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Writer Michael Pedersen Chats New Book Boy Friends Ahead of His Visit to Waterstones Nottingham

4 August 22 words: Lizzy O'Riordan
photos: Michael Pedersen

In 2018, poet Michael Pedersen set off on a trip across the Scottish Highlands with one of his best friends Scott Hutchison - founder of the indie rock band Frightened Rabbit. But after the sudden passing of the latter, Pedersen found himself surrounded by grief as he sat down to write his next book. Unable to write poetry, though, he poured himself into journals, and what emerged was Boy Friends, the touching new release chronicling his life through the lens of male friendships. Ahead of his event at Waterstones on Tuesday 9 August, we catch up with the author about his process and inspiration…

“I very much see it as a love letter to friendship,” Michael Pedersen says when I ask him to describe his new book, Boy Friends, published by Faber last month. “To friends here, there and elsewhere, the friends we don’t nearly see enough, the friendships that have expired out of our social orbit somehow, and to those that have left this world in a more temporal sense.”

As we speak ahead of his event at Nottingham’s Waterstones, he muses that his new work is “a love letter, a paean, a sort of poetic song to friendships.” To all the male friendships that have shaped him, but to one friend in particular - his closest friend Scott Hutchison, who he lost in 2018 shortly after their trip to the Scottish Highlands. 

Written in Curfew Tower (Cushendall, Ireland), the book started as diary entries, an extended brainstorming session for his new poetry collection. But before long, fuelled by grief and a desire to reflect on his recently-passed friend, it became a project in its own right, morphing into a book about male friendship, looking back on the relationships that moulded him and which have defined the ways he relates to others and the world. “Thinking about the parts of myself that would be missing if I weren’t friends with Scott caused me to put the microscope on where bits of myself had come from,” he says, “and in a big part they came from all these friendships. 

“I think it’s such a special thing to spend time honouring your friends,” Michael adds. “We carry our friendships with us for so long, and we spend our time nostalgically thinking about friends that punctuated our lives when we were really young. And I just don’t think there’s enough space within literature, especially that’s dedicated to celebrating these seminal incredible friendships. So, hopefully this book is a gentle romantic call to action to see friendships in that perspective.”

I just don’t think there’s enough space within literature especially that’s dedicated to celebrating these seminal incredible friendships

Told from a specifically male perspective (hence the title Boy Friends), the book also chronicles the difficulties of making male friendships, especially as a self-described sensitive boy growing up in working-class Edinburgh. “I grew up with a big sister and no male siblings,” he tells me, “and I was certainly envious of female friendships. I saw them as being more sentient. They were hugging, having sleepovers and linking arms, and I saw this friendship that I wanted to bring into my world. But I made a mess of it quite a lot of times, being too emotionally expressive for these young male friendships, and so a lot of my earlier thoughts about friendships come from that place, an early male emotional frustration.” 

Yet, despite the bumpy road in navigating male friendships, they became some of the most defining experiences of Michael’s life, as the book expresses by tracking his friendships all the way from high school to the present day - bumping into characters like Daniel, Rowley and Sparrow along the way, all of whom made an indelible impact on the writer. Even those who he doesn’t speak to anymore, he is keen to celebrate, because “they were these beautiful ephemeral trips, each one was like a long holiday with that person. Just because it didn’t transgress into us being lifelong friends, doesn’t mean they were failures.” 

I hadn’t intended to be grieving someone and I found myself unable to write poetry in the way I used to

Penned in prose, Boy Friends is formed of perfectly poetic sentences, as would be expected from the author of collections like Oyster (2017) and Play With Me (2013), and I ask Michael how much his work as a poet informed his writing here. “I sort of started writing the book accidentally,” he admits. “I hadn’t intended to be grieving someone and I found myself unable to write poetry in the way I used to. So I wrote this big bit of prose to pull poems from, almost like a research document on friendship. I always thought it would be parcels of writing turned into poems because that’s all I'd ever written, and the fact that it kept going as a book took me by surprise.” 

The outcome of this process results in a book that has been described by many as poetic prose, which holds the richness of a poem but the narrative of a story. Michael jokes that each line is like an actor, auditioning to be a poem, and continuing the metaphor reiterates that “it was really a dress rehearsal for a poetry collection, but then the dress rehearsal became very much its own thing. It became a stubborn opponent.” The change in direction forces the work to be more vulnerable, he adds. “The next stage with poetry would be to add in some metaphors, take away some of the more direct sentences, turn it into something that’s less specific and more ruminative. So it would have come with many more masks if I'd written it into poetry. This is full of genuine diary entries.” 

A beautiful piece of work, Boy Friends honours the friendship between Michael and Scott deeply, alongside all the other ‘boy friends’ that preceded that friendship. Hoping to open up a wider discussion, Michael says that he’s already been met with a positive response from readers wanting to share their stories of friendship. As we wrap up this interview, he comments that “I didn’t want to write a book that people couldn’t project their life into. I was hoping that, with each friend I discussed, people would be thinking about a friend that they had. So I’m happy that it felt active and it felt collaborative, and that the book is starting the conversation that I wanted it to start. That shows me it has value in that sense.” 

Michael Pedersen will be coming to Nottingham’s Waterstones on Tuesday 9 August. His book Boy Friends is available to buy at most bookstores or through Faber

@ScribePedersen

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