Beau­ti­fully pe­cu­liar

These strangely com­pelling vin­tage pho­tos of real people and things sparked a story idea that be­came a best­selling novel.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By SHARMILLA GANE­SAN star2@thes­

WITH their abil­ity to cap­ture a mo­ment in time, most pho­to­graphs evoke a par­tic­u­lar mem­ory or story. But what about those pho­tos that have been left be­hind with no con­text or con­nec­tion? The ones that have been, in one way or an­other, “lost”? Could they per­haps be­come part of a new story?

Spec­tac­u­lar re­sults of­ten have their roots in sim­ple ideas, and the im­mensely suc­cess­ful Miss Pere­grine’s Pe­cu­liar Chil­dren se­ries of young adult (YA) books by Ran­som Riggs is just that. Born from Riggs’ de­sire to give new sto­ries to the quirky and of­ten down­right strange vin­tage pho­to­graphs he un­earthed at flea mar­kets, the books are a new way of telling sto­ries. Weav­ing in these real-life found pho­to­graphs into his fic­tional nar­ra­tive, the re­sults are equal parts re­fresh­ing and haunt­ing.

In an exclusive e-mail in­ter­view with Star2, the Los Angeles-based Riggs, who is also a film­maker, ex­plains that his fas­ci­na­tion with vin­tage pho­to­graphs started early.

“I grew up in Florida, the land of flea mar­kets and an­tique shops, and my grand­mother used to take me along on an­tique-hunt­ing ex­pe­di­tions on Sun­day af­ter­noons. That’s where I dis­cov­ered that you could buy people’s old cast-off fam­ily pho­to­graphs for pen­nies each. I found a photo of a girl from the 1930s who looked eerily like some­one I’d

had a crush on at sum­mer camp, and there was some magic in that – it stuck with me.”

That sense of eerie fa­mil­iar­ity is per­fectly cap­tured in Riggs’ books, where the pho­tos some­how man­age to tell two sto­ries: one about the nar­ra­tive at hand, and an­other, more ab­stract one, about who they could have been in real life. It is of­ten a dis­con­cert­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to re­alise that the people in the pic­tures, whom you soon start to think of as Riggs’ char­ac­ters, were also real people who had ex­isted out­side of the books.

The se­ries ob­vi­ously struck a chord with read­ers. Riggs’ first book, Miss Pere­grine’s Home

For Pe­cu­liar Chil­dren, pub­lished in 2011, was an im­me­di­ate hit, spend­ing 63 weeks on The

New York Times bestsellers list. The se­quel, Hol­low City, came out ear­lier this year to great ac­claim. And while most YA nov­els these days seem to boast a movie deal, few can make the claim of hav­ing the mas­ter of the macabre him­self, Tim Bur­ton, set to di­rect.

Telling a story about young people fas­ci­nated Riggs from the be­gin­ning – in the af­ter­word to Miss Pere­grine’s

Home, he says “... the strangest and most in­trigu­ing (pho­tos I found) were al­ways of chil­dren”.

He ex­plains in our in­ter­view: “I think that was the story I needed to tell, about young people ne­go­ti­at­ing their paths to adult­hood, though I didn’t tell it any dif­fer­ently than I would have if I’d writ­ten an ‘adult’ novel.”

Such dis­tinc­tions, he adds, are more re­stric­tive than rel­e­vant.

“I think the dis­tinc­tions are thin­ning more ev­ery day, and will soon be mean­ing­less,” says Riggs, who is mar­ried to fel­low YA au­thor Ta­hereh Mafi (au­thor of the Shat­ter Me se­ries).

In fact, the se­ries’ ex­plo­ration of dark themes wo­ven in with his­tor­i­cal events makes it dif­fi­cult to sim­ply cat­e­gorise the books as sim­ply for younger read­ers. Deal­ing with sombre sub­jects like big­otry, psy­chosis and isolation, adults will find just as much to keep them turn­ing the pages.

