Few writers have the ability to pivot between vastly different genres as nimbly as National Book Award winner M.T. Anderson. His last work, Symphony for the City of the Dead (Candlewick, 2015) was a nonfiction account of the WWII siege of Leningrad and the epic musical work native son Dmitri Shostakovich composed as a balm for the city’s ravaged population. His next novel, the cover of which is revealed here for the first time, is about aspiring artist Adam, who lives on a slightly-in-the-future Earth, which has been taken over by aliens.
Landscape with Invisible Hand (Candlewick, Sept. 2017) which his publisher describes as weaving “themes of truth, art, romance, commerce, and capitalism” into a satirical meditation on identity, marks Anderson’s return to a futuristic setting he last used in his now-classic Feed (Candlewick, 2002). Candlewick Press executive editorial director and associate publisher Liz Bicknell acquired world rights to the book from David McCormick of McCormick Literary. “This novel packs a huge punch,” said Bicknell. “It’s about being an artist, the need for good health care, and how to survive the end of capitalism – all under the power of the vuvv, a globby alien culture whose gleaming spaceships hover above the failing Earth. And it’s funny.”
The story began (improbably) as an assignment from Amnesty International, which was putting together a short story collection aimed at exploring the idea of identity and privacy rights. “It turned out to be the only science fiction story they received and, also, it was 50 pages long,” Anderson said. The organization couldn’t use it but Anderson was hooked on the idea. Bicknell gave him the green light to expand the story into a novel.
His hero, Adam, is high school age but school – and society in general – is in full-blown upheaval since the alien takeover. His parents’ jobs have been replaced by alien technology and they are struggling to pay for food, clean water, and medicine.
Adam’s plan for a career painting fantasy landscapes for video games is sidelined by his growing awareness of what’s happening to the world right outside his window. “He comes to realize the importance of capturing what is actually around him because America is changing so rapidly,” Anderson said.
Anderson says many early readers of the manuscript have remarked on a thread about how Adam does earn money. Because the aliens don’t mate, human dating rituals fascinate them. Adam and his girlfriend post their 1950s-style dates online; the aliens, nostalgic for mid-century Earth culture, watch in a pay-per-view format.
“What I really think I was getting at was this feeling we have that comes from social media, that we have to create selves for an audience,” Anderson said. “What does it mean to design your identity knowing that people are watching you all the time? If you are always striving to create a life that can be packaged for online sale, one that is a spectacle for other people, that to me changes the whole idea of identity.”
Before Landscape touches down next fall, Candlewick will publish Anderson’s first graphic novel, Yvain (March 2017), created in collaboration with a German illustrator, Andrea Offermann.
The story is an adaptation of a 12th-century Arthurian romance by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes, who wrote it for the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. “He wrote a bunch of epics, including some of the earliest about King Arthur, lots of guys doing guy stuff and dragons and giants and lions and knights,” said Anderson. “Then suddenly he wrote this one which scrapped the idea that female characters have no personalities themselves, that the women are either the goal or the prize. He let the female characters start to speak up.”
Candlewick and Anderson rejected one (male) illustrator whose work Anderson says he found “way too titty” before hiring Offermann.
“The story is really about the clash between the world of men and the world of women in medieval society, and how men and women want different things from the world, ” Anderson said. “In a way, there should be a dialogue going on between the male author’s words and the female illustrator’s art.”
Anderson has never met Offermann, who lives in Germany, and occasionally her illustrations surprised him, because he had imagined something different. And that was okay. “I decided if I was going to be true to the idea of the original story itself, I was going to have to respect what she came up with.”
Landscape with Invisible Hand by M.T. Anderson. Candlewick, $16.99 September 2017 978-0-7636-8789-2
Yvain by M.T. Anderson, illus. by Andrea Offermann. Candlewick, $19.99 March 2017 978-0-7636-59394