by Maria Russo)
SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Growing up in Florida, the writer Ransom Riggs was often taken by his grandmother to swap meets and secondhand shops. “It was pretty torturous for an 11- or 12-year-old boy,” Mr. Riggs said recently, “but I would find these boxes of old snapshots.”
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One picture — it reminded him of a girl he’d had a crush on at camp — had such an effect on him that he bought it and put it by his bed. “Years later, I took it out and looked on the back,” he recalled, “and it said that she had died at age 15 of leukemia. I thought, oh, wow, I’ve been living with a ghost.”
Mr. Riggs’s attraction to haunting photographs eventually became the catalyst for his first novel, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” (2011), a surprise best seller, whose plot was inspired by the dozens of vintage snapshots featured in its pages, which add to its uncanny atmosphere. With the film rights to “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” sold to 20th Century Fox (Chernin Entertainment is aiming for a summer 2015 release), and “Hollow City,” the second book in a planned “Miss Peregrine” trilogy, to be published in January, Mr. Riggs is beginning to feel at home in a career he calls “accidental.”
It was in 2009 that Mr. Riggs, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, stumbled on a trove of vintage snapshots at a flea market and felt the stirrings of an obsession.
“I realized I can find these amazing little lost pieces of art and be my own curator and rescue them from the garbage,” he said, “and they’re a quarter each.” Long a connoisseur of abandoned houses and mysteriously desolate landscapes, Mr. Riggs said he was drawn to odd or disturbing photos that suggested lost back stories.
On a sunny morning at his carefully renovated Spanish-style home here, Mr. Riggs, 34, who is tall and lanky with a manner both gentlemanly and unpretentious, flipped through his neatly organized boxes of snapshots, explaining why he chose some of his favorites. “The look on her face,” he said, pointing to a photograph of a woman sitting stiffly on the lap of a Nazi soldier. “That’s what it’s all about.”
While his snapshot collection grew, Mr. Riggs was training his sights on a filmmaking career, working on spec screenplays and supporting himself with freelance writing. Jason Rekulak, the publisher of Quirk Books in Philadelphia, for whom Mr. Riggs had been doing work for hire, asked him if he had any books he wanted to write. Mr. Riggs said he thought of the snapshots, particularly those with an “Edward Gorey-like Victorian weirdness, these haunting images of peculiar children.”
Mr. Riggs’s idea was to do a Halloween book of photos accompanied by rhyming couplets. It was Mr. Rekulak who suggested that the eerie pictures of the children might lend themselves to a novel.
Told from the point of view of Jacob Portman, a lonely 16-year-old Floridian who suspects that his grandfather’s tales of growing up on an island off Wales in a home full of children with unusual abilities may not have been invented, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” incorporates time travel and a richly imagined alternate reality. Some of the black-and-white snapshots that pepper its pages are Mr. Riggs’s own; some are borrowed from collectors like Robert E. Jackson, whose pictures were exhibited in “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888-1978,” a 2007 show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
“Miss Peregrine” was not conceived or composed with a young-adult audience in mind, but its central premise — about people who are “peculiar” in various ways and must struggle not only to survive, but also to save the clueless rest of humanity from violent evildoers — is certainly adolescent-friendly.
Mr. Rekulak said Quirk’s sales department told him, “You could sell it as an adult book, but you could also sell it in Y.A,” referring to young adult. Because the hero was 16, and his “voice had an earnest quality,” Mr. Rekulak said, “we opted to put it in Y.A.”
The book, though, was hard to market to bookstores as a young-adult title, Mr. Rekulak said, because of the vintage photographs and the black-and-white cover. Quirk took to the Internet, including posting a video trailer made by Mr. Riggs. “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” made its debut at No. 7 on the New York Times best-seller list, and has sold 1.5 million copies in all formats.
“The creepy factor of the photos was obviously appealing to many adults and teens,” said Leslie Hawkins, owner of Spellbound Children’s Bookshop in Asheville, N.C., where, she said, members of a book group for adults who read young-adult material had enjoyed “Miss Peregrine.”
“Hollow City,” which has a planned 250,000-copy first printing, follows Jacob and his peculiar companions as they make their way through World War II-era London, having left their protector Miss Peregrine’s house under terrifying circumstances.
“They have to find themselves as individuals,” Mr. Riggs said, “and negotiate their power structure and ask who’s the leader, now that Miss Peregrine is not there, and deal with all these external stressors that they haven’t had to face.”
In the months after “Miss Peregrine” was released, Mr. Riggs, who said he had never even read the Harry Potter series, met and was befriended by several established young-adult authors, including Kami Garcia and Melissa de la Cruz.
“I didn’t really know anything about their world, but they were all so incredibly welcoming and generous to me,” he said. Going through a divorce at the time, he struck up a friendship with Tahereh Mafi, author of the best-selling young-adult paranormal romance series Shatter Me, who had also recently ended a marriage. In September, Mr. Riggs married Ms. Mafi, 26.
The two have become something of a golden couple on the young-adult literary scene, with fans lining up to meet them at events and rushing to post their words on Twitter when either shares details of their life together on Twitter. They work side by side at a long desk, with an espresso machine on a nearby countertop and shelves filled with copies of their books in several languages.
When he wrote “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” Mr. Riggs began with the photos and created a story that would make sense of them, but for “Hollow City,” he had to revise his process. “The plot had its own momentum this time,” he said. “I’d know that something had to happen, and I’d have to find a photo to fit it.” Only in later drafts, he said, could he make changes to use photos he loved.
One such change in a chapter involving a near-kidnapping incorporated three quietly devastating pictures: one of an empty country road with three dead horses off to the side, one of soldiers’ bodies piled on a grassy path, and one of distraught men sitting on a wood floor, apparently being held prisoner while light streams into a window above.
“I love them because they’re beautiful photographs of horrible things,” Mr. Riggs said.
A version of this article appears in print on December 31, 2013, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Book That Started With Its Pictures.
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