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PART OF THE In the Summertime ISSUE

‘It is a book with grief squat in its belly, but it’s mainly about celebration.’

Michael Pedersen’s latest book is a wonderful exploration of grief, friendship and how people shape us. BooksfromScotland spoke to him about the challenges of writing such a personal story.

 

Boy Friends
By Michael Pedersen
Published by Faber

 

This is your first book of prose, but it began as a kind of diary addressed to your late friend Scott Hutchison. At what point did you begin to think that it could be a book?

It was entirely accidental, we just lost Scott in May and I had already signed up to do this month-long residency in the Curfew Tower in Northern Ireland in July. Neu! Reekie! were curating it for the entire year. I took the hard summer month of July in one of these coastal towns, known for its barbecues and caravans – I elected to fall on the sword for the team in that respect.

I was always supposed to be there for this month of isolation, working on a third poetry collection, although not under those circumstances. I knew I was in a pretty fragile state, I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to go somewhere where I knew no-one to be alone for four plus weeks, but you fight so hard as a writer in your busy lives for these moments of isolation to create new work and I thought, well, I’ve been around people so much, it might be quite a blessing to just be around strangers for a while who have no expectations of me, who don’t come festooned in grief and ready for heavy conversations. So, I went to the Curfew Tower and I didn’t know how the writing was going to go, but very quickly to break myself out of that uncertainty I started writing diaries about what I’d been up to during the day. I thought, we’ll do some social observation stuff to exercise the writing muscle from that perspective. Very quickly, I found for me the most cathartic way to deal with some of the ferocity of Scott not being there, and those bigger questions about how life perjures, about who I was without this seminal friendship, was to just replace that for the time being with something simpler and more beautiful from my perspective, and that was just to sit and write about some of my favourite moments. I thought, as these more ferocious elements take hold of me, both physically and psychologically, just focus on some of the celebration, some of the joy of it. So almost by compulsion, and certainly quite feverishly, I started archiving all my favourite moments in this friendship with Scott.

I started with the most recent one, which was the road trip, the road trip he never came back from. Not only had they been very recent, but they were three of my favourite days that I spent in his company, so I got to sit and relish the beauty of those moments, and then after I’d finished writing about it, I found it was actually a way for me to continue talking to Scott at a time when I wasn’t ready to stop talking to him. I just went back through a kind of social history of our friendship, and it was such a healing and nourishing experience to be able to do that. But yeah, it came out in prose, which was to my surprise, and I definitely felt for a long time that this was a prose document, or a friendship archive, which I was then at a later date almost going to use as a creative database from which I could sculpt poems.

Then, every beautiful and edifying human experience I had with Scott sent me on this scavenge into friendships from earlier in my life, because there was a connectivity to them, the version of myself who I was in my friendship with Scott was fed by a version of myself who learned something or made a mistake in one of these previous friendships. There was this whole precedent of friendship that was buttressing this friendship I had with Scott. So, six months down the line I’ve got this huge document in which I can’t stop writing about all these different friends, and it just refused to be molded or sculpted into poetry. It was very stubborn, so I thought, Well I suppose I’ve got a piece of prose now. Then that was very difficult to try and find a book within it, because it was never written to be a book. It was very scattered in terms of its chronology, I was bouncing from Scott moments to moments from other friendships, from boyhood to adulthood, to casting into the future, and it would have been a very unpleasant experience for a reader to try and manipulate all these timelines into a single one. So I thought, I’m going to have to find a way to make this work, find a narratorial ark. It took years and a lot of time stepping back from it to try and see what the overall story was. So yeah, the prose element came by surprise, and I’m really thankful for that now because I’ve managed to say a lot of things more candidly than I perhaps would have done in the poems, which might have obfuscated them or hidden them behind metaphors, certainly added another layer to the writing which might have kept the reader a step back from that. This made it a terrifying book in some respects to put out, but yeah… it was prose under duress.

 

That’s interesting what you say there, about if you’d written it as poetry how some of more direct messages might have been obfuscated by imagery or metaphor. Do you think prose, for you, is a more appropriate form for processing grief?

