R.J. Palacio, PONY

R.J. Palacio, PONY

After years spent writing within the world of her bestselling book, Wonder, R.J. Palacio’s new novel Pony is a stunning change of pace. Set in the American frontier in the 1850s, the “quick epic,” as R.J. calls it, grapples with big themes like life, death, and family. R.J. tells Zibby about how her own orphanhood inspired elements of the story, why she scrapped the first version of her manuscript after two years of work and began it from scratch, and the role music played in helping her complete the novel.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Raquel. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Pony.

R.J. Palacio: Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m so excited.

Zibby: I loved this book. I read it start to finish. It was so immersive. I got chills. I was near tears at many points. Then after I read the entire thing, I went online and watched the trailer after your comments at the end. I was like, oh, what trailer? Then I played it. I was like, oh, my god. Then I emailed your publicist. I was like, “That was so emotional.”

Raquel: Thank you so much. It’s the first thing I’ve written outside of the Wonder world, so I’m nervous. I’m really nervous about what people’s reactions will be. Thank you. It means a lot.

Zibby: When I heard what it was about — maybe you can tell listeners the elevator pitch of it. I guess it never really does justice to the book. The plot itself is just one tiny piece. I feel like this book was — well, you tell them what it’s about. I just feel like it’s about life and death and family and all of it.

Raquel: I’m so glad you’re saying that because it is — on the premise, it’s a very linear narrative, very straightforward, about a twelve-year-old boy who lives alone in the middle of nowhere with his dad and his only friend, really, who is ghost companion that he’s had since as long as he can remember. The book opens with some armed men — again, this takes place in the 1850s in the American frontier, a vast, unknown territory full of pockets of true wilderness and wildness and all of that. These three armed men come in the middle of night for his dad. They take him away. Silas, the boy, is left alone and terrified. When the horse one of the men had been leading shows up again in the morning, Silas takes that as a sign from the universe that he actually has to go and save his dad. His dad needs him. He has to go on this journey. On the surface, it’s a very straightforward quest journey. Boy goes out and has a specific agenda. I’m going to save my dad. I have a horse. I have a companion. Again, classic hero’s journey stuff. I did also want to really touch on bigger themes about death and love and connections, the connections that tie us together as human beings, but I didn’t want to do it in a heavy-handed way. When I have people who are great readers like you actually make those connections without us having to say, it’s a book about big themes, it’s so great. I’m thrilled.

Zibby: Good. It just resonated. There was so much. I found myself wondering if you as the author — if it had been inspired by loss. I know you wrote it during the pandemic or that you had thrown out most of the book and started over from scratch. I’m so sorry, but that’s amazing that you had to do that. I’m sorry you had to go through it to get to this point. Here, I’ll just read a quote, this one, for instance. You said, “I can’t tell you what some ghosts know or don’t, he replied softly. Death is different for everyone just like life is. People see the world they believe in, and you see the world they believe in. I know it’s not easy for you.” Then there was another one that says, “It’s always been a wonder to me, and always will be, to see something invisible be made visible. Slowly, magically, the negative of the moon took form on the glass plate inside the bath.” I feel like that was actually much more than the photograph. It’s the theme of the whole book, in a way.

Raquel: Exactly, the correlation between photography and — the book takes place in the early days of photography as a science. New discoveries were being made all the time. I still find myself, as a fan of photography — I went to art school, so foundation year, photography. I have always just found it fascinating. Even though I understand a little bit, the chemical science behind it, still, the idea of taking this invisible image, placing it in a bath of some sort of solution and then having a latent image appear is kind of miraculous. In that way, there is a correlation between or a metaphor between this idea how in photography, the invisible does become visible through the action of sunlight and some chemicals. In a way, death can be like that too. There’s so much that is invisible in this world and things that we don’t understand. Doesn’t mean they’re not there. It just means we don’t see them. We don’t have whatever we need. Silas is a boy who can see ghosts. He has, for whatever reason, a connection to that other world, which you can either believe in or not. That’s totally fine. It’s a fun world to delve into a little bit. Yes, I started writing this book many years ago. It was around the time that my own dad was dying. He was an old man, though. That comes with its own sadness and all of that, but it’s not like I was a child. I just want to make that clear. My mother had passed away almost twenty years ago. I’m sure everyone who is lucky enough to have great parents can identify with this idea. That’s the big fear in our lives when we’re little, that something would happen to our parents. I was a very anxious kid when it came to that stuff. I thought about it a lot.

