First Draft, Ep. 86: Ransom Riggs
The original post for this episode can be found here.
Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft, with me, Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Ransom Riggs, New York Times best-selling author of MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN.
[ocean turning] [voice of Emma Bloom] Come with me. There’s a place I go when I want to be alone.
[“New World Coming” plays]
ENNI: The movie version of MISS PEREGRINE recently debuted as #1 in the box office. [water noises] [gasping]
[music] And it’s just around the bend [music fading slightly]
ENNI: Ransom Riggs is a surprising guy. He could be imposing–he’s tall and lean with piercing blue eyes, the author of a gothic-looking children’s book filled with spooky pictures–but, much like the MISS PEREGRINE series, he’s full of off-kilter charm. Ransom is soft-spoken, and a great listener, and has that special superpower of being able to put people at ease. In talking to him, I get the sense that Ransom is sometimes a surprise to himself. A movie-obsessed kid from Florida who ended up on the opposite coast, in an entirely different form of storytelling, almost accidentally falling into worldwide fame. Ransom is also extremely thoughtful, and unerringly kind, and getting a chance to sit down and talk to him about his wayward journey was such a delight. So, grab some popcorn and tickets to a later showing, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: Well, we’re jumping right in, but I do want to start with going super way back, which is where were you born and raised?
Ransom RIGGS: That’s two different answers. I was born on the eastern shore of Maryland, on a farm, like a 200-year-old farm that my family owned. And I moved when I was five to Florida.
ENNI: Why the move?
RIGGS: My father passed away when I was ten months old.
ENNI: I’m sorry.
RIGGS: That’s okay, I was young, it was a long time ago. It was a freak accident. And my grandmother, to whom my mom and I were super close, lived in Florida. And she, when I was like four, got into a car wreck, and my grandfather passed away, and she was down there alone and sort of recuperating and needed help. So we–my mom was not a farmer, my father was the sort of farm guy, but he was gone, so it just made sense for us to go down there and help her out. And they had a great school system, and it seemed like a great opportunity, so we moved down when I was five, and that’s where I grew up.
ENNI: Wow. So, it was a functioning farm?
RIGGS: Yeah, we raised corn, and soy, and before I was born there was a big dairy operation, and pigs, and all sorts of stuff.
RIGGS: So I grew up playing on combines and tractors and… You know, telling my mom that all I wanted in life was to grow up and be a farmer. And I think secretly she was sort of like, “We gotta get out of here.”
ENNI: [laughs] Like, “Uh oh.” That’s so interesting. That’s neat that you still have memories of the farm.
RIGGS: Very strong memories. It was a cool, cool place. The farmhouse–Bloomfield Farm House, where we grew up. I didn’t grow up in the house, but like, a mile away on the edge of the farm, and we spent so much time at that house, which was built in the 1700s, and had been added onto over the years, and had like, secret rooms, and it was… It had so much character.
ENNI: This is explaining a lot. [laughs] Let’s come back to this. And it has, yeah, all that history, and I lived in Maryland for a little bit, so I’m envisioning the eastern shore and that whole… The east coast is great for that, you’re walking with the past all the time.
RIGGS: Yeah, very unique people, very unique landscape. So different than Maryland on the other side of Chesapeake Bay. People had really heavy accents and really big personalities, and it was a very, you know, it had it’s own character in a way I really appreciate.
ENNI: And then Florida is also really unique, and you grew up close to the ocean, right?
RIGGS: Yeah, we grew up in a little town that was essentially a fishing village on the beach. So, yeah, I lived on the beach for maybe a year. We were renting a house, but I was never more than a mile away. I could always ride my bike, and I kind of grew up underwater.
ENNI: That’s awesome, that’s also… I’m trying to think about how to phrase this question. I love hearing where writers grow up because of that, what we were just talking about, specificity of place. That’s a really different upbringing than someone who was raised in Indiana, or in a suburb or whatever.
RIGGS: Specificity of place is really important to me. Place informs so much of who we are and how we live. I think less every day, as we become incased in our internet bubbles, to some degree. I mean, of course, living in LA, we can’t help but be affected by the LA-ness of everything, but… I feel like you are less tied to, and trapped with, the people and the place where you live, than we were when you and I were growing up.
ENNI: I would absolutely agree with that.
RIGGS: You had to find your tribe among the people where you lived, in your school, in your town, on your street, whatever. And now, I guess, luckily in many cases, if you are a total strange kid and with really unique interests, and you can’t find your tribe at your school, you can find them on the internet. That’s probably a good thing.
