Author Ransom Riggs started collecting vintage photos at antique stores, flea markets and swap meets all over southern California. Photos from his collection illustrate his best-selling 2011 young adult book “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” as well as the newly released sequel “Hollow City (excerpt below).”
Ranson Riggs' latest book is "Hollow City." (Tahereh Mafi)
Ransom Riggs tells Here & Now, “People who meet me, they say ‘you’re so normal!’ and I’m like ‘yeah the peculiar thing about me is that I write these books.’” (Tahereh Mafi)
Both books center around “peculiar children” who have extraordinary abilities. One girl sets fire with her hands, there is an invisible boy, another boy can reanimate the dead. As Riggs tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson, “I wanted to create characters who could do fantastic things, but who weren’t exactly superheros — characters who exist on sort of a spectrum from super-ability to disability.”
The vintage photos factored in heavily to his creative process.
“In the first book, the photos really dictated a big part of story,” he says. “But by the time I was writing the second book, the story already had a ton of momentum of its own, and I had to sort of tame the photos to fit the story.”
Riggs credits the photos with sparking ideas he never would have had otherwise.
“I’m always going back to the photos and looking for inspiration as I write, so the photos will kind of change the direction of a scene,” he says. “But then I’ll want to do something in a scene and I won’t have a photo to fit it, so I’ll go out and look for a photo to fit the scene. I’ll find something that’s almost right but a little different from what I’d imagined, and then I’ll change the scene I’d written to fit the photo, so there’s a lot of push and pull.”
Click here for an excerpt from the book Hollow City by Ransom Riggs
Ransom Riggs, author of ”Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” and the newly released sequel “Hollow City.”
Transcript from interview.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And the first things you notice about Ransom Riggs' book "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children" and its sequel "Hollow City" are the photographs. They are black and white, looking like they might have been taken in the late 19th to early 20th century. Many of them looked like trick photography.
The cover of the newly released "Hollow City" shows a solemn little girl in a black and white dress. She stands in front of a ruined building looking perfectly fine, except for the large hole through her stomach through which we can see the background. The book tells the stories of peculiar children who have extraordinary abilities. The stories are made up, but they are based on real photographs.
Author Ransom Riggs joins us from Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland. Ransom Riggs, welcome to HERE AND NOW.
RANSOM RIGGS: Thank you very much.
HOBSON: Well, where did you find all of these vintage photographs?
RIGGS: Well, I started collecting them at antique stores and flea markets in Southern California. I then branched out and discovered that there were people in the world who collect, found anonymous photographs for a living and that they had these vast collections of wonderful treasures. So I befriended them, and I kept going to antique markets and swap meets until I had more photos than I knew what to do with.
HOBSON: And some of the photos - just if you look in the beginning of the book and you see - you sort of set out all of the main characters. And their facial expressions are just hilarious. I don't think you would ever find a photo of a kid today with some of these expressions on their faces.
RIGGS: Some of my favorite photos from the old days are of people who maybe didn't know how to smile. Maybe smiling in photos wasn't an accepted form of behavior back then. But the big eyes and the oversized dolls that people are carrying, and it's something about their hair - the anachronisms of these photos are really what creep me out.
HOBSON: Well, and you give your characters based on these photos, I suppose, some pretty crazy names. We've got Bronwyn, Horace, Enoch, Millard, Olive, not just Olive, but Olive Abroholos Elephanta.
RIGGS: Those are the names of two obscure winds because she floats on air.
HOBSON: Right. Exactly. Yes. Well, and we should say, they've all got these special powers. They are peculiar children. And peculiar in the book means that they sort of fallen to this category of kids that have these strange powers. There is a girl who can set fire with her hands, another is invisible, and another can swallow and released live bees out of his mouth.
RIGGS: Yes. They're not based on people I know. They're entirely made up.
HOBSON: Well, where did you come up with that?
RIGGS: I wanted to create characters who could do fantastic things but who weren't exactly superheroes. Characters who exist on a sort of spectrum from superability to disability. So some of the characters, at first, their power seems like a blessing, but later, maybe it turns out to be a curse. To not be able to control the temperature of your hands, you know, and accidentally set your bed on fire in the middle of the night could be a problem.
HOBSON: Well, and the idea of a kid being different and having to sort of come to terms with the difference that they have is not new. I wonder if you experience anything like that yourself, not that you would be able to set fire with your hands. But did you have some kind of a thing that made you different as a kid that you had to sort of come to terms with?
RIGGS: I think I grew up feeling like a weirdo like many kids do. But I was lucky to find my own home for peculiar children. I went to a school for the gifted in Florida, and it was full of kids who - we were all strange together. And that was a real blessing.
