This Year’s Model
Max Wallis interviewed by Gavin James Bower.
I don’t know if I ever mentioned it, but I used to do a bit of modelling before I was a writer. Nothing major — just, y’know…HERMES AND JOHN GALLIANO.
Anyway, despite being only 21, Max Wallis was a writer before all that. He’s now a model and also, impressively, a writer still.
I’d be prepared to let him have this one, fearing — as I did before picking up his debut poetry pamphlet, Modern Love — that I’d hate his writing anyway. Alas, he’s pretty (and) good. FFS, as people his age say.
Modern Love charts a love that’s not just modern but young and old, requited and unrequited — with a fair bit of shagging thrown in, too. It’s enticing and enervating; choosing to state the obvious rather than skim the surface of shallowness, which is refreshing for a young writer nowadays.
This crucial difference between Max and his over-hyped contemporaries aside then, why not start as we mean to go on; namely, by stating the fucking obvious.
3:AM: You’re a model, but which came first: the modelling, or the writing?
MW: I started off as a writer. I’ve been writing from when I was 11 or 10, when I wrote a poem about how much I hated mange tout because my mum forced me to eat it. Sounds prissy now, I know, but instead of crying I wrote a poem. Hellooo poet.
3:AM: What books and writers did you read at that age? Have you got over them, as it were?
MW: 11 or 10? C S Lewis, Philip Pullman — hardly any poets, that’s for certain. Harry Potter naturally came into my life and I think that’s what drove me to be a writer. The idea of becoming something that inspires others. Pullman’s stayed with me, definitely. C S Lewis, not so much. Harry Potter just lives in a whole different part of me…
3:AM: Take this opportunity to explain how Modern Love ended up with flipped eye. Hopefully, you’ll never have to do it again (although I doubt it).
MW: Modern Love took two years to write. A lot of the poems in there came from something everyday, a project I ran for eight months and consisted of me writing a poem every day. It involved a lot of blood/sweat and poems would come from here, there, everywhere in a lot of different forms. I think that’s what gave me a jumpstart. Eventually the project got handed over to other writers, I started my Masters at the University of Manchester and I was accepted onto the Young Poet Scheme at the Barbican Centre. I was mentored by Dorothy Fryd and Jacob Sam-La Rose. Jacob asked me if I had a full body of work, and I told him I was working on a pamphlet. He took it, became my editor, and five months later the book was out with flipped eye. Since then, somehow, we’ve managed to already sell out the first print run, with the next looking like it’ll sell out pretty quickly as well. Apparently people love to love.
3:AM: Which hurts most: rejection in modelling, or rejection in literature? And which industry allowed you to learn that lesson first?
MW: I think poetry helped a lot. Being rejected by magazines. As soon as you realise it’s not personal and just a matter of whether you’re right for the publication, it’s fine. I know a lot of poets who don’t send off any work and likewise I know models who take rejection to heart. I take both to heart occasionally, but I get rejected all the time so, y’know…
3:AM: Give me a sentence to sum up where you were when you wrote it — and where you are now it’s all printed and bound.
MW: Back then I was in a limboland, working every day on what’s essentially a body of work that’s arguably been done before, but hoping (knowing?) that I could put a new twist on it. I’d turn down the pub with mates to sit in my room and write, or I’d get distracted in relationships because it was always at the back of my mind. There’s not necessarily sacrifice in writin,g but there’s definitely a certain amount of lost time. Now I’m relaxed, content, the book’s swimming along okay. I look in the mirror and sometimes it hits and, ‘Oh, okay, wow — I’m actually a writer now.’ It’s good. Lovely. Bliss in a way. Saying that, the next pamphlet’s sitting on my head like a headcrab from Half Life so that’s getting me worked up now. Onwards.
3:AM: Erm…that wasn’t a sentence!
MW: Goddamnit. When I wrote it I was in a limboland of not knowing; now it’s published I’m content in knowing that I’ve realised a lifelong goal of being published — that’s almost enough for me.
3:AM: Your blend of poetry with prose appealed a lot — but I had no idea you were such a good writer. I, like other people presumably, assumed (feared, even) you’d not be any good at all. You’re a model, after all. (Funny that.) You’ll doubtless get this a lot, though. Any thoughts on it now, while you’re relatively new to it?
MW: I guess it’s a boon and a bust. Writing has always been my main motive in life, as I’m sure you were the same. Modelling provides, sometimes, money when writing can’t. It’s experience, inside knowledge, another world inside our own. I’m writing a poem about how poets should never be models. I sometimes get worked up and have to ring friends, and that’s the first thing I say. You get used to rejection, as you know, long hours, stress, the dream-promises of a fickle industry where you can be optioned for over £20k but that means nothing, really.
But there’s a volta in this imaginary poem, after the reasons why you should never be a model, there’s also the other truth: the beauty in it all. Poets recognise the awkward beauty that most consider annoying, or just not worthy of seeing. I don’t know, maybe I’m just attaching unnecessary beauty to things. With modelling I’ve worn clothes made so intricately, worth thousands, been to Paris, sat in Dior’s headquarters, and in that way maybe there’s room for a poet. I’m just not sure the industry itself cares, y’know.
3:AM: I’ve always imagined Chatterton to be a good-looking chap. Tortured, yearning for a kind of beauty that was impossible to find; being, as it so often is, out of grasp. Is there such a thing as beautiful — perfect — literature? Or is the whole quest doomed to fail…
MW: Doomed to fail I think. Take Mervyn Peake and Gormenghast — absolutely beautiful prose but a chore to read. Similarly Pullman and His Dark Materials: more or less basic language, but a beautiful plot. I think prose is a different beast to poetry…
3:AM: Which do you prefer?