ENNI: I think in a lot of cases it’s a really good thing. Then there’s also the skill of having to like, go next door to the neighbor’s house and be like, “Well, let’s find something in common.” [laughs]
RIGGS: Yeah, I actually did that when I was a kid.
RIGGS: Yeah, because I went to a magnet school that was forty-five minutes away from my house, so I did not automatically know kids in my town. So you know, it was a very boring summer, and I was complaining that I was bored, and my mom said, “Well, go meet some neighbor kids!”
ENNI: How old are we talking?
RIGGS: Ten? Eleven? So, I went down the street to where I saw some kids playing and introduced myself, and we became friends for like, the rest of school.
ENNI: That’s awesome!
ENNI: And also, like, do you ever do this, where you look back on your younger self, or just kids in general, and think like, “That’s so brave.”
RIGGS: Yeah, I don’t think I would have the cojones to do that these days. And I’m so glad I did. I never would have known kids who trapped and froze alligator in their freezer unless I had done that.
ENNI: What?! How, growing up, were reading and writing were playing into growing up?
RIGGS: Huge, from the very beginning, really. As a result of my grandmother, Florence. [She] was a farmer’s daughter who became a farmer’s wife, but in the interim graduated from the University of Chicago at the top of her class and became a flaunted, feared, and beloved teacher at a great girl’s prep school on the east coast in Maryland, of Latin and French and English. And she was a lover of books, and a militant grammarian. And I think she felt a little alone in that, because, you know, most of her own kids did not have too much interest in books and reading and stuff. And people in town, not too much, so. My dad did, but he was super dyslexic.
RIGGS: Yes, so, she saved–you know, helped him as much as she could, and really taught him to read, but he always had that stumbling block, so when I came along she was like, “I’m gonna make you my ally.” And she and my mom really like, with the books and the reading all the time, we had a big library–
ENNI: Books all around.
RIGGS: –and they would always read to me, and my mom, you know, I grew up with my mom and we did not go to movies. I didn’t know about movies until I was older. So it was all about books. And I loved them, and I really wanted to be a writer from a really young age, and I was writing books and stories and then novellas from a very young age.
ENNI: Wow! Okay, so, so… I’d love to have you walk me through what were the kinds of books that you were most often reading and then what kinds of stories were you starting to write?
RIGGS: Well, when I was little, it was always, you know, kid books, which–I can only remember when I go back to my mom’s house and I’d find them all, these old yellow things, like YERTLE THE TURTLE and stuff, like, “Whoa! I remember YERTLE THE TURTLE, that’s cool!” But as I got older, I just really fell in love with stories about kids who found secret worlds, really, like THE SECRET GARDEN, and THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, and stuff like that. And as I got even older, you know, thirteen, fourteen, Stephen King. Who, you know, if you’ve never read Stephen King you probably think of him as just a guy who wrote books about serial killers, but that is not true. There was so much sci-fi/fantasy otherworldliness and discovery in there, and many of those stories are YA stories, about twelve and thirteen and fourteen-year-olds in his weird made-up town in Maine, that were discovering, you know, supernatural creatures or other lands, portals, or–crazy stuff, and it always took a dark turn. But I loved that! I totally loved that.
ENNI: He never shied away from that, which is funny, I think that’s a really good point, that a lot of his stories are, like, would be YA, or like, it’s a unique sort of sub-genre, where it’s a teen protagonist, but it’s not really YA. And I find that interesting, because those stories about teens have always existed, but when it’s Stephen King you’re like, “This isn’t necessarily for kids.”
RIGGS: At the time, I felt like books that were written for people my age were writing down to me, you know, thought I was stupid. So I avoided them. Stephen King was writing about–not always, but frequently–about people my age, but it was considered too old for me. Too dark! You know, kids died. And dads were drunks. And, you know, dark things happened. And I loved it. I felt like I was learning about the world. And I started to copy him, and I wrote a lot of, you know, fake Stephen King novellas when I was thirteen and fourteen. And they always included these really adult themes that I clearly knew nothing about. It’s really funny to go back and read it, you know, a story I wrote when I was fourteen where it’s sort of like, the protagonist is like a forty-year-old alcoholic, or something, and I like–I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.
ENNI: That’s pretty great, though! So, those were the kind of stories you started writing, like, dark and…
RIGGS: Well, when I was, you know, in elementary school, I was writing a lot of stories about like, sort of CHRONICLES OF NARNIA type stories, about you know, kids finding portals and other worlds and sci-fi-ish things.
ENNI: It’s funny to me that you’re not calling that fantasy.