I think it must have been, because it came out that way. A lot of the time when I sit to write poetry it’s very reactive, I’ve just consumed a lot of poetry books over a period of time, I’ve been inspired by them, I’ve found fits within them, I’ve found my own narratives within their narratives, projected my life into it in the way you do, and then I’ve got all these ideas. I came to Boy Friends quite straight; I hadn’t been able to read, or concentrate so much on reading books for the previous few weeks, so I sat down with a much more candid form of expression, and in a way it was therapeutic – not quite a version of therapy – but definitely therapeutic. I was saying a lot of things, having a lot of conversations with the page that I needed to have with myself, and could say with a clarity and an exactitude. I guess I was still dealing with the trauma of it all, so I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to explore a lot of these concepts more philosophically or poetically, and so some of the conversations came out much more naked, much more vulnerable, much more direct than I intended them to. They were definitely conversations that needed to be had, that cauterized a wound in a way that I wouldn’t have done so successfully in the poetic form, because I would have been able to hide away from myself. Prose was much more mirror-like.

 

It’s significant on so many levels, of course, that this is addressed to Scott Hutchison. I would imagine your friendship was based on so many things, but especially art – Scott himself was a special artist who also often wrote so eloquently about grief. Did writing this book make you reflect on the importance of art our lives, but most significantly in comprehending loss? And have early reactions to the book confirmed this?

I guess there were all these vicissitudes with the loss of Scott: one of them was the loss of my dearest friend, but another was the loss of an artist that I had in my life that set the standard, in a respect, that pushed me further and faster than I needed to be. I would share the stage with Scott when we would do these book launches, and he enthralled an audience, he connected to them with his language, with his candour, with his vulnerability, he split himself open and split his workings out bare and let us benefit from the mistakes he made; let that become an armory. He bequeathed to us the ability to turn his mistakes into something that fortified us. So there was the worry that I didn’t know what was going to happen to my own writing without that incentive to constantly improve myself. Not to keep up with him, but to be producing work that was worthy of being on the stage alongside him. I had to explore who I was without that and find celebration and inspiration in all that I’d learned from Scott, as well as reveries about where he might have continued to take his art and his music.

But I found that the way people reacted to the book was really beautiful. It is a book with grief squat in its belly, but it’s mainly about celebration. Ninety percent of the Scott content is about brilliant times that we had together: it’s meals, it’s holidays, it’s all of the things that made this friendship soar and made it the inspiring heartbeat it was in my life, so I needed to be authentic to that memory as well, which was dealing with the grief and being candid and vulnerable about it, but also talking mainly about all the inspiration and power and beautiful memories that Scott had given me. We got a real deluge of beautiful quotes from all these different artists and writers – a lot of the time they would give me the quote, but it was an impetus to tell me about a friendship of theirs. Two thirds of their email was their own personal anecdote about friendship and that’s exactly what we wanted the book to do: we wanted it to be a call to action to celebrate the friends we miss at a time when it is often hard to maneuver those into conversation without expectation, and all of a sudden this book seemed to be a passport to jump right into these conversations about friends. That’s what gave the book its greatest value for me, because people don’t get asked about that all that much, people don’t want to know about how two friends met in the same manner as they ask about how two lovers met, but some of these friendships are as emotionally intense, as validated, as long-lasting, and sometimes their longevity is even greater than some of the biggest romantic encounters in our lives.

 

I love that, that’s exactly the reaction I had. While I was reading the book my mind travelled back to my most treasured past friendships, but also a lot of my favourite fictional friendships. Did you have any previous fictional male friendships in mind while writing the book, and what are some of your favourite fictional friendships?

I was a sort of sci-fi and fantasy nut growing up, I loved Tolkien, he was the first writer I came across that I read everything by, and then Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, I loved Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings was this book just totally punctuated by male friendships: you’ve got Sam and Frodo at the forefront of it, Sam is the sort of loveable best friend that everyone needs, Frodo’s struggling, he’s been affected by this nefarious power, this illness, this darkness, he’s not his best self, and it requires Sam to remember the friend he was before and to stick by him with that loyalty. At the end of the book when Frodo returns to his full degree of wellness, it’s Sam he kisses on the cheek and leaves the lingering proposition that he might join him in the undying lands, it’s Sam he leaves the storybook with. So their friendship was the greatest male friendship that I had ever read. Another was the film Withnail & I, that was a huge one for me, because it was friendship at all costs, you had these two people who had clung together through love, but also through desperation. It had got to the point in their friendship where they were dragging each other down, and even though they cared for each other, even though they were inseparable, in some ways had melded together, they knew they had to pull apart or they would risk drowning alongside each other. It shows how we can grieve friends, and how often extraction from these friendships can be a break-up, a very dangerous break up for us psychologically. So yeah, Lord of the Rings and Withnail & I were two of the big ones.