MW: I write both but I’m much worse at prose. I put poeticisms into it that, because it’s prose, just appear pretentious and wank. The beauty in prose is the journey of the characters, I think, and less about the words…
3:AM: What poetry do you read? I have a bad habit of shying away from contemporary stuff, expecting to hate it. Give me some of your favourites to nick.
MW: I’m the opposite. I never used to read classics but nowadays I try to read them at least to have a grounding in what’s been done before, so, hopefully, my poetry goes in my own direction. Then again, it can be hard. T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland still annoys the hell out of me, but I’m getting used to it. I used to love Milton in college — I did a text-transformation piece where I converted the first three books of Paradise Lost into chapters of a novel — and I’m getting more out of Shakespeare these days. Contemporary favourites include Joe Dunthorne and Jack Underwood. My editor Jacob Sam-La Rose has to get a major mention — check out his poem in The Penguin Book of Love Poetry, “Things That Could Happen”. There’s some stunning love poetry from Nina Badahur who’s also with flipped eye. Of course, Carol Ann Duffy got me into love poetry and I’m a late-comer to Simon Armitage. Wider than that, there’s performance poetry from Kate Tempest who knocks my socks off every single time. She’s made many poets cry the first time they see her. Tony Walsh is a stonking force for poetry. Jo Bell, likewise, manages to be in fifty-hundred different places at once. She’s been a great friend and mentor. Check out her poems on Somethingeveryday for February. Astonishing.
3:AM: Stock question time: can you read while writing, as in, on a particular project? And do you listen to music when you work?
MW: I have to so I know I’m not ripping anyone off! Also it’s silly to write without a basis. Music-wise, occasionally, but to be honest I write poems when and where they come to me. If that’s on my BlackBerry or on the computer or on a little piece of paper, so be it.
3:AM: What’s the greatest line you’ve ever read, and written?
MW: Honestly, I have no idea. I don’t really collect lines in my mind from poems. I tend to remember the feel of a poem. I don’t even want to hazard a guess what mine could be. I’ll probably choose the wrong one for certain. What’s yours?
3:AM: Anything by Tao Lin. Come to think of it, where do you stand on literary feuds? You got beef?
MW: Elaborate for me…
3:AM: I have beef — writers I don’t like, and people who write whom I don’t like much — and I tend to think it healthy. Although others tell me the opposite. How about you?
MW: I do have beef but it’s more a tenderised version. Maybe I have veal, I’m not sure.
3:AM: What’s your unique story of how you became a model? (And, is being interviewed by another model-turned-author weird? Or is it just me?)
MW: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Modelling came along sideways. Someone I was friends with suggested I go and see some agencies. I did, and some time later got picked up. I don’t have an amazing story like being chased down the street, or being found living on the street or anything like that. Still, it popped up. I find it strange, though, the entire world. Good-strange and bad-strange. Modelling was never anything that I thought I’d like to do — and I’m not in it for fame or anything like that. If someone wants to pay me money to have fun, laugh, muck about in front of them for a while then good on them, but I’m not precious about it all — or really, honestly, that concerned when it ends. I was meant to go to Korea in autumn to model for three months in Seoul but turned it down to focus on the book launch, my Masters, and everything else. I think I made the right decision.
3:AM: I asked if it was weird. Be meta…
MW: Yes it’s weird. Very weird. How many author/model/author/models are there? Can we form a circus?
3:AM: After this interview, they’ll all come crawling out of the woodwork.
MW: Dancing…no, conga-ing!
3:AM: How big’s your ego? Every writer has one, but not all of them admit just how ambitious they are. If we were at school and I asked (I’m pretty old, remember), ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ — what would your response be?
MW: Ha. I know where I want to be. I want to be pitching a full collection to Faber & Faber or Bloodaxe. I don’t know if I’ll get there, but if you aim high and you fail you’ll come partway. I’m down with that. Really, though, I’ll be happy if I can write and fund my existence, if I can wake every day, or so, and look in the mirror and still go: ‘Oh, okay, I’m a writer.’ I’ll be happy.
3:AM: I really liked “Facebook” in the pamphlet. This is autobiographical, right? Come clean with me, and spare me a lot of wondering…
MW: It’s not directly autobiographical. My longest relationship is only three months or so. But it does leech a lot of my own experiences. Facebook is such a strange phenomenon, especially when you think about love, relationships, sex. People phish each other from Facebook friends as ways to meet future lovers. People delete each other when they break up as an act of finality. Someone said in a review of the poem: ‘It tracks a relationship over the course of a year, in scenes that will be all too familiar to anyone who has ever had to change their relationship status on Facebook back to “single”.’ I think they hit the nail on the head. If you really want to know what’s autobiographical in the pamphlet, though, have a glance over the ‘Porthcothan Bay’ poem again…
3:AM: That was pretty intense. Do people you know, ex-lovers perhaps, recognise themselves in your work? And are you happy for your parents to read it?
MW: I don’t mind if my parents read it at all. They have — so have my grandparents. Ex-lovers might find themselves, one in particular, but they haven’t said (much).
3:AM: Finally…write me a haiku — now!
MW: August, snow falls. White cobwebs
against sunscaped blue.
Mum is dying.
Modern Love is out now
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, July 24th, 2011.