RIGGS: It was totally fantasy, yeah. And yet, I never really liked the hard fantasy stuff. My friends at that age were all reading like, Dragonlance books and you know, the harder swords and sorcery stuff, and I could never quite get into that. I always loved stories where the fantasy came into our world. And where it felt like it was actually possible that a kid like me could go and discover this other world. I could just go to the right place, do the right thing, and it would happen, rather than you have to completely imagine yourself as someone else in a different world already.
ENNI: It’s really interesting to me, that you were always doing this, so writing and reading were sort of your first storytelling pull. Then how did movies and filmmaking, like, I’d love to hear you talk about when you started to fall in love with movies. Do you remember what the movies were that really drew you into that world?
RIGGS: Well, I found movies through video games, weirdly. In like the third grade, I got an Nintendo, and I just was captured by The Legend of Zelda, and all of that stuff, and there was a little video store that rented video games down the street from my house, that I could ride my bike to. So I would rent all of their video games and play all their games. And, you know, they didn’t get new stuff that often, so finally I would run out of games. I’d look around the store and be like, “Well, there’s movies. I guess I could watch some of those.” And, I don’t know–they were cool. My mom didn’t really care what I watched, so I could, you know, rent a rated-R movie here or there, and it wasn’t a big deal. So I was like, you know. What’s THE TERMINATOR? What’s THE SHINING? What’s ROSEMARY’S BABY? What’s all of this stuff that looks like a story that I would like to read in movie form?
ENNI: Is that how you were looking at it, browsing like, a bookstore and choosing based on the cover, or…?
RIGGS: Pretty much, because I didn’t know anything, I didn’t have a movie guide that was like, “This is a classic.” So I would just watch anything, like, FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH, oh, and these are crappy. So like, I sort of, untutored, formed my own taste, just based on what I watched at the video store. And eventually I just watched enough movies–I think it was THE SHINING, where I just watched that movie, and I was like, “Wow! Something is going on here that books cannot do.” Now, there’s plenty that books can do that movies can’t do, but I feel like I had never seen a movie that made me think “A book can’t do that” before I watched THE SHINING.
And I’d always been interested in visuals and pictures, and I had no artistic talent at all, like, I can’t even draw a straight line to this day. But I had a camera since I was a little kid, and I just thought, “It’s someone’s job to tell the camera what to look at, and tell the actors what to do, and to make this, and it’s so interesting, and I’d like to try that.” So I sort of started, you know, my friend had a half-broken video camera, and you know, that weekend I was like, “Let’s make a video!” And we started making these little narrative things that you had to edit in the camera, because nonlinear editing software didn’t exist. It was 1992. And so, you know, they got really into it, and I was always the one behind the camera. We would make it up as we went. And we actually have a pretty vast body of work, my six friends who made these videos with me and I, which no one will ever see. [laughs]
ENNI: That is really–okay, so much of that is interesting to me. The impulse to be the one behind the camera, I mean, did it ever occur to you guys that you might want to write down a script, or that wasn’t like a consideration?
RIGGS: We tried a couple times and it was always a disaster.
ENNI: You tried writing them and that was a mess?
RIGGS: We tried to write scripts a few times, and it always sort of lost its magic, like, it became too… formulaic, and it felt like labor. Where it was always more fun to kind of improvise, and just make up a couple of shots. “Oh, let’s–okay, you know, this is about a guy who can’t die. So he wakes up, he finds out he can’t die, what does he do then?” And then we’d figure out what he did then next.
So we’d figured out sort of a beat at a time, or like an act at a time–they were never more than five minutes. And, actually, that is still the way I write books. I will sit around and try and figure out a whole plot, as best I can, and come up with a lot of ideas. “That might be cool, that might be cool, okay, it could generally have this arc, I think I want it to end here.” But I can never get all the specifics of a three act structure of a book in my head to the degree that I–it never comes out nearly as well as just the ideas that come as I’m writing, the little gifts that drop into your lap after you’ve already written a couple of scenes. You have some hard specifics down on the page, you’ve got something to work with.
ENNI: Yeah, do you think that’s because–I’ve been thinking about this recently–might that be because, then you have some character to work with?
ENNI: I think it’s, when you’re a character-driven writer, just starting with plot is a little bit useless, almost. You kind of just have to get the wheels turning, and then the magic can happen.
