Francis Spufford has a lovely book called The child that books built, and we festival bloggers like to ask the authors we interview what books built them.
For M.T. Anderson it was Ray Bradbury, not just because it is Science Fiction but also because it is an amazing source of Americana, which lead him to American Literature. The Moomintrolls were another favourite (also of my husband’s, in fact Anderson is the only other person I have ever known who names it as a favourite. I resisted sharing this with him). Enthusiasm got the better of me however when he mentioned one of my favourite books, Virgina Woolf’s To the lighthouse.
Another stock question for sad old librarians is to ask about favourite libraries – Anderson’s is The Boston Anthenaeum, a private library that has amazing treasures like George Washington’s campaign journals and a resource he used heavily while researching Octavian Nothing.
The Octavian Nothing books wear this research lightly – they don’t have that awful dragging sense of a writer determined to have every single fact they have amassed going into the book that bedevils some historical fiction. Anderson puts this down to doing so much research that you can afford to let some of it go. Also it puts off having to start writing very nicely. I was dying to know if his research darkened his view of human nature and yes it did – “how could it not”.
The novels are all very different on the surface but once you get past the subject matter the thing they share is an absolutely convincing voice. He got the voice of the obsessive consumer teens in Feed by reading magazines like 17 before he began writing.
In the light of the phenomenon that is Twilight I asked him about his first book, Thirsty, which was a vampire novel – kids at the youth programmes he does also ask him about it and his answer is that his was a failed romantic hero, rather than a successful one like Edward.
To me there is nothing about Octavian Nothing that means it should be in the Young Adult area of the library other than the age of its protagonist, but Anderson wanted Octavian to be there because Young Adults deserve to be taken as seriously as any other reader, to be challenged with language, plot and ideas. He sees a tendency to elevate YA fiction and other genre fiction, once someone decides it’s good enough, and to place it ‘up’ with literary fiction.
My final sad old librarian question was about his favourite literary period as a student of English literature – it’s the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans for the potency of their language.