Max Sydney-Smith – Cover author of Issue Thirteen of Open Pen

On the cover of Open Pen you’ll find the Max Sydney-Smith’s short ‘The Boy Who Bit His Nails’. We spoke to Max yesterday to get to know him and his writing a little better.

I think I write fiction to dramatise ideas. Writing is a way for me to order my thoughts, to try and make sense of stuff. I look for connections between things, for little symmetries and rhymes. At its best, I think fiction can change the way we see the world, even if only in some small way. At its worst, it simply draws attention to random coincidences, as meaningless as a bad pun.

I’m writing a short novel about the life and opinions of a Greek communist. This man is from a small town in the Peloponnese. He fought in the Civil War and was tortured by the police under the right wing military junta. The framework of the story is completely real: my friend is Greek and this all happened to someone she knows. But it is also only a vehicle for me to obsess around the question: is political idealism noble, or is it a form of narcissism?

OP: What are you reading at the moment?

A short story collection by Joy Williams called Taking Care. It’s brilliant, so caustic and funny and sad. Describing a big, loving dog leaping into the arms of a girl, she writes: “And he was so light, so light, containing his great weight deep within himself, like a dream of weight.” I mean, wow.

OK, Max. If you had one book in you to write, what would it be?

Well, it would probably be a first person narrative about a boy with a stammer. I have a stammer, and it radically changes the way you think about and use words. Some words start sounding like other words, some words have to be stuck onto other words to be said and some words can’t be said at all. None of this is fixed – its pinned to a number of things like tiredness, confidence, etc, many of which can fluctuate suddenly and for no apparent reason. In a way, your brain gets smart to this: you start anticipating problems, finding other ways to say what you want to say. But there are parts of it you can’t predict – you don’t know if you can say a word until you’re saying it. Anyway, all of this is to say that if I could only write one book, I would try and capture this idiosyncratic language, with its mispronounced and substituted words, its endlessly generated neurotic parallel routes through meaning and, of course, its silences (which is the only part of all this most people actually think of as a stammer).


Your FREE copy of Issue Thirteen is out on Friday 13th in all good bookshops, or as mentioned, can be snatched a full five days earlier at Open Pen Live this Sunday, February 8th. If nothing else, the trip to Limehouse provides an excellent opportunity to ride the Docklands Light Railway.

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