 

You write a lot about Withnail & I in the book, when discussing Scott and one particular past friendship, and Lord of the Rings when discussing your childhood. In many ways the book is part elegy and part memoir. Did the act of – in your words – ‘letting the ghosts in’, force you to reflect upon your own childhood and its significant moments?

I think in these characters we all look for versions of ourselves, and I think we try and assimilate their losses to losses in our lives. I was definitely trying to validate my own loss through finding loss in literature and film, in the same way as when I was young I was looking for friendships like the friendships that I saw in books, the ones with voyages and quests and intrigue. I was frustrated with my early friendships that they didn’t live up to the expectations of those friends I’d made in books, so I think I’ve always been trying to invest the literary into real life from that perspective. It was incredible revisiting some of the early losses through the microscope of what became the most intense loss of my life, going back to even the first loss I experienced which was the loss of my hamster, which I took very hard. I was standing out in the rain for hours, I had to be pulled back in, I’d made this casket for my hamster… I had a really difficult time juxtaposing it being here one moment and not the next. It was amazing looking back on some of the humour of those losses, y’know in a sweet way how it must have seemed to the adults around me who’d experienced real loss, thinking, If this is how he handles the hamster, God knows how he’s going to handle what comes next! It feels odd, I guess, and it’s definitely a bit of a misfit, to speak about the ferocity of loss and the light coming back in reference to your first hamster and to try and deal with the same set of ingredients for the loss of your dear friend 20-25 years on, but it did provide a little bit of nourishment, it did give me hope of the gentleness returning.

Also, revisiting friendships that were lost for less brutal reasons, life pulling us apart, moving in different social circles, it growing worse and worse for our wellbeing to be around each other, but to not treat these relationships as failures but just as something that has naturally expired, which were beautiful yet ephemeral. This was really important for galvanizing my ability to celebrate my friendship with Scott. So yeah, I think I used a lot of these early losses, these older friendships and previous versions of myself almost as a cognitive and emotional apparatus to deal with the bigger, bolder, more unauthorable loss of Scott.

 

That joy, that celebration you talk about, it’s almost as if that is predicated on loss, on the eventuality of loss, like how people say it’s knowing our lives are finite that give it such meaning and significance and joy. Is that the thing above all else that you hope readers take from the book – joy?

Yeah, I mean this is about taking something really fierce, taking something that is thrust upon you, that arrives with brutality, and turning it into a companion, a bedfellow, turning it into inspiration, because the way I’m looking at it is that grief is really just the final element of love. Then taking all of that pain, all that anger and dissatisfaction in certain situations, all that unfulfilled potential and turning it into an impetus to do good, and to celebrate. I think it was testament to the way I started to write this book and that was to first hide away from the more dangerous and more nefarious aspects of grief, to focus on and distract myself with my favourite moments, but then by the end of the book it actually became a veritable way of grieving: it wasn’t me avoiding grieving, it was just me choosing to focus on the joy in it as opposed to the sting and to turn it into something that was much more long lasting. I was missing a friendship that was full of sentimentality, but also silliness and smut, and all sorts of jovial behaviour. Scott only allowed me to see the version of himself that he was with me – I was not part of the band, I was not part of his business, I was a friend who he did joyful day-to-day things with, so if I wanted to authenticate this friendship, that’s what it was. I wanted to say, here’s a friendship that changed my life, can you project your own life into it, and can this be a calling card for you to celebrate your own friendships? So to have value for a reader, I needed this to be more universal, and I hope that’s where it ended up.

 

Boy Friends by Michael Pedersen is published by Faber, priced £14.99.

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