Author Interview: M.T. Anderson on Whales On Stilts

Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson (Harcourt, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Lucky for Lily Gefelty, her two best friends are the stars of their own middle-grade series of novels: Jasper Dash (better known as the Boy Technonaut) and Katie Mulligan (beloved by millions as the heroine of the Horror Hollow series). It’s going to take all their smarts to stop this insane, inane plot from succeeding. This first installment of a riotous and wonderfully weird new series marks the Harcourt debut of award-winning author M. T. Anderson. With Whales on Stilts, he’s entering new territory, creating a smart, sassy, and self-aware comedy that fans of Lemony Snicket will snicker and snort over.” Read an excerpt.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Michael Stearns, then working at Harcourt, came up to Vermont College to lecture. It was the summer. The air was golden with pollen. The trees were green. I had hay-fever. We sat around and talked about how there was a particular kind of book we had read as boys in the summer: books with a sense of freedom and release. Books where there were hijinx, adventures, playfulness, and a very thin line between reality and fantasy.

Shortly after the residency finished at Vermont, I went up to a cabin in Canada to recooperate. I found myself wanting to write a book of the kind we had discussed — something that expressed pure joy in the act of creation and friendship. I wrote the book very quickly, in a burst of enthusiasm between kayaking sessions and washing the dishes in the lake (because there was, for some reason, no running water in the cabin). It provided a very welcome break in my work on a historical novel that has gone grindingly slowly and which still is not finished.

In a neat little postscript, Whales on Stilts was mentioned on NPR in a list of summer reads — in the company of many of the books which Michael and I had specifically discussed years before!

So there it is. Whales on Stilts ain’t great literature — in fact, it’s basically puerile — but I hope its puerility is its charm.

I hope.

What was the timeline between spark and publication and what were the major events along the way?

As I mentioned, I wrote the book very quickly (for me) in the summer of 2002. It has just been released in the spring of 2005, three years later. Therein lies a tale not worth telling.

Actually, come to think of it, there is one portion of the process worth mentioning. I wrote the book right after hearing Marion Dane Bauer and Norma Fox Mazer talk about the traditional plot structure–which they said in its most formulaic incarnation meant, for example, a problem, a protagonist, and three attempts to solve that problem–with the problem getting more acute in each instance–and the last attempt to solve the problem being the most spectacularly successful or unsuccessful.

This is, of course, only a formula…but I liked the idea of using a die-cut, pre-fab design. After all, I had envisioned three main heroes, one of whom (Lily) was kind of the center of the novel… So it made sense, then, to give each of the heroes a chance to solve the problem of the novel, culminating in Lily’s plan to bring all of them together to finaly defeat the cetacean menace.

I always enjoy writing line-by-line–creating character and detail. What stumps me are plots. So having a pre-arranged structure to work around made writing the book much easier.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

I spent a great deal of time in a bathyscape, of course, doing research, and taped hours of interviews with dolorous, even bitter, whale/human hybrids.

That’s right, Cynthia, no lame-ass I, for I have probably miles of reel-to-reel tape sagging half-unspooled around my little office next to my careful diagrams of mechanized stilts and a full set of flensing tools. I hope that my extensive research doesn’t show, though, but just fits in seamlessly with the story.

My neighbors complained a lot about the blubber-rendering, which, in the warmer months — it must be admitted — was accompanied by heavy smoke, sticky ichor, and something of a pinguid pong.

Better, though, than those who render fats in the Antarctic seas, who often are accompanied by a pinguid penguin pong.

Frankly, I can’t stand rendering fats in the cold of the Antarctic. That intense chill just makes me want to return to my sleigh and flee to someplace warm, like the jungles of Thailand — a pung-ward pang, or even, I suppose, a pung-ward, Ping-ward pang.

As you can see, if there are any psychological challenges to writing, I am clearly not up to them.

Cynsational Notes

Michael Stearns is now working at HarperCollins; M.T. Anderson is the former department chair of the M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College.

Cynsational News & Links

Author Profile: Norma Fox Mazer from August 2000.

Excerpt: Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson from NPR. “Hear author M.T. Anderson read from Whales on Stilts.”

Life-and-death competition in an enchanted world: interview by Heidi Henneman from BookPage with M.T. Anderson about his book, The Game of Sunken Places (Scholastic).

Marion Dane Bauer: Teacher Resource File from the Internet School Library Media Center.