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(Author photo by Sonja Sones.)
North Melbourne Books: Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian. He has been sent by spymaster Lord Clivers to the neighbouring goblin kingdom to make peace. Upon arrival, Spurge is welcomed by his goblin host, Werfel the Archivist. Both men are historians and should hit it off, but they quickly start feuding. Goblins and Elves have been at war for over a thousand years and each party is keen to blame the other for starting hostilities. When Werfel's countrymen suddenly accuse him of being a traitor, the historian and archivist put aside their differences and work together, eventually developing a friendship.
It's a wonderfully imagined and executed story, and so believable, despite being a fantasy novel. How did you come up with the idea for the story?
M.T. Anderson: Well, I met writer/illustrator Eugene Yelchin for lunch -- and he asked me if I wanted to collaborate on a book where the pictures didn't ILLUSTRATE the story -- they actually CONTRADICTED the story told in words. I said that sounded fascinating. He asked me if I had any ideas off the top of my head.
I said no.
But a month later or so, I began sending him all sorts of plot fragments to see which one excited us most -- things from across history and across the globe. I'm a big fan of travelogues by those ancient travelers who went to far-flung locales and tried to make sense of the world -- Herodotus, Marco Polo, Xuanzang, ibn Fadlan -- and so I suggested a kind of fantasy travelogue where an elf was going into the traditional land of a "Dark Lord" like Sauron and trying to describe what he saw ... but of course, he's filled with a thousand years of prejudice, so his view is pretty cockeyed.
This also allowed me to investigate goblin culture, which I always wondered about as a kid. The poor goblins get such a bad rap.
NMB: One of the book's main themes is the absurdity of war, and how often history is not written in the service of truth, but to reinforce national myths. When you started out writing, did you have these themes in mind, or did they develop along the way?
MTA: They came out pretty naturally. Eugene and I had met because I'd written a big nonfiction book on Soviet Russia (Symphony for the City of the Dead) and Eugene had actually defected from Soviet Russia. We're both fascinated by Cold War spy stories and propaganda ... so the story just naturally started to wander in that direction as we wrote it.
NMB: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge is essentially a brilliant, witty comedy. There's even a touch of Cervante's Don Quixote in its spoofing of courtly manners. Were there any writers that were a conscious influence when you were writing it?
MTA: Yes! Those travel writers I mentioned above ... and John LeCarre ... and, um, P. G. Wodehouse.
NMB: Your collaborator on the story, Eugene Yelchin, provides the amazing illustrations. There are whole chapters that are devoted to Yelchin's drawings, integrating beautifully into the whole book. What was the collaborative process like?
MTA: We would set ourselves an assignment for a part of the book -- "Ok, I'll get the elfin historian to the kingdom of the goblins. You pick it up from there, and do the scene where he's greeted by the goblin archivist." Then Eugene would draw sketches and I'd write something, and we'd trade. We'd massage everything so that it fit together ... or so that it didn't fit together.
The cool thing about working this way was that it meant the book took us in directions neither of us would have gone on our own.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
MTA: Well, I'm still a big fan of medieval literature, so I'm reading a medieval epic ("Sir Ysenbras") ... and I'm reading Edward Carey's wonderful novel about waxwork maven Madame Tussaud's bizarre life, Little ... So much great stuff out there to read!
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin. Candlewick Press. RRP: $24.99