Author interview: Tahereh Mafi and Ransom Riggs

The HUGE crowd at the Taherhe Mafi signing.
The HUGE crowd at the Tahereh Mafi signing.

This interview, as you all know, happened months ago. They’re long gone from our shores, and a lot of you have probably already have had pretty nice conversations with them on their respective Twitter accounts.

And usually, that would be that. I’ve already written my articles on them for the newspaper I work with, usually followed by me putting up the transcript of their interviews, and I would go on with my merry way, trudging through Tyra Banks’ “Modelland” and hoping against hope that today is the day I finally get to update my blog.

But as it turns out, I didn’t put up this transcript. So here it is!

RONREADS (RR): How crazy was the signing at National Book Store?

TAHEREH MAFI (TM): It was really fantastic. I don’t know that you can ever expect something to be amazing. You could never know. But it was really wonderful. It was a great turn out.

RANSOM RIGGS (RaR): I wasn’t expecting that.

RR: Was it something you had an inkling of, maybe through Twitter? Or was the sheer number of fans just a surprise to you?

TM: Seeing that many people was definitely a surprise. I had been in contact with a lot of readers from the Philippines for a year and a half now, since my first book’s been out. They’re so active online and I’m so active online so I communicate a lot with people on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr. I knew that they existed, I knew that there were some of them. I’ve been communicating with maybe 20. But not like 300! It was really nice, it was a really wonderful opportunity and experience. It was fun to meet so many people. I had never expected anyone to scream that much.

RaR: They’re really so enthusiastic. YA fans are enthusiastic to begin with, but Filipino YA fans are like another level altogether. I definitely didn’t expect a crowd like that because they only knew I was going only three weeks before. I didn’t know that I was very popular here! It was a pleasant surprise to me.

RR: Before coming here, what idea did you have about the Philippines?

TM: That there’s so little that we know about the Philippines. The thing is, in L.A., I have lot of Filipino friends. I went to school with a lot of friends from the Philippines, whose parents were from the Philippines but they were Filipino-American. But it wasn’t until I got to Manila that I realized I didn’t really know much about Filipino culture.

In the States, it’s such a melting pot, everyone’s sort of the same culture. I had never distinguished the very vast and the multifaceted history that there is here in the Philippines, from what I was used to growing up with my Filipino friends in the States. We went to a museum here and watched a lot of documentaries and stuff. That was really nice to visit the Ayala Museum. It was great to be able to put it in a historical context. And Manila is like such a metropolitan, international city, and that was really cool. It’s a lot like being at home.

RaR: Balut, Imelda Marcos, her shoes. It’s strange that so many chains and businesses that I used to see back in LA are here. I feel like if I just closed my eyes and I’m home. It’s a warm day, but I’m home.

Tahereh and Ransom answer questions from the crowd at the signing event.
Tahereh and Ransom answer questions from the crowd at the signing event.

RR: Did you come from a writing family? How did you guys first get into writing?

TM: I had never, ever wanted to be a writer. I never thought I could be. It seemed like a really difficult task, to write a book. But I’m a lifelong reader. I’ve always been in love with books as friends. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college and started rereading and reentering the world of young adult (YA) literature that I quickly fell in love with that and the world of young adult literature. I knew I wanted to be there and I knew I wanted to exist in those books somehow and really immerse myself in it. It was the first time that I really thought about writing a book.

RaR: My mom studied English in school, but none of my relatives ever became writers. I just always loved books and I was writing little short stories and stuff from a young age.

It was later on for me that I thought about writing as something that I wanted to do. I went to graduate school fir film in Los Angeles and I was pursuing screenwriting and directing, but I had written my way through film school writing for blogs and little magazines and stuff. That sort of spawned an opportunity to write a non-fiction book for a publisher in the US, and then through that publisher came the opportunity to write this novel. I came about it through this weird, sort of organic way where it was an opportunity that I just said yes too.

RR: Was YA always the goal, or did your story just fit into what YA needed?

TM: I very specifically set out to write a YA novel. I knew I loved young adult fiction and I knew I wanted to write for young adults.

RaR: I didn’t set out to write a YA novel. It just sort of fit into that category neatly.

RR: What was the genesis for your book?

TM: I had been actively writing and pursuing publication. It was just one of those days when I was sitting down on my desk to work and then I was just struck by this image of a girl. I could picture her very vividly in my head. A nameless girl locked into a dark corner, curled into herself, terrified, and isolated for a crime she didn’t intend to commit. All I knew about her was that she was guilty but her intentions were good. And somehow her voice was compelling enough that I tried to capture it on paper. I just opened up a new Word document and started writing.

