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M.T. Anderson, Eugene Yelchin come to BookPeople with story of goblin, elf culture clash

Sharyn Vane Special to the American-Statesman
"The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge"

Werfel the Archivist has it all figured out.

The goblin historian has been tapped as host to Magister Brangwain Spurge, a scholar and emissary for the elfin kingdom. Hospitality is very important to goblins, and surely, Werfel thinks, Spurge will want to experience life as goblins do. There will be the teasing central to friendly goblin discourse, a look at the previously shed skins that each goblin keeps at home as a kind of diary, and, of course, a wonderful banquet at the du Burge mansion, complete with the family dressed in their best attempts at elfin clothes to honor their guest.

Spurge, alas, sees things differently.

He is horrified at the cruel language. He recoils from the skins. And he feels mocked by the goblins in their costumes, safety-pinned to fit their outsize bodies.

“The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge” (Candlewick Press, $24.99) hinges on the often comically differing worldviews of these two representatives of their kingdoms. Alternating between prose from author M.T. Anderson and multipage illustrations from Eugene Yelchin, “Spurge” — a finalist this year for the National Book Award — shows how the same event often feels very different depending on perspective.

Rendering this tale of opposites was central to the project from its inception, Anderson and Yelchin explained in a joint phone interview. The pair will be at BookPeople on Monday.

“I began to think (about) … how illustrations are always illuminating the written language,” Yelchin says. “It occurred to me that it was interesting to do quite the opposite: The pictures would obscure the language. They would be at war with each other.”

So Yelchin depicts the reports Spurge magically sends back to the Dwelholm government as full of fearsome images — and completely at odds with Werfel’s intentions.

Anderson details the beauties of the goblin world through Werfel’s eyes, from children jumping between rooftops trying to catch lightning bolts with metal wands to the traditional mother-daughter Flower Day Parade: “Whenever the plants threw the dancers up into the air or kissed a woman with sloppy affection, the elf flinched as though her head were being bitten off. … He did not take any interest in the discarded skins of famous goblin heroes and actors, despite all of the interesting dioramas.”

“I was a huge fantasy nerd as a teen,” says Anderson, whose “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume 1: The Pox Party” won the National Book Award in 2006. “At first I thought, ‘Elves and goblins? The whole high fantasy thing has been done so much.’

“But then for both of us, it was perfect to have something where everybody thinks they know the story. You watch things like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and goblins are the cannon fodder, the redshirts — they march out and get destroyed. They have no world, no culture of their own or anything else.

“Meanwhile, the elves are beautiful! They’re good! They’re strumming on their … lyres!”

Anderson experienced disconnects similar to those of “Spurge's” characters as a student living overseas. Yelchin, author and illustrator of the 2012 Newbery Honor book “Breaking Stalin’s Nose,” experienced even more as an immigrant to the United States from the then-Soviet Union. And both share a love of Cold War spy fiction that informs the political intrigue in “Spurge.”

“We didn't plan for it to be a spy story as much as it turned out to be,” Anderson says. “The fact that it now has so much of the double-crossing stuff going on is a result of the back and forth” in the book’s creation, with Anderson and Yelchin each sending work to the other as the book’s plot evolved.

And while there may be parallels to the often-charged political discourse of today, that was never their goal. Both students of history, the pair sought to reflect how for centuries people (and their governments) have misunderstood each other.

“A good piece of art tends to predict what is coming culturally,” Yelchin says. “We had to write it, we had to draw it, it takes a long time. Then when the book finally appears, it feels incredibly timely.”

'The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge' reading and signing

With authors M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd.

Cost: Free, but you must buy the book at the store in order to get it signed

Information: 512-472-5050, bookpeople.com/event