HOBSON: Now you take us on this journey through the eyes of a 16-year-old boy from the present who goes back into the 1940s and discovers this island of peculiar children and their guardian, Miss Peregrine, who has, unfortunately, turned into a bird. There's so much going on. There are loops that you can go through to get to different places. There are these hollows, these terrible creatures that come after the kids - a lot going on in the book.
RIGGS: Yeah. I think it was partly a result of the first book being a mash up of everything I was just interested in at the time: time travel, my childhood in Florida, urban exploration and abandoned houses, magical abilities, remote islands. All of that came together. And in the second book, it just developed a life of its own. There were a lot of balls to keep in the air, narratively speaking, but that was really were the fun was and the challenge in writing.
HOBSON: It's such a different world that you put us in. But there is one thing - and I want you to read a passage from the book. There is one thing that brings us right back to the present. Because the main character, Jacob, is from the present, he's got in his pocket a cellphone. Of course, it doesn't work. But could you just read us that passage?
RIGGS: I'd be happy to. I reached into the pocket of my jeans for my phone, thinking I'd call up a map of my own - an old habit - then found myself tapping on a blank rectangle of glass that refuse to light up. It was dead, of course, wet, chargeless and 50 years from the nearest cell tower. My phone was the only thing I own that had survived our disaster at sea, but it was useless here, an alien object. I tossed it into the woods. Thirty seconds later, I felt a pang of regret and ran to retrieve it. For reasons that weren't entirely clear to me, I wasn't quite ready to let it go.
HOBSON: It's interesting because these days, if you're in a crisis, so often you would reach for your phone. And that's exactly what he does, but it's completely useless back in 1940.
RIGGS: And yet it becomes a sort of totemic object of comfort to the character. I realized how often I pat the pocket of my pants or my jeans to see if my phone is still there.
RIGGS: And every time it is, it's like, OK, I'm fine. OK. Everything is good. I think it would be really strange to get used to a world without technology overnight.
HOBSON: Well, and what age of people do you think should be reading this book?
RIGGS: Well, it's recommended for people 12 and up, and I think that seems safe. I wrote it to entertain myself in a way, but I think it would be great for people of any age, I hope.
HOBSON: The reason I asked that question is because I think of all these 12-year-olds or 13-year-olds with their phones. It probably brings up something to some of them when they read it, that maybe that phone that they're grabbing for all the time is not going to help them if they're being chased by a monster.
RIGGS: Maybe it's a horror story to them - a world without my phone...
HOBSON: That's possible.
RIGGS: ...my tablet, my laptop.
HOBSON: When you're writing these books, how much do you keep to the photographs and how much do you just have to go off on your own direction?
RIGGS: Well, in the first book, the photos really dictated a big part of the story. The first began with the photos as their inspiration. But by the time I was writing the second book, the story already had a ton of momentum of its own, and I had to sort of tame the photos to fit the story. So as I'm writing, I have tons of photos scanned. They're in my computer, and I can call them up anytime I want. But I'm always going back to the photos and looking for inspiration as I write, so the photos will kind of change the direction of a scene.
But then I'll want to do something in a scene and I don't have a photo to fit it, so I'll go out and look for a photo to fit the scene. I'll find something that's almost right but a little different from what I'd imagined, and then I'll change the scene I'd written to fit the photo, so there's a lot of push and pull.
HOBSON: Do you feel limited by the photos?
RIGGS: No, because they always spark ideas I never would have had if I didn't have the photos.
HOBSON: Now, the book leaves us thinking there's probably going to be a sequel. Of course, you're going to have to come up with photos to make that happen, right?
RIGGS: Yes. There's going to be a third book that's coming out in 2015. And I have a good problem, which is that I have many thousands more photos than I could ever use. So I'll always have that well to go back to. And every time I finish one of these books, there were always 20 or 30 pictures that I had been trying very badly to work into the book that didn't quite make it, that ended up on the cutting room floor, as it were. So they sort of carry over to the next book and I try very hard to work them in.
HOBSON: We should say you're bio photo in the book actually looks quite normal compared to all the rest of the photos.
RIGGS: I think that's a disappointment to people who meet me.
RIGGS: They say, you're so normal. And I'm like, yeah, the peculiar thing about me is that I write these books.
HOBSON: Ransom Riggs. His latest book in the "Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children" series is called "Hollow City." It is out now. Ransom, thanks so much.
RIGGS: Thank you very much.
HOBSON: And, Sacha, as soon as I was finished with this book, I needed even more adventure. I went and read all three of "The Hunger Games" books.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
Oh, I devoured those.
HOBSON: Six years too late, but they were still fun to read.
PFEIFFER: I know.
HOBSON: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
PFEIFFER: And I'm Sacha Pfeiffer. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.