M.T. Anderson’s latest book, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One, The Pox Party (Candlewick), is about an African slave, though readers don’t learn that initially. The boy they first meet is living like a prince in the Boston home of some “rational philosophers,” who refer to themselves by number rather than name. As political trouble with England begins to boil, the economy stumbles and so does the financing for the philosophers’ pet project. Octavian’s world is turned thoroughly inside out as he learns something his scholars never taught him: what it means to be black in America.
Octavian’s story is written in the archaic prose style of the 18th century, and Anderson uses letters, newspaper clippings and entries in scientific journals to move the plot forward. There are also several pages of blacked-out writing in which just a stray word can be deciphered. It’s like nothing else he’s ever written, unless you believe the author, who says it’s a lot like his breakout novel, Feed (which was written in a slang so hip it existed only in that book). We caught up with Anderson in Nepal, where he was vacationing in Pharping, a village south of Katmandu.
Are you in Nepal to research a new book?
No, just to see the place. I feel like it’s important every once in a while to estrange ourselves from the familiar to remind ourselves of the potentialities of people, how many different ways there are of being. We timed our visit to take in some of the festivals. We saw one last week where the local people dragged a giant chariot through the streets carrying a living goddess, who is eight years old, and whose feet are not allowed to touch the ground. And I’ve brought some work, so I can get some writing done.
The sequel to Octavian?
Oh, no. I finished that before I left. It would be very bewildering to write that here. It was a total pain in the butt without throwing in yak butter.
A pain, huh?
Torture. It took four years. I thought it wasn’t going to happen at all, at times. I had made fundamental mistakes in the plot, and just the technical nature of it. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, trying to write across race and across time.
I read somewhere else that, late in the process, you killed off one of the main characters.
True. William Billings. A wonderful guy. That was one of the fundamental mistakes. He is an actual historical figure, who taught psalm tunes with revolutionary content. He had singing schools he would hold in different villages, and as he taught them about music, he would also teach them revolutionary ideology. One of his legs was shorter than the other. He had only one eye. He was a friend of Sam Adams. The first editor of Boston Magazine, a tanner, a garbage collector. He was a thoroughly charismatic guy, so I wanted to reproduce him as a character but he was getting in the way of the story. I had to cut him loose.
And you grieved over that.
I did, but readers would have hated him so it’s best this way.
Octavian is a slave, but readers don’t know that until well into the story. Why did you decide to wait to reveal his identity?
I feel like it’s hard to get into historical novels where you know what the story is far too well. People at [Octavian’s] time wouldn’t have the sympathies we have. The experience of being a loyalist at the time of the American Revolution —what would that be like? Or to have gone to war against our own motherland? Would you have gone on that morning in April, marched over that hill? A lot of people legitimately didn’t. If we disagree with our government now, we don’t take up arms against it. So if we consider that, you start to ask yourself, what would it have been like not to know the outcome? Not to know we were going to win when the odds were so clearly against us? At the beginning of the war, there was no sense of undeniable victory.
So I wanted to unsettle the reader and wrote the opening as if it were a wild gothic fantasy, only slowly allowing them to realize, “Oh, I’m in a place I know. I realize where I am.”
Actually, there are many “unsettling” features—no one will call it conventional! The 18th-century prose, the shift not only in point of view, but to an epistolary format midway through. And how about those scribbled-out pages? Can you explain what that is meant to convey?
At that point in the novel, the main character had undergone something so hideous, I thought he wouldn’t continue to speak about his experiences. It seemed to me that he would fall silent. So I needed to have a narrator who would see him from the outside and one who wouldn’t necessarily understand all the complexities of what the main character was going through.
So we shift to hearing the story from Private Goring, a Minuteman, through the letters he’s sending home to his sister and mother.
Right. He has great enthusiasm and sympathy for Octavian, but he simply can’t fathom what Octavian’s been through. It was a way of allowing the main character to fall silent but of carrying the story forward. I use the scientific articles and such in the same way. It gives you the plot without the main character having to relate it. Now, as to the “censored pages,” I will tell you that there’s a scene in book two in which you see Octavian writing book one, and when he comes to the part you’re referring to, he just starts to scribble violently because what’s he written down is something he just can’t bear.
Okay. You’ve set this story in your hometown. Had you always wanted to write something about colonial Boston?
Some of my earliest memories involve the intimate connection of the people who live around here to the past. I would drive the route that Revere rode as I went to the orthodontist. But the first spark for the story was an incidental mention of a “pox party” in a book I was reading. That was an incredible image—and a very sensible idea, I think. Often it would be young people who would sequester themselves and then be infected with small pox to inoculate themselves against the disease. I had a vision in my mind of say, the cast of 90210, all holed up, covered in lesions.
Well, it reminded me of Feed. In fact, during the pox party scene in Octavian his teacher, Dr. Trefusis, says, “When I peer into the reaches of the most distant futurity, I fear that even in some unseen epoch when there are colonies on the moon itself, there shall be gatherings like this, where the young, blinded by privilege, shall dance and giggle and compare their poxy legions.” Was that a wink to the readers of Feed?
Yes, I was making a little joke there, but both books are about the same thing—how we lead our lives, willing to let others suffer so that we can have our luxuries. That’s brought home to me in Nepal where whatever you’re eating, there’s none of that sense of trying to conceal the process of production. An animal is killed and prepared to eat in plain view. Americans tend to focus on the moment of consumption rather than on the process. It’s the same with slavery. We had this great economy early in our history, but we don’t want to confront the fact that it was because one-fifth of our population was enslaved.
I am stunned to hear you say that Feed and Octavian are about the same thing. Do you think the audience is the same?
Is it the same? I have no idea. I can imagine some people really hating this book, thinking I have lost my mind. I suppose when I think about the audience, which I try not to do, I think of the kid who I was as a teen, and I think of adult readers of YA fiction. I’m thinking of the hyper-intelligent, counterculture kid. The kid who wants to know the things that aren’t being taught about our history. There are millions of those kids in schools around the country. I hope they will find this book.
Did you conceive of it as a series?
No, initially it was supposed to be one book, but there is a very logical stopping point where there’s resolution of some things that have happened but also projection into what’s going to happen, too. Hey, in the 18th century, novels were always divided up.
There’s a strong sense of music in this novel, too (Octavian is an exceptional violinist). It could come with a soundtrack.
I completely love music. I used to be the music critic at The Improper Bostonian. It’s just something I’ve always loved very deeply.
Yes, I’m told you can play The William Tell Overture by hitting yourself on your face.
It’s true. But I’m causing quite a stir here already with this phone call to America so I’m not going to play it for you right now because there might be a disturbance.
Who knows? The Nepalese people may decide to hold a festival in your honor!
Right! Next thing I’ll be riding on the cart with the goddess!
Final question — Friends call you Tobin, but the M stands for Matthew. Does no one ever call you Matthew?
Police officers do.