M.T. Anderson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1968, He is an award winning author of children’s books that range from picture books to young adult novels. M.T. Anderson has a distinct writing style, known for challenging his readers and the use of wit and sarcasm in his stories. In 2006, he won the award for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, for his book The Pox Party, the first of two ‘Octavian Nothing’ books, set in revolution-era Boston M.T. Anderson is also on the Board of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, a national non-profit organisation that advocates for literacy, literature, and libraries. One of his most popular books is entitled Feed, a young-adult novel which centres around the lives of teenagers in a future America. It is now being taught in schools as a dystopian novel, exaggerating our modern society in an attempt to challenge it. The book won the Los Angeles Times Book Award and has also been a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. I was excited to talk books with such a cherished author. Please enjoy my interview with M.T. Anderson…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I try to change the subject. There is no topic I find more boring than me.
The Histories by Herodotus. It is blowing my mind. A book of Biblical density, fascination, and strangeness. Includes: Flying snakes. Daring heists. Cruel kings. Wise kings. Griffins. Sadness at the passing of civilizations. Joy in power. Grief in defeat. I should mention, the flying snakes migrate yearly from Arabia, where they cluster on the frankincense trees. You’ve been warned.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
Probably Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, both because he taught me about writing and, more importantly, he taught me how to have an American childhood. In books like this, The Martian Chronicles, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, he simultaneously defined a certain kind of small-town Americana and cleverly ripped into it, producing a potent cocktail of nostalgia, longing, fondness, and unease that I still find profoundly powerful.
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
The first one I’ve ever found was about a bunch of kids who invent a “time mashin” (sic) and travel into the far, far future. They see cities in the air! They watch star ships taking off to distant worlds! They meet robots! And then they realize that they’re two thousand years old, so they crumble to dust. I was never a big fan of aging.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
As I said: never a big fan of aging.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
He would be delighted. I’m living exactly the life he wanted … Living in an 18th C house, writing the books he wanted to read back then. And more importantly, as an adult, giving himself permission to continue eating burgers, fries, and donette gems.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
The one time I know I will read is right before going to sleep. This is a stupid choice. I always forget the last couple of pages and dream my way into something that reads like a cross between William Congreve and alien abduction.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?
The one which made the most profound effect was my satirical sci-fi novel, Feed. It’s what still really allows me to write without getting a job. My favorites among my own books, however, were the two Octavian Nothing books, Gothic novels about the 18th C. Though they were historical novels, I felt that they were more radical than the book about the future … And they contained more of me, I guess.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
First, actually write, however seductive it might be to just sit around pouting in a special hat. Even if you end up hating the things you write, you’re getting incredibly valuable experience. And as soon as you actually write, you’re a writer.
Second, the thing we want to hear from you is what makes you unlike any of the rest of us. Lean toward your own eccentricities. Be aware of how they might strike your readers – but remember that it is the very thing that makes you different that will make you stand out and be heard.
Sure! I remember my mom giving me To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf when I was a teenager. Though it was a weird choice, I have to say it astounded me. I was big into science fiction and fantasy – but I’d never considered that one of the things prose could do was actually render the way human thought moved. I remember reading the book while sitting on a median strip, waiting for my mom to pick me up for a dentist’s appointment. She was always late, so by the time she actually got me, Mrs. Ramsay was dead and it frankly didn’t look too good for Prue. There was a whole chapter narrated by an unwinterized house. My understanding of the power of prose had forever changed.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
I’m afraid it was probably Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing In America or In Watermelon Sugar. Those were books that taught me a new freedom, and, in their own way, continued the education Ray Bradbury had begun on the strangeness of Americana. When I was in my twenties, I recommended them to everyone. Everyone. That’s the kind of thing young men do: recommend their favorite book to everyone, regardless.
Now I’m an older and wiser man. I want people to read things that fascinate them, not that fascinated me.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
I swivel back and forth between them. There are times that non-fiction doesn’t seem sufficiently inhabited, when I turn to fiction to remind me of the texture of life. Then there are times that the unreality of fiction strikes me as provincial, and I want to learn about things that are real in this world, things that can be touch and that bleed. Each genre nourishes the other.
Do you think reading is important?
