There are cultures, for example, where teens are not considered to be, first and foremost, consumers.
Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.
I’ll admit right up front to being horribly intimidated at the prospect of this interview. I put off drafting questions by collecting other interviews, reviews, and articles; by sifting through YouTube for conference appearances and even more interviews, by reading and re-reading the essays and speeches on his website…you get the idea. But all that research and preparation just made it worse, actually. So much worse. M.T. Anderson’s reputation as one of the nicest and funniest (Whales on Stilts, right?) authors around seems, from my limited experience (which mostly involves award speeches and receptions and secondhand stories from totally reputable sources), to be well founded and supported by evidence. And I’ve seen with my own eyes (as an audience member etc.) how downright goofy he can be so I know that’s true too. And yet.
You simply can’t read Octavian Nothing, or Feed, or (wow!) Symphony for the City of the Dead without becoming a little overwhelmed at the incredible intellect and spirit behind the words. And I think it’s impossible to not want to rise to the occasion, so to speak, but when I finally had to sit down and write this introduction (which of course I put off as long as I could) all I could do was sputter and gesture and shake my head because really, what can I say? (Thankfully I was alone.)
So I guess I’ll just say thank you for the opportunity, for–as always–making me think, and for championing teens, intellectualism, and intellectual teens in a climate that routinely dismisses all three.
Always Something There to Remind Me
Please describe your teenage self.
Thin to the point of mantis-like. Eager to explore the world in front of me. Already unhappy that someday I’d have to die.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?
A writer! I always had stories I wanted to tell. I spent a lot of time reading, and I was eager to become part of the ancient conversation of literature.
What were your high school years like?
There was some fun. I was in plays and musicals. I made movies with my friends. I spent an extra high school year in in England, and that was incredible – full of those eccentricities we now would see as Hogwartsian (students wearing black robes, medieval courtyards, all the entertaining rigors of a British boarding school). That place really stepped up my intellectual and artistic game. We studied Anglo-Saxon history, read Lear, sang Renaissance church music, and created a Cubist play about Picasso’s youth on a stage made entirely of cabbages.
What were some of your passions during that time?
When I was younger, I read mainly science fiction and fantasy. By the time I was in my later teens, I was reading a lot of British lit (favorites were Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, and Ronald Firbank). I loved music written before 1750. Some favorite movies from when I was a teen: The Time Bandits, Brazil, Monty Python and the Holy Grail … wow, the Monty Python team seem to have had a big effect on me … Angel Heart, The Thing, True Stories, and yes, The Breakfast Club.
Would you be willing to share a difficult teen experience or challenge that you feel shaped the adult you became?
Not in the slightest.
What about a positive experience or accomplishment that had an impact on your adult self?
For me, a big turning point was going to school in another country and realizing that there were places and cultures where it was actually not embarrassing to know things – that thinking wasn’t discouraged everywhere as something like masturbation that probably everyone did at some point, but did on their own, ashamed, and tried to conceal. In American high schools at the time, there definitely seemed to be the sense that too much thinking was a kind of perversion. The idea of “geek chic,” which saves so many kids now, was definitely not a movement in the 80s. It was so important to me to find other kids who were passionate about knowledge, about history, about joking our way through the echoing, statued halls of human civilization …
What advice, if any, would you give your teen self? Would your teen self have listened?
You don’t need to be as homely as you are. A lot of it is frankly just attitude.
No, I wouldn’t have listened.
Do you have any regrets about your teen years? Anything left undone or anything that might have been better left undone?
Are you kidding? Why do you think I became a writer for teens?
What, if anything, do you miss most about that time?
The sense that the world lay before my classmates and me, ready to be explored – and we were the new generation poised to explore it. We didn’t know enough to realize that the world wasn’t our oyster.
Every Day I Write the Book
In a 2010 piece you say that “ideology is always present, vibrating in the text, whether it’s there consciously or unconsciously,” and you confess to being fascinated by the impulse to explore a particular question without necessarily knowing the answer. In fact, you wonder, might not the books that endure be those where “the author’s ideological certainty and ideological doubt both continue to inspire debate within readers…” Could you give us an example of a book that embodies this tension? What about your own work? Is there a book that you feel successfully explores a particular question while remaining honest about your uncertainty?
Choose a book at random … Say, The Great Gatsby. At once, there’s a sly satire of a cheap, capitalist world taken in by glitter and illusion – and yet what’s so powerful about that book is that, at the same time, the narrator (and the reader!) can’t help to some extent be taken in by that glitter, charmed by that illusion, feel empathy for the charlatan Gatz.
And, come to think of it, that’s partially the way my novel Feed worked out. I set out to write a furious assault on a blind, infantilizing consumer culture that I felt had made me miserable as a teenager … but also, as I wrote it, I thought a lot about how that culture had created me, too … I was partially taken in by it. I found myself sympathizing not just with the dissident girl in the book, Violet, but with my irritating narrator, Titus, too, and I think it wouldn’t have been as good a book if I hadn’t found things in him that were dangerously close to dreams and desires I myself had.
