Author M.T. Anderson’s two-volume young-adult historical novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, about an enslaved boy who ends up fighting for the British during the Revolution, is an erudite, sad, moving, and inventive book. Anderson has just published another historical work for young adults, this one nonfiction. Symphony for the City of the Dead takes the dramatic story of composer Dmitri Shostakovich writing his Symphony No. 7 during the Siege of Leningrad as its starting point. The first volume of Octavian won a National Book Award; Symphony is on the long list for the award this year.
Symphony, which is aimed at teenagers ages 14 and up, covers a tremendous amount of territory: Russian culture after the Revolution; the rule of Stalin and its effects on the lives of artists like Shostakovich and his friends; the political machinations behind the pact between Hitler and Stalin; the failures of the Soviet government that left Leningrad stranded and hungry; the Western media effort that put the composer on the cover of Time; and the precarious position of a Soviet cultural hero in the Cold War era.
Anderson takes his audience seriously, betting that his young readers will want to see the doodles that the Leningrad musicians made on their scores of the Symphony No. 7 (the book is full of fascinating visual evidence) or share a rueful chuckle at the name of the failed emissary the British sent to speak with Stalin in 1939. (That would be Admiral the Honorable Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax.) Anderson also cites historians openly in the text and explains their debates over sources and meaning, without losing a sense of the dramatic.
I spoke with the author recently about how he writes history for teenagers. This interview has been edited and condensed.
How do you decide that a particular period or historical episode might make a good YA book? How did you decide for Octavian, and how did you decide for the Shostakovich book?
There are certain periods of history, and the Revolutionary War and World War II are great examples, that we feel like we know. There’s something almost comfortable to us about those periods, because they have turned into kind of a cultural myth for us. And I think that what’s really interesting is when you can say, “There’s something really complicated about this, something that’s going to show you a very different story of heroism than what you thought you know.” And so, in the case of Octavian Nothing, the idea that there is a revolution going on inside the Revolution—the American population that was enslaved, trying to get themselves declared free—that to me was an incredible story that I immediately just wanted to follow. And in the same way, we think of World War II as being about the Pacific and the Western European theaters, because that’s where [Americans] were involved: North Africa, Western Europe, and the Pacific. But to understand then that the whole war looked different to those who were in Russia and the Slavic countries, Eastern Europe, that to them, it was a totally different war, that to me was mind-blowing. I consider myself a well-educated person, but I had never realized the ferocity of the war in the East.
Both of these projects have a human and personal story at their hearts. But you’re also doing a lot of work to establish the greater context: the politics and culture of a time and place.
Yes! I think that either in times of peace, or when we’re younger, we tend to assume that our life is our life and history is stuck in the past. And then there are those terrifying moments where you realize, “Oh, wait a second. My life is a part of history. My parents are losing their jobs because of the general downturn. My great-grandfather, he went off to war and that changed the way my family worked.” And then you realize, “Wait. My family isn’t just family; we’re part of the tapestry of all of what’s going on in the world that will be seen as history eventually.
Which is totally terrifying but also a moment when you develop empathy.
Oh absolutely! And it’s exciting, because it’s also the moment when you say, all these people from the past, wearing their frock coats and wigs, the great heroes of the past, I could be that hero for today. I could be the one who rises up and changes the world for the better. And that’s incredibly exciting … That is, I think, a very empowering thought.
I want to ask you about heroism. I’m interested in the way that a lot of history created for kids has an emphasis on heroes or overcoming adversity. Actually, that’s not just true of history for kids. People in general like that.
But your treatment of Shostakovich gets at the ambiguity of some of his actions. It seems you’re careful to point out that there were moments in his life when he didn’t stand up to power, and we have to talk about those moments too.
Oh absolutely. For one thing, he never would have wanted to be thought of as a hero. One, he was an extremely shy person. Second of all, to be a hero in Stalin’s Russia was a terrifying thing, because Stalin, in many ways, hated the heroes he himself would create, and he would destroy those heroes.
Let’s talk about form: I love the fact that the Shostakovich book tries to represent the historiography—the way historians have debated the validity of some of the biographical sources, for example.
Absolutely. It’s part of the adventure of history itself. There is drama to the question of “How do we know what we know about the past?”
In writing for a younger audience, you must have had to make some choices about how much of that stuff they’d be interested in or how much to step back and write about the history as a story. How did you decide that?
