R. J. Palacio is back with a new book—and one set outside the world of Wonder, her bestselling novel that sold more than 12 million copies, was translated into more than 50 languages, and inspired the Choose Kind movement. Publishing Sept. 28, Pony, which follows 12-year-old Silas’s journey across a vast American landscape to find his father, is a harrowing yet distinctly beautiful tale about the power of love and the connections that bind us.
In this exclusive interview Palacio sits down with Erin Clarke, an editorial director at Knopf Books for Young Readers and the editor of Wonder, to talk about Pony, the author’s inspiration, research and process, and writing a book outside the world of Wonder.
What made you decide to leave the world of Wonder? It’s been so successful, here and around the world. It has even been translated in more than 50 languages! Your fans must be after you to write a sequel.
They are, and I completely get it! I know what it’s like to fall in love with a book and not want it to end, or to hope the author writes more of the same story. As a mom, I keenly remember when my kids were little and liked a book, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the follow-up for them—anything to get them to want to read more books! So, yes, I completely understand where fans are coming from, and respect that—and don’t want to disappoint them. The thing is, though, I really did write Wonder as a stand-alone story. So, while I added a few chapters to that story with Auggie & Me and White Bird, I don’t think it’s wise for me to turn it into something it wasn’t meant to be. I’d rather leave it as its own self-contained world, which I may go back to someday, and concentrate on making new worlds. I hope fans (and moms) will understand.
Pony really is a completely different world from Wonder—different time period, different tone, different themes. It has elements of both a classic Western and a classic ghost story. What inspired you to write it?
The spark of the story came from a dream my son had years ago, when he was 12 or so. It involved a boy in the old West whose face was half-covered in blood. (It was a scary dream!) That vivid imagery stuck with me, and a story started taking root in my mind about the boy with the half-red face. What happened to him? Who was he? How was he doing? I began to create a world in which that boy could exist. It’s unbelievable, in hindsight, that one image could spark an entire novel, but that’s really how it came about.
Once the story started forming in my head, I knew it was going to be a quest story in the most traditional sense. The boy embarks on a journey, has a series of revelations, and is never the same. In so many classic hero journeys, the protagonist has both a faithful companion and some kind of wondrous animal to accompany him—in this case, the companion is a ghost, and the animal is Pony.
You did extensive research about the time period, touching on everything from the birth of photography to the history of telescopes, the American spiritualism movement, and even counterfeiting methods used in 19th-century America. What was your process like?
As I mentioned in the afterword, I’ve been collecting antique objects for decades—books, cameras, daguerreotypes. The dags in my collection actually influenced the characters in the book, which is why I ended up using them as the chapter openers. So, in some ways, I’d been doing research on some of the topics long before I started writing the book. But once I started actually writing the story and committed to the time and place in which its set, I immersed myself—for years—in that time period, reading spaghetti Westerns, diaries, firsthand accounts, and literary novels from that era, even taking a class in wet-plate collodion photography so I could better understand early photographic processes. Literally, for several years, that’s all I read. If there’s a version of method acting for writers, that’s what I was doing. By the time I finally started writing the book, though, it was almost too much information. Four hundred pages and two years into that version of the story, I knew it wasn’t the book I wanted to write. So I threw that manuscript away and moved on to other projects.
The story of the boy with the half-red face stayed with me over the years, though, ruminating in my head, popping up unexpectedly. During the lockdown, after more than 10 years of gestating, it finally came out. By then, the research had been fully absorbed. What I needed to remember was still in my head. But what I didn’t need to hold on to, I’d forgotten. I had always envisioned Pony as a quick epic, a small, intimate story set against a vast landscape. I wanted the story to be told in a minimalist way, stripped down to just the bare essentials, enough to evoke a time and place, but without specific place names. The Woods. The Ravine. The Hollow. I wanted to describe the world as seen through the eyes of a child. There’s a map in his mind, but it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the map of the world. As the storyteller, of course, I knew that map. But I didn’t need to include its details. That was my approach with all the research: use only what was absolutely needed.
In relation to Wonder, you’ve been quoted as saying that the whole book could be summed up, thematically, as a meditation on kindness. Do you have a similar summation for Pony?
I would say that Pony is about the connections that bind us. Those connections might not be seen, but they’re there, like invisible threads, connecting us to each other, the living to the dead, the past to the future. We live in a world we barely understand, full of uncertainties and vast distances separating us. What keeps us together, as human beings? What connects us? Love.
“Love is a journey without end.” That’s the tagline of your book.
It’s something I really believe. My mother and father died years ago, but they’re still with me. Love really never dies. We’re living in a time full of unfathomable loss. It’s important that people remember that love stays with us. We’re all dependent on one another, whether we like it or not. We’re each other’s keepers, if only because we have to be. We’re all we’ve got in this world. Let’s hold on tight.
Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever seen one?
I believe that there’s more that can’t be seen than can be seen. The rest is a mystery. So, no, I’ve never seen a ghost—but I still believe in them.