Ransom Riggs: The Full Interview

Our current print issue includes a profile of novelist Ransom Riggs, which is also now available online. Today, we are posting the full interview with Riggs, which had been condensed into a digest piece for the print issue. Riggs is the author of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and its recently released sequel Hollow City.  Additional photographs that Riggs sent us have also been included:

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Tell us a bit about your found photography collection. For example, what criteria do you use to purchase photographs?  Where do you do your hunting - online / at shops? How many photographs do you own? 

I own a few thousand snapshots, which is small by the standards of most collectors I know. I generally only buy photos I think I may actually be able to use in a book one day.  I need that focus when buying, because without it I’d just buy everything and my house would be overrun with bucket loads of snapshots; there are just too many beautiful images in the world, and I’d need to own them all. I look for photos that have interesting captions written on the fronts or backs (as were featured in my book Talking Pictures), photos of inexplicable and strange things (for my Peculiar Children novels), landscape photos and action shots that have a certain cinematic quality about them, and photos of very, very interesting people. Many of the characters in my books also show up in the photographs, and to make the cut they have to be evocative -- I like it when there’s something in their eyes or their manner that lifts the photo beyond the average snapshot and connects you to the person; when the photograph tells you something about the character that I can’t describe in words. 

I started collecting in earnest a few years ago, scouring the big flea markets and swap meets of Los Angeles (we have many), as there are always a couple of vintage photo dealers at each. Through those dealers, I started meeting photo collectors -- people with very nice, well-curated collections, several of whom very kindly let me comb through their photos for things I might use in my books. I’ve also spent time online on the photo-sharing site Flickr, where there are a number of collectors who put scans of their finds up for all to see, and now and then I buy photos through eBay and Etsy. 

When did you start your collection?  Was there an “a-ha” moment where you just knew that’s what you wanted to collect? Or did it evolve more gradually?

It started about four years ago, when I found myself at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet up in Pasadena (just north of downtown Los Angeles), and I happened upon a booth where a gentleman named Leonard Lightfoot was selling vintage snapshots. I’d seen other vintage snaps for sale in the backs of antique stores and second hand shops, but always lumped together in big, disorganized piles, most of which was undistinguished junk. Leonard’s photos were different. Rather than bins of thousands, he only had a few hundred photos for sale, each one displayed in a hard plastic case. It was clear he’d gone through thousands and thousands of photos to whittle out these few hundred, and as I flipped through them, I came across so many arresting images. That was my a-ha moment: when I realized that the world was full of beautiful-but-orphaned images like these, and that there were people out there like Leonard who took it upon themselves to go through the great masses of uninteresting photos to find the few that really sang -- and I started to get excited. I wanted to find them, too, and own them, and save them from the oblivion of dumpsters and landfills. To be my own curator of lost photographic folk art. 

What are a couple of your favorite photographs in your collection? Please include a scan of them if possible.

I have lots of favorite “peculiar” photographs, but as I have to save them for future books, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite non-peculiar photos. The first three are photos I thought were simply beautiful, or in the case of “Viva Kennedy” reminded me of some of my favorite street photographers -- not photos I thought I’d be able to use in my books, but which I couldn’t resist adding to my collection anyway.

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Tell us a bit about the genesis of Miss Peregrine. How did the idea germinate to build a novel around these found photographs?

It came about right after I started collecting photographs. Though still in its infancy, my collection seemed to fall clearly into two categories: slightly creepy photos that reminded me of Edward Gorey illustrations, and photos with interesting captions written on the front or backs. These split into two separate book ideas: a coffee-table book that used the caption photos, and a narrative fiction book that incorporated the Gorey-esque snapshots. I brought the “peculiar” photos to my editor at Quirk Books -- I’d done one other book with them, a nonfiction book about Sherlock Holmes -- and I asked him what he thought. I wasn’t sure if it should be a book of short stories, or maybe some Gorey-esque poems ... not in my wildest dreams had I thought about writing a novel. I’d never attempted one before, and Quirk didn’t publish much fiction. But after looking through the photos I’d collected, my editor suggested I write a novel using the photos. I leapt on the idea. My collection was small then, and I knew I’d need many, many more photos to choose from while writing, so I started contacting and meeting with other collectors. Robert E. Jackson became a good friend and helped me immensely; half the photos in Miss Peregrine belonged to him. Also Peter J. Cohen and Roselyn Leibowitz in New York, John Van Noate in North Carolina, David Bass in Wisconsin, and many others. I started out knowing nothing about the world of snapshot collecting, and collectors came out of the woodwork to share their knowledge and their photographs with me. I’m grateful to them.

Tell us a bit about Hollow City, its sequel.  What can we expect from it?

The story picks up right where the first novel ends, with the children rowing their little boats into the unknown. They travel far and wide on a mission to save their headmistress, meeting peculiars, exploring time-loops, and battling monsters along the way. And there are fifty more vintage snapshots sprinkled throughout the text. 

Tell us a bit about Talking Pictures. It’s the dream of many collectors to have their collection profiled in such a great showcase. How did that book come about?  Do you plan on a sequel?

The concept came about at the same time as Miss Peregrine, but it took longer to find a publisher, and longer still to complete and print the book. It was a labor of love. I must’ve looked through a million photos -- no exaggeration -- before settling on the two hundred or so that are in Talking Pictures. It was really hard to make that final selection, and there are many more I wish I could’ve included. As for a sequel, while I do have more good caption photos, I don’t have enough for a second book yet, and it takes so long to find good ones ... I need to concentrate on Miss Peregrine for awhile, but maybe one day! 

Hollow City will be your second novel illustrated by found photographs. For your second time out, did you collect photographs purposefully for use in the novel?  Or did you build the story around photos you’d already collected?

This time the story definitely drove which photos I collected. With the first novel, I could let my imagination go and take the story anywhere I wanted to -- and thus let the photos drive the story in many ways -- but this time the story already had an arc of its own, and I only had so much wiggle room. Despite that, I did find many wonderful photos that sparked characters and scenes that I never would’ve imagined otherwise, so there was still quite a bit of the images influencing the story, if not as much as there was the first time around.

Have you noticed an increase in interest in found photography collections since the popularity of Miss Peregrine? Are good pieces harder to find / more expensive as a result?

It’s hard to tell! I don’t think Miss Peregrine changed the snapshot market at all, although I do frequently get emails from fans who tell me they’re going to start collections of their own. I also hear from people who say they’ve been collecting for years. I’ve learned there are many more collectors out there than I ever realized. But no, I wouldn’t say things are getting more expensive or that the good stuff’s been getting harder to find. I’ve never really been interested in the vintage photos people pay lots of money for -- civil war tintypes or old daguerrotypes of famous people. Nor do I have any interest in the really gross, dark stuff that some people pay top-dollar, like post-mortem photos of babies (yuck) or press photos of old murder scenes or whatever. I collect in these little niches most other people don’t care about -- dark-and-weird-but-fun -- and photos that have been written on, which a lot of sellers think hurts their value. All of which is good news for me! 

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