Friday, August 9, 2019

The Opening Keynote by M.T. Anderson: The House That Tries to Be Haunted

M.T. Anderson
M.T. Anderson is the award-winning author of a whole heap of books for young readers, ranging from picture books to YA novels, covering both fiction and nonfiction.

"He is truly a writer's writer and one of the literary greats of our time," Lin Oliver said in her introduction, confessing, "It pisses us off."

"MT Anderson challenges his readers to rise to his level of literary sophistication," Lin said. "He's a beautiful writer and an incredible intellect and a master of all forms."

Tobin started with an observation about Los Angeles: "I've never seen so many beautiful people wearing scowls and jumpsuits in my entire life."

His talk was about how we as writers can haunt our readers, a topic inspired by Emily Dickinson and the haunted 18th Century house he accidentally bought himself (the purchase was on purpose–the haunted bit was unexpected, although he was warned).

"Nature is a haunted house, but art is a house that tries to be haunted."
—Emily Dickinson

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge
"I could hear the 18th Century music I love so much playing in the background." This didn't clue him into the fact that it's haunted. Nor did the warning of the real estate agent. Nor did the warning of his friend that there was an undead child wailing outside the windows of the second floor (this was not a homeowner's concern, he said, because it was on the outside).

During his renovations, he did hear the unearthly wail of a child. He's not a believer in ghosts, but he felt an almost visceral panic when he heard it. He went white. Whiter than he normally. Nearly a vampiric undead white.

"My guess it was probably a fisher cat, or a fisher cat killing a rabbit," he said. "It's irritating being a nonbeliever, because you don't have a belief in life after death, but the undead are keeping you up all night." (Here's audio of a fisher. Enjoy.)

He showed us letters children wrote to the ghost of the house and slipped into the floorboards. One of them: "Dear ghost: I hope your mother buys you a corgi so you can ride it."

He loved the letters and met the children who wrote them, who are now grown. Their father wore period clothing and mowed the lawn with a scythe, and they had to sneak to the trailer up the hill to watch "The Dukes of Hazzard."

The grown children told him the ghost stories of their childhood, as well as the end of their parents' marriage, which sent the parents in different directions—a story that Tobin described as far more powerful than the ghost story attached to the house.

"It was the story of a family and a place that had resonance to them. Coming back was weirdly important to them. They had left the house with the family in pieces. When they returned and walked around it as adults, they remembered things from the earlier years ... that's the set of trees where the fairies lived. That was the meadow where the trolls lived. They had forgotten the earlier part of their life and how magical it was."

There are levels of history in any story, lying beneath the floorboards, waiting to be discovered. Think about the way that your prose can have resonance, hidden histories, and of being a place that many people can visit and find their spirit in it.

"Don't just live in the place you live," he said. "Open up the floors and see what's there. Explore the strange and the new, and make it your own... that is where the sublime happens."

For more about Tobin (that's what the T stands for), follow him on Twitter, and visit his website. Here's his fantasy rendering of Delaware.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a story to open the 2019 conference with! TY, Martha.