“Teens,” you said in your 2009 Printz Honor acceptance speech, “are conspicuously the opposite of bland and blank: They are incredibly eccentric, deeply impassioned about their interests, fantastically – even exhaustingly – knowledgeable…Their commitment to complexity of thought is, if anything, fiercer than an adult’s – because they have to fight so fiercely to defend it.” You’ve spoken elsewhere, and often, about the sophistication and diversity of teen interests and capabilities, and you’ve urged your fellow writers to help woo “readers away from the anti-intellectualism and self-congratulation that imperil our nation,” suggesting that powerful moments “for teens…actually come about precisely because they’re reading things that are complicated and sophisticated.” There seems to be a disconnect between the popularity and rabid consumption of so many elements of “teen culture” and the popular disdain for teen interests, abilities, and certainly, their intellectual capacities. Could you talk a little about that disconnect, and about the way you approach writing for teens?
It’s important to note that we all, grown and growing, seek out role models and try to match their skills, their attitudes, their excellences. Different cultures hold out different models, and we tend to allow certain parts of us to atrophy if we don’t see them being positively reflected in the culture around us.
There are cultures, for example, where teens are not considered to be, first and foremost, consumers. And here let me segue directly into your next question, which provides a perfect example of what I’m talking about …
You’re clearly inspired by history, not only by the events or people, but by the construction of history itself. “History isn’t just sitting there under a tarp, waiting to be discovered. It’s assembled, each and every time we tell it,” you said in a recent interview, in which you also talked about the importance of connecting the past to the present in ways that illuminate both. “We assume that our life is our life and history is stuck in the past,” you’ve said, “And then there are those terrifying moments where you realize, ‘Oh, wait a second. My life is a part of history.’…These things could happen to us.” How does your fascination with history and the empathy you bring to your research color the way you view the world today? Have you had that “Oh wait” moment yourself?
I thought of one of those moments while answering the last question. When I was in college, I remember reading a Time Magazine article about Chinese students gathering in Tiananmen Square to protest the oppressions of their government. I was stunned: Here were students conceived of as radicals, people my own age and just a few years older who were changing the course of their country’s history, standing up for what they believed. I was sitting outside reading the article; I flagged down a friend and told him how incredible it was, these students risking everything.
He waved his hand in a vague, lofty, Cantabridgean flourish, and said, “Oh, yes … I think they all got shot yesterday or something …”
It was true. The Time I was reading was a week out of date. The students had been massacred by their own government since that article came out. Tanks had driven straight into the crowds of protestors. These young men and women had given their life to stand up for what was right.
That was one of the moments when I first realized how differently the idea of “student” plays out in different cultures. In ours – even more now than when I was in college – the student is first and foremost constructed as a consumer. We invite them to understand themselves in that way. They become thinkers despite the role we groom them for. And that’s a tragedy.
Every American child should feel that the world of knowledge – the whole of human history and culture – belongs to them. It’s just waiting for them to pick it up and use it.
Your latest book, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, has been described as a story about how music and musicians can change the world, and you’ve spoken yourself about the power of music, about how it can bolster the human spirit and help people “remember to be human,” even in the darkest times. “Music has always been really important to me,” you’ve said, “especially classical music, [which]…is intensely emotional and intensely visceral.” Could you talk a little about the impact classical music has on your work? Where would you point a classical music novice who was interested in exploring new works and composers?
For me, music plays into how I write in all kinds of ways – though I don’t actually listen to stuff while I write! If I do, I get all moved and think, “Wow, this is incredible … I am ON FIRE today!” And then read it the next day and realize that it’s absolute crap and I was just moved by the music.
As for learning about music, one of the best ways you can explore classical music – even without a streaming service – is YouTube. Find one piece you know about and love, and the margin suggests a bunch more from similar watch lists. I have found some incredible pieces and composers this way – stuff I never would have heard if there hadn’t been algorithms saying, “If you liked that, you may like this …”
Just Can’t Get Enough
Question from Noelle Stevenson: You’re quite prolific in the literary world, but my question is: if you were given a blank check to personally oversee an adaption of any one of your books into another medium, no matter how far-fetched, obsolete, or experimental, what book and medium would you choose? What role would you choose to play in adapting it?
Next year, my graphic novel Yvain, an adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’s 12th– century epic, will come out with illustrations by Andrea Offermann. It’s already an illustrated version of a script of a medieval epic, so it has already changed form a few times already – and I think it’s absolutely ripe to turn into a French Baroque opera. I’ll bring the plumes!
M.T. Anderson has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Francisco X. Stork. Watch for an interview with him coming soon!
M. T. Anderson is the author of Feed, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, as well as The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party, winner of the National Book Award and a New York Times bestseller, and its sequel, The Kingdom on the Waves, which was also a New York Times bestseller. Both volumes were also named Michael L. Printz Honor Books. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad was a 2016 YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Finalist. M. T. Anderson lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
–Julie Bartel, currently reading The Raven King by Maggie Steifvater and (re-reading) A Stranger Came Ashore by Mollie Hunter