By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 29, 2008
M.T.Anderson is defending the intelligence of teenagers, and he's getting quite worked up about it.
"It's insulting to believe that teens should have a different kind of book than an adult should," says the author of "Feed" and, most recently, "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation." Teens like challenges, he says. They know the world is complicated, and "they can tell when a book is simplifying life."
And hey: "If we're going to ask our kids at age 18 to go off to war and die for their country, I don't see any problem with asking them at age 16 to think about what that might mean."
Anderson's attitude helps explain "Octavian Nothing," an ultra-challenging, two-volume young-adult novel that runs 900-plus pages and asks teen readers to contemplate the American Revolution from a wildly unfamiliar point of view. In case that's not challenging enough, he wrote it in "the particularly complex form of 18th-century English" that its title character would have used.
The first volume won a National Book Award in 2006. The second was published last month to further acclaim.
"I believe 'Octavian Nothing' will someday be recognized as a novel of the first rank, the kind of monumental work Italo Calvino called 'encyclopedic' in the way it sweeps up history into a comprehensive and deeply textured pattern," wrote an awed reviewer for the New York Times, tossing in references to Twain, Hawthorne and Melville for good measure.
Not bad for a guy whose first published book was a suburban vampire novel and whose second centered on teen love and fast food.
At 40, Anderson is technically a grown-up, but bring his hairline forward just a shade and he could pass for the hand-waving brainiac in your AP history class. Wearing a gray T-shirt and a three-day beard, he's chowing down in a distinctly non-scruffy Cambridge restaurant while trying to describe how his epic narrative took shape.
Octavian Nothing is an African American youth whose circumstances, as the first volume begins, could scarcely be more unusual.
He has fallen in with a peculiar group of Boston scientist-philosophers known as the Novanglian College of Lucidity. The Novanglians "devoted themselves to divining the secrets of the universe," as the young man writes in the journal that forms much of Anderson's novel. One of the secrets they're trying to divine -- by experimenting on Octavian -- is "whether the capacities of the African are equal to those of the European." To this end, they bestow upon him an elite education in the arts, sciences and classical languages.
Which would be paradise, except that his scholarly benefactors have neglected to mention that they own him.
"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?
"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.
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.