Devoted to Strangeness
An Interview with M.T. Anderson
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl
M.T. Anderson is a National Book Award-winning author and recent winner of the American Library Association's Margaret A. Edwards Award, which "honors an author … for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature." The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, his most recent book created in collaboration with illustrator Eugene Yelchin, was nominated for a 2018 National Book Award. He is the author of over fifteen books for young people, with short fiction also published in numerous anthologies. His website is mt-anderson.com. Find him on Twitter at @_MTAnderson.
TMR: When you first began your career, what drew you to creating for young people in particular?
MTA: My career began young—I was twenty-five when my first book was published—and though I imagined myself to be sage, antique, and hoary at the time, I was really in many ways still a teenager. To be frank, I was still working through the discomforts and dislocations and even traumas of being that age. I had spent most of my life young.
And also, therefore, my sense of literature itself was still profoundly colored by the wonderful (and terrible) books I'd read as a teen. These were some of my most intense reading experiences. And frankly, that hasn't changed.
When we read as teens, we step forward into new worlds as nude as Adam and Eve.
When we read as teens, we step forward into new worlds as nude as Adam and Eve. Each idea we haven't yet had, each life we aren't living, seems revolutionary, catastrophic. We are erupting all the time. The sensation of thought is almost physical—and from a neurological standpoint, it actually is physical. The brain is still in a process of formation at that age. Our axons are popping like bubble wrap. We're not simply rearranging the software; we're building the hardware.
As a result, I remember the books I read as a teen with far more clarity than I remember the books I read a week and a half ago.
Who wouldn't want to work with readers that hungry, that devoted to knowledge, surprise, and strangeness?
TMR: As someone who writes primarily for youth and urges writers not to patronize their young readers, what were the stories that impacted you when you were young? Would you say any of these influenced your methods to this day?
MTA: The books which influenced me most when I was young—and which I read again and again—were Ray Bradbury's weird fictions (The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes), the comic shorts of Mark Twain and James Thurber, and Tove Jansson's Moomin books for the under-ten set. When I was in my mid-teens, I began to read books for adults, and found myself particularly drawn first to highly stylized British novels (Woolf, Waugh, Bowen, Firbank) and then, in college, to American experimentalism (Ellison, Barthelme, Brautigan, Burroughs).
What do all these things have in common? First of all, the stylization of both prose and human experience itself—the rejection of normalcy—a refracted alienation which reveals, paradoxically, the real face of what we already know best—and the pursuit of Baroque extravagance as an almost desperate attempt to express deeply animal and human longings which are usually trapped and strangled by daily patter.
TMR: Your book Feed came out in 2002, right when the internet was becoming more accessible to the public—yet it's eerily accurate in its depictions of technology and advertising. What gave you the idea to write the book?
MTA: Not so much a sense of where technology was going—though I've been shocked how quickly we've moved toward some of the innovations I breezily made up for the book—but instead, what I was really pursuing was a sense of where capitalism was going.
TMR: What made you choose that ending?
MTA: I didn't know the ending when I wrote the beginning. But by the time I got there, that seemed like the only thing that made sense. For one thing, I wanted the reader to be left with a sense of urgency: This is the world we are building. You are in charge of the future. It is for you to decide what kind of a world you will live in.
TMR: In your Publishers Weekly conversation with illustrator Eugene Yelchin, you praise the ending to his book Breaking Stalin's Nose, noting that he gave the main character what he needed rather than what he wanted. What value do you find in a bittersweet ending?
Writing and reading are one way of dealing with a continual sense of loss.
MTA: How often do we ourselves live through a happy ending with an embrace and a marching band? Unfortunately, even when we do have those moments of resolution, we get no chapter break or end of the volume. Time moves on. Comedy leads to tragedy; tragedy leads to comedy. Writing and reading are one way of dealing with a continual sense of loss, and we can deal with it either by exploring that oxidation of hope—or by imagining a world finally filled with triumph. Either one is a legitimate response, and can help us lead our own lives better, more happily, more kindly, more joyfully.
TMR: Your most recent work, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, was a collaborative effort with Yelchin. What about his style appealed to you for Brangwain?
MTA: Eugene suggested the book to me. He approached me—we both admired each other's work—I had written a nonfiction book about Soviet Leningrad—he had defected from Soviet Leningrad— and he said he wanted to create a book for kids in which the pictures didn't illustrate the story—they contradicted the story. That sounded amazing to me.
So we got to work.
TMR: Brangwain takes place in a fantasy world filled with goblins and elves, but its themes feel very real-world, particularly in 2019. When did the idea for the book first come to you? What compelled you?
