On the Spot: A Q&A with authors Veronica Rossi, Tahereh Mafi, and Ransom Riggs
We sat down with the three New York Times bestselling authors to talk about zombies, mutants, and Harry Potter.
Rossi, Mafi, and Riggs have a chat with SPOT.ph. Photos by Alyana Cabral and Anna Golez
(SPOT.ph) Some of the hottest names in the young adult novel industry recently stopped by the Philippines for a book tour. We sat down with Ransom Riggs, Veronica Rossi, and Tahereh Mafi whose works explore everything from teeange romance to the paranormal to cannibals. We picked their creative minds with questions about their writing process, their plans in (and out of) writing, and even a little bit about fan love for Harry Potter.
Ransom Riggs, author of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. He admits to not having ever eaten balut, but has tried shark.
Who was your main inspiration Jacob [the 16-year-old protagonist who visits Wales to search for the truth behind his grandfather’s murder]?
Well, probably me, as a kid. He grows up in the same town I grew up in. The kid feels ordinary, but he's searching for an extraordinary world, the things beyond, in a little circumscribed town he grows up in. I think I felt like that. It's really hard for you as a writer not to leak into the writing.
The poignant and creepy photos play a big part in the storytelling style of the book. Was that a sudden innovation or planned from the start?
Yeah, the book wouldn't exist without them. They were a huge inspiration for the book. I wanted to do something with them that led to the story. I wasn't sure what to do with them, so I hatched the idea for making the book to the editor. Including photos in the book was the idea.
I think I wanted to [write a story based on the photos] but I didn't really have the guts to suggest it because I've never written a novel before and the publish[er] didn't really print novels. They did Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so we're like 10% new novels and 90% Jane Austen. My editors suggested [it] and I was like, "Yeah!"
Orphanages are a focal point in the book. Do you have any personal connection to orphanages?
I knew that I wanted these kids to need help and to sort of drift to the world so it seemed natural.
Many say the novel is much like X-Men (Kids Edition). What do you think of that comparison?
Um, no one ever said that to me in a negative way. It's sort of like, "Hey, kinda like X-Men because they have powers." And I'm like, that's cool, I watch X-Men. It's just sort of natural after the weird pictures I have.
If given the chance, would you have started with a graphic novel instead?
Definitely not, I can't draw. And I love words too much. I've been writing stories since I was a little kid and just a few photos were all I needed. I mean, I was in film school, so I always loved combining images, telling stories with pictures. If I was gonna make something that was even more image-based than the book as it currently is, it would've been a movie but [pauses] I couldn't do that. [laughs]
So do you think you're more of a writer than a photographer?
Yeah, I think as a photographer [but] I'm still just an amateur who loves it. I'm still at the beginning of my journey.
If you were to choose the actors for your novel's upcoming movie, who would you pick?
I'm glad I'm not in charge of that. I don't know any young actors and most of the cast are under 18. I know they're casting for Jacob right now and they're casting a very wide net, looking for unknowns. Which is frustrating but I think [it’s] a good idea.
What are your plans regarding your next book?
Yeah, it's the third book. It takes place seconds after the second book ends. It comes out next year.
Is something catastrophic going to happen?
I can't say that, it would be a terrible spoiler! [laughs] I'm not gonna destroy anyone's dreams but I feel like if I was like, "Don't worry, everyone, nothing bad happens," I would ruin all the tension of the book.
Veronica Rossi, author of Under the Never Sky, assures us that her Perry (short for Peregrine) and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine are purely coincidental creations.
Can you tell us about Under the Never Sky? How did you come up with the whole concept? It’s very intricate, the Realms, the technologies, etc.