RIGGS: Yeah, I think of myself as a plot-driven writer, but I’m really not, because I can’t start writing until the characters start talking. So it’s that I want the story to do as much as it can, I want it to go all the most interesting places it possibly can. I feel like, given a certain set of circumstances and characters in a given world that you’ve created, you can make a boring story, or you can make a really interesting one. And there’s like–every story has a certain amount of like, kinetic energy. Like, potential energy. Sorry, I’m getting my science terms wrong. It can go to the moon and back if you can figure out how to take it there, and if I don’t spend real time before I start writing thinking about all of the different many things that could happen, and all of the places the story could go, I feel like it’s not going to go far enough. And at the end of the day, when I finish the book, I’m gonna go, “It could have been more interesting–what if this had happened?” I want to surprise myself, and I want to feel like the story has used all of the gasoline that it had, when it finally ends.
ENNI: I love that you and your friends, a group of people kind of improvising together, making stories together.
RIGGS: So I got off-track with the movie stuff.
ENNI: Yeah, well, not off-track, but.
RIGGS: I grew up wanting nothing more than to grow up and be a novelist and write books, and then I discovered movies, and I kind of just… I put it to the side for a couple years. I thought, “Oh my god, movies is what I want to do, I can write and make pictures at the same time and put them together, and it’s so exciting.” Use all of the skills that I’d been practicing as a writer and use these new skills too. And I just got obsessed with movies, and you know, sort of put myself through a fake film school, bought a lot of books and, you know, read a lot and watched a lot and what little my town had to offer of in terms of, you know, avant-garde cinema. This is before the internet really, before you could watch anything you wanted on Hulu or YouTube. The best video store was called Renaissance Video up in in Sarasota, which was a really long drive to like return a movie two days later when you have to drive an hour each way. And then it’s due two days from now or you’re gonna owe another three dollars. So if you wanted to see the work of Wim Wenders or something, you had to go pretty far away. And there were no, like, art movie theaters–but somehow I did it. I watched a lot of things and I developed certain tastes. I always wanted to go to film school, but I knew that I wanted to study literature too, because that was always my first love, and I grew up loving books, and I knew there was so much more out there that I wanted to learn, so I did that, I set out a path for myself, and I just did exactly that. I went to Kenyon College for undergrad English literature, and then I went to USC film school for a graduate degree in film. And then the next step was supposed to be “become a movie director,” but that didn’t really happen. Instead, I became a novelist, which, knowing what I know about the movie industry right now, I’m super happy about. Also, knowing what I know about the book industry.
RIGGS: It’s wonderful! So, but I ended up writing a book with pictures in it, and sort of telling a story with the sort of aid of pictures anyway, so all of that schooling maybe wasn’t a total waste.
ENNI: [laughs] Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t, I’m positive it wasn’t. But I do–I love that you kind of had this map and followed it, but when, along the way–well, I’m interested in, you’re studying literature but you know you still want to go to film school, when did you start to experiment with screenwriting and what kind of stories were you honing in on that you wanted to try to tell with your movies?
RIGGS: I put off screenwriting for as long as possible.
ENNI: Why, do you think?
RIGGS: Because it’s hard! And it’s not very fun, sorry. Writing books is so much more fun than writing screenplays. And in school I mean–I’d always rather go out and film something and make something, and you know, solve the problems of where do you put the camera and what do you tell the actor to do and what happens next than like, sit down in a room and write a screenplay. Which always felt like work, in this way that writing books did not. And so I did not follow the advice that they told us every year in film school, which was, “Graduate with a feature screenplay,” and a thesis film–a short, a polished short film. So I graduated with a polished short film, and no screenplay. Yeah, so, I put it off as long as possible, and then I was like, “Oh, okay, nothing’s–” you know, “I’m not getting a three-picture deal from my ten minute short, so I definitely need a–” and I realized that like, in Hollywood–at least at the time–there were a lot of slick-looking short films out there, and so the competition was pretty thick, and mine was not the slickest and most impressive, and it wasn’t going to cut through the competition. But there were a lot of terrible screenplays out there, and good screenplays were hard to find. So if I could write a good one, that would get me noticed a lot faster, and I was like, “Damn, I wish I had realized this years ago,” and just like all of the professors told us, written this feature screenplay. But I think I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t know enough about filmmaking, and I hadn’t figured out what I liked. I hadn’t sort of found my voice as a filmmaker, I was struggling. And the thesis film I made was about a kid who thinks he’s an alien, and because he’s such a reject at school, he feels so different, and then it turns out he actually might be, and maybe the aliens are gonna come back for him.
