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Profile: Author M.T. Anderson Challenges Young Adults With Complex Narratives

M. T. Anderson doesn't mince words in his latest novel, a two-volume work of more than 900 pages.
M. T. Anderson doesn't mince words in his latest novel, a two-volume work of more than 900 pages. (By Mary Beth Meehan For The Washington Post)
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"We love fantasy novels in which the characters think that they're peasants but turn out to be princes and kings," Anderson says. "So I thought, 'Well, I'm going to write a book in which someone believes that they're a prince or a king and then turns out to be a slave.' "

But that was just one of the fragmentary notions "floating around in my head," he says, that came together in "Octavian Nothing."

Another originated in his Massachusetts childhood. His home town, Stow, had dispatched Minutemen to oppose the British troops who marched on Lexington and Concord. Still drawn to that history as an adult, he attended a battle reenactment and found himself wondering: How would it feel if you had to choose, without benefit of hindsight, between loyalty and revolution?

A third fragment was the true story he'd heard about "a young Jamaican named Francis Williams," who, in the 18th century, was enrolled in an English university by a patron interested in testing his mental capacities. A fourth was the equally true description he encountered of an 18th-century "pox party," a bizarre gathering in which physicians infected revelers with a mild form of smallpox in the hope that they would become immune.

Finally, there was the heart-rending story of Lord Dunmore's Royal Ethiopian Regiment, an army of runaway slaves recruited in 1775 by the royal governor of Virginia.

Dunmore offered emancipation to any rebel-owned slaves who would fight on the British side. This "diabolical scheme," as George Washington called it, threatened to make the governor "the most formidable enemy America has." In Anderson's second volume, Octavian -- having fled the Novanglians and briefly thrown in his lot with some Patriot freedom fighters -- heads south to join Dunmore and fight for freedom of a different kind.

The Royal Ethiopians, Anderson says, are "an incredible story that cannot be done total justice by a historian." Each black soldier had a unique tale of flight, adventure and travail, but their individual lives are undocumented. Thus as he created their fictional counterparts -- Isaac the Joiner, a carpenter called to preach but forbidden by his master to do so, or Olakunde, a teller of mesmerizing tales from the African homeland -- he felt a huge responsibility to "reproduce lives that were very, very possible."

Anderson felt this responsibility so strongly that he couldn't play down the Ethiopian Regiment's grim fate: military defeat and a murderous smallpox epidemic. Otherwise, he'd have been doing a disservice to "people who had lived through the most incredible kind of heroism."

So there you have it -- 900 pages filled with grimness and archaic language. Did Anderson's editor, perchance, ever worry that "Octavian Nothing" might not sell?

Nope.

"I've been reading books for 48 years," says Candlewick Press Editorial Director Elizabeth Bicknell. "I knew what I had was absolutely extraordinary." Sales of Volume 1, she reports, are now over 100,000 copies.

Bicknell says she didn't change "a single word in a single sentence" herself. Her main contribution was to curb Anderson's tendency to let subplots and secondary characters derail the narrative. He loved a character named William Billings, for example, a real historical figure who, among other things, turned church music into revolutionary propaganda. Bicknell convinced him that Billings's voice was drowning out Octavian's.


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