Friday, July 23, 2010

M.T. Anderson: An Exclusive SCBWI Team Blog Pre-Conference Interview

M.T. Anderson is one heck of a writer.

Whether it's Science Fiction (like the amazing "FEED",

a finalist for the National Book Award) or Historical YA (like "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party,"

a Michael L. Printz Honor book) or even Middle Grade fantasy adventure (like "Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware")

his voice (and books) are unique, compelling, hard to put down... and stay with you long after you've read them.

He's also the former department chair of the M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College.

M.T. will be a Friday Morning Keynote speaker at the upcoming 39th Annual SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles, July 30-Aug 2, 2010.

I'm really excited to hear him speak, and I am honored to have had the opportunity to ask him some questions in the run-up to the conference!

Lee: Hi, M.T. Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview!

Let's dive in...

In "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party," the character of Octavian, by virtue of having been raised by scientists back on the cusp of Revolutionary War in Boston, speaks and observes his story with an extreme emotional detachment - even including his unfolding childhood understanding of being a slave. Were you concerned that a distant main character would be difficult for readers to connect with?

M.T.: I think you have to be true to your characters, however you imagine them. Octavian has been trained to think of himself as an experiment -- that’s who he is. He has been through awful things and has seen terrible experiments, and his rationality is his way of dealing with an overwhelming sense of danger and pain. While he’s detached, he is, at the same time, ardently and defiantly passionate.

Though most of us don’t come from such an extreme background, on a much milder level I think many teens live with the same kind of self-consciousness and uncomfortable dual awareness. They are constantly seeing themselves and trying to calculate who they should be (and failing) and they’re always second-guessing themselves. I wanted to write about a kid like that. So many of our most committed teen readers are smart kids who are struggling to reconcile the different aspects of themselves.

This element couldn’t have been cut out of Octavian’s character. In many ways, that’s what the two books are about. In the first volume, Octavian gradually finds ways to recognize and embrace his own burning commitment to action. The second volume is about how he acts on that commitment.

Lee: Following up, there's a whole section of Octavian's story told via other characters' letters that mention him. He's on the run, he's "free," but suddenly has NO VOICE. It was a powerful choice you made as the author, and it spoke volumes about the character's lack of freedom. Had you always seen that part of the story told in that way, or did it evolve through some experimenting?

M.T.: No – I knew from the get-go that I would narrate that part of the book from someone else’s point of view! Otherwise, I had this narrative problem: How do I deal with a narrator who has experienced something so horrible that he wouldn’t want to narrate it to anyone?

Lee: In "Jasper Dash and the Flame Pits of Delaware," you really play with reader expectations, which gave the story a wonderful sense of silliness. Moments like the narrator trying to convince readers the Stare Eyes Competition was exciting and then admitting it wasn't, and suddenly ending the chapter with , "Forget it. Let's go back outside." How do you approach voice?

M.T.: Voice is tremendously important to me. It’s one of the main reasons I read books! I would never start writing before I had a feel for the voice in which I’m writing.

Otherwise, it’s like showing up for a costume party completely undressed. And hoping you can quickly whip up an outfit at the party with duct-tape.

No, that was not one the best nights of my life.

Lee: Do you tackle voice differently in MG versus YA?

M.T.: For me – and this is a personal thing – there is a difference. In writing middle grade, I imagine the voice going TOWARDS the reader. In YA and adult, I imagine the voice coming FROM the narrator. I guess it’s because, naturally, I think of writing middle grade fiction as akin to story-telling or reading aloud.

But that’s just me.

Lee: That's fascinating. Thanks for sharing that! You've written such a variety of books, for different ages and in different genres. At the same time, a lot of writers are being told that we should focus and write a number of books in one age range and genre before branching out - because ideally, every author needs to "brand" themselves. What's your take on "branding?"

M.T.: Oh, I don’t know. There is nothing I love more than an author whose books all have matching spines. But on the other hand, why would you want to get shoveled into a corner so you have to keep doing the same thing again and again if you don’t want to? If you have found your groove and you love it – then great! Stick with it! If you’re tired of what you did and you want to do something new, I think it’s kind of abominable for an editor or agent to growl at you for it. Think of it as diversification of their investment.

Consider someone like Kate DiCamillo. Imagine how differently her career would have gone if someone had said, “You can’t write a fairy tale about a mouse! You’ve already written two contemporary novels set in the South! No one wants to hear what you have to say about European rodents.”

I’m all for experimentation. You’ll work better if you’re being challenged. And don’t forget that your agent is supposed to serve you, not the other way around. Tried and true axioms about “what works” never work.

Lee: Creating a Science Fiction or Fantasy world - world building - as you did in "Feed," and frankly, in all your books, is such a huge undertaking. Do you keep notebooks, or wall charts, or is it all just in your brain? How do you organize your worlds?

M.T.: I don’t really do much tracking of the world on paper. I did in the Octavian Nothing books – but that was a world that used to exist, not a fantasy world, so I just got maps from the period and kept long lists of facts about each location. I had charts of the money and army ranks and the deployment of different regiments.