RIGGS: Then he meets a girl, and he’s sort of caught between two worlds, you know. So it was–but it wasn’t very good, I didn’t make it–I tried to do too much in too short a space. Which is the problem of like 99 percent of thesis films, when you try to pack a feature into a ten minute box, and it just kind of breaks it. But then I took a year and a half to write a screenplay with a college friend of mine, and it was a lot of fun, and it was a–very pointedly something that could be made for not a lot of money. It was a supernatural thriller about a girl who has a connection to sort of a demon, and she’s at this college, and there’s a lot of–I don’t know, RING-type stuff that happens, and a lot of cool visuals, and it was a lot of fun to write! And that worked. That got me a manager, and then an agent, and dozens of meetings in short order. But ultimately nothing in terms of–like, nobody bought it. It got me in the door, it got people interested, and then they said, “What else have you got?” and I was like, “Nothing, this took me a year and a half. My drawer is empty.”
ENNI: And also, did you want to keep writing with someone?
RIGGS: Well, we wrote the story together, I wrote the screenplay, so I was like–I needed the help, I needed a friend with really great instincts who–he and I spoke the same language, who I could trust and work with, and we could bounce a million ideas off of. Just a sort of crutch because I was so intimidated by the idea of writing a real thing. Like a full-length piece of any kind, I’d never written a full novel, I’d never written a full screenplay, and I think I doubted my own ability, really. So he was great, he was so patient, we worked and worked and worked, and when it came to writing the actual screenplay, I went off and wrote, and I would just send him scenes, and he would be like, “Awesome!” Which was great to have someone just be like, “This is great!” It was really helpful. But after I did that, I was like, “Oh, I can do this on my own.” I just needed a little confidence boost, and, um…
ENNI: The first time that you reach the end of something is a pretty big deal.
RIGGS: It’s a big deal to be like, “Oh, I finished this. And I wrote this all on my own. This was great.”
ENNI: And “I can do it.” I think–it’s very interesting to me that you got into USC film school, and went through the whole program, and you have so much experience doing all this stuff, but you still felt insecure about being able to do it.
RIGGS: It’s funny, too, because I did not get into three other film schools–
ENNI: But you got into the best one. [laughs]
RIGGS: But I got into the hardest one, because that was the only one that did not want to see any films I had made. They just wanted a writing sample. Which should have told me something–the film schools to which I applied that needed a sample of my filmmaking did NOT want me, the one that just wanted my writing was like, “Great!” And I didn’t even–they didn’t even interview me. They were just like, “You’re in!” Okay, so that should have told me something right there.
I think I was forcing myself into a box, where I was like, “I’m going to be a writer-director!” And even though I have other skills like, this is the one thing I’m going to do, and it was a really small bullseye, and I was ignoring all of these other signs that there was another path, something else that was wonderful and so satisfying and fun, like all through film school. I mean, from college on, I was making money writing. I worked for my hometown newspaper, and then during college I was a daily blogger, and I wrote for magazines and, you know, I was making money with my writing. And then when film school ended, the magazine writing and the blogging led to a job writing a nonfiction work for hire, for Quirk Books, about Sherlock Holmes. And I was, at the same time, writing a screenplay, but I was like, “This pays money–not a lot, but it’s money! And at the end of it, I’ll have a book with my name on it, that’s pretty cool! Even though I’ll never need that, that’ll never help me, that’s not really what I want to do, that’d be neat."
And, you know, I think something that’s important when you don’t quite have your career in full gear yet, and you’re trying to be an artist, you’re trying to do something creative–or even when you’re not–is to say "yes” to as many things as you can. And, you know, keep a lot of balls in the air. Say “yes” to a lot of things until you can afford to say “no.” And that’s kind of what I did. If I had just shut off all these other possibilities and said, “No, I’m only going to try and write screenplays,” I think I would have missed out completely on writing books.
ENNI: Yeah, I think that’s been, over the last couple years in particular, I’ve seen that be really true, where some people say “no” to things because they seem intimidating, but especially when it’s someone coming to you saying, “I have this cool idea, can you help?” Well then, if you think it’s cool too, like, do it. Like, help however you can–be a part of it.
RIGGS: And I was putting so much pressure on myself to be successful in film, and absolutely none in books. So, I could just sort of be free, and creative, and unlock, you know, my whatever in most ideas when it came to writing books, because I was not stressed about the outcome. I was just having fun.
ENNI: So, I would like to talk about MISS PEREGRINE and how it came about in the context of, I think it’s really interesting that you’re working from pictures, and sort of found objects, and creating a story with that. [It] struck me a little bit as sort of documentary filmmaking, almost, in a way–and journalism, in a way, taking something that exists, and then creating a narrative based on that.