RaR: Mine was a stack of photographs that I found in flea markets and antique shops. I thought that they were really evocative and interesting. They were lost photos and orphaned images and I didn’t know who they were of, who had owned them, and the stories behind them. I wanted to know, but I couldn’t, so I had to make them up.

RR: Were the photos always going to be arranged that way when you were writing the story, or did they change positions while the story was progressing? It reminded of how Nabokov would write on index cards and he would shuffle them to find out if they would read better.

RaR: The pictures were organic with the story, so it was more about what happened in the story in terms of the structure. The pictures would change around when I would change the structure of the story. I guess they have their own effect on the story while you’re reading it that I didn’t quite anticipate. But the basic structure of the story has always been the same.


RR: In “Shatter Me” and “Unravel Me”, I liked this image of society being afraid of a young girl turning into a woman. Everybody is afraid of the power she has. Was that something you were actively trying to incorporate into the novel when you were writing it?

TM: I definitely knew that I wanted to write about a girl coming into her own. I like to think that the story is about a girl trying to find herself, and the world telling her who to be. I think that’s the universal adolescent experience. In this case, it happens to be a girl, which is important to me because I’m also a girl and I can relate to that experience so much better.

I feel like there’s a lot of discussion of girl books and boy books, and I don’t really know what that is. I’m not sure if I have anything to contribute to it. But I do know that it’s important for young girls to be able to read a book and relate to the character. It’s just a story of this difficult adolescent transition to find yourself and finding out who you are and discovering your identity, taken to an extreme, because she has this crazy ability that has cut her off from society, which I think a lot of young adults feel. Where do we fit in? Where do we go from here? What’s past high school and will we survive it?

RR: How much research went into the asylum scenes? Before I read “Shatter Me”, I was reading a novel about Guantanamo Bay and it had that same claustrophobic feel. I was wondering if you did research on asylums and prison camps to come up with that whole atmosphere?

TM: Not really, although definitely anything we write is certainly inspired by the things that we see and think about. In retrospect, while writing it I didn’t think I was actively inspired by anything in particular. But so much of the story and the government in it is about things that I’ve thought about in our current society. There is a lot of that, where innocent people are thrown into extreme torture or isolation situations. It was just something that I was thinking about, somehow, but I didn’t actively research. I guess it was just something that was very prevalent in a war-torn world. I did spend some time in a depravation chamber.

RR: What was that like?

TM: Terrifying. I was supposed to be in there for 10 minutes, and I made it, but in the first 30 seconds I was becoming extremely paranoid and really freaked out. It’s supposed to cut off all sensory stimuli. You’re not supposed to smell anything, hear anything, and you’re just standing in a really tiny, padded room.

RR: That sounds horrible.

TM: It’s really terrifying. And you’d be surprised with how quickly you turn on yourself and doubt everything. I was so certain that I was hearing things and that someone was going to come and do something. It was so weird. And I know myself to be a rational, levelheaded person. But the minute you’re completely confined and cut off, when there’s absolute sensory depravation, it’s really terrifying.


RR: When it came to the photos, did you try to find out more about them or would that have made it much more difficult to write the story.

RaR: I wouldn’t have been able to make up lies if I knew the truth (laughs). They didn’t have much information on them either. I found out a little later about the style of some of the photos, that it came from this certain era and from this certain country, but that’s all I know. I hadn’t really pursued any of it.

RR: Could you talk about your journey to publication?

RaR: For me, I had a publication deal before I wrote the novel. I didn’t have a guarantee after writing that, but I already had a relationship with the publisher. I brought them the photos and from that I got the deal to write the novel.

TM: I wrote in a vacuum. I wrote in complete isolation from the world of publishing, not knowing and not actively trying to find out how it worked. I was just writing novels and getting rejected. I wrote five manuscripts before I wrote “Shatter Me”. I tried to get each one of them published. There were hundreds of rejections and constantly studying and learning about the industry.

I knew absolutely nothing about publishing or how to get the book published. I had no connections. I had no friends in that world. It was just a process of writing and writing and writing and reading and reading and reading. It was getting rejected a lot and learning from those experiences.

RR: What made you keep going? Some people would have flipped tables already.

