Peter Lerangis, author of 106 books, talks about the YA reader

It’s hard to believe at first but for the longest time, Peter Lerangis never really saw himself as a writer. It’s a bewildering statement, really. Peter, after all, is not only prolific — he’s written a whopping 106 books — he’s also the author behind some of Young Adult and Middle Grade fantasy’s most compelling, not to mention popular, stories. So, what gives?

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer, I would write about trips to the Moon in my notebooks during math class as a child. I just didn’t think that I could actually be one” Peter, 61, tells me during our conversation at the Long Bar in Raffles Makati.

“Where I came from, there wasn’t much encouragement,” Peter explains, noting that it was this apparent lack of support that eventually led him to take up biochemistry as his major during his college days at Harvard.

Despite this however, Peter admits there was just no way of escaping literature’s siren call.

“I was a biochemistry major. But then I realized I didn’t want to be a doctor,” Peter says, adding that he meandered through a couple of odd jobs — a job at a law firm, a stint as an actor on Broadway, an editor for a publishing company — before eventually landing a job as a ghostwriter for some of publishing’s esteemed titles.

“When I eventually came back to writing I had a long way to go. I started working as an editor, then as a writer, and I got connected to people who were publishing books that needed ghostwriters and I said, okay I’ll try that, because in that way, I’ll learn,” Peter says.

“Ghostwriting, in a way, became my graduate school; it was where I learned how to pace a book, how to develop characters and how to do a plot that made sense, as well as how to give it shape and give it some suspense,” Peter, who worked on titles featuring beloved characters such as Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Sweet Valley Twins, and the Baby Sitters’ Club, says.

But despite finding success in writing for established titles, Peter eventually decided to try his hand at writing his own — a leap of faith that eventually earned him not just spots on numerous bestseller lists, but also, citations and awards from literary bodies.

Here, our conversation:

GIST: You’ve been writing for quite some time now. What’s your writing process like?

PETER LERANGIS: Whenever I get an idea for a new story, I try to plan how it’s going to end, and how it’s going to begin, and then a rough idea of what happens in the middle. Knowing how the book’s going to end gives me some confidence that I’ll actually finish it someday. The problem is when you start a book; there are so many possibilities to start it, to get into it, like getting the voice right, and it takes a really long time. For me it’d take me maybe a week to finish a page, or maybe two weeks, because sometimes it’s not right — the voice doesn’t sound real, it’s fake, the characters aren’t interesting enough — it’s only when I finally get the voice right, that the writing gets a little bit easier.

Where do you get your ideas? 

My ideas come from things that I see. I live in New York and there’s just so much to see, like some strange relic from some other time, or maybe an odd conversation that I’d overhear.

I always bring a little notebook, a little pad of paper with me — very old fashioned, I know. Anyway, I just write things down and put them on a piece of sticky note and tack it to a board in my office until there’s so many of them and when I’m ready to write something, I bring them all down and sometimes, the ideas that seemed so great when you think of them, you just look at them and you go “are you kidding me?” but every once in a while there’d be one or two that you’d still connect with.

Peter Lerangis (Photo by Mike Rebuyas)
Peter Lerangis (Photo by Mike Rebuyas)

You’ve written so many characters in the course of your career. How do you ensure that each character is different from the rest?

I don’t know! That’s like the secret formula! (Laughs) Seriously speaking though, what we’re really talking about is voice: you’ve got to have a voice and the voice has to be real because if it’s not, then the book just dies.

When it comes to telling a story, your biggest problem is determining who is telling the story, whose is the voice that animates everything.

With me, what helps is this: reading your own book aloud to yourself, just sort of finishing a chapter or two and then sitting back in your chair and reading it. It’s amazing what you can find out when you’re reading your own writing aloud: if it sounds fake, you’ll hear it and you’ll know that when somebody reads it they’ll feel it too, so you go and change it and make it better.

Who are your literary influences?

I have so many of them now! When I was younger, the one who really influenced me the most was Jack London, because his stories, his adventure stories were so vivid.

Another favorite of mine is Edgar Allan Poe because of his use of words, and how he could be so creepy and how he could make me so scared.

When it comes to science fiction, one other author whom I really like is Ray Bradbury. I read one of his stories when I was younger and after I finished I just sat there and stared at the book thinking, “What did I just read?”

You’ve been writing for quite some time now. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in Young Adult and Middle Grade literature during your career?

There aren’t a lot of taboos now, and I think it’s because of the readers.

Readers, especially Young Adult ones, really want to engage with their problems especially since it’s such a hard time at this point in their lives, like they’re not really grown-ups yet, and they have all these older people, like their parents, looking down on them because these grown-ups see them as just kids but they’re not: they’re having relationships, they have questions about their sexualities, their orientations, and are essentially defining themselves for the first time.

Years ago, there were no books that talked about some of these problems because back then people thought you couldn’t approach these subjects in literature for kids, but now people are recognizing that there is a very specific time of life when you need to engage in some of these subjects. A lot of YA books now are very controversial; they’re really going to places that no one had ever gone into before. Even the fantasy books are very much engaged with Young Adult themes.

A lot of people are dismissive when it comes to Young Adult literature. What do you think is the reason behind this?

I think it’s because they want to assume superiority, that they want to project this image that they’ve put all of the problems — that they assume are just for young people — behind. I think the people who dismiss Young Adult literature just have this idea that showing interest in literature that’s for children or young adults is an admission that they’re still unformed in some way.

