Ransom Riggs has recently followed up on his smash-hit first book – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a narrative shaped around old photos that Riggs collected – with a sequel called Hollow City. Here, he reflects on the influences that have shaped him as a writer.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
I was seven or eight when I started writing, and back then I was reading the covers off of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. Later, in junior high school, I developed an unkickable addiction to Stephen King.
Did you imitate any of them?
Very much so. My first attempts at fiction were all stories about young boys finding portals to other worlds – holes inside walls, doors in floors, and so on – an obvious aping of Lewis. During my Stephen King phase, I wrote short stories and novellas about serial killers, ghosts, monsters, all in a wry, seen-it-all voice that was my 13-year-old self’s best impression of King.
How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?
It took a long time, and in fact, I gave up writing for years. My love of Stephen King led to a love of movies – starting with Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining – that made me want to make films, and I picked up a video camera and forgot about writing fiction for a while. It wasn’t until a creative writing course in college that I started writing stories again, and looking back, those attempts didn’t work because I took myself too seriously. Midway through a degree in literature, I was up to my neck in Faulkner and Joyce, and every story I wrote was trying very hard to be Great and Serious and Very Important, but instead they were pretentious and boring. After that class, I didn’t write another sentence of fiction until Miss Peregrine. I spent the intervening years in film school, finding my voice through another art form. When I finally came back to fiction, to write my novel, I was more at ease with myself, and I found I wasn’t pushing so hard to sound like someone else. The key was time.
What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?
I’ve heard people swear up and down that MFA writing programs are a terrible and dangerous influence, but I can’t speak to that. I loved MFA film school. I think if you don’t have a strong sense of yourself as a writer, there’s a danger that too many workshops and classes and other people’s voices in your head could warp your style, make it something other than what it naturally would be. In that sense, I think the most dangerous thing is a lack of confidence. You have to be convinced that you’re a very good writer, no matter what other people say. Because other people will have all sorts of opinions.
Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?
In my corner of the writing world, young adult, J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins’s influence is still reverberating. Stephenie Meyer’s, too. Many popular YA books today are descendants of Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight, and we YA writers owe a lot to those women and their prodigious imaginations. John Green’s influence is impossible to deny, too.
Who do you wish were more influential?
Jandy Nelson. She writes like she’s on fire. I can’t read a paragraph of her work without feeling inspired. I think as she writes more novels, the Cult of Jandy will grow and grow.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
My wife’s. It’s part of why I fell for her. Her name is Tahereh Mafi and she’s the most passionate writer I know. Her Shatter Me series is bursting with beautiful sentences that just fly off the page.
When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?
I’m always writing, so if I did that I’d never read what I wanted to! No, I’m not afraid of being influenced. Unlike when I was younger, now I know how to be inspired by another writer’s style without imitating it.
This interview, conducted by Globe Books, has been condensed and edited.