R J Palacio | 'The whole book is about the connections we make in our lifetimes'

R J Palacio | 'The whole book is about the connections we make in our lifetimes'

Pony, the new novel from American bestselling author R J Palacio, is about Silas, a boy who sets off in search of his father with a ghost called Mittenwool and a mysterious pony. Set in the mid-1800s, the novel takes place across the vast American landscape. It will be published by Puffin in a global publication with Alfred A Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books in the US, on 28th September.

What inspired Pony?
The initial spark came from a scary dream my older son had, the details of which are completely forgotten. But what stayed with me was the image of a boy with a half-red face. That image, for whatever reason, stayed with me, and I found myself starting a story about that boy.

It was around this time that my father passed away, and although his death was not a surprise, his passing greatly shook me—not only for obvious reasons, but because my mother was also gone, and I realised that the thing I had always been so afraid of when I was little—being left alone—had finally come to pass. And while I was relatively “old” when that happened, it brought me back to that kid I used to be. I guess there was a lot I was processing in those days, and the image of the boy with the half-red face became a symbol for all that.

Your novel references Telemachus, son of Odysseus, who, like Silas, has a father who leaves on a journey.
Years ago, when I was in college and backpacking through Spain, I purchased an antique book called Las Aventuras de Telemachus for a few pesetas. When I finally made my way back home to New York and showed my father my purchase, he was quite familiar with the book and said it had been one of his favourites growing up. Apparently it was a really popular book once upon a time. Anyway, it’s the story of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, all grown up, embarking on a quest to find his father, who has failed to come home to Ithaca after the Trojan War.

Why do stories about early modern America hold such universal appeal?
I see this as a slice of America in the days when much of it was still an unexplored wilderness. I suppose there is something about the sheer vastness of the landscape that captivates the imagination.

Were any parts of the book based on true events?
No, not in terms of the what happens to the characters, though the background is set against true events. The early days of photography. Trying to photograph the Moon. The counterfeiters operating at a time when there was no central monetary system. The rage of spiritualism. These were all things lurking in the background.

Did you enjoy writing a historical novel?
I really did enjoy writing Pony—this time around. I started it in 2014, and was about 400 pages into it when I realised that what I had written was not the way I wanted to tell the story. I didn’t want to write a whole long saga, which is what that version would have been. In it I had crammed all the research I had done, which was extensive. Too much research, really.

I needed years to disassemble all that stuff and, in the end, when I finally came back to writing the book, I had only retained what was necessary to tell the story. I wanted it to be as minimalist as possible. I wanted the landscape to be bare, the place names to be irrelevant. So, to answer your question: I didn’t like writing it the first time around. And then, during lockdown, it was the right time, and it flowed out of me. That time writing it was a joy.

There is also a supernatural element. What were you trying to explore through the character of the ghost, or did he just appear one day as part of the story?
The supernatural element was always there. The character of Mittenwool was part of the story from the very beginning. The whole book is about the connections we make in our lifetimes, which I believe last well beyond our lifetimes. So I wanted to represent that in as simple a way as possible. Mittenwool is Silas’ best friend, his companion, but there is nothing special about him—other than the fact that no-one other than Silas can see him. His being a ghost, in a way, isn’t the important part. It’s his being a friend that ultimately matters. 

How did you become an author?
I worked in book publishing for more than 20 years before writing Wonder, which I wrote in the evenings while I was still working. That background helps, of course, because I understood the process and business of book publishing from the inside out. One dayI had an idea for a book, and decided to write it.

It wasn’t the first novel I started over the years, by the way. But it was the first one I actually finished.

When was Wonder published, and was it an instant hit? Or did its popularity grow more slowly?
Wonder was published as a midlist book. That means a big advance wasn’t paid. There were modest expectations for the return on that investment. There wasn’t, initially, a large monetary investment for a marketing campaign. It was, like so many novels published, probably not expected to earn out its advance.

But an editor—both on my side of the Atlantic and on yours— loved it enough to want to publish it anyway. Then what happened was that the people in-house who started to read it, started really falling in love with it. That’s when the momentum for Wonder first started: in-house, with that team of people I mentioned earlier. Then the booksellers, who also fell in love, started hand-selling it. Teachers and librarians also started talking about it. And within a few months, this little book about kindness—which is how we all thought of it—surprised everyone and started selling. The theme of the book, about choosing to be kind, hit the zeitgeist in a way that I don’t think anyone anticipated. 

Can you tell us a bit about your writing life and habits?
I love to tell stories, and writing is my preferred way of doing that. But I also love spending time with family and friends, and I can’t say I’m one of those writers that writes every day even when I’m not working on a book. I write until a story is finished, then I do other things. Then when I have another story to tell, I write that one.