M.T. Anderson is the author of the National Book Award–winning The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party, and its sequel, The Kingdom on the Waves, both Printz Honor Books; Feed, a National Book Award finalist; and many other books for young readers. Eugene Yelchin is the Russian-American author and illustrator of Breaking Stalin’s Nose, a Newbery Honor book; The Haunting of Falcon House, a Golden Kite Award winner; and The Rooster Prince of Breslov, a National Jewish Book Award winner, among others. Yelchin is also the recipient of the 2016 SCBWI Tomie dePaola Award for illustration. We asked Anderson and Yelchin to interview each other about their new book, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, an offbeat fantasy adventure starring an elfin spy and a goblin historian.
Anderson: Let’s go! I’ll start us off...
So we wrote a book about two dweebs from different cultures who have to find a way to work together. It wasn’t until we were halfway through that I realized that kind of applied to us, too: a Russian émigré artist living in Hollywood and a New England Puritan living in a cottage in the mountains. So the obvious first question to tackle is: What was the most irritating thing about working with me?
Yelchin: Please allow me, dear sir, to object to the above statement. In the first place, why refer to the heroes of our epic as dweebs? Brangwain Spurge and Werfel the Archivist are learned men of history and science. Secondly—unless I am mistaken—New England Puritans are known for their commitment to literacy, which I wholeheartedly support. In the third place, I do not reside in Hollywood but in the remote area of the Topanga Canyon among the mountains, which I presume are superior in height to the mountains (or should I say hills?) of New England. So what then, may I ask, could have been irritating about working with a cottage dweller? Are you suggesting there was something irritating about working with me?
Anderson: Only those calls from Bob Mueller about my Russian collaboration. Of course I deny everything.
Speaking of our collaboration, I want to ask you about how you did the art. Originally, when we were doing the first draft and had a general sense of where the story (and our valiant dweebs) was going, we would just send the alternate chapters back and forth—the text chapters that I was writing and the illustrated chapters that you were writing—each of us building on what the other created. I was always shocked by how quickly you created art that looked very finished. Of course, sometimes they were just sketches that looked like sketches—but at other times, you put together illustrations that were textured like Albrecht Dürer woodcuts. I’m assuming you were doing something with software. How does it work? How much of this project was ever actually on paper?
Yelchin: Spiritual séances were of great help. Upon receiving a chapter from you, I would endeavor to put myself in a state of trance—a clean sheet of paper before me, an ink quill firmly grasped in my hand—and by means of automatic writing (automatic drawing, to be precise) I would channel Dürer, channel Hans Holbein, channel Hieronymus Bosch. They came willingly. Thus, having the elements of each image miraculously appear on separate sheets of paper, I would combine them by digital means. With over 180 illustrations to complete, I hardly had a choice but to use a computer.
May I ask about your working methods, sir? Your linguistic proficiency is quite astonishing. What were your influences?
Anderson: Most important, I guess, were all the fantasy novels I read as a kid, which have mulched in my memory: you know, The Elf-Socks of Shannara or The Chronicles of Thomas Coverall the Indigestible or whatever I was reading at 12. I loved those books, but I always wondered about day-to-day life in the so-called “evil” kingdoms. What was it like to live in a city of goblins? What were their customs? What was it like to fall in love as a goblin? (I particularly loved the vision of the Brian Froud/Jim Henson goblin city with a louche David Bowie as king in Labyrinth.) I was such a tender-hearted kid, I couldn’t imagine what life must be like in a brutalized society like that. So that influenced me when writing this. And as you know, both of us, pretty unconsciously, started sliding into Cold War intrigue as we were writing, so there’s a kind of fantasy John le Carré thing going on, too. I didn’t foresee us going in that direction. Did you?
Yelchin: The Elf-Socks of Shannara! To read such a title at 12! How life-affirming!
Sadly, living in the former Soviet Union at that age, I had to stay awake over Cement and How the Steel Was Tempered—the socialist realism masterpieces written to prepare a young reader to die for the cause of the Communist party. Speaking of brutalized tender-hearted children! No elf-socks for them, my dear sir! As for the Cold War, catastrophes are never far from my mind. At home, I am allowed to mention Stalin’s name only twice a day. Hitler’s—once. As a result, my creative interactions with you were such a pleasure.