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Let’s talk about The Seven Wonders. Where’d you get your inspiration for this series?

I went to Greece years ago, and I was visiting some of my family, some of my relatives. Anyway, my mother had a cousin in the island of Rhodes and so while we were sitting on the harbor, I realized that we were sitting in the place where The Colossus once stood. And I remember the harbor was so big that the idea that the statue had one foot on one side and one foot on the other, and that ships could pass underneath, that meant this thing would have been ten times the size of the Statue of Liberty and I couldn’t imagine how they could have built it and then I began thinking “oh, it’s an Ancient Wonder, one of the Great Wonders and I started getting interested in them.”

On that same trip, I went to the island of Crete and it’s fascinating because it turns out that the whole island is tilting: the southern part is lifting out of the water while the northern part is sinking, little by little, just a tiny bit each year. People on Crete say the island of Atlantis was just off the north coast and that it actually sank because of the tilting.

I started getting interested in Atlantis because Greece thinks they had Atlantis, Spain claims they had Atlantis — basically everyone claims Atlantis. But both of those things — the Seven Wonders and Atlantis — have been written about so much and I thought that I didn’t have really anything new to say and I kind of thought I would never do that.

Anyway, I was already playing with this idea for an adventure, about kids trapped on an island, but I was having having trouble — I myself didn’t know why the kids were there — but I liked that idea, I thought it was exciting. And then I started thinking about the Seven Wonders, and the island, and I started putting a bit of theories on genetics into it: so the four kids were descended from a prince in Atlantis and he’s taken these magical objects and hid them in the seven wonders of the ancient world and if they don’t find them, the cursed gene they inherited from him would end their lives at the age of 14. It all came together, from all those sources, but it all dated back to that trip to Greece that I took.

What’s your favorite scene in The Seven Wonders?

This is hard, you know, because I actually have a favorite scene in each book.

First, I love the opening in book one, The Colossus Rises, because it took me so long to write. In Lost in Babylon, it was the scene where the kids discover that they could travel between two worlds. In book three, The Tomb of Shadows, it’d be the way the Mausoleum comes to life out of nothing with all these strange symbols that welcome them to the underworld, that for me was very fun to write because it was so creepy and I just dug into that. In Curse of The King, it’d have to be when the statue comes to life because I love the fact that I made it funny and scary at the same time.

Personally though, if I had to choose just one, it’d have to be the end of book five, The Legend of The Rift.

Among the characters you’ve created, is there a specific one that you identify with?

Jack, the lead character, because while he has this gene that he inherited from an ancient Prince — which, in the book, opens up this closed part of your brain and enhances what you’re good at and essentially turns it into a superpower — he still feels like he’s got nothing, like he’s a mistake, especially when he compares himself to his companions Marco, who’s an incredible athlete, and Ally, who’s a tech genius, and Cass, who’s a human GPS who can take you anywhere in the world.

That’s kind of the way I was as a kid; I went to Harvard and I thought it was a mistake, like maybe they must have meant the next kid and just pointed at the wrong name, because everyone else was just so smart.

What do you think is the reason why people — especially young readers — are drawn to fantasy?

 I think it’s because there’s so much happening that’s confusing in life and as a kid, you just feel helpless.

Bruno Bettelheim, many, many years ago, wrote a book called The Uses of Enchantment, and one of the things he said, was that children need to read about difficult concepts like death and misery and poverty in fairy tales because it’s a safe environment: they can think their way through some of the things that scare them through characters that they know are not real.

This happens a lot of times too in mythology: you can imagine yourself in these situations with characters who aren’t just constantly battling life and death, but also, gods and monsters, who, in a way, tend to act as surrogates, as replacements for parents, teachers, the government, essentially all adult figures — and that’s one way of negotiating the world and finding out not just your place in it, but also what’s right and wrong.

Let’s talk about fan-fiction. A lot of authors I talked to are kind of iffy on the subject, they feel like it’s an intrusion on their territory. Your stories, especially those contained in the Seven Wonders universe, are really popular, with tons of fan-art and fiction floating around on the Internet. What’s your take on this?

I love fan fiction and fan art! Maybe they have their reasons but I don’t get why other writers get so iffy about that!

I mean, first of all, it’s flattering; second of all, we’re all influenced by something. Just like what I told you, Jack London really influenced me, and when I first started writing stories, they sounded like Jack London, they sounded like Edgar Allan Poe, and I think it’s because I was testing out my voice. If somebody wants to write fan fiction based on something I wrote, well it’s basically the same thing: they’re developing their skills, and they’re using as a prompt, in some way, my stories. If they want to get into the stories and take them in a different way or direction, or develop them in a way that they feel, I’d feel honored. I love fan fiction and I love fan art and it just makes me feel grateful.

What advice would you give to writers who still haven’t taken that first step, those who are yet to write their first book?

The biggest advice I can give to an aspiring writer is read, read, read. All the time. The only time you shouldn’t be reading is when you’re crossing the street because you can die. Or driving.

If you’re really serious about it, you have to remember that writing is a lot like playing a musical instrument: you have to constantly do it.

Also, don’t think that whatever you finish will be the best or the greatest thing you’ll ever write. I like to think that whatever I’m writing now, ironically, is going to be the worst thing I’ll ever write in my entire life, and that’s just a way of saying that I’ll get better and better and better.