“I really see it as a love letter to friendship,” says Michael Pedersen when I ask him to describe his new book, Boy Friends, published by Faber last month. “To the friends here, there and elsewhere, the friends we don’t see enough of, the friendships that have expired out of our social orbit in one way or another, and to those who have left this world in a more temporal sense.
As we speak ahead of his Waterstones event in Nottingham, he thinks his new work is “a love letter, a hymn, a kind of poetic song to friendships”. To all the male friendships that shaped him, but one friend in particular – his closest friend Scott Hutchison, whom he lost in 2018 shortly after their trip to the Scottish Highlands.
Written at Curfew Tower (Cushendall, Ireland), the book began as journal entries, a long brainstorming session for his new collection of poetry. But before long, fueled by grief and a desire to reflect on his recently deceased friend, it grew into a project in its own right, morphing into a book about male friendship, looking back at the relationships that shaped it and that have defined the ways he relates to others and to the world. “Thinking about the parts of myself that I would miss if I weren’t friends with Scott led me to put the microscope on where pieces of myself came from,” he says, “and in large part they came from all these friendships.
“I think it’s something special to spend time honoring your friends,” adds Michael. “We’ve carried our friendships with us for so long, and we spend our time thinking wistfully of the friends who punctuated our lives when we were very young. And I just don’t think there’s enough room in the literature, especially one dedicated to celebrating these incredible fundamental friendships, so I hope this book is a sweet, romantic call to action to see friendships through this lens.
I just don’t think there’s enough space in literature, especially that devoted to celebrating these incredible seminal friendships.
Told from a specifically male point of view (hence the title Boy Friends), the book also chronicles the difficulties of forming male friendships, particularly as a self-proclaimed sensitive boy growing up in working-class Edinburgh. “I grew up with an older sister and no male siblings,” he tells me, “and I was certainly jealous of female friendships. I saw them as being more sensitive. They hugged, had slumber parties, and linked arms, and I saw this friendship that I wanted to bring into my world. But I’ve messed it up quite often, being too emotionally expressive for these young male friendships, and so a lot of my past thoughts about friendships come from that place, early male emotional frustration.
Yet despite the bumpy road in navigating male friendships, they became one of the most defining experiences of Michael’s life, as the book expresses by following his friendships from high school to the present day – se bumping into characters like Daniel, Rowley and Sparrow along the way, all of which had an indelible impact on the writer. Even those to whom he no longer speaks, he wants to celebrate, because “these were these beautiful ephemeral trips, each one was like a long vacation with this person. Just because it didn’t transgress that we were lifelong friends doesn’t mean they were failures.
I had no intention of mourning anyone and found myself unable to write poetry like I used to
written in prose, Boy Friends is made up of perfectly poetic sentences, as one would expect from the author of collections like Oyster (2017) and Play with me (2013), and I ask Michael how much his work as a poet has influenced his writing here. “I sort of started writing the book by accident,” he admits. “I had no intention of mourning anyone and found myself unable to write poetry like I used to. So I wrote this big piece of prose to make poems out of it, almost like a research paper on friendship. I always thought it would be pieces of writing turned into poems because that’s all I’d ever written, and the fact that it continued as a book took me by surprise.
The result of this process results in a book that has been described by many as poetic prose, which contains the richness of a poem but the telling of a story. Michael jokes that each line is like an actor, auditioning to be a poem, and continues the metaphor reiterates that “it was really a dress rehearsal for a poetry book, but then the dress rehearsal became a thing on its own . It has become a stubborn adversary. The change in direction forces the work to be more vulnerable, he adds. “The next step with poetry would be to add some metaphors, take away some of the more direct sentences, turn them into something less specific and more ruminative. So it would have come with a lot more masks if I had written it in poetry. It’s full of authentic journal entries.
A beautiful work, Boy Friends deeply honors the friendship between Michael and Scott, alongside all the other “boyfriends” who preceded this friendship. Hoping to open up a wider discussion, Michael says he’s already received a positive response from readers wanting to share their stories of friendship. As we end this interview, he comments, “I didn’t want to write a book that people couldn’t project their lives into. I hoped that with every friend I talked about, people would think of a friend they had. So I’m glad it felt active and collaborative, and that the book started the conversation I wanted it to start. It shows me that it has value in that sense.
Michael Pedersen will come to the Waterstones from Nottingham on Tuesday August 9. His book Boy Friends is available for sale in most bookstores or through Faber