The Future of Books Is Experimental: At Home with Tahereh Mafi and Ransom Riggs


All week long, Tahereh Mafi and Ransom Riggs sit side by side at a long workbench facing their Santa Monica backyard, writing. The couple, both bestselling young-adult novelists, got married last September (tweeting <3s to each other to the joy of their many fans). So that they don’t distract each other, they wear noise-canceling headphones. “The headphones are like saying, ‘I’m in my workspace now.’ When you take them off, you’ve exited that work space,” Mafi explains.

It may be an unconventional writing situation, but it makes sense for a twosome that defies conventionality. In their books, Mafi and Riggs employ multidimensional tactics—respectively, redacted text that reveals the psyche of the narrator and stories spun from found photos—to bring their words to life in new, utterly engaging ways. And the risks they’ve taken have paid off.

Riggs, 34, went to film school, freelanced for a number of sites (including, wrote a book about Sherlock Holmes, produced book trailers, and wrote screenplays before pitching a book idea inspired by his hobby of collecting old snapshots at flea markets. He’d envisioned an Edward Gorey–esque tome featuring couplets—“goofy-creepy,” as he describes it. But his editor at Quirk Books had another idea. Why not use the photos as the basis for a novel? Riggs eagerly agreed. “I let the photos tell me about what the story would be,” he says. “I’m trying to be careful to choose photos that will add a layer of detail and meaning that can’t be expressed in words. They do something that words can’t do.”

The result was the acclaimed Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a novel combining fantasy, mystery, and deliciously weird vintage black-and-white photographs, an instant hit when it was published in 2011. Now, Tim Burton is “officially attached” as the director for the movie, with shooting slated for this year, and in January, Riggs released a hotly anticipated sequel, Hollow City.

If Riggs’s inspiration comes to him in photos, Mafi’s begins with words: “A lot of writers will tell you they’ve been writing their whole lives, but for me it wasn’t like that. I was always a lifelong reader,” she says. After graduating from college in 2009, she began to read Y.A., “everything I could get my hands on,” and then she started writing, penning five or six unpublished manuscripts in a year. Soon, she produced Shatter Me, a dystopian fantasy about an incarcerated teen, which she published in 2011, when she was 23. It became a bestseller.

The inception of the story was the idea of a terrified young girl that came into Mafi’s mind along with a sense of how that girl would use language and why. “When we meet her at the beginning, she’s been locked up for almost a year,” Mafi says. “She hasn’t talked, she hasn’t touched anyone, and she’s spent the majority of her life being treated like a monster. She writes things down and crosses them out and has obsessions with words and numbers and repetition.”

Mafi depicts the fraught psychological state of her protagonist, Juliette, not only through words but also through the absence of words. Juliette thinks and then redacts her own thoughts; Mafi uses strike-throughs to show her confusion and the complexity of her emotions. Throughout the series, as Juliette grows stronger, the strike-throughs evolve. By the third book, they’re gone. The technique offers a kind of interpretive puzzle for the reader, who must figure out the layered messages and, as is the case for Juliette, what exactly should be believed. It was a bold artistic choice, but it was one Mafi believed in. “I sat down to write a book, and I thought, ‘Screw convention. I’m going to write it the way it feels like it needs to be written,’” she says. The method was so successful that Shatter Me was sold as a trilogy. Ignite Me, the final book in the series (which, in addition to Unravel Me, also contains two digital novellas from the perspective of other characters), has just been released.

At a time when people communicate in ever-evolving ways and, increasingly, live in more than one space—online and in “real life”—this sort of experimentation seems especially appropriate. And as pessimists continue to sound a death knell for print, today’s young readers may respond best to narratives like these—ones that aren’t linear, that offer a variety of layered entry points, and that demand for a certain amount of participation. “There is no one way to tell a story,” says Mafi. “The one thing that sets books apart is when they are told with real, raw, honest emotion—if you just throw your heart in it. When that’s there, you can just feel it.” These two authors have figured out ways to marry their particular stories with unique styles that, as Riggs puts it, “keep the story moving forward and do it through the lens of a living, breathing 3-D character.”

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.