Then suddenly, I find myself in my fifties facing that sense of, oh, my goodness, they’re gone. I’m okay. The world goes on. I was just thinking a lot about those connections. It’s really the love. That just doesn’t go away. That connection is always there even if — I wish I could still speak and hear them. I wish I were Silas. That was on my mind. Like you said, I had started this novel. I was four hundred pages into it, two years into writing it. I was probably not even a third of the way through because there was so much in there. I realized I didn’t want to write one of these giant, big epics that would’ve been 1,200 pages, easily, by the end. I wanted to write a really quick epic. Sometimes you have to not only course correct, but you have to, okay, this is just not working. I threw it out, literally because I had to, and went on to other things, didn’t think about it, but the book and the characters kept coming back to me over the years in bits and pieces. I never could figure out how to make this quick epic of it. Then for some reason during the lockdown, I just sat down one day, and it was like it was ready. It had baked. It was fully baked. It was just ready to come out. It was one of the most glorious writing experiences I’ve ever had because it just flew. Every day, I’d sit down. I knew where I was going. It was a lot of fun to write. That was that story.

Zibby: Wow. I feel like you can tell that in the reading. The pacing and the reading, it just all keeps going so effortlessly. What you were saying about your parents, by the way, you are an orphan at any age. Orphanhood in your fifties, it doesn’t matter. It’s still you. It’s still your parents. It’s still that feeling of, who is looking out in the world? It’s a sensation that — I think you captured it so well with Silas, of course. Maybe I’m ruining something by saying that. I can delete that part if you want.

Raquel: No, no, totally good. Exactly. His mom, from the very beginning, she died in childbirth, so he’s always living with her still.

Zibby: Interestingly with him, there was one scene where — I’m forgetting who he was talking to, but the souls that you can see, he has this realization. Maybe they don’t know that they’re gone. Maybe they don’t know. What if they think that they’re still with us? What if some souls stay longer and some don’t? Maybe not to the extent of Silas, but I do believe in mediums. Who knows what happens? I’ve had a really powerful couple medium experiences. I feel like once you’ve had those, it’s hard to go back. Okay, well, maybe I’ll believe it now.

Raquel: There’s something there.

Zibby: How did you know that?

Raquel: Even if there’s no explanation for it, it doesn’t deny the fact that these realities possibly could exist. They knew something that they had no reason to know. Something’s up there. I can’t explain it. I really had a sense or I have a sense that, just like people — we’re human beings. We’re verbs. It’s always a process and a journey, being alive. It just makes no sense for that suddenly to stop as if the idea that whatever souls that we are suddenly know everything. You die and suddenly, you’re all-knowing. No, you’re still the same person you were but maybe a little — I don’t know. That’s what I wanted to capture, the sense that there are mysteries that we’ll just never really be able to wrap our heads around, but we can accept them and live with them and welcome them and love them and make the world wonderous. That’s okay.

Zibby: I feel like that provides so much comfort for me, thinking and believing that. I’ve had conversations with myself. It probably isn’t true, but it’s making me feel better now. Am I just fooling myself? Is it worth fooling myself if I feel better?

Raquel: Have you been in my head? You’re totally describing everything I’ve ever felt. Then I realize there’s a point where it’s not a question of whether you believe or whether you want to believe, but they’re both fine. Why not? It doesn’t matter.

