M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I: The Pox Party (Candlewick, 2006), about the coming of age of a young, classically educated slave at the outset of the American Revolution, received both a National Book Award and a Printz Honor. The sequel, The Kingdom on the Waves, is in bookstores. Bookshelf caught up with Anderson while he was on the road in Brattleboro, Vt.
So, you’ve racked up a few awards since the last time you spoke with Children's Bookshelf. Congratulations! How has winning the National Book Award affected your career?
It’s wonderful. It accords the book a lot of respect when otherwise people might say, “What the hell? This is written in 18th-century prose.” With an award like that, there’s an imprimatur on a work, and now they say, “Wow, it’s written in 18th-century prose!” There’s a shift in attitude.
Awards aside, how have kids responded to the first Octavian book?
Very well. Keep in mind, though, authors only hear from kids who did like a book. The thing I’m particularly glad about is that kids of different ages are reading it in different ways. I was surprised by how young some of them are—I never expected readers who were 11 or 12 years old. What they are responding to are the adventure elements of the story. Perhaps they don’t get some of the subtleties, but that doesn’t matter. They’re getting out of it what they want to.
Speaking of that 18th-century prose, have you taken any criticism for the complexity of the structure or language?
I’ve heard from one or two adults saying, “Are you sure this is appropriate for kids?,” but I think people don’t always give teens credit for how well they read. And not just looking up words they don’t know—they skip over words they don’t know, just like adults do. But if you skip over a word 10 times you’ll figure out what it means. It doesn’t matter that a reader doesn’t know what “huckabuck” means, if it’s clearly used in a position so they can tell it’s a kind of fabric.
And consider that kids read fantasy books, which in many cases have invented vocabulary. One of the series I like is D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo, in which he creates a whole language. Kids who are reading that are building a language in their heads. There’s no real cognitive difference. I think kids are excited by language, and they’re not always given credit for that.
These books are constructed literally as two parts of a whole, with The Kingdom on the Waves beginning right where The Pox Party left off. Did you conceive of it as one overarching story?
Definitely. It’s a very 18th-century thing to have a book broken into several volumes. To me, there was a very logical stopping place and a logical seam between the two of them. In the first book, for example, [Octavian] is looking around himself; he’s quite passive and doesn’t know how to act. In the second book he’s more active. In the first book he is working with the Rebels, and in the second book he’s been forced to the side of the Redcoats. There are very clear divisions between the books and there are structural differences, which is why I ended up publishing it as two volumes.
Can you talk a bit about the research that went into putting these books together? Were there certain details or events that you immediately realized you wanted to build the story around?
I researched for about six months before I started to write. I had a plot set-up that I changed, because I found a particular event. That event was the campaign of Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian regiment. I had never heard of it before, and I realized this is an amazing story that has not been told, and I would love to be the one to tell it.
Were there other revelatory moments, where you came to understand something about this country or its history that you hadn’t before?
I think there was also a slow, grinding realization for me of what it is that human beings are willing to do to each other to secure their own luxuries. That was a very sad tutorial I went through, working on this book. There was suffering on an unimaginable scale. I know this is a bit dismal for an interview, but I honestly feel like a full recognition of the capacity of mankind to ignore each other’s suffering is one of the saddest lessons I learned.
Did you have to adjust certain historical details in the interest of storytelling?
I didn’t adjust as much as people assume I did. The only thing I adjusted in the second volume is the date of a particular battle. It was too inconvenient. One thing about this war is that it takes a long time for the whole thing to unfold. There were months between battles and you can’t have characters doing what they were really doing—which is building barracks and digging latrines. My editor said, “There are too many latrines in this book.”
In the first book, the experiments I describe are almost all real experiments. The timeline for Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian regiment, I stuck to pretty much exactly. If I’m going to be presenting material people haven’t heard about that will perhaps be controversial, I need to keep it as real as possible. It’s unfair to use those arguments if the incidents are made up. I did a lot of drawing from different bodies of historical narrative to put together the lives of those characters and that kind of thing.
At the end of the book, Octavian actually completes this very pair of volumes—as a bit of meta-fiction, it reminds me a bit of your Whales on Stilts [part of the M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales series], in which Harcourt writers make appearances in the story, asking the protagonists for details of their exploits. Do you have a certain goal when playing around with narrative?
I’ve always enjoyed that kind of thing—thinking about the production of narrative and why it is that when we read a novel, we don’t notice the fact that someone who might be very close-mouthed or tight-lipped is perfectly willing to tell us a story in 600 or 700 pages. Which one of us has ever told a story blow-by-blow with all the details intact, at a length that could fill 500 pages?
To me it’s always a question of how you’re supposed to imagine the narration happening. So a lot of YA novels get around that somewhat disingenuously, and I do it here, by saying, “I’m going to be writing a journal now.” That, I think, is a good route to take, even though that is a fabrication of some kind. I decided to make the narrative part of the story for Octavian. His being able to tell his own story is part of what happens to him. He has always seen himself as a test subject and here, in a sense, he’s using his role as a test subject to redefine the parameters of the experiment.
Speaking of Thrilling Tales, I understand that another book in that series may be in the works.
There was a third one I wrote several years ago, and it will be coming out with S&S. It’s called Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware. It would be great if Joe Biden would be vice president by then, because of the Delaware connection. I’m also writing a sequel to a book I wrote, The Game of Sunken Places. These are fun, light adventures, and I’m having a great time after the heavy-duty research and soul-searching with Octavian.
Do you think you’ll stick with lighter material for a while, or has working on Octavian opened the door for writing about other heavier subjects?
It depends. I don’t want to go out hunting for dismal topics to write about. I think if I’m moved to write something else, and it sends up being a more deeply engrained book, that’s great. Otherwise, I’m perfectly willing to have a good time and write these shorter books. Occasionally people ask me how it is I write different types of things, and my answer to that is it’s very natural. You get bored writing one kind of thing all the time.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves. M.T. Anderson. Candlewick, $22.99 ISBN 978-0-7636-2950-2