MTA: We wrote the book before the 2016 election, and its roots are actually ancient. I'm a big fan of travelogues from the ancient and medieval world: Herodotus, Xuanzang, Faxian, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Ibn Fadlan, Sir John Mandeville, St. Brendan, and so on. I'm fascinated by the way that they try to make anthropological sense of other cultures, and the way foreign cultures often simply become magical. And I believe that those misunderstandings and attempts at communication are at the heart of how our species operates.
So my first thought was to depict a traditional garbagey fantasy "Realm of the Dark Lord"—the kind of militarized, totalitarian goblin state we see in novel after novel—but to send an elfin historian into that realm like a kind of Herodotus, trying to write a description of that culture. But of course he can't understand it, because he's an elf, and he's been trained to hate goblins since his birth. So the reader would see that goblin society is really very complex, whereas the elf would only see an evil cartoon caricature, misreading everything hopelessly.
This was a perfect project to embark on with Eugene, because he and I, of course, grew up on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. As we wrote, we discovered that it was, more and more, becoming a Cold War spy novel.
So if it speaks to this historical moment, that's just because we're in the midst of a crisis with deep and ancient roots, at the heart of which lies the difficulties humans have with their own instinct to form packs and herds, to understand and to judge, to prey and to love.
TMR: As a YA author, you play a role in one of the most important periods in a young person's development. Do you have any stories of touching moments with fans that have shown you the impact you've made for them?
MTA: There are so many wonderful letters I've gotten over the years from teens who talk about being changed by things I've written. That's an incredible blessing. (And there are few adult readers who would admit that they've actually been altered—another benefit of writing for teens.)
Once a fan named their baby Jasper, after the whizz-kid inventor from the Pals in Peril books. That was kind of incredible. I wonder where that kid is now. I'm hoping he's inventing his first matter transporter.
TMR: In conversation with Vermont Public Radio, you mention that you're in between projects right now. Do you have any concepts rattling around in your brain right now?
MTA: Right now, I'm writing a science fiction novel for adults about what it will be like to be 80 years old and living in Vermont in 2050. So it's a world where the wealthy are uploading themselves, Manhattan is sinking, and many have fled to gleaming white offshore cities. But it takes place in Vermont, so everything is basically just like it is now. Mud and pick-up trucks.
TMR: In that same conversation, you note that this society is rather dystopian—we're just living in the shining citadel. As a politically-invested creator, how do you think artists can help bring about a better society?
MTA: I do think that literature, in the aggregate, changes society. It doesn't simply reflect things. For example, I think that acceptance of homosexuality has been materially affected by its normalization in TV narratives over the last two decades. And at the moment, a greater awareness of sexual violence and coercion has meant a change in how "romance" is depicted—and I think that will eventually have an effect on teen sensibilities about what is acceptable and what's not.
I do think that literature, in the aggregate, changes society. It doesn't simply reflect things.
Writers for young people have, I think, a much greater contribution to make to the future of our national conversation just because we're dealing with a readership that is impassioned and still learning how the world works. They're going to be, in some small way, formed by what they read. It will help determine what they consider normal, acceptable, and desirable.
It's a great privilege to be part of that process.
TMR: If one of your books were chosen to be placed in a time capsule to be opened 500 years from now, which would you choose to best represent the America you know?
MTA: Well, unfortunately, probably Feed, since it would be interesting to see in retrospect how real it became.
TMR: Which book, by any author, would you place alongside it? Why?
MTA: I guess it would go well with Don DeLillo's White Noise, which deals with the same late-capitalist cultural trends from a vantage point of two decades earlier.
TMR: You've delved into fantasy kingdoms, Soviet Russia, ad-riddled America-esque dystopias… What other kind of world might you be interested in building and exploring?
To me, the greatest issues are about how we live now, what we accept as okay right now, how we can improve things for others.
MTA: That's where I'm mired, because that's where I live, in a sense. To me, the greatest issues are about how we live now, what we accept as okay right now, how we can improve things for others. That's what I'm passionate about. That's where I'll stay.
TMR: You have a history of strangely predicting the near future in your work, be it Feed, Landscape with Invisible Hand, and other works. If you were to write about an achievable (for our society) utopia, what would that look like?
MTA: I would envision a much smaller human population—so we are no longer pushing the Earth past its productive capacity—that is served by a mechanized economy and is assured a certain base income—so that we can spend our time pursuing the things which truly give us pleasure and fulfillment.
TMR: In early 2018, the #MeToo movement quietly made its way into children's and YA literature. As someone involved in writing for young people, what are your thoughts on how to make the YA world safer for those at risk of being taken advantage of?
MTA: Well, the good thing is that the right steps are being taken. In just the last few years, people have started taking much more seriously the questions of race and representation in literature and the questions of gender, respect, and inclusion. Change is slow, but we are making progress. The awareness about those issues has heightened—we are moving in a new direction, and it's a better direction.