I started with the idea that I wanted to create two really, really different societies. I actually started with the characters. I wanted characters that were basically polar opposites, so I knew I wanted a girl that was gonna be tossed into an environment that was completely outside of her realm of experience. I thought about creating a time travel for a while, 'cause I really wanted her to come and go into this primitive environment, and for her to be very advanced. And then I just kinda stumbled over myself with the time travel concept. Then I thought, 'how can I create a world where two completely different societies would exist side by side but separately?' And that was how it started. It was just having a sense for what kind of story I wanted to tell and then starting to see in images-like the Aether for me was very visual. It started out as a very visual thing. And then I just started building it from there, piece by piece.
So your two main characters (Aria and Perry), you already knew what they were going to be like? Were they inspired by real people?
I just made them up. They weren't really inspired by real people at all. I don't ever create characters that are based on real people, because you have to be able to, as a writer, allow terrible things [to] happen to your character sometimes, and I think I'd have a hard time doing that if the character's based on a friend or a family member.
How were the sequels born? Did you really plan on writing a trilogy? Or were the sequels prompted by fans?
No, I sold the whole trilogy right away. We sold three books. The only thing that came afterwards were the novellas. But that was the publisher basically saying fans wanted more between each book, but it was sold as a trilogy from the very beginning.
In your books, you mention something very curious and interesting called the Aether several times. Can you describe a picture of Aether in your head?
Sure! I know I wanted a post-apocalyptic story, a story after the world has undergone this really awful cataclysmic moment, and the social order has collapsed. And so, I wanted to create something different and visual, and I wanted the environment itself to be its own character. But really, it came from an image. When I was a little girl, I used to love to sink down to the bottom of the swimming pool and I would love staring up at the way that the light danced on the water. It's an image that I've always loved, so that was kind of the basis for what the atmosphere always looks like in the story, as these Aether flows are just always hovering over them.
We heard that film rights to your books have been optioned by Warner Bros. When they make the movies for them, are there any actors or actresses you would like to play Aria and Perry?
No, um, I tend to prefer it when roles go to actors that are unknown, that are new. Because then you don't have that feeling like, "Oh, I saw him in that movie and he was terrible." You know, if it were made, which is a possibility, I would like just for there to be talented people in the roles. Really good actors [are] all I really want.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
Read a lot, and write often, and don't give up. It's really the three main things. Writing can be sometimes challenging, especially if you want to be published. The business can be a little bit tough, but you can do it if you just don't give up.
Tahareh Mafi, author of the trilogy: Shatter Me, Unravel Me, and Ignite Me. She reveals she's a Gryffindor through and through.
Dystopian YA novels are dominating the scene. How did you go about making your books stand out-from the themes to the world building?
Actually, I did not actively ever try to make my books stand out. I think what's interesting about the dystopian YA scene is that a lot of people fell into writing them and not on purpose. It was more that suddenly the market was interested in dystopian YA and I think people who have just been writing them did so by accident...and were sort of given a bit of a platform. People were interested in reading dystopian YA, possibly as a result of the much bigger movement of The Hunger Games and so forth.
So, I can only speak for myself here, but when I started writing Shatter Me, I didn't know it was going to be dystopian, I didn't know it was going to have paranormal elements-I didn't really know much of anything. I wrote the book because I was inspired by the character, who appeared to me in an image. I was sort of struck by the image of this girl that I couldn't quite shake and [who] arrives with a pretty powerful voice that I've been exploring. And the more I asked about who she was and where she came from, the more the world came to life. And so everything was told around her and that's where the dystopian society came from. It supported her having this ability and that ability came from me thinking-I should backtrack a little and explain...
The image that I was struck with is the image of a girl curled into herself in a dark corner and all I knew about her [was] that she was terrified and she was accused of a crime that she did not intend to commit. It was strange-it was like a package of a person presented to me. Where did she come from? Why is she in solitary confinement? Why is she virtually cut off from society and the world? All of that caused me to think, 'Well, people can't touch her.' Maybe she isn't comfortable to be around and that evolved into this character and the story and then, what kind of a world would have a person who couldn't be touched? And that's when it came into dystopia. Well, all of that was built around her. It was never an intentional angle.