RIGGS: Definitely, sure, well–I think when it came to MISS PEREGRINE, I had for years, been trying to tell the same story, which was the story of a kid who discovers a portal to another world inside of his own world. It’s the story I had been writing since I was six, and first put pen to paper. And when I discovered, found photographs, I think I found another way into telling that story. Every sort of orphaned photograph is a little mystery that I find really compelling: who is this person, why are they doing what they’re doing in the picture, what’s their story? And I always just gravitated toward the strange ones, the sort of Edward Gorey-esque, Tim Burton-esque ones. And… They just seemed like they came from another world. But a world that was adjacent to ours, not an alien world, it was next door. If you could find a way to get there, you could go hang out with them. So I used those photographs as just another way to tell the same story that I’d been wanting to tell since I was a kid, or trying to tell in various ways. So it went there, and they just sort of helped me as a prompt. The birth of the book was interesting, because I was already working with Quirk. I’d done THE SHERLOCK HOLMES HANDBOOK with them, and they were happy with that. I was happy to have a book out, they did a great job designing it.
ENNI: It’s beautiful.
RIGGS: It’s beautiful, it looks like something from my grandfather’s bookshelf. So the door was kind of open. I had a good relationship with my editor, Jason, and you know, it was like, “Well, we should do something else! I don’t know what it is.” And so I had these photos, and I had sort of an idea for a story, but Quirk did not publish novels. And I did not write novels–yet. And so I came in kind of tentatively and I said, “Well, what if it’s like a–” you know, I was a big fan of Edward Gorey. And he writes these books of–sort of twisted poems, rhyming couplets that are sort of a little bit devilish.
ENNI: And illustrative.
RIGGS: And about strange children in Victorian times, and I was like, “Well, this could be like an Edward Gorey book with photographs,” so I’ll write poems like Edward Gorey, and illustrate them with these pictures I found. And then that became, “Well, what if the poems are all narratively linked somehow.” Okay, yes, a story–a narratively-linked book of poems, illustrated with photographs. And then it just became obvious that the story I was cooking up was bigger than, you know, twelve poems. And it all just kind of came to me in a rush. And when I realized “I can write a novel,” it unlocked something in my head, and overnight, I came up with the title, MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN–seriously, it just came to me as I was walking down the street. All at once. And then I realized, in the space of about 24 hours, all of the basics of the story came to me.
ENNI: That’s wild.
RIGGS: Yeah, pretty crazy. I was looking back through my old e-mails with my editor, and it went from, “Okay, I guess they’re poems, there’s maybe an orphanage,” to the next e-mail was, “Okay, it’s called MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, there’s a mysterious foggy island off the coast of Wales” and I’m just like, “Boom!” It all just came in a rush. So the photos were kind of a prompt, they helped me get there, but they weren’t like, the core of the story or anything.
ENNI: And was that scary?
RIGGS: No, it was awesome! Wait, what was–what was scary?
ENNI: Well, that you had–that you all of the sudden were looking at the real, full, big, long thing to do, and also, it became three books! I mean, that’s like a journey.
RIGGS: Well, I didn’t know it was going to be three books until the end of the second book. [laughs] When I was writing the first book, I figured it was just going to be one book, and that I would write this one book, and then go back to writing screenplays that no one wanted to buy.
ENNI: Right, and that was going to be part of my question: it seems like it wasn’t scary, and possibly in part because you were still–you still weren’t putting pressure on yourself to do it.
RIGGS: Yeah, exactly. This just seemed like a fun side project. And it just took more and more of my enthusiasm, you know, it became a thing, “Oh, I’ll just do this in a couple of months,” and then the more story I came up with, the more excited I got about it, and I was like, “This could be really cool!” Nobody’s going to read it, so there’s super no pressure here. You know, but I know Quirk is going to do a beautiful job packaging and designing it, so it could be something to be proud of. And maybe my grandchildren will read it one day. And that was sort of it, you know, I had no expectations for the book to be commercially successful at all. I just thought, “I’ll make a pretty thing that’s kind of fun, and maybe it’ll help my film career somehow.” I don’t know.
ENNI: That is–that’s really, really neat. And it’s sort of incredible that you had the space to do that, to just go with something for the sake of loving it. I think when you hear about stories that start that way, you can often read it in the pages, like, there’s a lot of love and just… joy, in stuff like that.
RIGGS: It was total joy. It was no pressure, and suddenly, after having been locked in the screenwriting box for years, I was like, “I can write a story that I don’t have to think about how much it costs to film this scene! And I can go inside the character’s head!” You know, all of the constraints and shackles and handcuffs that come along with writing a screenplay–which can actually be like, really creatively stimulating, when you put limitations–were gone. And it was really freeing and fun.
ENNI: Yeah, but I’d love to hear–your experience with MISS PEREGRINE is unusual. Not everybody gets to create something that then becomes a big deal. When did it hit you that it was becoming a big deal?
