Readers familiar with peculiardom and your characters might often wonder what it might be like to possess strange and unusual powers. As you were composing these characters that your audience has come to know so fondly, have you considered a peculiar power you might find useful—or cool—to have?
RR: Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m a bit obsessive about photography. I enjoy taking photos even more than I enjoy finding them (though found photos have an organic randomness to them that suits my books, so I probably won’t start publishing my own photography anytime soon). I get into this mode when I’m taking a lot of pictures where I start to see photos everywhere—across the room there, that old man leaning into a slant of light—but 99% of the time the photo is gone by the time I’ve pulled out my camera and got the lens cap off am ready to take it. So: if I could have a peculiar talent, I’d borrow a trick from the ymbrynes and give myself the ability to briefly freeze time, just long enough to get out my camera, focus, and take the shot before everything falls out of alignment.
Some of your previous works, including the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children series and Talking Pictures: Images and Messages Rescued from the Past, seem to pull inspiration from haunting vintage photography, whereas Tales of the Peculiar featured custom illustrations. What is your favorite part of the discovery and collection process? Do you think you’ll continue creating in this vein?
RR: My favorite fantasy stories keep one foot planted in the real world. I feel this supercharges the fantasy elements, making things like time travel and talking animals seem more believable by association. In addition to adding some gothic quirkiness, that’s what the photography in my books is meant to do. They’re slivers of real people and places—documentary evidence—and I hope they counterbalance the fantasy and nudge the reader to suspend their disbelief just a bit.
The discovery process is a joy; I never get tired of finding new images to incorporate, and it’s great fun when they take the story I’m telling in some unplanned direction. Sometimes I’ll get a great photo but it won’t get used in a book for years, and then suddenly I’ll find it fits perfectly into a story I hadn’t even planned back when I found it.
That said, Tales of the Peculiar was wonderfully freeing to write, because I was no longer constrained by the need to find pre-existing images to accompany the story; our wonderful illustrator, Andrew Davidson, could simply engrave anything that came into my head. What a concept! It felt like a revelation, funny as that might sound, and working with an illustrator is definitely something I want to do more in the future
Setting is a pivotal part of this series and this final book, both temporally and geographically speaking. How have the places you’ve lived in or visited affected your writing? Do you have a preferred time loop, if you had to be stuck in one?
RR: The settings in my books are more a reflection of the places I used to dream of traveling as a kid, but couldn’t … because I was fifteen and stuck in suburban Florida. My itch to travel and explore was profound, though I was as interested in seeing other times as I was faraway places. Now that I’m older and have been fortunate enough to scratch that travel itch quite a bit, I still find myself telling stories about the imagined places I wished I could see, because my actual travel experiences are always from the perspective of an outsider and a tourist.
If I had to be stuck in any time loop? If I’m being honest, it would be a recent one, with some modern conveniences, someplace pleasant, and fairly uneventful so I could work and read in peace, and it would be full of all the people I love. Kind of like my house …
In his exploration of grief and identity, Jacob Portman discovers a lot about himself and his family over the course of the series. What do you hope that readers will take away from the series and might learn about themselves in the process of accompanying him on his journey?
RR: There are two thematic bells I ring throughout the series: that home is where your family is … and that sometimes you have to make your own family. It takes Jacob a lot of books to learn this, but by the end he’s finally got it. If anything, I hope readers take away the idea that, though they might feel isolated and misunderstood now, their people are out there somewhere. Don’t give up; don’t stop looking.
The Desolations of Devil’s Acre features Jacob and his friends’ last stand against the terrifying Hollowgasts and Wights. While these monsters are fictional, there certainly feels like there is a connection between the historical horrors and wars of the twentieth century. Do you continue to be inspired by these events, and what do you think makes the true macabre so enduring and enticing for modern readers?
RR: The hollows and wights give me a chance to explore the two most terrifying categories of monster: the mindless Shambling Terror, which will destroy you no matter how you beg and plead and reason with it, and the intelligent, high-functioning monster who rationalizes all the evil he is doing; who though painful contortions of logic has convinced himself that all the killing and oppressing is actually good and right and inevitable. That’s the more frightening monster, I think, but I also wanted the visceral scare of the Shambling Terror. These fears live in the back of our minds every day, and horror fiction is a way of bringing them out of the shadows and facing them—thus defanging them a bit. Not that I consider what I write to be horror fiction, but those elements are there.
As for the wars and atrocities of the twentieth century, I think for a long time they’ve seemed so historically remote, especially to young people, and growing up studying them it was hard to understand how something like World War One or the Holocaust could’ve happened in the same world we now inhabit. But that’s changing. They no longer seem so unimaginable. They are banging on the coffin lids of history, clamoring to be let out again—and it’s terrifying.
With the sixth and final edition of the series in sight, do you think readers might expect to cross paths with Jacob and the children again sometime?
RR: I think they might. The peculiar world is huge and I’ve spent a long time building it out; it would be kind of a shame to abandon the construction site for good. Though I don’t have anything planned at the moment.
You’re a multimedia storyteller who has created with written text, found photography, personal photography, and filmmaking. What’s next in your creative endeavors?
RR: For the first time in ten years, I don’t know what’s next: and that’s both scary and thrilling.