors, these terrible flashbacks to his recent violent past. But also, he is being haunted both by society and by literal ghosts in the building he lives in. He's sort of a centrifugal absence at the center of the book. It's difficult to get at who he is because he is so cluttered by other people's conception of him. And I think, if anything, that's the most realistic aspect of this book, is that we only begin and end in other people's ideas of us.

SIMON: You made reference to his recent violent past. I mean, I inevitably said troubled teen, but to be fair, he's also caused a lot of trouble, hasn't he?

PORTER: Yeah. He's done things for which he has no vocabulary of apology or shame. That's one of the themes running through the book, is how does he make sense of having done these things? And was it even him that did them (ph)? He's got a sort of disembodied criminal self that appears to have done these things. And that's based on, you know, conversations I've had with people that have done terrible things about the kind of workings of guilt as an emotional and a political and a legal framework. But, yeah, he's not a wholly sympathetic character. He's made terrible mistakes.

SIMON: He begins to see himself like a scrub plant in the countryside?

PORTER: Yeah. That's one of the things also that he shares with his teachers, is this sense of what is worth saving, what is a waste product, what is a weed, and what is a plant, and what's the difference, and how does society value its weeds and value its flowers, and could it be that one is hiding inside the other the whole time?

SIMON: Why is the novel set in the mid-1990s? One of the things I noticed is nobody can reach Shy on a cell phone.

PORTER: Maybe cowardice on my part because I'm raising teenagers, and I just see that the paradigm shift of mobile phones is so significant. Bullying has changed. Flirting has changed. Everything has changed for young people. They live on these phones now. And I don't feel expert enough to deal with a situation as complex as Shy with the phones thrown in.

But also, I think some of the things I wanted to say about British politics and care and his obsession with drum and bass music would have felt more like I was essaying if I had set them in the present. And actually, I liked that little bit of distance. I'm interested in a historical novel that breaks the rules of the historical novel by kind of showing, not telling, particularly as a teenage boy. You know, he's a bragger. He's in a cultural tribe. It's all show for him. So I was interested in that little bit of distance and also, you know, at the end of a long period of conservative government in the U.K., before a notional time of change and progressive energy - and I wanted to slightly question whether those things were an illusion or what they actually meant to the people on the receiving end of those benefits.

SIMON: You read the novel and do find yourself wondering - it kind of reopens a whole examination we've been through over the past generation. When is a human being a child? When are they considered an adult? I mean, we - for legal reasons, I suppose we set arbitrary numbers. But it can be awfully unsatisfying, can't it?

PORTER: Well, wholly especially inasmuch as what is deemed to be childlike. I mean, I can speak from experience. I'm a childlike person. I'm not a man-child. I'm not acting the fool or anything. But I cherish my childishness. I locate it in grief. I locate it in losing a parent as a child and retaining some thin-skinnedness, some craving for honesty, some craving for emotional enrichment, which is sometimes deemed to be of less value than financial- or status-based progress in this life.

But I also think that also Shy - if you look at Shy and his peers in that place, they're actually achieving phenomenally accomplished examination among themselves, kind of proto-sophisticated examinations of race and class and gender that is denied us in adult life. We simply stop talking about those things, or we adopt a position in the culture war and just scream at one another whereas they're like trees in the wood. They have a kind of nutrient base that they're sharing and they're teasing out of one another in - I think, in, like, weirdly accomplished ways.

SIMON: Can I chance to ask you, how do you see Shy in 10 years or 30?

PORTER: The honest answer, if I'm being unguarded - I want Shy to be in love. I want someone to have found him that makes him feel loved and for whom he can define himself in a mirror position to, that he can - as I was, as other people I know have been saved by love. Not necessarily of an individual, maybe of a job or a pastime. You know, that's why I gave him this music, that his despair is always tethered, is organically connected to this unbelievable joy he feels at the music. So I see him running a little gardening company and being in love and maybe having children or not being able to have children or whatever, but just finding that actually someone sees him and loves him.

SIMON: Max Porter, his novel, "Shy." Thank you so much for being with us.

PORTER: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.