“I wish I hadn’t been,” author M.T. Anderson admits to the crowd of librarians, “So prescient, I mean.” Anderson grinned as he responded to a member of the audience who complimented his 2002 novel, Feed, a science fiction title for young adults that imagines a not-so-distant future in which most people have Internet-like feeds implanted directly into their brains. M.T. Anderson (“Also known as ‘Tobin!’” moderator Sandy Kelly informed session-attendees) a last-minute addition to the conference, enthusiastically sat in as a panel member on the Upper Grades Author Showcase Sunday afternoon. Afterward, he spoke with librarians at the Author Meet & Greet.
Feed, like all of Anderson’s novels, challenges readers to look at the world differently, or to think critically about humans’ interactions with and within society. The text satirically addresses consumerism, reliance on technology, factory farming, and other ills of the modern age. “I loved The Martian Chronicles when I was growing up,” Anderson explained, referring to the Ray Bradbury work. “I think [Bradbury’s] influence is evident in my writing. Yes, it’s science fiction, but it’s symbolically about America.” When I explained that I usually pitch Feed to teachers as “Kurt Vonnegut for iPhone-addicted teenagers,” he smirked. “Absolutely! Bradbury. Vonnegut, too. You can say a lot with satire.”
Anderson grew up in Stow, Massachusetts, and admits that being raised in bucolic New England greatly influences his writing style. “You see that in Octavian Nothing,” he explained. “I don’t know if I would have found that piece of history if I hadn’t grown up here.” His National Book Award-winning The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation tells the story of Octavian, the son of a slave, growing up as an experiment of rational philosophers in Revolutionary War-period Massachusetts. “I saw battle reenactments at the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Old North Bridge, and thought, if I were alive when this happened, it would be my dad fighting. My family. We wouldn’t know who would be victorious. What would that be like? To grow up in that time of uncertainty?”
From science fiction, to historical fiction, Anderson is known for jumping genres. Feed is dystopian sci-fi; The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation duo is historical fiction; and his first novel, Thirsty, is a coming-of-age vampiric horror story. For his next title, Anderson is jumping again—to non-fiction. “This one took years to research. I’m really excited about it,” Anderson explained.
This new book, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, tells the story of what life was like in Leningrad once it was cut-off from the rest of the world during one of the longest and most brutal military sieges in Western history. “There were roving bands of cannibals. No, really. It was horrific,” Anderson said. The book details how the composer Dmitri Shostakovich endured the siege while composing his Leningrad Symphony, a musical work which became prominent in the eventual Allied victory. He continued, saying “Shostakovich was evacuated. They smuggled his symphony out. It conveyed the horror of Leningrad to detached New Yorkers.”
So why jump to non-fiction rather than write a novel? “This is a case of the true story already being so strange and interesting,” Anderson explained. “It’s full of despair and hope. Why would I fictionalize it?” Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad will be published by Random House September 22nd, 2015.
Alana Stern is a Teacher Librarian at Wachusett Regional High School