The Writing Voice: M.T. Anderson



Feed and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing

The importance of voice, the way a narrator or character speaks, is a topic that writers often discuss.  How do we make voice authentic?  How do we keep the voice consistent throughout a story? Does the voice go with the character? 

Have you ever read a book of fiction, and thought, “No five-year-old child would speak like that?”  It’s happened to me.  My appraisal of the author immediately drops several notches.  Or perhaps you’ve come across a dialogue that sounds stiff and unnatural, or a dull narrator?  The ability to write voice well requires talent and skill and a good ear.  M.T. Anderson has all three.

In his YA book, Feed, Anderson creates the voice of Titus, a teenage boy, living in a dystopian world.  Anderson even invents a futuristic vocabulary for Titus and his friends.

Chapter 1 Your Face is not an Organ

            We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

            We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home.  It was the beginning of spring break.  Everything at home was boring.  Link Arwaker was like, “I’m so null,” and Marty was all, “I’m null, too, unit,” but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we’d been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall.  We were trying to ride shocks off of them. So Marty told us that there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon.  Lo-grav can be kind of stupid, but this was supposed to be good.  It was called the Ricochet Lounge.  We thought we’d go for a few days with some of the girls and stay at a hotel and go dancing.

Here is the ISBN summary for Feed:

In a future where most people have computer implants in their heads to control their environment, a boy meets an unusual girl who is in serious trouble.

In Feed, Anderson has a lot to say about our consumer society and marketing, and the benefits and costs of technology.

In Anderson’s novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Octavian’s voice is educated and observant, as befits a boy raised by scientists in Boston during the American Revolution.

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in apple-trees.

I recall, in the orchard behind the house, orbs of flame rising through the black boughs and branches; they climbed, spiritous, and flickered out; my mother squeezed my hand with delight.  We stood near the door to the ice-chamber.

Around the orchard and gardens stood a wall of some height, designed to repel the glance of idle curiosity and to keep us all from slipping away and running for freedom; though that, of course, I did not yet understand.

How doth all that seeks to rise burn itself to nothing.

The book description, in part, says:

… Set against the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston, M.T. Anderson’s extraordinary novel takes place at a time when American Patriots rioted and battled to win liberty while African slaves were entreated to risk their lives for a freedom they would never claim.  The first of two parts, this deeply provocative novel reimagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.

Octavian Nothing, Volume 1 won the National Book Award.  Feed was a National Book Award finalist.  As well as being a master of voice, M.T. Anderson will also invite you to think.



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doing the same thing every morning is safe and familiar.


saying the same thing every day is like putting on a lead coat.


returning dirty dishes to be rewashed, I wonder, “Is it worth it?”


 I am mean and impatient and full of guilt.


I see that I live in great comfort.


I think evil thoughts.


his warm hands on my feet are all I have.

Touching the Heart


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Here is another teacher story from my archives, dated 2004.

Paloma wept over a picture book today.  She came into my office-sized classroom hot and sweaty from recess.  First we studied the curriculum lesson, a poster about thermal currents.  Then I handed her a book to read: Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie DePaola. 

“Read this and then choose from the list and write a response in your journal,” I told her.  On the crowded walls is a list of possible ways to respond to reading: What surprised you?  How are the people in the book like your family?  How are they different? Etc.

            As Paloma read, I previewed the lessons for the coming week and made notes about materials needed for the next project.  At some point she paused in her reading and said, “It’s sad.”

            “Yes.” I said.

            We returned to silence and our respective tasks.

            DePaola’s story is about a five-year old boy, Bobby, and his Grandfather, Bob.  Bob teaches Bobby to walk.  They have a loving, special relationship that DePaola depicts with an economy of words.  Then Bob has a stroke and loses his speech.  Bobby helps his grandfather learn to walk again.

            When she finished the story, Paloma chose to write about what impressed her.  We were quiet again as she wrote a page in her notebook, and I organized my notes in my daily log. 

            “Done,” she said.

            “Do you want to read it to me?”

            “No, you read it.”

            I read aloud a passage about Paloma and her grandparents in Mexico.  She told how they taught her to take care of the animals and feed the chickens. 

            I finished reading and looked up.  Her eyes were shiny with tears.  We talked about missing grandparents and I told her about growing up with only my grandmother, who was not a warm and fuzzy grandmotherly person.  She asked about my mother and father and how they died.  We talked quite a while past her lesson time.

            After she left, I felt an angel had passed over.  Something magical happened there.  I sensed it but I couldn’t say what it was.  A heart was touched by a simple story; a connection was made between a 10-year-old Mexican immigrant girl growing up in the year 2004 and a five-year-old Italian boy growing up sometime before World War II.

            It’s a tribute to Tomie DePaola that he writes so well, and also to Paloma that she allowed so much of herself to be present and sensitive.  As for me, I think I witnessed a small miracle today.


Available on Amazon and from Handersen Publishing

Lesson 278


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Father, I ask for nothing but the truth.

For this I must be a steel container,

able to withstand searing heat

or Arctic cold.

I have had many foolish thoughts about myself and my creation

stamped and battered with labels

shy girl, poet,


and have brought a dream of fear into my mind.

wrinkles, forgetting,

loss of purpose, death

Today I would not dream.

Courage, crone!

Release the balloon of reveries,

Let it zigzag, sputter,

airless bit of rubber rag

I choose the way to You instead of madness and instead of fear

Guide me on this rocky, narrow path,

this thin, true spiral thread,

the other way, a murky dark maze

For truth is safe, and only love is sure.

From the Course in Miracles, Workbook for Students, Lesson 278, p. 435.