RIGGS: It took a while, because it’s growth was really slow, and sort of organic. It was very like, word of mouth. I mean, it debuted on the best-seller list, like, near the bottom, and kind of hovered there for a while, and I don’t know–it got some good buzz from bloggers and stuff. But, you know, its sales were kind of modest and I just figured people would stop talking about it and then they would talk about something else. At the same time, I saw the success of other books with big publishers that had big marketing budgets, and I saw like, what a splash you can make and suddenly take over the world and suddenly everyone’s talking about it.
For the first three years, like, 99 percent of people who asked me what I did for a living and what book I had written, I would tell them, and they’d be like, "I’ve never heard of that.” And most people on the internet had never heard of it, and it was, you know, there was this sort of a small, core group of fans who just grew slowly but steadily over the course of like, five years. And it kind of hung on like a bad cold. I figured that interest would wane, and it would just fade into the night like a lot of books do, but that never happened, and I can’t really explain why.
ENNI: Well, I think it’s a really beautiful thing to think about, because that means that a lot of people finished that book, and then went to go see a friend and were like, “You have to go read this book.” And that’s, as people who grew up reading and loving books, that’s like, “Whoa!” That’s the best feeling, when you’re like, “Okay, now I have to tell everyone else, that I found this great thing.” And the fact that the book grew like that, that’s really cool. It’s also neat that you didn’t have to change anything overnight. Because sudden, intense success can be… Scary.
RIGGS: Right, I’ve had five years to get used to the fact that some people have read my book. It still, weirdly, doesn’t seem like a super big deal to me, even though I guess that, in some ways it is, and when the movie comes out, that’ll be another level that I haven’t experienced. And even though it’s only eight weeks away or something, it still isn’t quite here. And I still can’t quite anticipate what that will be like.
ENNI: Are you nervous?
RIGGS: Not really! I’m sort of excited, mostly because I love the movie. I’ve seen it, it’s beautiful, I’m so proud of it. I mean, I didn’t make it, but I had something to do with it. It’s gorgeous. So it kind of came full circle–I wanted to make films, I ended up writing these books, they became a film that I think is really awesome by a filmmaker I’ve loved since I was fifteen, so.
ENNI: That’s pretty cool.
RIGGS: I’m a lucky guy.
ENNI: And you didn’t have to write the screenplay or anything.
RIGGS: No, I didn’t have to write the screenplay! It was great.
ENNI: I definitely want to talk about TALES OF THE PECULIAR and then maybe we can ask just a little bit about the film stuff. Do you want to give just a little pitch for what TALES is?
RIGGS: Yeah, it’s not straightforward or obvious, it’s very weird, actually. Which is pretty normal for me. So, TALES OF THE PECULIAR is a fictional book that exists within the world of the novels, specifically in books two and three. It’s a huge tome of peculiar fairytales that are beloved by all of the peculiar children and practically memorized by heart. And they contain secret knowledge that’s sort of encoded in there, that becomes really useful to the kids on their adventures. And I wrote a story or two of the tales in book two, HOLLOW CITY, and I had so much fun writing that, that I was like, “When I’m done with this story arc, it would be really fun to write more of these, and maybe I can do that one day.” And, you know, it took me years to finish the next two books, and I sort of forgot about it, but when I was finished with LIBRARY OF SOULS, it was like, “Oh, now I can do that! That would be really fun, to make that a real thing.” So it is a book of fairytales set in the peculiar world. It’s not a direct sequel to the books, but it opens up the world of the peculiars and sort of a history of some things and, you know, you get to see the breadth of different societies.
ENNI: They’re described as fairytales, but what does that mean to you? What makes it a fairytale?
RIGGS: Well, it doesn’t mean that there’s fairies in it–it’s a certain mode of storytelling that feels very stripped down and basic, and you just have the core elements of storytelling. It’s not necessarily a lot of time spent on characterization or deep character motivation, and a lot of stuff happens. There’s a lot of big emotional beats in a short amount of time, and you get a lot of world, which is all stuff I love, so it felt like dipping myself back into the basics of stories and what I love about stories.
ENNI: And that’s what fairytales sort of serve as, fairytales and myths are sort of these building blocks. That’s why we’re retelling them endlessly, they’re a little bit of the DNA structures of a lot of stories, I think.
RIGGS: Yeah, I think the good ones tap into sort of the moral and emotional core of what it is to be human.
ENNI: How did you enjoy writing that kind of story?
RIGGS: I really needed a shift–I needed a little break from the, you know, breathless peril that was the second two novels especially. The pace of those books is just frenetic, there’s so much going on, and so much danger and, you know, it was really nice to sort of take a step back and take a breath and approach it from sort of a godlike third person narrator perspective.
