Further dispatches from a world that celebrates the strange
“I guess I had a lot of peculiar people in my life growing up,” says Ransom Riggs, author of the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series of novels. “Probably the most influential, and peculiar in her own way, was my grandmother.” A farmer’s daughter who became a farmer’s wife, she also went to university and was a teacher of Latin and French. “She infected me with a love of books.”
Riggs, 37, spoke from his home in Los Angeles about the upcoming Tim Burton film adaptation of his dark YA fantasy debut, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a surprise 2011 hit that spent more than two years on the bestseller list. We also talked about his new collection of short stories set in the same world, Tales of the Peculiar. Readers of the series, which includes two other bestselling novels, Hollow City and Library of Souls, will recognize that title: It’s the name of a book that the peculiar children consult for advice and comfort. Riggs says he wanted the new book to seem like an artifact from the peculiar world, an imaginary object that readers somehow discover in their real-world bookstores.
The design of Tales of the Peculiar helps achieve this effect. Where you’d normally find the copyright details, instead there are instructions on things not to do while reading the book (whatever you do, don’t dog-ear the pages) and some unlikely production notes (“Printed in a nomad’s tent in the desert of Lop”). The foreword maintains this conceit: It’s written by Millard Nullings, the invisible boy at Miss Peregrine’s home. In it, Nullings explains why he decided to edit and annotate this edition of the Tales. The stories are not just folklore, he writes: “They are also the bearers of secret knowledge. Encoded within their pages are the locations of hidden loops, the secret identities of certain important peculiars, and other information that could aid a peculiar’s survival in this hostile world.”
On the surface, the stories are moral tales, bedtime stories designed to be read aloud. In most of them, someone behaves cruelly toward a peculiar child because of his or her peculiarity, and that bad behavior is eventually, inventively, punished. In a few, the peculiar child himself is the one acting foolishly and must slowly learn his lesson. In one story, a girl discovers she can take away people’s nightmares; in another, a beautiful princess with scales and a forked tongue spits venom at her enemies. A big-hearted boy turns into a locust. A man may, in fact, be an island.
Riggs wrote Tales of the Peculiar “for fans of the series who want to know more about the world,” he says. “It casts a much wider net narratively.”
“There are some Easter eggs for peculiars hidden throughout,” he adds. “They’re waiting for me in case I need them.” (This is as much as he will say about the possibility of future Miss Peregrine novels.)
The fairy-tale format suits Riggs’ style—each character in these simple tales is richly drawn and memorable. We sympathize with them; even their bad decisions are understandable.
It doesn’t hurt that each tale is illustrated with a gorgeous woodcut by the artist Andrew Davidson. “I knew I wanted a classic, wood-engraving style,” Riggs says. He had admired the covers on the adult hardcover editions of Harry Potter in the U.K.; maybe something like that, he told his publisher. A few weeks later came the reply: How about the guy who did those? “Great!” Riggs said.
Davidson was “amazing to work with,” Riggs says. “His ideas were out of this world—so dynamic and detailed.”
The engravings add to the sense of Tales of the Peculiar as a weighty, otherworldly artifact, something that was important to the author. Even as a kid, Riggs says, “I liked how big, musty old books felt and smelled.” And ever since Quirk Books published his Sherlock Holmes Handbook in 2009—he has considered himself lucky when it comes to his books’ aesthetic: “I’ve been able to make books that look like they belong on my grandmother’s bookshelves!”
Working with an illustrator also affected Riggs’ writing process. The three Miss Peregrine novels are built around old photographs the author had collected over the years. Writing them, he says, “I had a fixed number of pictures and had to find stories that would fit them.” In the new book, though, “I could tell whatever story I wanted.”
The magical world created by Riggs has just been adapted for film by director Tim Burton. “Everything they did services the heart of the story,” Riggs says.
From an early age, Riggs sought out books that opened doors in the imagination, whether that meant fantasy or otherworldly realism. “C.S. Lewis, big-time,” he recalls when asked about his early influences, and “Tolkien of course,” not to mention Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. King’s work, Riggs says, “was never just horror—it was always also about discovering another world.”
He read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, a decades-spanning saga about forced-labor prison camps in the Soviet Union, at age 13. (“Intense!” is how he understatedly describes that experience.) At the opposite extreme, Riggs also loved reading James Thurber, a favorite of his grandmother’s.
Was it strange for him to entrust the world he’d created to filmmaker Tim Burton, who has an equally strong aesthetic? Not really, says Riggs: “I knew it was in good hands.” Unusually for Hollywood, the movie has only one screenwriter (Jane Goldman), and Riggs says he’s pleased with how it turned out. “I didn’t feel like they needed my help,” he says.
As always with an adaptation, certain changes were made along the way, but they’re all superficial, Riggs says. “Everything they did services the heart of the story.” He explains that the film adaptation has allowed for some “wonderful visual irony.” For example, the character of Bronwyn, a girl with super-strength, is no longer the bruiser shown in the novel’s antique photograph, but instead a comically tiny girl.
The main challenge in taking the story from book to film, Riggs says, was getting the tone right. The books have a “veneer of gothic horror,” but also bits of Monty Python and other lighter elements. “It’s a very strange balance of tone,” he says. With his penchant for the gothic as well as romantic wistfulness and visual comedy, Burton proved to be the perfect fit.
The film, which stars Asa Butterfield (Hugo) as main protagonist Jacob Portman and “Penny Dreadful” actor Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, arrives in theaters on September 30. As for Tales of the Peculiar, it was published on “Loop Day”—September 3, the same date of the 24-hour time loop in which Miss Peregrine’s home for peculiar children safely hides. Riggs visited several bookstores on Loop Day, and is currently on tour with his wife, the YA novelist Tahereh Mafi, whose latest book, Furthermore, was published in August.
“It’s an exciting time at our house,” he says. “It’s going to be really peculiar.”
This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.