Tahereh Mafi and Ransom Riggs: Inside the authors' magical storytelling factory
The married authors of 'Furthermore' and 'Tales of the Peculiar' invite us to their workshop.
Literature is full of famous couples, many of them as tragic and dysfunctional as they are romantic.
Few married writers combine both the harmony and clockwork functionality of Tahereh Mafi and Ransom Riggs, respectively the author of the Shatter Me YA series and the creator of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
With Tim Burton’s film version of Miss Peregrine out Friday, the authors invited EW to visit their backyard writing bungalow in Santa Monica, where they have a tandem desk, shelves teetering with books, and custom-made Muppet versions of themselves watching from the sofa. Outside their sliding doors trickles a fountain where squirrels frolic and baby birds sometimes fall from nearby trees and meet their doom. (Life isn’t all sunshine.)
They had crossed paths periodically before, but got to know each other better during an informal 2012 writers’ retreat hosted by The Lovely Reckless author Kami Garcia, and married nearly a year later on Sept. 13, 2013. Now they spend their workdays orbiting each other, helping, reading, and listening when necessary, but also endeavoring to stay out of each other’s way.
“I tend to be a very obsessive writer,” Mafi says. “I write in big bursts and for long stretches of time. So I can work from morning until night. I just get really immersed into the story and I can work for two weeks straight. Then I just collapse.”
“But during those two weeks she will neglect her basic human functions and just eat gumballs if they happen to be nearby,” Riggs adds. “Sometimes I’ll just bring her a balanced meal and she’ll be like ‘What’s that? Oh… food.”
“Ransom’s great for reminding me to emerge,” his wife says.
“She’s like an Italian race car. She writes faster, better and more effectively than anybody I know and she can put out an amazing amount of high quality material and just keep going,” her husband replies. “Whereas I wake up in the morning, make my coffee, write for an hour. Maybe I need to take a walk, make some more coffee…”
“He has a very healthy writing style,” she says, waving him off.
“… Go to lunch with somebody,” he continues. “Walk the dog. We don’t have a dog. But if I had a dog I’d probably walk the dog. It’s more of a Southern-gentleman approach. When I’m on deadline and the pressure is on I will definitely crank it up.”
Sometimes, they do have to tune each other out, which they accomplish using noise-cancelling headphones, typically blasting a favorite movie soundtrack (for him) or the sound of a thunderstorm or crackling fire (for her). When those are on it’s shields up and Do Not Disturb.
“We can work next to each other without distracting one another too much,” Riggs says. “Or it being weird or whatever.”
The weirdness, they save for the page.
LOOKING BACK ON FURTHERMORE
Mafi’s latest is a book she says was inspired by her relationship with Riggs.
In Furthermore, color and magic are the currency that keep the world spinning, but a 12-year-old girl named Alice Queensmeadow lacks any hue whatsoever – with paperwhite hair and skin. She also recently bungled her homeland’s magic trials, which leads her to seek out the missing bright spot in her life: her father, who vanished years before.
Alice teams up with another child named Oliver, who is practiced at the art of deception, but knows the way from their village to the realm of Furthermore, where maybe her father can be found.
When did the whimsical world first begin to evolve?
“The answer to this question is easy and cheesy,” Mafi says. “I wrote that book after I fell in love with Ransom. It was this really beautiful, joyful time in my life and it still is, but that book was really just an expression of that joy. I didn’t realize it at the time but in retrospect, I was trying to capture what I was feeling. It was like my life had entered a world of HD hyper-color and the book was just a great place to explore that color and joy.”
Despite her lead character’s name, people shouldn’t think it’s a takeoff on Lewis Carroll’s classic-lit heroine.
“It’s been problematic because a lot of people think it’s an Alice in Wonderland retelling,” Mafi says.” But I named her Alice Alexis Queensmeadow because it was an homage to my favorite fashion designer, Alexander McQueen, who’s designs were always so bold and so incredible and always pushing the edges of what was normal and acceptable. I just found his work really inspiring.”
