‘The story of our friends, it’s the ingredients of who we are as human beings, it’s coded into our DNA,’ Michael Pedersen concludes, as we emerge from a deep dive discussion into his memoir, Boy Friends.
Michael Pedersen, co-founder of Scottish arts collective Neu! Reekie!, is a Glasgow-based writer and curator. His new book, Boy Friends, explores grief and loss, emotion, and male friendship, following the devastating loss of his friend, musician Scott Hutchison of the band Frightened Rabbit. The book developed organically as Pedersen managed his grief through diary entries detailing nostalgic and joyous memories, and the resulting memoir has provided a wondrous conversation starter about grief and our own friendships, outlining the significance of the relationships that are so pertinent to our lives.
Boy Friends is a book that considers male friendships and grief: it’s a significant exploration, which is not often made. There are obviously key triggers, but how did you come to write this memoir?
It was almost by accident. I was booked in to go to Bill Drummond’s Curfew Tower [a historic building owned by the musician and former KLF member, operating as an artists’ residence] in Northern Ireland well in advance because Neu! Reekie! were curating a whole year of writers there. I took over the tough slog of a month that is July in an old tower in this beautiful seaside village, and it was my intention to start work on the third poetry collection. However, the events of the world intervened: we lost Scott five or six weeks before I went out and I found myself there, pretty much consumed by my memories of him. I started writing almost as a way of annexing and archiving my friendship with him, just out of a fear that I might forget some of these memories.
It gave me a structure to my day at a time when I was a bit more emotionally volatile. Sitting down and writing about this seminal friendship became my sort of diary-esque day-to-day obsession. It was always supposed to be a piece of writing that would become a poetry collection, but then [the writing] just refused it. When I attempted to do that, the prose kept spilling out of it. I wanted to understand who I was as a friend to Scott, and that required me to revisit, to my surprise, friendships further and further into my old past.
I guess we are this sort of cocktail of ingredients of all the friendships that came before us. So, through trying to understand my friendship with Scott, I had to understand who I was as a friend, and thus the friendships that made me trigger this whole social audit of the friendships of the past and those that formed me.
And as you just touched upon, you look at many friendships across your lifetime, with a part journal/reflection element, part detailing what happened at the time. How did you reach the decision to structure it this unusual way?
The book wasn’t ever supposed to be a book, so of course it wasn’t written with a narratorial arc in mind – it was all of these fleshy, different fragments. It was my day-to-day diaries from the Curfew Tower, because that was the easiest thing to start writing each day when I sat down at the desk. It’s very difficult to just fall into writing about the past or about friendships or grief or loss, so I would start writing diaries of what I was doing in the Tower every day. And through those writing exercises, I started writing about the road trip with Scott, the last big journey we took together. I guess that was the most painful and the most difficult piece to write, but it was the most recent and direct, so it was the one that had the most hyper-detail.
And then there were all the weird avenues I was going off to, delving into my own past through some of the friends that I think helped sculpt me as a human being. I think the structure we ended up with was a bit more of an accurate reflection of my day-to-day dwelling. It was the diaries in The Curfew Tower as well as the impetus to burrow into the past. Structurally it was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, a bit of a labyrinth to put together, and my editor prodded me to try out different structures until we found one that fitted. I wanted this book to be starting this conversation about emotional, male friendship in a way that was almost a call to action.
The book reflects upon the death of and grief for someone gone that was so much in the public eye. You must have felt a real responsibility when writing this, thinking about his family and loved ones. How did you perceive this and continue with the challenge of writing it?
Well, Scott was so important to so many people. I guess I was never going to be able to tell the universal story of Scott. It was too big. It was too abundant for me, and it predates me by many, many years. It wasn’t ever going to be something I had the acumen, or the facts, or the desire to grant. I could only tell the little bit of story that spilled through me and that was a story of friendship. I just wanted to craft as accurate a representation of the friendship I had with him as possible, and that’s mostly about eating meals together, and holidays, and trips, and developing an emotional vocabulary to be willing to let each other know how we feel, and it’s full of my memories of Scott. It was a really fun and joyous friendship, and by writing about that, that was the only way I could really honour it. I think it was so interconnected to all the other friendships that circled around us both that hopefully, by offering a little look into my friendship with Scott, it’s not taking anything away from anyone, and is in fact starting the conversation for anyone to say how special Scott was, or indeed any other friend is, to them.
And, coming out the other side of writing this reflection, how do you feel it added to your coming to terms with the grief? Did you find it cathartic and give you the opportunity to process, or did it come with further weight?
It was my way of dealing with it. For the year that Scott passed, I wrote about him nearly every day, by poems, by short stories. I was consumed by the writing, and that was helpful for me because it helped clarify and cauterise any wounds I had. I mean, there were certainly bits of writing which were far too emotionally vulnerable and fleshy for anyone else to see, to be of use to anyone else, which is primarily why I was writing it. Yes, it was cathartic, but why I was publishing what I wrote was because I wanted to offer assurance and companionship. It sounds cliched for me to say, but in all honesty the writing steadied and saved me and kept me from more drastic actions. It filled my time with something constructive when I could have been wallowing or seeking distraction under more riskier means. To have at the end of it a compass towards doing a joyous friendship justice was more than a crutch for me.
And throughout your time in The Curfew Tower, it must have been tough being so resolutely away from people with your thoughts, so soon after it had happened. What strength within you compelled you to write on?
I knew that by doing this I could visit Scott and our stories together with a depth and an intensity that I wouldn’t be able to do when I’m surrounded by other voices and other people.
I had people checking up on me and it definitely felt like a big, risky endeavour. And it was punctuated by walking every day. I would go walking for hours; I found myself restless. I would walk until my body was exhausted, along stunning coastlines.
It was incredible to just walk with these stories in my head and decide when the right time was to capture them. I knew I could come home if I needed to. It was such a unique opportunity to marinate within my own memories in a way that I’d never done before, that I just couldn’t afford to turn it down.
Boy Friends is published by Faber
Michael Pedersen’s book tour includes: Waterstones Sauchiehall St, Glasgow on 11th July with Ricky Ross (Deacon Blue) and Michael Mullen.
Edinburgh International Book Festival, 24th August, with Charlotte Church and Shirley Manson, and the Good Grief event with Gemma Cairney, Ocean Vuong and others on 26th August.