There is a saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. In the case of Ransom Riggs and his collection of vintage photographs, they’re worth an entire bestselling novel.
“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” has sold more than a million copies worldwide. The dark, poignant, and at times macabre story of 17-year-old Jacob Portman and his discovery of a house on a remote island inhabited by children with extraordinary abilities is also going to be adapted soon into a film by visionary director Tim Burton.
A road less traveled
Ransom Riggs is a photographer, screenwriter, and former contributor to the popular trivia website Mental Floss. He had previously published “The Sherlock Holmes Handbook” with Quirk Books, who liked collaborating with him enough to invite him to work on a future unknown project even though the “Handbook” was not quite a bestseller.
“I brought my collection of vintage photos to my editor one day…Quirk does a lot of visual books like picture books,” Riggs told book bloggers and readers at his book signing event last month at Fully Booked at Bonifacio High Street. “It was my editor who said maybe it could be a novel and you could weave the story through these pictures.”
Riggs was surprised that Quirk trusted him to write a novel and admitted that his road to publication was unusual for a first time novelist because he already had a contract, and knew that whatever he wrote will get published.
Even his writing process was far from the ordinary…well, except for the part where he wrote a whole first draft of the book that he eventually discarded because it didn’t work for him.
His core story idea about “peculiar children”—compelling because of how it presented the conflict between being powerful and the great price one had to pay for having that power—was inspired by the interesting portraits of people in his vintage photo collection.
He thought up abilities and histories for the characters and built his world based on the pictures—the floating girl on the cover had to wear weighted shoes all the time so that she will not float away; a shadowy photo of an old lady became the basis for Miss Peregrine, the children’s guardian and mentor; and the image or war planes in the sky provided a timeframe for the story.
As the world of “Miss Peregrine” grew and became more intricate, Riggs realized that he needed to find more pictures to illustrate new characters and locations. He likened the search to casting a movie—he looked for a picture of someone that captured his imagination, and made up a story based on it that will fit what he needed.
When looking for photos, Riggs said that images that are “a little strange, different, and visually beautiful” catch his eye.
“Something that's really rare that I like to find is something with personality,” he added. “A picture of a person that's close up, you can see their face, and you can see that they have a spirit.
Almost just from looking at the picture of that person, you could describe their personality.”
A 'weird subculture'
To find more pictures for the book, Riggs frequented antiques swap meets and started seeking out fellow collectors.
“I discovered that there was this weird subculture of people who collected old snapshots of people who were not their family members,” he recalled. “The people I found were really generous and let me look at their collections and let me use anything I wanted in this book.”
The person with the most photos used in “Miss Peregrine” is a collector named Robert Jackson. He has a collection of vintage photos so impressive that he was able to put up his own exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington DC, and even had a coffee table book published.
Some of the photos Riggs used in the book are about a hundred years old. There are also some from the 1930s and 1940s. But when it became impossible to find one very specific image that he really needed—spoiler alert!—of a man with staples on his eyes, Riggs’ team finally succumbed and had the book’s designer create one.
As much as possible, Riggs prefers using old found photographs rather than contemporary photos, or pictures taken by famous photographers that can easily be recognized.
“If they're anonymous, no one knows their story and I can make up one about them. I hope I don't get sued!” he chuckled. “But they're pretty old, and the people are like super dead. I was careful not to libel anyone.
I'm not worried.” Ransom Riggs at a book signing event in Manila. Leia Pabular Not just 'The Photo Guy'
Riggs wants to prove that he’s not a one-trick pony, so he will soon be publishing another young adult novel called “Arcanum”—a regular book with no photos!—about a group of teenagers who discover a stash of magical objects in their small town.
In the meantime, he’s writing the sequel to “Miss Peregrine,” which is due out on January 2014, and trying to overcome one of its biggest challenges—what else?—finding the right pictures to use in the book.
“In the first book, I could put a lot of pictures of the characters. They're in Book 2, but we've seen them already. It's not like I can find more pictures of them,” he pointed out. “So they had to meet a lot of new people, and I needed a lot of creepy locations and things that wouldn't clutter up the story with a hundred protagonists.”
“It's so exciting looking through a stack of cracking pictures of boring weddings or vacations from long ago. You feel like a discoverer or a curator or something,” he added. “You take this thing out of obscurity and go 'I think this is beautiful' or 'I think this is important,' and you rescue them from what would probably be the garbage.”
From garbage to New York Times bestseller? Riggs is definitely not as non-peculiar as he makes himself out to be. —KG, GMA News
Ransom Riggs likes taking his own interesting pictures, which he shares on his Instagram account: http://www.instagram.com/ransomriggs.