Ransom Riggs is an author and filmmaker best known for the book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Its sequel, Hollow City, released in January 2014.
In each issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, we ask a contributor to travel back in time and step into the role of an unconvinced, perhaps fool-hearted editor who rejects a future hit. During my interview with Riggs for the July/August issue of WD, I asked him to do the same. Here’s that exchange, and a few extra outtakes for good measure.
Imagine you’re a time-traveling editor with bad taste. The manuscript for a hit comes across your desk, and you, being short-sighted and terrible, decide it isn’t worthy of printing. Which hit book would you reject, and why?
The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be ridiculous. [I would say], “It’s so long. It’s in Elvish, whatever that is. Nothing like this has ever been published. And who’s going to be interested in these tiny little hairy, ape-footed beings? This is the time for serious literature, sir, not made-up fairly tales. You take yourself very seriously.”
I don’t know how that got published, actually. It’s seems impossible in hindsight.
And now you’re an editor who has to reject one of Ransom Riggs’s books. How does that go down?
Well, Miss Peregrine, I don’t know how that got made. If I were an editor I would [say], “This is for teenagers, but it’s full of black and white photos of old dead people, which doesn’t make any sense. And it starts out as a book about a kid and his grandpa in Florida, but then suddenly it takes this left turn about halfway through … and we’re talking about time travel and loops and magical powers, and nothing that the reader signed up for. I don’t think that’s going to work at all. No one’s going to read that.”
Aren’t you glad you didn’t see your book before it was published, then?
I’m lucky I wasn’t there for that.
Is it surprising to you that people love the books so much?
It’s just weird in a great way. It’s wonderful.
So let’s talk about your Peculiar Children series. The peculiars, children with special powers and strange abilities, attend Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children. You went to Pine View School for the Gifted, which sounds strangely similar. Are you secretly a peculiar?
Yes. No. I’ll have to cultivate an air of mystery around that question. … When I was writing the book, [I didn’t] make that connection. And then someone mentioned it to me and I was like, “Oh, interesting.” I guess that’s the writer revealing himself through fiction in ways that he doesn’t even notice until later.
[Pine View] was an unusual school in that it was a place where we didn’t have any sports or jocks or, for many years, even a real campus or cafeteria. It was portables all arranged in a sort of semicircle. … Eventually we got a real campus.
It was a public school; you just had to pass an IQ test to get in. Now that I’ve long-since graduated and can benefit from this, it’s recognized as one of the top schools in all of Florida and people move to little tiny Sarasota from other countries just so their kids can go to school there. But back when I was going, they were threatening to shut it down every year, and they were saying, “This is a waste of money and public resources.” It was crazy.
It was a safe pace to be a nerd and care about doing well on your schoolwork—there were actually a lot of good schools in Sarasota County Florida—but a lot of people had super-traumatic high school experiences where they felt, like, super “other” than other people and weird, and the only way that I was weird at Pine View was that I was not super-good at math. And everyone else was. I was super-good at English, and everyone else was like, “I don’t get that.”
Did you have any English teachers who were super-happy to have you?
I had some great English teachers. One of my favorite—her name was Linda Janoff—was wonderful and so irreverent, and so smart and encouraging. … In the ninth grade, she made everyone who took her Honors English class dress up like a famous author at the end of the year, and we would have to have a booth on campus and we would all line up at our booths dressed as … Eudora Welty or Mark Twain, and I went as William Faulkner. I had a big gray wig and the pipe and everything.
Procrastination is a problem for a lot of writers. Do you have trouble making yourself work sometimes?
Well, it’s productive procrastination, if that makes sense. I spent three months plotting [Peculiar Children] Book 3, which involved a lot of being on Wikipedia, typing long letters to myself in Scrivener, and then [thinking], I should check my email.
And once in a while, once I’d had enough coffee, I’d think, Oh! Maybe that thing should happen, or maybe I need a system of notecards… No no, 3×5 cards. Wait! No, a special journal. I need a special notebook or something; I need a Moleskine. I need a different-sized Moleskine. I need a red Moleskine.”
Everyone should have a red Moleskine.
Oh, I know. I think I have like 10 now.
Let’s talk about the model of Miss Peregrine’s Home that [your wife] Tahereh [Mafi] commissioned for your birthday. It looks museum-level amazing.
It’s amazing! It is. It’s incredible. It’s really amazing. I was so floored. She had it delivered the day before [my birthday] and the guy who made it actually came to the house. He accompanied it across the country on an airplane. They tried to make him put it in the overhead compartment and he complained so loudly that they strapped it into a free seat in first class. And so he brought it to the house, it was the day before my birthday, and it was wrapped in black trash bags so I couldn’t see.
It was just this big square thing, and he was like, “Hi, I’m Mike,” and I was like “Hi…?” And he said, “Well, have good birthday tomorrow,” and I said, “Thanks, what do you do for a living?” And he told me, “I can’t tell you that.” It was strange. But the model itself is incredible. I couldn’t believe it.
The full interview with Ransom Riggs can be found in the July/August 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest, on newsstands June 3, 2014.
Adrienne Crezo is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine. She lives and writes in Ohio. Her work has been featured on MentalFloss.com, The Atlantic, Business Insider, The Week and many other print and web publications. You can follow her on Twitter at @a_crezo.