TM: (Laughs) It’s tough. That’s one of the reasons why when I get questions from aspiring writers about giving them one piece of advice, it sounds really cheesy but I always say never give up, especially when you want to give up. It’s during those moments when you need to push the hardest. It’s during those moments when you’re the closest to getting somewhere. It’s when you’re about to hit a wall, or when you feel like nothing is going to happen, that’s when it happens. I’ve been there. I’ve had so many of those moments, and I don’t know if it’s stupid stubborness or determination, but there was something in me. You just have to trust that every time it seems like a failure, it’s actually an opportunity to learn. For every manuscript that I failed to publish, I learned to write a book that could be published. It was an opportunity each time and I just had to focus on that and focus on learning and getting better and understanding the industry, as well as forgiving myself for failing.

Tahereh "destroying" a fan's book at the NBS blogger event.
Tahereh “destroying” a fan’s book at the NBS blogger event.

RR: Were your publishers immediately receptive to the ideas that you had for your books? When you check the Goodreads page for “Shatter Me”, the strikethroughs are really divisive.

RaR: Mine was! Quirk Book does weird books all the time. It’s the modus operandi. It wasn’t even that weird for them. What was weird for them was to publish a novel, something that actually had a story. That was unusual. The weird visual element was right up their alley.

TM: I found an agent who really understood the story and she’s amazing and I love her. She in turn found an editor in a publishing house who also understood the story. My publishing house was really behind the concept from the beginning. They got it. It was something that was definitely divisive, definitely polarizing, but they really understood the concept and embraced it.

But even when I was looking for an agent, I remember her asking me to send the manuscript to read it, and she emailed back saying that I probably sent her the unedited version of the book because it still has strikethroughs in it. And I just knew that it wasn’t going to work out. It felt like it was the kind of thing that you needed to understand. I was very lucky that I was able to find an agent and an editor at a publishing house that really got it.

RR: Did you expect the success that the book has received?

RaR: I was really surprised. The book that I had done with Quirk previously only sold 30,000 copies. For them it was good.

I thought it was so strange. The book starts out as a contemporary story and then takes this huge left turn and then it’s about a fantasy world and time travel. I thought people would be like “What? That’s not what I signed up for.” And old pictures? What teenagers are interested in old, wrinkly photos?

TM: I don’t think that there’s any way that you can really know for certain that a book is going to be a success. All I really knew was that my publisher was really supportive. I knew that they were excited about the book and that they had certain marketing ideas in mind. But no one was telling me that it was going to be an instant bestseller. Not that it was! No one made me promises like that. There was no assumption that it was going to be extremely successful or any level of successful. I’m still kind of like (laughs)…. I still don’t feel like I’m a successful writer. I feel kind of lucky that I can call myself a full-time writer, and that’s pretty wonderful.

RR: But what is it that your fans like about the book?

RaR: I try not to listen too much to the response because I don’t want it to color my writing. I’m still in the middle of the second book and I don’t know what people connect to. Some people write nice things about characters that they like. Some people like the time travel stuff.

I try to do both, the sci-fi thing that other writers do where they talk about the mechanics of the world, but they sort of miss out on the characters. This isn’t a sci-fi book, but you can geek out on the rules of the world. Then there are some who like the characters. I try to walk the line and not get too geeky with the sci-fi and fantasy stuff. Hopefully it’s the total package.

TM: I think more than anything else for me as a writer, my focus is on the characters. I’ve noticed that the feedback for me has often been about the characters. It’s like what we were talking about earlier, about Juliette being a girl finding herself. I think that’s usually been the feedback that I’ve gotten. A lot of people hate her because they can’t connect to her, while there are also a lot of people who do connect to her. I think her experience is really unique. If you’ve felt any level of struggle of trying to find yourself, I think you can relate to her. It’s something that I usually hear about from readers.

RR: There are a lot of sensitive scenes in the novel, like the part where Juliette is forced to touch a toddler. Where you were writing “Shatter Me”, did you actively think about how far you could push things, or did you just write in one full go?

TM: I just wrote it. I thought that that scene in particular would be too much, but that’s actually the one thing that no one’s ever complained about. And I was like “Huh.” (Laughs) Like the really truly disturbing stuff in my book, no one is ever bothered by. Nobody has ever had a problem with the physical violence. It’s usually about the romance and the unconventional writing style. Everything else? I think everyone’s been pretty desensitized these days (laughs).

RR: It wasn’t a concern when you first gave it to the publishers?

TM: They wanted even more stuff like that (laughs).

Tahereh and Ransom
Tahereh and Ransom

RR: What’s been the best thing you’ve encountered on this trip so far?

TM: It’s hands down the fans. They’ve been totally wonderful. That’s why we’re here. Really and truly, I have to say it’s absolutely the readers. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we were in transit for 20 hours. We want to spend some time with the people who read our books.

