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YIKES! It's M. T. Anderson!

Today we have an amazing guest in the Tollbooth.

And down at the bottom read about an equally amazing contest we're running through next week...

      Yep... he's in the 'booth...

M. T. Anderson is the author of books and stories in just about every imaginable genre in children’s literature- from picture books like The Strange Mr. Satie (nonfiction- a pretty darn strange and creepy guy who only ate white food and threw his girlfriend out the window) and The Serpent Came To Gloucester (a delish mix of fact and fiction- with a real live sea monster to creep it up)
to the gothically campy middle grade Thrilling Tales- Whales on Stilts and Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen (complete with Katie Mulligan- heroine of her own make believe series of Horror Hollow books) to The Game of Sunken Places (an unsung masterpiece, according to my teen daughter “the weirdest book I’ve ever read” high praise from her, indeed), to one of my all time favorites—not just a vampire novel, a poignant coming of age story—Thirsty,

How great is this-- a trailer for Thirsty created by Tobin's fans-

on to perhaps the most horrifying of all, Anderson’s Octavian Nothing novels, eerie and deeply troubling because the horror- torture and dehumanization of African slaves in Revolutionary America is based on fact, not fiction (yes, there REALLY were Pox Parties.)

As if you didn’t know, M. T. Anderson won the National Book Award in 2007 and he’s scooped up a zillion other prizes along the way- little things like Printz honors, LA Times Books Awards, Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. Anderson is the former faculty chair of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College (where he was Liz’s advisor and my workshop leader, along with the divine Kathi Appelt). He’s still a frequent lecturer at Vermont College and close friend of ours and of the college.

Okay, before his head gets big or something (in truth, not a danger. The man is incredibly modest)—here’s Tobin Anderson

Hi Tobin!

Tobin fails to respond, because I uh… didn’t actually say hello before blurting out a bunch of questions…

So…. Why don’t we get right to the questions?

In my imagination he nods, praying this will be over soon…

One of the things we're grappling with during the Tollbooth Creep-O-Thon is what is horror? How would you define it? Do you consider your middle grade novel Game of Sunken Places to be horror or is it something else - defying conventional categories?

That’s a hard one.

(I sigh with relief. I have asked M. T. Anderson a HARD question. Now I do not feel quite as stupid as I did five minutes ago... but given Tobin’s propensity for saying extremely smart things my new found confidence is sure to be short lived)

Because what really differentiates horror from, say, a thriller – or from particularly scary fantasy? You can’t just say that horror involves the supernatural … because then there are all those hack-‘em-up flicks with no supernatural elements at all.

I guess I would go with a Freudian answer … Horror is that genre that deals with the familiar made terrifyingly unfamiliar. (As Freud calls it, the unheimlich.)

(Uh… yes I am feeling a bit dimmer. But… hey he's getting ready to make a really good point. Pay attention. And despite the unintelligible German, which is quite Goth in and of itself, in my opinion,  completely understandable. Stick with us here.)

Stephen King, for example, is a master of taking ordinary situations and extending them almost symbolically so that the narrative straddles the chasm of our deepest fears and insecurities. A textbook example of this in children’s lit. would be the creepy scenes of the alternate house and the alternate parents in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline – those places and people who are supposed to be most known, most comfortable, become most alien and menacing because of that.

This infusion of the strange into the familiar is (I think) one of the basic functions of literature in general. Horror is just a particularly troubling version of that process. As a writer, it’s important to remember that good horror, effective horror, does not just consist of nasty surface effects (though they help). The thing that makes good horror stories truly disturbing is their substrate connection to human situations and moral tangles.

Even the execrable Saw movies play on questions of loyalty and self-interest. They’re awful to watch not merely because of the ingenuity of the tortures, but because of the moral decisions demanded of the broken characters. They clearly play on the anxieties of a culture that is confronting its own new-found acceptance of torture … and where, more generally, we’re coming to realize that, in a world of desperately limited resources, our own safety and welfare is predicated on the sufferings and deprivations of others.