Zibby: More to the literary side, you had a lot of references, I felt like, to this whole Ulysses, Telemachus journey. Was that, in part, the format you wanted to encapsulate in this journey with the way — not the wayfinders, but the people they —

Raquel: — Absolutely. That was sort of how I wanted the book to be in the beginning, again, eight years ago or whenever it was that I threw out those pages. I always had wanted to just write a very linear journey from point A to point J and have things happen along the way and then use that device as a way of telling a larger story. Part of the issue was figuring out how to do that in a way that doesn’t feel too cumbersome or too descriptive. I did a lot of research for the book. I love old things. You end up falling in love with the things that you find out. Then I would put too much description in there. There was a point where I knew the railroad schedules of trains on the Erie Canal. I knew so much. It was crazy. Honestly, I needed to just walk away from all the research and let it settle and then pick it up when it was at a point where I remembered what I needed to remember and I forgot what I never needed to know. That’s exactly what came out. It was good. I’m glad I waited.

Zibby: I’m glad you waited too. The ending, which I won’t give away in any way, part of it, I had maybe an inkling, but then other parts, not at all, not at all. Did you know where it was all headed? Did you know all those big pieces from the start?

Raquel: From the start, I knew that I had certain landmarks I wanted to hit. That was the fun part about writing it, when all of a sudden it’s like, you know you want this there, you know bits and pieces, but how to get there exactly still has to work itself out. Then all of a sudden, it’s like, oh. It’s like finding a little jigsaw puzzle. I’m like, yes. Oh, and then this. Then it just kind of works itself out. At least with me, I didn’t have any kind of firm outline. I just knew where I was going and what I wanted to hit. There was only one point — I can go into it — where I flinched in my first draft because it’s heartbreaking. Things are heartbreaking. You’re like, maybe this person doesn’t have cross over, whatever. I remember that was the only time — I came downstairs. I had dinner with my family. We were in lockdown, so they would hear about my progress on the book. It was the first and only time during this process of writing that I was like, he has to die, whoever it was. That was heartbreaking. When you’re writing, you do have the power of life and death. You can decide who lives, who dies. In terms of the journey, that person was always meant to leave. It was heartbreaking because I fall in love. These characters have lived with me for a long time. They really haven’t changed over the course of the years. It was fun getting them out on paper too. It was nice letting the world meet them too. That’s always a nice journey as well.

Zibby: Amazing. Well done with — some of the things, I just got chills. I won’t ruin anything, but really, really amazing, very cool.

Raquel: For instance, I always knew the violin would feature.

Zibby: You did?

Raquel: Yes.

Zibby: And the shoe and everything?

Raquel: Yeah, from the beginning. Did you ever watch Doctor Zhivago?

Zibby: No. Did I?

Raquel: One of my favorite movies.

Zibby: Wait, did I? Wait, I may have. If I did, it was so long ago. I feel like I watched it as a kid. It came out forever ago, right?

Raquel: It came out forever ago. It has an intermission. It’s super long.

Zibby: I think I watched it with my mom as a kid.

Raquel: There a whole balalaika thing in there. I’ve always loved that. The balalaika’s kind of a key to some whatever. That just always stuck with me.

Zibby: I should probably watch that again next time I find six free hours to watch Doctor Zhivago. Okay, maybe not. The song, the refrain, and then to hear it in the trailer, honestly, doesn’t it make you cry? Does that have personal relevance to you?

Raquel: Yes. In a way, it was that song that finally freed the story. Weirdly enough, with Wonder, I’d had this incident with the — I’ve told this story so many times, but the child in the ice cream store who had a facial difference. It was hearing Natalie Merchant’s song “Wonder” that kind of, oh. It’s weird. It just made it like, oh, my goodness, I’m going to write a book. It’s going to be called Wonder. It’s going to be about this. All along with Pony, I wanted that song to come to me. I didn’t have the song. Then during lockdown, I just had a lot of time on my hands. I found myself on a website listening to sixteenth-century folk ballads. That song came. I saw it. First, I read the lyrics. I was like, oh, my goodness. Then I started researching the song. There have been some renditions of it that aren’t necessarily my cup of tea, but the chord arrangements were there. I play guitar. I started coming up with a little — anyway, it was great. My sons are in it. My older son sings. My younger son plays guitar. It was also our COVID project. It was so much fun. First, we had to practice. Not that they weren’t busy, by the way. They were super busy, but they gave me enough time to be able to learn the song and practice. Then I reached out to Molly Fletcher, who is an incredible violinist. My husband had worked with her before. She helped arrange the violin solo and a recording studio. Then we did the music video. It was so much fun to film that. I got the costumes. It was just great. No one was in Prospect Park. We could shoot where we did Saturday morning. It was great. It was a lot of fun.

