Meet a Member: Max Parfitt 

He’s been lending his word-smithing skills to 26 behind the scenes, but this month it’s time to turn the spotlight on Max. From the musicality of words to the freedom of scribbling on buses, he shares an insight into his writing life.

Tell us a bit about yourself – where are you from and what do you do?

I grew up in London, around Brixton and Herne Hill, and I moved back here after I finished university last June (I studied music). Since then, I’ve worked for Glyndebourne Opera as part of their engagement team, and part-time for a group called Scribeasy (helping children with special educational needs fall in love with writing and with creating stories). 

I also do freelance administration and content creation (mostly relating to opera), I sing in choirs, and I try to find people who’ll let me write for them.

Where did your love of words come from? 

My parents, I think. Both as bedtime readers and through their work. They run a production company, producing films, TV, and theatre, and they decided very early on that rather than lose their lives to having kids, they’d just bring us along to everything. I spent my childhood watching films and plays or sitting on set talking energetically to passionate actors and to any writers who were kind enough not to send me away. I’m the youngest of three brothers – the eldest rushed off to be an actor, the middle one rushed off to be as much of a not-actor as he could, and I ended up here.

I have always tied my love of words to my love of music. There’s something magical about a well-spun story, whether it’s played out by an orchestra or written on a page; whether it’s heard alongside five-hundred other people or read, silently, curled up alone under a blanket. In each case it’s about how the words and tones sound and feel, how they taste on the tongue. I’ve been chasing that magic as long as I can remember.

I used to lie on my floor for hours listening to audiobooks on our tape player – anything from Alan Bennett reading Winnie the Pooh to Derek Jacobi’s I, Claudius – and even if I was sometimes too young to understand what I was listening to, I loved the way the words were said and the way they washed over me.

What made you join 26? And how long have you been a member?

The wonderful Alastair Creamer (one of your board members and the force behind Wordstock back in November). He’s a very old family friend, he has known me perhaps longer than I have, and he was ready the moment he saw me heading towards writing. He bought me my first year of membership as a graduation present and sent it alongside a copy of 26 Letters and a note saying “let’s talk”. I was hooked.

Have you been involved in any 26 projects?

I haven’t, but I would love to – so far my involvement has been more behind the scenes. I helped Alastair with Wordstock before Christmas, writing website content and speaker bios, working out the lunchtime project, and passionately reading along with all the books. I think I was a bit of a bad penny – I was assigned to read up on the various potential speakers and they’d always fall off the list the moment I’d finished their back catalogue! – but it was a wonderful introduction to what you do here.

I’m now helping with the Bloomsbury Festival planning for next year (the 26 Plants project and the Mini-Wordstock), and trying to squeeze my way into Sophie’s newsletter world.

What’s your ideal scenario for writing? (A coffee shop? Quiet retreat? With or without music? What do you do to get yourself in the right frame of mind?)

Coffee shop. Definitely. The only thing is finding the right one. I’ve been back in London full-time since Christmas, and I still haven’t found the perfect spot – cosy, but not claustrophobic; busy enough for an atmosphere, but not so busy that you have to squeeze your elbows into weird positions and you can’t push the screen of your laptop back the whole way!

I’ve also been falling in love with buses. It’s not just the satisfaction that you can go anywhere for £1.75, but there’s a freedom to that time where you’re trundling along and all you need to do is scribble down some thoughts and take in the world around you.

If I’m alone then I absolutely can’t listen to music while I write – it either sends my mind down twenty different avenues at once, or pushes everything out entirely and I come round half an hour later when the album ends. But there’s something about the bustle of people in a coffee shop or on a bus that’s quieter than silence for me. When I was a child I used to like going to sleep with my door open so that I could hear life going on downstairs – I think it’s the same thing. I am happy being on my own, but I like to know that life is nearby. There’s nothing worse than a completely empty house!

What are you working on at the moment?

A few things, all for my own development really. I went to see Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and (in that way that can happen when you’re very close to a book) I didn’t get on with it at all – it didn’t see the characters and the themes in the same way I do, and it seemed to shed all of Woolf’s original language which for me is the most important aspect of the book. So rather than blaming Neil Bartlett for having the temerity to realise his own vision rather than magically mirroring mine, I have been writing my own version as a 90-minute screenplay – trying to preserve as much of Woolf’s voice as I can and overlaying some of her context and her relationship with Vita Sackville-West. It’s very personal, with hints of my own life and of the kinds of essays I was writing at university, but after lots of poems and short stories and fifteen-minute scripts for people at school, it has been a wonderful exercise to write for the format and scale of a film (even if no-one would ever agree to make it).

Since New Year I have also been keeping a daily journal – a diary with extra scraps of poetry and little rambling inserts on topics that matter to me – and I write and edit things for people like 26 (and for this newsletter!).

Could you tell us about a piece of writing you’re particularly proud of? 

I’m not sure I can really – I’m very young and it’s very early days for me. But there are a couple of pieces that mean a lot, even if I find the actual writing painful to re-read!

When I was 13, I wrote a half hour play for a National Theatre competition. And it was shortlisted. Which was nice. But it isn’t very good. You can hear that I’m putting the sound and musicality of the words and the feel of the lines over any cohesive plot or intent, and there are certain elements that I’m sure I could express better now, and I hope still better in fifty years’ time. But however much of it I would change, there is an essence there that perhaps feels more true to my world than anything else I’ve written. I see its clunkily-stapled spine poking out of my bookshelf and it seems to have a clearer sense of who I am (as a person, as a writer…) than I ever have.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Sound. The sound of words really matters to me – it feels like weaving magic out of the simplest things – and there are several writers who really made me hear that for the first time: Michael Ondaatje, Hilary Mantel, Emily Brontë; Yeats, Auden, Greening; even the trickery of Dr. Seuss or Tim Minchin’s twisting lyrics. When I was 10 I was told off for squeezing Pink Floyd lines into my comprehensions. They asked why Greg was unhappy, and I suggested he might be “skating on the thin ice of modern life”. I’m not sure it was what they wanted and I’m not sure I knew what it meant, but I loved the sound of it. They circled it in red.

Beyond the words themselves, if I’m telling a story I tend to be inspired by people, and by their feelings – their loves and their hopes. Angsty teenage writing aside, and however sombre or scary the atmosphere of something, stories are and always have been an escape for me. A place where, at the end of the day, we can see love, empathy, and kindness win; where people try to do good even at their worst moments or at their own cost. I think it’s why I’ve never got on with authors like Cormac McCarthy – I find the sheer hopelessness too overwhelming…

It doesn’t need to be shouted loudly – I don’t need fairy-tale endings and they-all-lived-happily-ever-afters – but somewhere along the way I want to find something good.

If you’d like to feature in a future Meet a Member, or nominate another 26er, drop Sophie a line at Don’t be shy.

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