The Game of Sunken Places has moments of horror, but I think of it more as a fantasy adventure. The overall tone is quite light, despite a few funhouse scares. I am writing the sequel right now – The Suburb Beyond the Stars --  and there's more horror in there, more juxtaposition of the world the way we think it is and the gruesome facts lurking beneath the surface. The skull beneath the skin.

In terms of more typical horror you're probably best known for your 1997 novel Thirsty but you've also written several ghost stories and in your recent essay in Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out you describe ghosts who haunt 1600 Penn. Ave.  What is it about horror that draws you back?

Good question.

(ha! I didn’t even have to add that in myself!)

The bookshelf beside my bed is filled with volumes of local ghost-lore – despite the fact that I don’t actually believe in ghosts. I don’t know exactly what it is that draws me, considering that my view of the world is basically mechanistic.

Maybe it’s a combination of several things: I really want to believe that the world is a magical place, where things can run completely counter to how we understand them. It’s almost because I believe so fully in the leaden, eternal truths of honeycombed bone and flesh going off that I want to imagine a world in which something survives, something astounds. Also, I feel that it’s so important for us to connect with the past and to acknowledge the role that previous generations play in our own lives. Maybe all this ghost lore is just a convenient symbol for that presence of history: filmy soldiers, hovering statesmen, women in white with leg-o’-mutton sleeves.

Let's talk about the craft of writing horror for a minute. One of the hallmarks of great horror is tension and suspense. Is pace different in a horror novel? Do you use different tools for creating suspense?

The pace for horror and for suspense is different. As I’ve said elsewhere, I do think that there are formal differences between the two modes. One of them is this: In horror, you take a safe place and make it unsafe and unfamiliar (the unheimlich). In a suspense movie, you define safe and unsafe places incredibly starkly – you differentiate them – and then you get a character trapped in the unsafe place and trying to cross over to the safe zone. The audience sweats as they track the character’s impeded progress. So, for example, in one of the most beautiful and elegant of spy thrillers, Richard Burton’s film version of Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Burton becomes mired on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. The energy of the film partially comes from our anxiety about how he’ll get back over the wall … and this consideration ends up involving awful questions about the relationships in the movie, questions of loyalty and deception … So the geographical and the human impinge on each other.

In "M. T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales" you use campy horror conventions, mixing horror with humor for middle grade readers. What are the challenges of writing scary for a younger audience?

Well, the obvious thing: Even though I’m writing comedy, I occasionally worry that a detail will actually be disturbing. Goosebumps got away with a lot, but I don’t know exactly how to calibrate chills and age level. It’s something I’m thinking through as I write the scary sequel to The Game of Sunken Places, which has readers as young as nine, but which I really conceived as a book for eleven and twelve year olds.

How important is it for horror writers to be familiar with the conventions and canon of  horror fiction? What are your favorite books, stories or writers? How about movies or other media?

As always, knowing your genre is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you might learn some shortcuts; on the other hand, you might take them. There’s a slickness people acquire when they know the conventions of a genre too intimately and use them too easily. You feel like you’re reading an exercise rather than a vision of a private world. Most horror movies aren’t remotely scary for this reason. You know all the rhythms. You can feel the apparatus of the production, the key grip standing there and the boom man, while over by the woodshed someone’s applying chunky make-up and the director’s planning bloody gags. It’s a crowd. It’s safe. You lose the sense of isolation, the farmhouse lost in the corn or the apartment on a street so loud no one can hear screams.

For this reason, if you are going to read (or watch) some classics of the genre, you might also consider checking out the fringes of the genre – where horror crosses over into experimental fiction – to renew your sense of the unexpected. To loosen your own sense of possibility. To scramble what you think you know about horror. I’m thinking of books like Shelley Jackson’s The Melancholy of Anatomy, Brian Evenson’s highly disturbing Altmann’s Tongue, or many of Kelly Link’s stories. (Link has a new collection out aimed specifically at teens, Pretty Monsters – which reprints one of my favorite horror stories, “The Specialist’s Hat.”)