For a series I’m working on right now for Scholastic (THE GAME OF SUNKEN PLACES, THE SUBURB BEYOND THE STARS), I did create some documents with lots of back-story in them so that I could get a better sense of what happened before the characters arrived on the scene. I wrote a list of regnal dates and some fragments of an ancient elfin chronicle, talking about the last generations of a vanished empire. It was incredibly fun to do. I’m such a history nerd, I loved counterfeiting documents. Later, Scholastic printed some of these documents in the paperback version of THE GAME OF SUNKEN PLACES, and is creating a website that will be up soon with other fragments I wrote to fill in areas of back-story. (I think the link will be

To see some cool, insanely detailed world-building, check out D. M. Cornish’s lovely, superbly rich MONSTER BLOOD TATTOO books. He supposedly made up the world before he made up the plots for the books. The books have encyclopedias in the back full of made-up terms, and there are lots of maps and charts – and as a boy, I would have loved it all!

It all contributes to the plenitude and variety of the world created.

Lee: The titles of your books are so awesome - they're evocative of tone and voice and you really seem to consistently "nail it." Do titles come first, or last, or somewhere else in your process?

M.T.: The titles hit me at different times. For example, some years ago I wrote a book about an army of stilt-walking whales invading the land. I couldn’t come up with a good name for the book. I kept on thinking of crappy puns, but nothing fit. Finally, my editor noticed that my working title was WHALES ON STILTS!

Simple. To the point. Kind of ridiculous.

We went with that.

Lee: Your SCBWI Keynote speech is titled, "The End of All Our Exploring: The Journey of Narrative." Is there any homework or reading in advance you'd like to suggest we do beforehand to get the most out of your talk?

M.T.: Naw. People have enough work to do as it is. I’ll be talking about Grace Lin’s WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON some of the time, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom books another part of the time, but who needs homework?

Instead, eat a chipwich. No connection with what I have to say, but they’re delicious.

Lee: Chipwich, duly noted. Last question: Los Angeles will be hot and sunny and the pool will be sparkling. Ice Tea, or Lemonade?

M.T.: I can’t wait! It’s going to be great to see old friends and meet new ones. Although typically at conferences, my cocktail is NyQuil or Robitussen.

Thank you so much, M.T.!

I hope you get to join me in hearing M.T. Anderson's keynote at this summer's SCBWI Conference. You can get more information on the Conference and sign up here!

Check out more fantastic pre-conference interviews at our official SCBWI Conference Blog!



ivanova said...

Wow! This is a kickass interview.

I love M.T. Anderson. I liked Feed, but the Octavian Nothing books are among the best books I ever read, hands-down. The main character Octavian made me think of Voltaire's Candide, Phillis Wheatley, and Julius Lester all at the same time. Anderson took the (to me, very boring) topic of the American Revolution and made it fascinating by telling the story of how hollow this "fight for freedom" was for slaves, and how the British promised actual freedom if they would fight on their side.

I also have to take my hat off to the cover designer of the first Octavian book, Traitor to the Nation. I never would have read it had I realized it was "about" early American history, and I would have missed a treat. But the cover looked kind of sf or steampunk, and creepy, so I picked it up. And the cover does describe the tone of the book, even though everything in it could have really happened.

Okay, now thinking about having a chipwich.


Colleen Ryckert Cook said...

Eat a chipwich. Best advice ever.

Oh, and that stuff about voice and diversification and whatnot. Also good.

Gentlemen, thanks for a great interview!

Cuppa Jolie said...

What an amazing interview. Thank you, Lee and M.T.!

I loved what he had to say about voice. Fascinating.

And a chipwich. Somehow chipwiches need to be sold just prior to that keynote (or else I'll be craving one!). :)

Carol Tanzman said...

Interesting take on MG vs.YA: going toward,coming from. Never considered that. Thanks, gentlemen.

Frances Sackett said...

This was an awesome interview, Lee. I've been reading M.T. Anderson recently, and it was great to hear what he had to say in response to your questions. I particularly liked his take on middle-grade voice -- I'll be thinking about that!


Sara W.E. said...

Can't wait to read the new Jasper Dash book!! Yay!

Rita said...

Wow, I've also thought the opposite about Voice for MG and YA: that is, YA has always felt like it was coming at me, the reader (esp. when in first person), while MG centers me more in the main characters' stories. But I can see how in M.T. Anderson's stories, it really does work the other way! This explains a lot. I'll be puzzling over this distinction for a long time.

Some of us are sticklers for homework. I'm looking up Barsoom now...

Thanks for a wonderful interview, Lee and Mr. Anderson! Great questions!! Great answers!! I can't wait for this weekend's conference!

Denise Doyen said...

Great interview. It's works as well post-conference. Hearing M.T.'s storytelling posture for middlegrade novels is a welcomed way of thinking about it.

Octavian Nothing has given me so much hope for the high-end boundaries of of children's lit. Thank you, thank you for pushing us all.

And may I say that your workshop rendition of "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" was a highlight of my conference experience. I'd never realized poor Ned's true angst.

Thanks guys, for this interview post!

Dana Elmendorf said...

"Lee: Do you tackle voice differently in MG versus YA?" Excellent question Lee. MT's answer really stuck with me. An interesting perspective.

Vittles@ executive coaching said...

Nice interview! it's good to know more about this man, he's truly a genius.

AML said...

Fantastic interview!!! I'm glad to have found it here, thanks a lot.