Absolutely. Not everyone has to become a reader of fiction – that’s a hobby or an avocation – but I would hope that every citizen would come to feel the importance of reading about the decisions that affect us all. Frankly, it’s a faster way to assimilate details about important issues than broadcast news, and it allows for more reflection, more comparison of sources, more questioning.
Central to our democracy is an educated electorate, just as the educated consumer is central to the adequate functioning of capitalism. Reading is integral to our system. Without it, our nation could easily veer into tyranny.
How did the Russians preserve their culture and their soul in the midst of Stalinist repression? Illicit and voracious reading. As Mandelshtam said, for example, no nation cared more about poetry than Russia; nowhere else could you be killed for it.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
So many! A School For Fools by Sasha Sokolov, The Night Ocean by Paul Lafarge, The Sympathizer by Viet Nguyen, In Parentheses by David Jones, The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, The Little Girls by Elizabeth Bowen… Many more.
What do they all have in common? They depict a world in which the global population is below three billion. More people than that, and I start to get squirrely.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
I just moved, so I’m a big fan of digital books. Very easy to lift.
Name a book that you feel everyone would benefit from reading and explain why.
Our reading history is so personal that I don’t think there’s any single book everyone would benefit from reading. Who knows what changes you? It’s a case of the right book arriving in the right hands at the right time – but for everyone, that will be a different book, at a different time. So often, the books that formed us as children, for example, don’t stand up to scrutiny when we’re adults. We brought so much to the book when we were kids that we transformed it into what we needed. As children, we illuminate books – and I mean that in the medieval sense. We floreate the margins with our own tangled wildwood, our own monsters and grotesques, our own spiritual maunderings, and scenes of our daily life pricked out in gold, then wonder why, when we return and find the pages blank of all that exuberant growth, the text seems so bare and hollow.
So no, I wouldn’t recommend a book to everyone. That seems like a very bad idea. Look, for example, at Chairman Mao. Big best-seller. But not a fun all-community read.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Oddly, to give a dull answer to an interesting question, I think it was probably The Country and the City by Raymond Williams. I don’t necessarily recommend it. It’s a Marxist discussion of the pastoral. But it opened my eyes to the politics that lie not just behind writing (behind even purportedly apolitical novels), but behind the very ways we conceive of the world. I read it in college, and then returned to it a decade later as an adult. It is not what I’d call an interesting book, but it is a persistent one. In the way that it cracked open literature using the scalpel of history, I was made deeply uncomfortable – and felt that I was seeing a kind of anatomy I’d never witnessed before.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Why don’t more people read Fanny Burney? Everyone goes apeshit for Austen, but they neglect the witty and incisive Burney. Jane Austen herself loved Burney’s novels. Penguin gives you a taste of the Journals and Diaries, which are really extraordinary, the private record of a brilliant woman from about thirteen years of age up, from the grand days of the 18th C, through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, to her old age when the dark drapes of the 19th C were hung and dusty. Along the way, we see a young authoress who is hiding her identity (out of shyness – but even from her own father) silently observing the parties and idiocies of the rich. We see her shoehorned into being a waiting-woman for the Queen of England as a way of taming her. (She detested it, and it’s hilariously awful.) Then the years pass, and she grows older, and we witness her undergoing a mastectomy without anaesthesia. We watch her marriage degenerate as her own son turns against her. We see the sorrows of old age – but also its dignity. And it’s all real.
You feel at the end of the diaries as if you’ve made a friend for a lifetime – a friend who’s perfect to bitch with – and yet she’s been gone for a century and a half. I felt almost bereft.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
In the fall, I’ll be reading a lot of histories of the Hundred Years War and France in the 14th century, for the project I’ll be working on. For the moment, as we head into the summer, I’ll be reading Judgement Ridge by Dick Lehr, a nonfiction account of one of those cases where a couple of teens just decide to murder someone randomly, without any grudge or anger, just because they’re bored. Why does it always seem to happen in New Hampshire? This case haunted me at the time, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Dick does with it, despite the fact that it will probably unsettle me. I want to see what it’s all about.
Yes, okay, I live right near the border of New Hampshire.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Jesus, that would be a boring book. I guess you could call it All Dressed Up and No Place To Go. Which will also be my epitaph.