In hindsight, Furthermore also proved to be an homage to many fantasy stories she loved as a young reader, Carroll’s Alice stories among them.
“The Secret Garden. Anne of Green Gables. The Chronicles of Narnia. The Prince and the Pauper. Everything by Roald Dahl. I mean those were the books that I loved growing up,” Mafi says. “I didn’t realize I was channeling that love of those childhood stories consciously. All of these reflections that I have or all of my observations about this book all happened retroactively.”
“As so often happens,” Riggs interjects. “People ask what are the themes that you wanted to write about? I’m like ask me in three years.
“Sometimes something is happening inside of you and you just have to tell that story,” Mafi adds. “You don’t really realize why or where it came from until you’ve had time to process everything.
EVER MORE PECULIAR
With Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children hitting theaters now, and two other sequels already published, Riggs ventured back into his fantasy realm to extract an artifact that the characters actually use.
Tales of the Peculiar, which is a collection of mythology and folktales of other people who possess the mystical abilities of the kids in his stories, is a title pulled straight from Miss Peregrine’s shelf.
“It came into being while I was writing the series. I like to populate my fictional worlds with fictional books and there were a few in the Peregrine books,” Riggs says. “There’s the Map of Days, which is the huge atlas of time loops that’s really important to the Peculiars and there’s also the Tales of the Peculiar, which became important in the second book [Hollow City] because Millard, The Invisible Boy, refers to it a number of times throughout the story to save their lives. He realizes that it’s been encoded.”
For Riggs’ characters, Tales of the Peculiar is a beloved storybook for his characters, “sort of a favorite thing that puts them in a happy place,” he said, so after penning a handful of its stories for his other novels, he decided to write the entire thing.
“They’re so fun and freeing and it’s great to go back to the fairy tale form, this basic form of storytelling,” he adds. “The history of the Peculiars is thousands of years old and they were all over the world and there’s so many different people. Finally I could be free to explore any perspective, any country, any time. It was a lot of fun.”
Tales even looks different from his other Peculiar books, with a lush green cover and woodcut illustrations by Andrew Davidson instead of eerie found photographs Riggs employed in past novels. It looks like a found object.
“The guy who did the woodcuts is really brilliant,” Riggs says. “Andrew carves them all by hand and he has a press from 1850 that he uses to make them. To say he was my first choice for illustrator is underselling it. When we were talking about who could illustrate this, I sent his name to my editor to be like, ‘Anyone who can do stuff like him would be great, thinking there would be no way that he would say yes or be available or anything.’ Somehow we got Andrew and I was like, ‘That’s perfect.’”
Riggs isn’t quite sure where his next trip may take him in the realm of the Peculiars.
“With the new book coming out and the movie happening, it’s really hard to work on much. I’m sort of cooking up ideas about what would happen next,” he says. “When I have a free moment typing ideas into a blank document but nothing yet.”:
For Mafi, a companion novel to Furthermore is in the works for next year.
”It’s so cool. I don’t even think you should call it a companion novel to Furthermore, even though it is, because it stands on its own. It’s such a cool concept.”
Mafi bats her eyes at him. “Thank you.”
“Give him the pitch. It’s one sentence,” her husband says.
Mafi winds up, and pitches: “It’s a dark Persian fantasy about a girl who washes dead bodies for a living. It’s very dark, very magical, and kind of grotesque and pretty all at once. I had a lot of fun writing it. It doesn’t take place in the same magical world as Furthermore but it’s a neighboring magical land. You see some of the same characters from the first book, but it revolves around a completely different character.”
“Furthermore is like the spring. This is the winter,” Riggs says.
But as fall sweeps over our real world, the two will be spending their days outrunning it. Traveling for Burton’s Peculiar movie, touring to read from their books, and trying to find time in-between to work on their new ones.
Another advantage to having their latest stories debut simultaneously? They’re hitting that road together.