When I was in high school, I went for one year to a British boarding school, Winchester College. And I was taking a one-year history course on Anglo-Saxon history. On the first day of class the teacher said, “We’re going to be studying England during the Anglo-Saxon period for a year. There is plenty of time for us to read every single source that is related to Anglo-Saxon history. You will have the same tools the historian does. You will have read everything they could read.” Obviously we were 17 years old, so we weren’t going to make any incredible leaps of historical knowledge, but at the same time it was so exciting to us to think, “This set of five or six long documents, this is the core of what’s known, and we’ll have the tools to debate it.”
There are some interesting points of clarification in the book—I’m thinking of the footnote where you describe the difference between communism, socialism, and Marxism. [At the end of the 200-word footnote, Anderson concludes: “While these terms—Bolshevik, Communist, Marxist, socialist, and Soviet—are sometimes used interchangeably, many people have died to make distinctions among them.”] How do you decide, with a concept like this, which is something historians spend their lives debating and trying to clarify, how much of it to talk about in a book that’s for people who are 16 or 17?
That is a total killer. That’s a real challenge of doing this. It was a little weird to put it in a footnote. Most of the facts I try to fit into the general flow of a narrative, and yet that is such a complicated set of terms that I felt like it didn’t fit into the flow. It slowed it down; and yet it’s vital. So yeah, because realizing also that, the kids I’m writing for have no memory of the Cold War, which was over more than a decade before they were born. That’s a complicated thing when kids don’t necessary have any context at all. That footnote was important to me, because the term socialism is used so often in this country and not really understood well; it was important to me to actually explain what it means. Because otherwise I felt like you read through this book and you realize Nazism is called National Socialism; Stalin is always talking about socialism; and then you think it comes across as “socialism is evil.” Unfortunately, it has been simplified in this country. We don’t tend to realize that our firemen and our schools and our roads are, in a sense, socialist creations.
Now you’ve said it!
Well, you know what I mean.
Oh, I know.
I’m not being polemical about it, but I’m just trying to define it. “Socialism means the government is paying for this kind of service and therefore can be a force for public good, or in the case of Soviet Russia, a tremendously oppressive force.”
Are there other models of this kind of nonfiction historical writing for this age group? It feels sui generis to me, but I don’t know if there are other people doing the same thing.
Right now there’s a lot of really amazing historical nonfiction being written for slightly younger teens. It tends to be ages 12 and up. So someone else who’s on the long list for the National Book Award with me is Steve Sheinkin, who has been doing really amazing work in a younger age bracket … I have a lot of friends who are working in this mode for slightly younger readers, like Elizabeth Partridge or Sue Campbell Bartoletti … but it tends to be a little bit younger.
Let’s talk about horribleness. You’ve written a book about slavery, and you wrote a book that has cannibalism in it—both for teenagers. There’s a weird subgenre of historical writing for younger kids, like those Horrible Histories books, that kind of capitalizes on the attraction to atrocities. Those always seemed strange to me in a way I can’t quite put my finger on.
Oh yeah. For all of us—historians are not exempt from this!—there is a sort of weird comfort in reading about horrible things that happened, when you yourself are sitting in a comfortable chair and you have a chicken pot pie to look forward to. But I would say that it’s not just about sensationalism, because in a way the Siege of Leningrad is self-sensationalizing; there is nothing about it that is not sensational. But I think the thing that I hope I never lacked in talking about these things is a sense of compassion. Not just compassion, but also the admonition, “These things could happen to us. There is no reason we are exempt from the more brutal processes of history,” and that’s why we have to look at what happened, and we have to ask ourselves, “Is there something we can do to make the world better for other people, not simply for ourselves?”
The way you approached the cannibalism was interesting, because you’re talking about people’s reactions to it at the time: the government’s reaction, diarists’ reactions. Rather than just saying “People were eaten,” it seemed that you were trying to say, “This happened within a cultural context that was processing it in these ways.”
There are a couple of things we mean by cannibalism, one of which is “eating the bodies of those already dead,” and one that’s actually “killing people to eat them.” To me, eating the bodies of those who are already dead? It sounds hideous, but yet it makes a lot of sense to me. It’s an indignity, yet, I know that were I to die in that kind of circumstance and be surrounded by people who could be nourished from me, I’m not sure that I wouldn’t feel like, “No, go ahead. Use it. I’m not going to be using this body anymore.”
I feel the same way. We need like a donor card.
We could call it a “donor diner card!”
To me, the reason why we should look at this is actually to think about what is driving people to this, but also one of the themes of the book is, “How do people decide to remain human, and what allows them to remain human?” when people around them were starting to act like animals. And that’s where the art comes in.