M.T. Anderson

When Kate de Goldi recommended M. T. Anderson’s Feed on the radio a few years ago she put me on to the work of a truly remarkable writer.  Now I’ve seen the recommender and the recommendee on the same panel, a very pleasing turn of events.

All Anderson’s books for children and Young Adults are good but the two books that make up The astonishing life of Octavian Nothing truly are astonishing.

I keep pushing them at readers young and old because the story, the language, the utterly engrossing re-imagining of the past  makes them  extraordinary and while they’re not exactly hidden away in the Young Adult area they deserve to have as wide an audience as possible – these books are classics in the best sense of that overused word.

Anderson and fellow panellist Mal Peet  were described by chair Kate De Goldi, no slouch herself, as two heavyweights of the Young Adult writing world. At this juncture I would like to take time out to commend De Goldi on her considerable talents as a chair. She is quick witted, well prepared, willing not only to let the authors shine but to actively help them do so and she knows about books. It’s a pleasure to watch her work.

Anyway on to the authors. Anderson and Peet may be from different sides of the Atlantic but the hearts of their stories are the same; the journey of young men to adulthood, the rite of passage placed in context against the backdrop of big questions about power and politics and the eternal questions of who am I? Why am I here?

Octavian Nothing may be set in the past but he is making a point about the present day and the accommodations we all make to preserve our level of comfort at the expense of others.

Peet denied using soccer as a metaphor, claiming that as all existing books about  soccer were crap he had to write a better one, breaking the conventions about soccer books being for young men and having to be written in a crudely journalistic style.  What he wanted was to write a fantastical lyrical book about football that women could read. And I would have to say he succeeded in Exposure.

For both authors it’s all about the voice; language is as much a part of the books as story, the words determine the world of the novel and the production of character and reality within it.  As a teenager Anderson felt underestimated by the stunted form of the YA novel and an irritation at being talked down to but both writers feel that there is something of a renaissance in YA writing happening, possibly because whatever is profitable is beautiful and H.P. (the boy wizard, not the sauce) is nothing if not profitable.

Why did they choose the genre? Peet puts it down to immaturity – he does write for a teenage boy and that boy is him.  Anderson took the less sanguine view that writers in general are broken so they have to re-hash things in their lives that the less talented of us just get over.

Both do other stuff, Peet was a cartoonist and would still like to do a Graphic Novel, Anderson’s other stuff is music. He has written children’s books about Handel (so many children were clamouring for a life of the master of the Baroque fugue) and Satie.

 Advice to young writers? Peet’s first piece of advice is don’t, but if you absolutely have to, read a lot because the more words you know the more you have to choose from. Books are words, not ideas. Anderson’s advice is to apply yourself to it practially and constantly. And READ.

De Goldi was agian to be commended for asking the panellists what they read. Peet is still voracious and he likes the tough laconic American crime writers like Elmore Leonard. Penalty even has a couple of characters who are an homage to Leonard.

While writing  The astonishing life of Octavian Nothing Anderson read lots of 18th and early 19th century novels, not that here’s anything wrong with that, but the first thing he read when he had finished was Raymond Chandler.

These two writers share a serious obsession with understanding history, with using it to learn about who you are in the light of who you were and who we all were. It was a privilege to hear them discuss their work  and I look forward to hearing them read it tomorrow.

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