Since the late 1990s, Cambridge author M.T. Anderson has been crafting smart, often dark books for teens that have drawn adult readers. The first of his two-volume novel, “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing,” set in Revolutionary-era Boston, won a National Book Award in 2006. M.T. Anderson’s story is Part 4 in our series, “Visionaries.”
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Matthew Tobin Anderson — Tobin to his friends — was born in 1968 at Mount Auburn Hospital. Despite having traveled the world, today he lives just a few blocks away, on the fourth floor of a beautiful brick building north of Harvard Square.
“These apartments are really great, they go back to the 1930s, they were really nicely done,” Anderson said as he welcomed me in.
Anderson has an incessant awareness of history — one that informs his deep affection for Boston, Cambridge and the town of Stow, where he was raised.
“It was a great time to grow up there, because towns in that ring between 128 and 495, their agricultural economy had fallen through in the 1950s, which meant that the whole town was very forested in a way that it has not been since the 18th century, and which it probably never will be again,” he said.
That translated to a childhood spent exploring spooky old barns, trudging through orchards — a lifestyle consistent with the boy’s adventure books Anderson devoured from the Stow Public Library. Around the age of 12 or 13, Anderson started writing things he called novels — adventure and science fiction stories of about 60 pages. After graduating from St. Mark’s School in Southborough, he attended Harvard — briefly.
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“I dropped out and ended up working at the COOP for awhile,” Anderson said. “And then went to Cambridge University in England.”
Returning stateside, Anderson started an entry-level job at Somerville-based children’s book publisher Candlewick Press, where his work is published today. He kept developing his fiction, but also indulged his passion for classical music, hosting a show on community radio station WCUW in Worcester.
At 44, Anderson is basically a big, geeky kid. He has no children, lives alone in a spare apartment stacked with books and CDs. He can sound professorial and gleefully sophomoric in the same breath. It’s a voice perfectly suited for writing the kind of young adult (YA) books he wishes he could have read as a smarter-than-normal teen.
“The category really grew up in the 1970s with books that I actually, when I was a kid in the 1980s, didn’t really like, because that was the era of what is called the ‘problem novel:’ the YA novel that is supposed to be about, you know, ‘don’t do drugs,’ or ‘masturbation is fine,’ or something like that,” he said. “That seemed to be something that was foisted on you by an adult.”
So with his breakout novel in 2002, Anderson crafted something much more sophisticated: an allegory about teens and their struggles with modern technology called “Feed.”
“It’s about people with a chip in their head that gives them instant Internet access,” Anderson said.
“So this is a section from ‘Feed:’ ”
I don’t know when they first had feeds. Like maybe, fifty or a hundred years ago. Before that they had to use their hands and their eyes. Computers were all outside the body […] in their hands, like if you carried your lungs in a briefcase and opened it to breathe.
People were really excited when they first came out with feeds. It was all da da da, this big educational thing, da da da. […] That’s one of the great things about the feed — that you can be super smart without ever working.
Sounds great except that, in the world of “Feed,” everything you think about triggers a targeted advertisement that bombards your consciousness. You literally can’t look away.
“Oh, ‘Feed.’ Um, it was upsetting,” said 15-year-old Juliana Kaplan in her house in Brookline, surrounded by her M.T. Anderson collection. Kaplan said she didn’t feel preached to when she read the book, instead she saw an unflattering reflection of her own life.
“Like, I’m on my iPod and I want to download an app or go on Facebook, but there’s like, you know, 10 million, like, ads popping up,” Kaplan said. “And then Daniella, my little sister, every time she sees an infomercial, oh my God.
“We have a Slushy Magic over there, you see that?” she said pointing to the kitchen counter. “That was an infomercial. And now it’s living in our house.”
Kaplan’s reaction would not come as a surprise to Anderson.
“Older teens tend to write to me and say, ‘Thank you for not writing down to teenagers,’ ” Anderson explained. “And then there are the letters from adults who say, ‘This is such a good book, why did you write it for teens?’ And feel like, ‘What, you should write a [expletive] book for teens, is that the idea?’ ”
And “Feed” is not a, shall we say, lousy book. It won the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe-Horn book awards, drawing comparisons to the works of George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut.
“Teens are not like the weird, dumb dwarves you have around your house,” Anderson said. “They are actually you when you were younger. Why not write a book which is as sophisticated as a book for an adult, but is about the concerns that teenagers actually have?”
Anderson is not the biggest-selling young adult writer today. But he is perhaps the most respected, particularly by other authors.
“He certainly beat ‘The Hunger Games’ to dystopia by a decade,” said Indianapolis-based YA author John Green. His latest book hit No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list earlier this year.
Green said Anderson paved the way for writers like him by debunking an axiom of the publishing world: “That books were either fun or smart — that’s ridiculous, and Tobin proved that it was ridiculous with ‘Feed,’ and he certainly proved it with the Octavian books.”
Green is referring to Anderson’s next triumph, “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to a Nation,” a two-volume set of historical novels set in Boston during the American Revolution.
In the opening scene, the young protagonist Octavian describes observing some scientific demonstrations:
My earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees.
I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flame rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spirituous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight.
Around the orchard and gardens stood a wall of some height, designed to repel the glance of idle curiosity and to keep us all from slipping away and running for freedom; though that, of course, I did not yet understand.
How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.
So, why did Octavian not understand he was being held in captivity? Because he was an African slave, the subject of a perverse Enlightenment experiment to see if a black child given an elite education could possibly grow up to be as intelligent as a white child.
Does this sound like a young adult book to you?
“I mean, all of my books, which are supposedly, I mean they’re called YA novels, my hope is that adults would find no reason not to read them if they read them,” Anderson said.
Which invites the question: why call it YA at all? Anderson concedes it’s partly marketing. But he also insists that teens deserve books that respect the complexity of their inner lives. Who is Octavian but a precocious teen, realizing that the world is not as it was presented to him as a child? That’s something all smart kids can relate to, including Anderson himself.
“I write for teens partially to work out whatever it was that I needed to from my own teenage years,” Anderson said.
And in that, Anderson says he’s been so successful that he can’t picture himself writing YA much longer.
“Certain elements of teen life that, 10 years ago, were very important to me still, are becoming less so as I get older,” he said. “I mean, I’ve kinda gotten over, I guess I’m saying, the fact that I had trouble getting a date for the prom.”
It sounds like this overgrown kid is starting to grow up.