Compared to most YA novels, your books contain some steamy scenes. Was that difficult to write and to keep in the final versions during the editing process?
No, not at all-not difficult to write, not difficult to keep. I think because there's a healthy range of steaminess. There [are] some YA novels that have no romance at all, some have a very chaste romance, some are far more intense than mine. And so, there's a capacity for so much. And the writers, they sort of choose what they like. And I think the ones who are interested in a little more romance go for it and so are editors who are not afraid to allow romantic themes. And not difficult to write, no.
That's great! People tend to shy away from those since they’re awkward to write.
I think that's actually right, though. As a writer, you have to do what feels right for you. And if you don't feel comfortable writing it, I think it comes off that way. And so, there's great comfort in knowing we have the option [of] including it or not including it-no pressure in making it steamy, no pressure to cut back. And so you do what you do, what feels comfortable and right. And for me, touch was really important to this character. Not only is she a 17-year-old girl, who is going through great emotional change and hormonal change and wanting to experience love, and who wants to experience all those firsts-the first kiss, the first touch, the first all of that. But she's also wholly deprived of sensation. The feeling, the emotion, the overwhelming sensation of touch is really important throughout the entire series.
What personal experiences did you draw from when writing the series? Are there any people you personally know who’ve inspired some of your characters?
A lot of people ask me about Adam and Warner, "Are they based on anyone in real life?" And I think that's because they have an affection for the characters and want to know whether they're real. But generally, no. Kenji is heavily inspired by my brother. I have four older brothers. They're all very intelligent, very funny, and I love them very dearly. We're very close. So I draw from my own relationship from my brother in forming that relationship between Juliette and Kenji. I felt very much that she needed a sibling and because I don't have any sisters , I really didn't know how to tap into that. So it's like I kind of gave her one of my brothers.
The film rights to Shatter Me have been secured by 20th Century Fox. How involved will you be in the production? Do you have any ideal cast members?
Well, the book has been optioned by 20th Century Fox, but [it's] pretty quiet on that front. No news or updates on that, so I wouldn't know anything involving production.
How involved would you want to be, though, when the time comes?
I don't know. If it was the right team, I would be very happy to let them do what they do best. I think it's a very different medium and it's an art of its own I'm not familiar with. So I think if I got too involved, I'd just mess it up. But I think it would be fun to watch that creative process. I'm not sure I'd be very involved with it. I have no interest. I'm not, you know, a film buff. But I don't have any dream casting. I don't even really think about that. I actually think that I don't have a super clear image of these characters. I mean, I do, but I feel like it's kind of fluid. And I think that's the cool thing about fiction, that they can be whoever you want them to be. And I think I'm almost afraid to say that, "This is the exact way that person looks like." Because I want that character to be yours as well and they look whatever you want them to look like.
How do you prepare when you write?
I need lots of quiet and tea. But I think it's more of a ritual for me-I make the tea, I pour the tea, and I work and I don't touch it. Sometimes, it's really just a ritual. It started as, like, I really need the tea, but then it started becoming a comfort as I write to usually reach for that hot cup of tea. And then I wear noise-cancelling headphones, and I usually listen to rainymood.com. It's very helpful...white noise. That's about it. Ideally, if I'm in a bind or on the road, I just need my laptop and quiet.
What titles are on your reading list right now-if there are any?
[Laughs] I have a very long to-read file. That made me laugh because I'm currently re-reading all of the Harry Potter books. I'm unabashedly a huge, huge fan of the Harry Potter novels. Harry Potter was my life growing up and still is. I'm such a fan, I get so emotional when I think about it. I picked up the books and sort of looked at them fondly and I realized I never revisited the series from beginning till end. And I felt like it was the right time. I was really missing the characters and I felt like I'd been disconnected from them for too long.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Under the Never Sky by Veronica Rossi, and the Shatter Me trilogy by Tahereh Mafi are available at National Book Store.