ENNI: And short.
RIGGS: And short! In, out, and, you know, it doesn’t have to connect to any other story, so you can make a lot of crazy things happen in a short amount of time, and you never have to deal with the consequences. You just say, “The end!” They all lived happily never after. That’s it.
ENNI: Were any of them–did you finish any of the short stories and think, “Uh oh.” Like, that you wanted to expand them?
RIGGS: I definitely had thought there’s more there that I could go back to that, maybe, but–no I would just end it and think, “Ooh, I want to write another one.”
ENNI: That’s so cool.
RIGGS: So it was a really fun book to write, it was the most fun I’ve had writing in a long time, and they came very quickly. Very easily, which is always a good sign for me.
ENNI: The other thing that I thought was so great about it is the, and you mentioned this earlier with Stephen King and his–it’s so crazy, but it’s all connected. He’s so purposeful in making all of his books in the same town, and when you become a Stephen King fan, it’s like saying that you’re a fan of this other world that you can be a part of, and it’s very thoughtfully put together. So it’s neat, that with this you get to help build that, and it’s myth-making of this other world that you created, and releasing it on Loop Day–I love how you’re building out for fans and for yourself like, all of this world.
RIGGS: Yeah, it’s really fun making a world, and I think that’s something I always loved doing, you know, when I was a kid. I loved reading books that were set in a world that other books had been written in and just feeling like the edges of that world go beyond your horizon. You can keep walking and there’s more and there’s more and there’s more.
ENNI: It’s the kind of thing, I think, that pulls fans in and readers in, in this other way, like, I think that’s–when there’s hints of that, in books, is what makes even me like, “Ooh, I could write fan fiction about this.” Like that’s what makes HARRY POTTER so rich, right, is people are like, “Well, I’m going to tell this other story, in this other part,” because we know so much about it.
RIGGS: You don’t have to lay the whole thing out–you don’t have to explore every detail, but just the hints that there’s more there, are so juicy and wonderful. And sort of better.
ENNI: I love–yeah. That’s really fun, and struck me–yeah, I wrote, “that is fucking rad.” [laughs]
RIGGS: Thank you!
ENNI: Makes me happy like, that’s the kind of stuff that just–as a kid, I was like, what makes you not give up on books. Perfect. Can you give advice, super quick writing advice, and we’ll be done?
RIGGS: My writing advice is so hackneyed, because it’s just true, which is: Keep going. Don’t stop. Try and do it every day. If you don’t do it every day, don’t freak out. That’s okay. And for me, I have always needed tons of input to make output–reading, watching movies, you know. And reading very widely, don’t just read the genre that you’re writing in. Read nonfiction, read fiction, read poetry, read everything. And don’t judge your process too much. I think you can get really hung up reading things about how it’s supposed to–how you’re supposed to write something. And how every step is supposed to go, you know, Syd Field’s manual of screenwriting really messed me up, because I was like, “But my process is different! That must mean I’m doing it wrong.” Everyone’s process is different, and if you judge your process too much, and overthink it, you will give yourself writer’s block. I think that just comes from judging your own writing too harshly, and giving too much voice to that inner critic.
ENNI: Yeah, it’s true. Well, thank you so much, this was so fun!
RIGGS: Yeah, really fun!
[closing music plays]
ENNI: Thank you so much to Ransom. Follow him @RansomRiggs, and follow the show @FirstDraftPod and me @SarahEnni. You can also check out the show on Instagram and Facebook, but for show notes with links to everything Ransom and I talked about, as well as a searchable archive of the more than 70 previous episodes of this here show, check out www.firstdraftpod.com.
Some exciting news this week: Veronica Roth announced the tour for her upcoming book, CARVE THE MARK, in January and February 2017. There’s quite a few stops, and it’s an international tour–it will be hitting a lot of US and Canadian cities, and I will actually be joining Veronica as the emcee for those events. We’re also going to have another in-depth interview with Veronica about her new series, and we will be releasing updates from the road as we go on that tour, so it’s going to be fun, kind of a little experiment, something different for the podcast, that I hope you guys can enjoy. And keep an eye on firstdraftpod.com and the Twitters to get more updates about the tour as we get closer to January. It’s really exciting; I hope you guys enjoy it.
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Thanks to Hashbrown for the theme song, and to Colin Keith and Maurene Goo for the logos. Thanks so much to super intern Sarah DeMont, who keeps the lights on and the ship afloat. And, as ever, thanks to all you peculiar people, for listening.