To suggest the archivists as our protagonists, you must be quite a historian yourself, sir.
Anderson: I’m an armchair historian. That’s actually one of the ways we met: I had written a book about Soviet Leningrad. You had defected from Soviet Leningrad. I wrote you a fan letter praising Breaking Stalin’s Nose, your Newbery Honor-winning book about Stalin’s Great Terror. I couldn’t believe that you had managed to write a middle grade novel about that terrifying period while still bringing the story of this one boy to a satisfying close—though his parents have both been arrested in the purges, and are clearly never coming back. When I asked how you pulled it off, you gave me a wise piece of writing advice. Do you remember what it was?
Yelchin: Your Symphony for the City of the Dead is such a remarkable achievement, I am burning with shame to have given you any advice at all. Did I charge you for it? I’m willing to return the money! But, thankfully, no, I do not recall a word of it.
Anderson: You said that you realized you weren’t going to give the main character what he wanted—you were going to give him what he needed. This is a great way of understanding your book—and many others (including The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge!).
Yelchin: A mere trifle, sir. Authors, who feel obliged to give their protagonists strong goals, are not obliged to provide for their achievements. But if they make the protagonists at least aware of their moral or their emotional needs by the closure of the narrative, any reader will be satisfied whether the initial goal is achieved or not. If you recall, in The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, our two protagonists fail to achieve their goals, but they achieved what they needed—the close friendship of a like-minded being.
But let us speak of antagonists instead. When I received your first chapter—a letter from Ysoret Clivers—I was astonished. He was so alive on the page! What are your thoughts on writing a memorable antagonist, sir?
Anderson: To me, the secret of writing the snotty slimeball Lord Ysoret Clivers or any other “bad guy” is to ask, How would they see themselves? How would they explain their actions to themselves? If you know that, you immediately make your antagonist more interesting to your reader, because they’re not just a force your main character is pushing against—they have their own desires, their own wants, their own needs. In the case of Clivers, for example, it’s very important to him that he impresses the King of Elfland, who’s a friend as well as a cynical monarch, and I knew that would open up a lot of comic (and painful!) opportunities as the novel went along.
How do you go from reading a character on the page to figuring out what they look like and drawing them? Do you have an idea before you sit down in front of the paper? Or do you just start drawing and see what comes out of your pen?
Yelchin: If my spiritual séances fail to produce desired results, I rely on my own vision. The trouble is, my vision is always much grander than what I am capable of conjuring on paper. The bar is too high, sir. If you are looking at Dürer’s’ etching in order to create Brangwain Spurge, the chances are you are going to be disappointed. Yet, you try, sir, you try. I mentioned antagonists because, in my view, the antagonist is a doppelgänger for a writer. The writer is the one with evil plans. The writer is the one who is merciless toward the protagonist. Since I had to depict the mad, distorted reality of Brangwain’s point of view, I simply assumed an antagonistic view of that reality. I learned to despise goblins, vilify them, make fun of them, until slowly, page by page, I arrived at a clearer vision. Compare the first image of Werfel the Archivist with his last one. They look like two different people. It is role-playing, really. Do you ever imitate characters you are writing? Physically, I mean, in your body?
Anderson: No, but that would be kind of an incredible exercise. Like the way Peter Sellers supposedly walked around in character all the time when making his movies. I like the idea of the writer as the antagonist! Though in our case, our “antagonist,” the spymaster Lord Clivers, turns out to be his own worst enemy....
It’s been great talking to you about all of this!
Yelchin: Always fascinating speaking with you, my dear sir. I will endeavor to channel Peter Sellers in my next séance. Hopefully he will appear and not Lord Ysoret Clivers. Although with Peter Sellers one never knows. It could be him in the guise of Clivers!
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson, illus. by Eugene Yelchin. Candlewick, $24.99 Sept. 25 ISBN 978-0-7636-9822-5