As for other suggestions … One of my favorite authors is America’s first professional writer, Charles Brockden Brown. His beautifully written, insanely patterned, profoundly disorienting Gothic novels are worth a read for those who want to check out the past of the genre. Wieland, or the Transformation is an incredibly American book – in that it takes the sensationalistic story of a massacre ripped from the newspaper headlines (in the 1790s) and turns it into a wild meditation on American loneliness and free will. There’s spontaneous human combustion on about page three, and it just goes uphill from there. Arthur Mervyn, or Memoirs of the Year 1793, is a wonderful, bewildering account of a dangerous con-man (or two?) set during the Yellow Fever panic.

Those interested in thinking about the roots of horror should also check out some of the classic English Gothic novels. My faves are Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, William Godwin’s Things As They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, and James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. The pacing of these books, obviously, is profoundly different than that of modern horror novels – but I think that’s useful. That allows you to reorient yourself, see what about your own story is truly yours, and what just belongs to the set of stock images we’re used to.

One of the things that I think makes this particular clutch of early Gothic novels resonate still is that (like Shelley’s Frankenstein) they are about identity and they investigate that in a really troubling way. They don’t externalize the evil, but instead trouble us by connecting the hero with an evil so sticky it can’t be wiped off – it keeps clinging and burning.

Let me recommend a very fun, light book of fin de siecle “horror” while I’m at it, something I just read … Robert Chambers’s In Search of the Unknown. It’s a lovely little volume of connected short stories about an Edwardian bird-fancier, very unlucky in love, who is turned cryptozoologist against his will. He confronts a series of monsters, usually haplessly. It’s incredibly charming and surprisingly weird. The book is available in a Chaosium reprint of Chambers’s supernatural tales or – like most of the books I’ve listed above – for free online at Project Gutenberg.

As for movies, my Halloween faves are Children of the Corn and The Shining. Once again, one thing King does so well is seeing horror as an amplification of banal and familiar scenarios – related to that idea of the unheimlich I talk about up above. As an interesting case study, try reading The Shining (a book about a psychopathic father which is dedicated to Stephen King’s son) and Heart-Shaped Box (a book about a psychopathic father that is actually by Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill, and that is dedicated to his father). PS., going with that – Joe Hill also has an earlier book of top-notch horror stories called 20th Century Ghosts which was finally released in this country, all of which are highly unusual in their content and structure. I highly recommend it.

In talking about horror movies at Vermont College, I’ve also recommended John Carpenter’s The Thing, Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw, Denzel Washington’s Fallen, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (all of which probe the question of identity), and the first twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls and When a Stranger Calls Back. Both of the Stranger Calls flicks are clever extensions of an old campfire story … In both cases, the opening twenty minutes are notable for their economy of means … and then, after the initial confrontation, the whole thing goes to hell, they come up with some moronic plot, and you should just stop watching.

Oh, the horror, the horror.

Thanks, Tobin. Um … I mean M. T.!

So readers, now you’ve eaten the Cracker Jacks and it’s time for the prize. When preparing this prize package I had several requests. But sorry, they were too weird to contemplate... anyway

I have assembled a DELUXE M. T. Anderson PRIZE PACKAGE... filled to the gills with all kinds of nifty M. T. Anderson stuff.

How do I win, you ask with baited breath...


Post a comment here with the most terrifying sentence M. T. Anderson has ever written. It can be from a novel, story… heck a picture book … a lecture… a verifiable quote… the most extremely creepy utterance ever issued by M. T. Anderson’s um… pen or mouth.  Please include the source. The decision will be completely subjective and up to the judges- me and Liz.

Get those books cracking and get ready to peruse your handy dandy weird and wonderful M. T. Anderson prize package.

