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As Carte Blanche readers know, I devoted my January through June columns to the history of young adult literature. I plan now to devote my columns through November to interviews with those movers and shakers whose work has further influenced the evolution of the form. I began this process in July by interviewing Robert Lipsyte. I turn my attention now to the literature of the 1990s and the present by talking with the award-winning M. T. Anderson.
CART: What was the field of YA literature like when you entered it, in the early 1990s?
ANDERSON: Well, it was very, very different. I think the field has changed absolutely since then in the sense that for the first 9 or 10 years that I was a part of it, it was not a particularly important field at all. I mean, it was certainly not a moneymaker, and in America, for people to think something is artistically viable, they must first believe it will make money. So, in a sense, YA was really like the unconsidered child in the corner of the big room that was adult publishing. And I remember that YA novels were considered as a kind of vanity project that editors worked on when they weren’t working on the real moneymaker, the picture book. I think the turning point was Harry Potter, when suddenly it became clear that novels for young people could be monetized; unfortunately, that is what it took for people to realize that there was actually artistic value in these books for young people, too.
CART: The field has changed. How have you changed as a writer?
ANDERSON: That’s difficult to say. I just got the new paperback rereleases of my first two novels, and it reminded me that they came out nearly half my life ago. I was basically a teen when I wrote my first novel; it didn’t seem like that at the time; my God, I was 23, and it seemed I was ancient and venerable. But now I realize, wait a minute, I was actually very close to my teen years when I wrote that. I feel that—happily in some ways—I have progressed into adulthood more firmly, and that obviously gives you a different kind of perspective; you’re able to see the whole range of human experience in a more complete way, and I hope that’s reflected in the books I write. I think that I also probably don’t write so much about contemporary teen life because it is so very different from what I knew myself as a teen. And, frankly, technological change has meant that if you’re going to go into what life seems like now, there are just certain things you have to be acutely aware of. You might know the emotional things associated with being a teenager, things that tend to be somewhat transferable from one period to another. But everything changes so rapidly now; I’d be doing teens a disservice by writing about a world that they know more about than I do.
CART: Which brings us to your critically praised new novel, Landscape with Invisible Hand. I wonder if you might describe it briefly.
ANDERSON: It’s about a kid, Adam, who wants to be a landscape artist. He wants to create environments for virtual-reality settings. (This is set several years into the future.) Also, he wants to paint on canvas. The whole book is told through the descriptions of his paintings. When I’m describing the paintings, I’m also describing the progress of an alien colonization of the earth and what happens when Adam’s family disintegrates and the whole structure of human society is altered.
CART: What was the book’s genesis?
ANDERSON: Well, like any novel, it came to me from several directions. At the time, I was doing a lot of research on the Soviet Union and the arts in the 1930s. So I kind of wanted to write a story about a situation I had read about: people in the provinces in one of the lesser republics of the Soviet Union wanted to create something that spoke of their own people and their own landscapes but found that there was no way to do that within the Soviet system. But I knew nothing more about life in the Soviet republics in the 1930s than that, so I decided, what the hell, I’m going to write this in a science-fiction setting without entangling it in historical garb that will only confuse people.
CART: One of the things I particularly like about the book is its voice. How did you find Adam’s voice?
ANDERSON: Whenever I work on a project, I feel like the first thing that comes to me is the texture of the writing. I feel like texture is this thing that’s not just the world that’s created and it’s not just the viewpoint of the character. It is in a way the culmination—the world as seen through language. I wouldn’t have understood how to write this book without first getting a feel for that texture. How is this character going to describe his paintings? That led me to come up with Adam’s kind of glum voice. It’s sort of like what we, a decade ago, would have called “emo.” That was when everything fell naturally into place when I came up with that approach.
CART: There has been a kind of convention in YA lit that the ending of a novel must be, if not happy, then at least hopeful. Is your novel consistent with that?
ANDERSON: Yeah, I think this is actually a more hopeful ending than some of my other novels, like my Octavian Nothing books. Whereas, in this book, the kid’s in love, and there is actually hope that people are going to change the way the world is working because it has become so dysfunctional. I think that’s important to the book.
CART: And important to this interview. Thank you.
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