M.T. Anderson: The Logical Results of a Completely Absurd Premise

(photo: Sonya Sones)

M.T. Anderson is the author of many books for children and young adults, including the National Book Award-winning The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing; National Book Award finalist Feed; and Symphony for the City of the Dead. Elf Dog and Owl Head (Candlewick Press, April 11) is a touching and hilarious magical adventure tale about the hidden worlds that exist just "beyond our knowledge," though not beyond the knowledge of our beloved pets. Anderson lives, dances and walks his dog in Vermont.

Why was it important to you for Elf Dog and Owl Head to be set during a global pandemic?

The story came right out of my experience during the pandemic shutdown: living alone with my dog in a house in the woods of Vermont for five months. She was my only companion for all that time. We explored the hills together and sat on either side of the fire and I talked to her because there wasn't anyone else around. That was about it. For a long time, I had wanted to write a book about the deep love between people and the animals who live with them. This was my opportunity. I wanted to describe how our beloved pets change our lives and show us a hidden world that lies right around us--the world of things they can smell and see beyond our knowledge. 

I wrote the first draft of the book at exactly the time of the events described in it--finishing on Midsummer Night 2020. Nonetheless, I don't think of it as a pandemic book any more than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a London Blitz book. The boy in the book, Clay, feels more isolated than usual because of the shutdown--but we all feel isolated sometimes. The book is more about the forest than about the world of the sickness. Still, I do hope that it will speak to kids who felt stranded in that weird time that touched us all.

Clay and Amos are from different worlds but manage to fall in with each other in that natural way of kids. Still, there are cultural misunderstandings. Do the adults really know better in trying to keep them apart?

Amos and Clay learn so much from one another! So, I hope that somehow their friendship can continue.

Having said that, if you take Amos's elders to be the voice of the nature world, you can kind of understand their point: It never ends well when humans discover new species. We tend to kill them for their teeth or glandular secretions. Think about whales, elephants, otters, pigs: there are whole alien cultures living right among us with their own traditions, their own structures, their own affections, their own pleasures, their own lore. We slaughter them for parts.

We're really not a great animal. 

The blue giant Vud is hilariously gloomy with his "poetic, tragic" proclamations. ("Laughter is the sound you make when you're trying to hide choking on tears.") Is there a Vud in your life?

Yes. He is within me. (See previous answer.)

"Death is always invited... When he calls, we must go. But knowing that the night may be cut short is what makes it so sweet. It is the reason we must dance." Zowie! Is this a philosophy you share with the owl-head people?


Recently I went to a 9 a.m. rave in Brooklyn. Many of the people there had been up dancing all night. There were dazzling lights and lasers and the roar of music and hunky trapeze artists doing stunts over the surging crowd and a violinist was lifted up on a crane and rocked out "The Carol of the Bells" while swinging over us all. Most of the people there were in their 20s and 30s but there were a couple people hurling themselves around onstage who must have been pushing 70.

I was just about to make a joke about how it was a very different scene from my home in rural Vermont, but back in October, we had a contra dance in our little town hall, and there we were, perfect strangers, locking arms and swinging each other in cosmic circles while fiddlers from age 25 to 75 played onstage. It was a fantastic night--chilly out but thumping with rhythm inside that ancient meetinghouse. One of the musicians, a remarkable local treasure named Pete Sutherland, was up there playing keyboards even though he was dying of cancer at the time. Literally: a few weeks after that night in October, Pete passed. 

We've only got the one chance to live. Part of the urgency of living is the urgency of joy. Joy is real.

Do details like a steampunk-esque underground gondola, owl math and a sweater-sheep come to you in an orderly fashion as you write or have you socked away tidbits like these over the years, to be pulled out at the right moment?

I was taking a friend for a hike near where I live in Vermont, and she noticed there was a hill called Owl's Head, and she asked where it got the name. (Story is not actually interesting: it looks like an owl's head.) I told her that in the 19th century, people had reported seeing owl-headed people lurking in the woods there. We passed some ruined foundations, and I pointed them out and told her that's where they'd lived. Then we kept making up stories about them, the owl-heads.

The sweater-sheep was a logical (I think) extension of the idea of some magical force that takes everything back to its natural origins: a wooden table starts to grow oak leaves again, a bathtub grows into a swamp and a wool sweater, obviously, would start to turn back into a sheep.

I guess the secret with this kind of plotting is figuring out the completely logical results of a completely insane premise. Which really is kind of the key to living life in this world anyway.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about anything?

I hope so, or else my career is going to be very short. --Emilie Coulter

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