Scare us!
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Tami Lewis Brown


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 22nd, 2008 04:26 pm (UTC)
Woo, a little dose of MT Anderson in the morning is just what I needed!

Come on, people, scare up those lines! We're waiting . . . and you don't wanna miss this prize.
Oct. 22nd, 2008 07:55 pm (UTC)
Your Interview with Tobin
Great interview, Tami - thanks so much. As usual after reading anything Tobin has to say, my hold list at the library increased by 50%.

I'll leave the prize package to other people posting, but I just want to chime in here that I think the scariest line Tobin has ever written that I've read (by scariest I mean the one that made me shiver and my heart seize up) comes not from his "scary" books but from Octavain Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party (p. 314 of the hardcover): "And then they imprisoned me in darkness, and though there was no color there, I still was black, and they still were white, and for that, they bound and gagged me."

There's another line, just as powerful and terrifying earlier in the book, though it's a quotation from Seneca - "Worse than war...is the dreadful waiting for war."

I know those aren't what most people would call Stephen-King-esque or Hitchcock-esque lines, but both of them stopped me cold and raised goosebumps. If you think of it in terms of suspense, for a feeling of being out of control and powerless and subject to who-knows-what's-coming, to be in the unsafe territory Tobin talks about, those lines do it for me.

Oct. 22nd, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Your Interview with Tobin
Julie- I find lines from Octavian to be his most horrifying, too.
But he has creepy stuff all over the place. Tapping into the dark side of human nature is often how he makes his humor funnier- another element of genius.
Oct. 22nd, 2008 11:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Your Interview with Tobin
Thanks for participating, Julie! Love the darkness quote.
Oct. 22nd, 2008 11:52 pm (UTC)
I'll be back with my quote - I have to go scare up (get it?) my Anderson books to find my submission. Meanwhile, I've bookmarked this one and will be quoteskimming from it come Sunday. Thanks ever so for this!
Oct. 22nd, 2008 11:54 pm (UTC)
You're welcome... and pass it on. We want to compile a huge collection of scary quotes by Halloween! And gee I love your raven!!

Edited at 2008-10-22 11:54 pm (UTC)
Oct. 23rd, 2008 01:24 pm (UTC)
"At long last, you may no longer distinguish what binds you from what is you." OCTAVIAN NOTHING, p. 312

Isn't that everyone's greatest fear?


Oct. 24th, 2008 04:18 am (UTC)
Scary Tobin
Whoa, Kelly, yes, I love that.

I'm going to link this interview, Tami, and the contest, over at The Drift Record tomorrow (http://julielarios.blogspot.com/) And I'll mention the contest to my students and on the blog a few times between now and Halloween, because I would love to see people join in here and add favorites!
Oct. 24th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Scary Tobin
Thanks, Julie!
Oct. 24th, 2008 03:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Scary Tobin
That's great!

(Deleted comment)
Oct. 30th, 2008 12:13 am (UTC)
Re: OK, scariest MT Anderson line ever. Actually, scariest page.
Thanks for reading. Agreed, that big is pretty terrifying. And I love the humor at the end.
Oct. 27th, 2008 03:10 pm (UTC)
In M.T. Anderson's THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, PART ONE: THE POX PARTY and he describes the >spoilers< dissection of the mother as seen through the clinical eye of the man who loves her and then her son walking in... "disturbing" isn't even the word for it. It haunts me still with a profound ache.
Oct. 27th, 2008 04:09 pm (UTC)
One of my most exciting (I bet this is true for many of us Tollboothers) experiences at Vermont College was during the summer 2004 residency. Octavian Nothing was still a raw work in progress, and Tobin was struggling to give it shape. Nobody had heard or read any of it. We just knew he was working on historic fiction about the American Revolution. When he read that scene at his faculty reading we were in awe, chilled and thrilled at the same time. There was much weeping.

His lecture during that residency about writing historic fiction with an emotional core was an all time best-- which is saying a whole lot when you're talking about M. T. Anderson.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )