M.T. Anderson’s 2023 is off to an impressive start. In January, the National Book Award–winning author (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party) attended the Sundance debut of Landscape with Invisible Hand, the film based on his 2017 novel of the same name. The film, directed by Corey Finley and starring Tiffany Haddish and Asante Blackk, is the first to be based on one of the author’s more than two dozen novels for young readers. In April, his next novel, Elf Dog and Owl Head, comes out from Candlewick.
Set in the near future, Landscape with Invisible Hand centers on teen artist Adam 9 (played by Blackk), whose whole family is adjusting to life under the vuuv, an alien culture that has come to dominate Earth from spaceships hovering over the planet. While they’re not inflicting physical pain on Earth’s inhabitants, their presence has a host of other implications. Their technology makes entire sectors of human endeavor obsolete overnight and only the few vuuv-adjacent humans can make a living. Adam’s family is not among the lucky few. But there are some ways to take advantage of the vuuv’s penchant for all aspects of Earth culture during the 1950s, the time period during which the aliens first discovered the planet. They’re especially entranced by retro dating rituals. Adam and his girlfriend Choe (played by Kylie Rogers) figure out a way to work the system, offering up a phony version of their relationship as entertainment in a kind of pay-per-view service for the vuuv. It works to keep their families afloat. For a while, at least.
During a q&a with Finley at the Sundance premiere, Anderson discussed some of the differences between presenting a story on the page and the screen. In the book, Anderson said, he spent no more than “two half sentences” describing the vuuv, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions. “The literary effect is created through omission.” On the other hand, a film director has to “double down on the details.” Finley “probably spent more time thinking about the story than I did,” Anderson said, adding that each of the actors brought something new to the characters he created. Plans for the film release are still undecided, but it’s expected to be out this year.
Anderson’s new middle grade novel Elf Dog and Owl Head is the author’s pandemic novel in every sense—started and completed in early to mid-2020, with characters who are also experiencing a worldwide health crisis. As tween Clay tries to escape the boredom of the lockdown, he discovers an unusual golden-eyed dog with a very striking collar. Although Clay doesn’t know it at first, she’s Elphinore, a royal elf-hound who has lost her way, separated from her magical world under the mountain. Clay desperately hopes to keep her, and each day the pair trek into the forest, with Elphinore taking him to mysterious places he never knew existed, into the path of perils and magical discoveries. While there are no familiar characters, the setting for the book is the same as in Anderson’s Norumbegan quartet.
Elf Dog and Owl Head is essentially a story about the love between people and their pets, Anderson told PW. It was inspired by his own beloved dog LaRue. Toward the end of 2019, Anderson got the bad news that LaRue had a terminal illness and had perhaps just days to live. But as the weeks progressed, his dog’s issue inexplicably resolved. When the quarantine hit, LaRue was the author’s only companion. The two would take five- to six-mile-long walks in the woods together daily, discovering new places and completely attuned to each other’s every move and mood. “It was an intense connection,” he said. He had wanted to write a story about the profound human-pet relationship for a while, and the time and circumstances presented an unexpected opportunity. Each day as the two walked, Anderson worked out aspects of the story, which takes place in the exact same time frame in which it was written, starting in the early days of a pandemic and ending on midsummer’s eve, when Anderson finished writing. “It was the perfect coincidence of moment and story.”
It's the first of his stories that is “completely without irony,” Anderson said. Instead, “It’s just about love. It’s about remembering that life can be profoundly joyful, and these connections can be beautiful and transformative.” The emotions that Clay experiences are informed by those that so many children confront, Anderson said. “Can I keep this pet that I truly love? It’s a question as big as the world and as big as love.”
The book is illustrated with wistful black-and-white drawings by Junyi Wu, lending the story the feel of a contemporary but timeless fairy tale. Coming after a difficult few years, the story offers a simple but meaningful view on love. “It was one of the most joyful writing experiences I’ve ever had,” Anderson said.