RaR: Totally the fans. I haven’t seen much of Manila aside from restaurants and conference rooms.

RR: You studied film. How does that discipline complement your own fiction writing?

RaR: It’s a path I didn’t mean to take, so it’s hard to know exactly, but there’s images all throughout the book, and I’ve always been obsessed with images. I think screenwriting and making films taught me to focus on that, and the efficiency of language and expressing ideas through pictures as much as words and dialogues. I try to do that in my writing whatever it is. Even in novels, I try to paint a picture in the minds of the readers of the environment and characters.

It was an interesting challenge to include pictures and not make them seem derivative or repetitive, like they’re painting the picture in the minds of the reader and make me feel like I can slack off on the writing because the pictures are doing the words for me. I try to make them work in tandem to make the world even richer.

RR: What was the most difficult part about writing this first novel?

TM: I’d have to say the whole thing (laughs). I think writing a book is hard. Every time you sit down and write a book it’s always hard. It’s just such a process, and sitting down and not doubting yourself as you write it, not wanting to just throw away what you write. It’s jsut you and your computer, and you have to be your own cheerleader. Sometimes it’s hard. You’re just drowning in your own world and you don’t know if it’s any good. Pushing through that and finishing the book is important.

RaR: For me, it was figuring out how to tell the story. There was so many ways that I could approach it. I wrote a version of the book that I threw away. It was pretty different structurally. That’s usually how I work. I do doubt myself a lot and I run through a lot of different ideas. I put myself to the test as I’m writing. Once something is finished and goes out into the world, then it’s tested in different ways.

RR: Do you have a particular writing ritual?

TM: I’m obsessive when I write books. I lock myself in my house and don’t leave for a couple of weeks. I just write all day and then collapse at the end of the day. I often listen to music while I’m thinking of writing the book and plotting and getting into that world. But I can’t listen to music while I write. I do listen to (laughs). It’s nonstop rainy noises and I live in Southern California where it’s sunny and I’m writing a dystopian novel where it’s cold and gross and terrible and I need to get myself into a sad place (laughs). That helps.

RaR: I’m trying not to be so ritualistic because, theoretically, to be able to write, you just need a laptop or a pad of paper. It’s the most portable profession it is. It used to be that I had to be on my desktop computer and have noise-canceling headphones. I had to be at home and it had to be really quiet. I’m trying to be more flexible now. I want to be able to go to Manila and still write.

RR: Have you been able to get any writing done while you’re here?

TM: Not yet (laughs)!

RaR: Still hoping (laughs)!

RR: How much did the success of the previous book affect what you’re writing now?

RaR: I try not to let it affect me too much. It’s exciting. Coming here and meeting so many people who are excited about the book makes me excited to write more. It’s energizing for me.

TM: It’s a little bit different now because I’ve actually written the first draft of the first book, I’m just in revisions now, how it’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. I’m not really afraid to interact with readers because I don’t feel like it’s going to affect me anymore. But I was really careful when I was writing the sequel and writing the first chapter of the third book to isolate myself. I think it’s easy to be affected by what you hear and what people expect. And the more people read it, the more they have very specific ideas of how they want things done. It’s difficult sometimes. You have to stay true to the story.

RR: Were comic books a particular influence when you were writing the book? Were the superpowers in any way inspired by that?

TM: Actually, my superpowers were less fantastical than they were. I was really looking at a world where everything has just gotten so terrible that people can actually be genetically-modified as the result of eating genetically-modified food or sick animals or being around polluted air or drinking contaminated water or being exposed to nuclear waste.

I was watching a documentary where the male fish had developed both female and male reproductive organs as a result of all the estrogen that had been pumped into the rivers. I just remember when I was so stunned  because it was the first time where these fish really and truly genetically mutated because of something we’ve done. What if everything as it is now got really, really bad and the world just fell apart and people just developed these terrifying superpowers. I wasn’t thinking of them as superheroes, but I do like that idea.

RR: What can readers expect from the next book?

RaR: More of the world and more of the characters. I feel like I described one batch of peculiar children, but there’s a whole world of them. We will meet a lot more and expand the idea of the peculiar world. There’s a huge existential crisis and everything is under threat of destruction. There’s going to be a lot of action.

TM: There is a lot of resolution in the third book. A resolution to Juliette’s romantic problems, about what they’re going to do about the world. There’s a big showdown, lots of fighting, action. It’s a pretty typical third book.

(Photos from the National Book Store Facebook page.)

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