Miss Pere­grine’s Home in­tro­duces us to 16year-old Ja­cob Port­man, a priv­i­leged boy in Florida, who grew up on a steady diet of fan­tas­ti­cal sto­ries told by his grand­fa­ther. A hor- ri­fy­ing fam­ily tragedy, how­ever, causes Ja­cob to won­der if those sto­ries were made-up af­ter all, es­pe­cially when he un­earths a collection of pho­to­graphs de­pict­ing some de­cid­edly odd chil­dren.

In search of the truth, Ja­cob ar­rives at a re­mote is­land in Wales, where he dis­cov­ers the ru­ined re­mains of Miss Pere­grine’s Home for Pe­cu­liar Chil­dren. And while the home has been aban­doned for decades, he soon re­alises that some­how, those chil­dren may still be there.

Trav­el­ling back and forth from present to past, the book in­tro­duces us to the “pe­cu­liars”: chil­dren with un­usual abil­i­ties who needed to be hid­den away for their own safety.

Hol­low City, mean­while, takes the story back to the past, in­ter­twin­ing the hor­rors of World War II with the jour­ney of its char­ac­ters, us­ing the book’s fan­tasy premise to re­flect on mat­ters that are all too real.

Riggs shares that when he wrote the first book, he didn’t know if any more would fol­low.

“But I re­ally hoped there would be, since the pos­si­bil­i­ties for the world and char­ac­ters seemed so lim­it­less. I built in a lot of room to ex­pand, and when the book be­came a best­seller, I was able to dive back into the story and grab hold of all the threads I’d left dan­gling,” he says.

The na­ture of the books de­manded an un­usual way of writ­ing, one that de­pended not just on plot but also the pho­tos to fur­ther the story. While the ini­tial story and cer­tain char­ac­ters were in­spired by pho­tos he had found, he also found him­self look­ing for spe­cific pho­tos to fit into a plot idea.

“It’s a push and pull,” he says. “While the pho­tos came first, when I found the story needed to go in a very spe­cific di­rec­tion, I had to look for pho­tos that fit, rather than chang­ing the story to fit pho­tos I al­ready had.”

Find­ing the nec­es­sary pho­tos, how­ever, was quite the task. To find the ini­tial 50 snap­shots that ap­pear in Miss Pere­grine’s Home, Riggs es­ti­mates that he would have looked at more than 100,000 pho­tos, in flea mar­kets, an­tique shops and hob­by­ists’ pri­vate col­lec­tions.

Cur­rently work­ing on the third and fi­nal book as well as con­sult­ing on the movie adap­ta­tion (the movie is slated for re­lease next year), Riggs has plenty to keep him busy.

“The third book will have lots more ad­ven­ture and peril, and even more dark­ness,” he says. “The ‘pe­cu­liars’ in­ter­act a bit more with the present than they have be­fore, and the cul­ture clash be­tween our world and theirs is re­ally fun to write. I’ve known for a long time how the story’s go­ing to end, but it’s how I’d get there I wasn’t sure of!”

at Riggs ex­plains that the pho­tos fea­tured in his books ‘weren’t pho­tos I took or cre­ated in pho­tog­ra­phy’s early days dis­play won­der­ful ef­fects that would have been painstak­ingly done by hand.

Riggs ex­plains in an ar­ti­cle that he uses the pho­tos to en­sure fan­tas­ti­cal el­e­ments are grounded in re­al­ity. ‘When­ever the story seems about to veer into pure fan­tasy, a pho­to­graph comes along, and the reader sees some of the bizarre things they’ve just been read­ing about with their own eyes.’

Pic­ture story: Ran­som Riggs caught the lit­er­ary world’s at­ten­tion with his found pho­tos and story about young people learn­ing to find them­selves and their place in so­ci­ety. — Photo by Ta­hereh Mafi

cre­ated in Pho­to­shop, but real snap­shots that I found’. Some of these works from

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