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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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Matthew Tobin Anderson (he goes mainly by his middle name) has been writing since he was a teen, but he's never been the type to turn in perfect first drafts. His mother was an Episcopal priest, his father a computer programmer. They raised him in a suburban development that was "kind of a first incursion into a pretty rural town." He loved Stow but found it isolated, and thinks "a lot of the drive to make narratives came from having to play by myself as a 5- or 6-year-old in the woods."

He wrote his first book, "The Game of Sunken Places," at 17, though he couldn't get it published at the time. It was "kind of a throwback to the boys' adventure books that I loved as a kid," he says, but it needed revision, and "I didn't know how to do revision back then."

Publication came with "Thirsty" in 1997. By this time, Anderson had acquired a degree in literature from England's Cambridge University and landed back in Cambridge, Mass., as an editorial assistant at Candlewick, where he got help with the revision thing.

Not long afterward, the first three chapters of "Burger Wuss" hit the desk of Candlewick newcomer Bicknell. "This is a total mess," she wrote on the manuscript. She also thought it was funny, original and worth fixing.

Anderson's third novel, "Feed," was something else.

"We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck," announces Titus, its teen protagonist, in the opening sentence. Titus and his friends inhabit a future in which everyone with money has a device called a "feed," implanted in his or her brain, that enables a kind of wireless instant messaging. More important, it updates users on commercial, social and entertainment trends and responds to every thought with targeted advertising.

While Titus and company are on the moon, a hacker messes with their feeds, inducing a period of feed-deprived twitchiness while repairs are made. Meanwhile, Titus has met Violet, an out-crowd type who didn't get her feed implanted until she was 7 -- her parents, can you believe it, didn't want her to have one -- and who ends up struggling to resist it.

" 'Feed' is a brilliant accomplishment," says Michael Cart, a former librarian now writing and consulting about books for young adults. He's not alone in this opinion: The novel won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, became a National Book Award finalist, started showing up on high school reading lists and made its author a star among the YA crowd.

Think of it as Anderson's revenge. As a teen, he says, "I felt that I was always being cajoled, by this whole set of images, to be something that I fundamentally didn't want to be." He was a kid who liked the harpsichord -- how uncool is that? He'd been "angry about those things for so long" that it was enormous fun just to "form a fist and strike out."

But the scariest thing wasn't that consumer culture was exerting pressure. It was that he'd internalized it. Part of him, he knew, "would much rather be young, wealthy, pretty and oversexed than who I am," even if this desire went against everything he believed.

This tension, he says, is what made "Feed" interesting to write.

On the surface, "Octavian Nothing" couldn't be less like "Feed." Yet as Anderson points out, each creates its world through its characters' voices, "the way the sentence structure works and the words they use."

He was so obsessed with getting Octavian's voice right that for the better part of six years, he restricted his reading to books written in or relating to the 18th century. He started speaking in "much longer sentences with a lot of semicolons," with the unintended consequence that his girlfriend mocked him for sounding like "some 18th-century [expletive]."

No permanent damage was done to the relationship, apparently. The two recently rented a house together in southern Vermont. Still, with his obsession past, Anderson plans to steer clear of epics for a while. "For the next several months I'm confining myself to lighter adventure novels," he says, "which will be a great relief."

In addition to his YA material, he's done picture books and humorous thrillers for younger readers, most notably "Whales on Stilts," in which an intrepid trio of 12-year-olds defeats an army of aquatic mammals bent on world domination.

He's also done stories specifically aimed at adults. Who knows, Tobin Anderson says, perhaps he'll write a whole novel for adults someday.

Then again, maybe he already has.

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