Matthew Tobin Anderson grew up in a small bedroom community for urban professionals. He describes his house as “1970s suburban,” yet out his back door a forest and a lake beckoned. “So much of my writing has come from that experience of being in the woods and making up stories about what goes on there.”
Anderson remembers writing simple stories at the age of six or seven, and by 7th or 8th grade, he wrote 30- to 40-page stories that he liked to call novels. By age 17 he wrote the first draft of The Game of Sunken Places and sent it to publishers. “It got universally rejected as you might expect,” he says, but the early experience of writing and submitting to publishers showed him that publication was not the most important part of writing for him. “The most important part of writing was actually that zone where I was sitting there and coming up with the material and getting excited by the plot and trying to think of how to best say what I wanted to say.”
Many years later, Anderson revisited The Game of Sunken Places “and turned it into something publishable.” The four-book series features a fairy-like race of characters called Norumbegans with a caustic wit, but no human sense of sentimentality. When Anderson revised the story as an adult, he felt empowered because he now had the skill to bring his creation to life. “It was amazing for me,” he says. As a teenager, “I didn’t have the arsenal of tools…to capture the weirdness [of the Norumbegans and] the Oscar Wilde-like wit of the characters.”
Prior to publishing Thirsty, his first book, Anderson worked for Candlewick Press in Massachusetts as an editorial assistant. “Part of my reason for doing that was I had to eat something and they paid money, but it was obviously my interest in children’s literature and my interest in getting published as a writer of children’s literature, so I wanted to find out about the industry from the inside.” Anderson submitted an early version of Thirsty to his boss who said he needed a plot. After revising, the novel was published in 1998.
National Book Award Finalist Feed rocketed Anderson to fame. “The recognition extends beyond the field of children’s book professionals,” he says. “It also meant that Steve Martin actually said my name.” Feed takes place in a futuristic world where Internet connections feed directly into consumers’ brains, and articulated thoughts and language sharply decline. “With the success of Feed, writing was no longer part of what I was doing,” Anderson says. “It became central to what I was doing.”
Growing up in Massachusetts near the site of the battle that started the Revolutionary War gave Anderson a personal connection to the time period. The colonists from Acton and Stow who responded to Concord’s call for assistance were “the people my parents would have been—middle-class Americans responding to the call of war.” Anderson tried to determine what it felt like to be occupied by British forces, but then corrected his point of view. In terms of the colonists’ perspective he says, “my own government imposed martial law.” The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to a Nation, Volumes I and II recreate the feeling of doubt and uncertainty that Anderson imagines the colonists’ must have felt before they knew their cause would win. “Trying to get back to the notion of what did it feel like before Americans thought of themselves as distinct from the British. What did it mean to rebel against your own government which is an incredibly brave thing to do…or crazy.”
The Octavian Nothing books consumed six years of Anderson’s life, but earned the National Book Award (volume I) and the Michael L. Printz Honor (volumes I and II). During that time his research steered him to books and diaries that he read through Octavian’s eyes. “I was always looking for details that he would notice. When I read things that he would have read, I was trying to think how would he have seen the book that I’m reading right now.” Anderson admits that a small part of his brain was “devoted to thinking like this nonexistent person.” Octavian Nothing became a presence in his life, so when he finished the book he felt almost sad to leave this young man he grew to care about.
In between drafts of the Octavian Nothing books, Anderson began a new series for younger readers called Pals in Peril. Each book in the series satirizes a specific genre of literature or film. For instance, Whales on Stilts pokes fun at the 1950s science fiction adventures and The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen parodies The Hardy Boys and the Nancy Drew mysteries. In Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware, Anderson takes on the exotic adventure genre (á la Edgar Rice Burroughs or the Mummy movies). Delaware was a natural setting he says, “because of the excessive interstate tolls, no one has been there for decades.” Using MapQuest as his guide, Anderson figured that a place called Sandtown must be a desert and Red Dragon Creek must be infested with dragons. Anderson had so much fun with this book, he developed a complete tourist guide to Delaware with an interactive map and the state song on his website. At the end of the Jasper Dash adventure, Anderson admits that he’s never been to the state of Delaware and may have made some mistakes. He invites readers to send letters correcting any such errors…and supplies the Governor of Delaware’s address.
Anderson writes for thinking kids. He describes these students as “quirky teens who may be on the outs socially, but who see things their schoolmates don’t.”