Riddles. Magic. Adventure. Fun. National Book Award Finalist M.T. Anderson captures all these and more in his new novel for middle-grade readers, The Game of Sunken Places.
Set in rural Vermont, the story follows two young friends, Gregory and Brian, as they set off on a vacation quest that takes them through time, magical forest and underground worlds and pits them against each other in a game of life and death. Unbeknownst to the boys, their seemingly innocuous invitation to visit an eccentric uncle in the country is actually a ploy to involve them in an enchanted game where trolls tell riddles on bridges, phantom hunting parties charge through the woods, giant ogres guard underground cities and the winning team gets to inhabit a magical mountain. The genesis for The Game of Sunken Places came from Anderson's own love of enchanted stories, such as the Narnia Series and the books of Susan Cooper and E. Nesbitt. "I really loved how in those books, you're taken out of a context that you're used to and you see the things that you don't normally see," Anderson tells BookPage from his home near Boston. "But more importantly, I loved the concept that kids in blazers and droopy kneesocks could save the world."In Anderson's novel, the two boys best friends realize they each have unique and important talents that they can use together to survive. Brian, a quiet but bright boy, sees the world with an uncanny sense of awareness, which on more than one occasion saves him and his friend from disaster. Gregory, the gregarious friend, uses his irrepressible sense of humor and sometimes off-color candor to catch the many otherworldly beings they encounter off-guard. The author based the characters of The Game of Sunken Places on someone he knows quite well. "The boys are different aspects of me and hopefully different aspects of anyone who reads the book," says Anderson. "In a refracted way, everything I write comes out of my life, but oftentimes, it would be unrecognizable to anyone but me. The intense friendship between the boys feels very much to me like my adolescence when the whole world was out there, ready to peer into."The author of three previous novels and two picture books, Anderson is best known for Feed, an imaginative look at a future world where advertising messages are pumped directly into human brains through a computer chip. This biting satire of consumerism captured a National Book Award nomination in 2002 and won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for young adult fiction. The Game of Sunken Places was actually written before Feed but never published. "I wrote it over several years, then put it away for several more years," says the author, "but I was always excited about it." After the success of Feed, the author decided to pull The Game of Sunken Places out of hibernation. "I looked at it, retyped it and made the jokes better and turned it around in about four months," Anderson recalls. If that seems like a short amount of time to write a novel, it shouldn't; Feed only took two months to write and his picture books took only a day. Nevertheless, says the author, "It takes about six months to see what really works."Anderson began his writing career when he was quite young. "From when I was little, I always knew it was something I wanted to do," Anderson admits. "Writers are always suffering from a certain sort of dysfunction when it comes to their careers. I guess you could say it's a weakness I've always had." As a teenager, Anderson wrote "things I would've called novels" and sent them to publishers. "At least it got me used to the series of rejections that come along with a writer's life," he says.
After studying at Harvard, Cambridge and Syracuse universities, he took several short-lived jobs until he landed a position as an editorial assistant at a publishing house. There, in addition to making coffee and spending hours at the copy machine, Anderson cranked out his first book, Thirsty, a vampire story which he dropped onto the desk of his boss, the editor-in-chief, one day to give her something to read in her spare time. The ploy worked: within a year, the book was published and his career as a writer had begun.
Anderson has several future projects in the works, including a historical novel set in the 18th century and a book for middle-grade readers about a whale on stilts.