Zibby: How did you get it all old-fashioned looking?

Raquel: Those are just apps. We did it with our phones. My husband, my son’s girlfriend Rebecca, and I were just like, okay, there you go. Thank you. I really appreciate it. That was so much fun.

Zibby: That’s amazing and so personal and everything. Did you think about not calling this book Pony? Not that I don’t love the title. It’s a great title. It’s a great cover.

Raquel: No, no, you can not like it.

Zibby: I’m not saying I don’t like it. I’m wondering what those discussions were like when the title was being —

Raquel: — It was always Pony for me. Even when it was four hundred pages, it was always Pony. That’s what I always thought about it. My publisher, from the very beginning, was like, “We don’t love it.” My sons were like, “Pony? Mom, I don’t think I would read that book. Pony is like My Little Pony. It’s just kind of whatever.” I’m like, “Okay, okay,” so I tried other titles. It was This Bright Land for a while. I had other titles. They all just felt wrong to me in the end. I vacillated again when I turned in the manuscript. You get your first read from the publishers, and everyone weighs in. That was the only other thing that everyone said, “Eh…” By then, I was really wed to it. I knew, also, what the cover would look like because I designed the cover. That was my background. I was a jacket designer. I kind of knew how I wanted it to look. By then, it was just too late. It was like, “I’m sorry. It’s Pony. Forgive me, but that’s what it is in my head. I think it’s what it has to be at this point.” Yes, it was a question.

Zibby: Well, I think it’s too late to change it now.

Raquel: It’s too late to change it now.

Zibby: I’m kidding. It’s great. It’s a strong title.

Raquel: It can be anything. Titles are very strange. As an author, just like when you name someone, a character, something, it’s really hard to change the name later on if you suddenly, for whatever reason, have to — it’s like, okay, that’s not the same person.

Zibby: Very interesting. Are you working on anything new? What’s after this one?

Raquel: It’s funny you should say. Last time, I took so long to get from Wonder and White Bird to Pony. I actually started — I was on vacation. I thought, I’m just going to start my next one. I don’t want to go too into it. I haven’t officially started, but I’ve started thinking about it and putting words and thoughts down. I want to just keep doing it. I like writing. When it goes well, it’s really great. When it’s hard, it’s hard. Let’s hope this one goes as well as Pony did. I really enjoyed the experience of writing that one. I’d enjoyed Wonder as well, but Wonder was more — I was working a nine-to-five job, so I used to write in the middle of the night. I used to get up from twelve to three. My kids were younger then, so that was the only quiet time of day. You would know, right? You have four.

Zibby: I get it. I was finishing this book at four thirty this morning. I’m like, come on, nobody’s going to be awake. Then of course, I hear footsteps an hour later.

Raquel: How old are your kids again? What range?

Zibby: Six and eight, and then I have fourteen-year-old twins.

Raquel: Oh, my goodness. COVID, wow, kudos to you.

Zibby: My daughter has COVID right now, one of them.

Raquel: Oh, no. I’m so sorry.

Zibby: It’s fine. She’s not sick, so I’m like, it’s fine. It’s always something. It’s just always something, but that’s okay. They bring lots of joy. It’s like you feel like with writing. I’m like, all right, I’ll keep doing it because a lot of times, it’s great.

Raquel: That’s exactly right. For the younger kids, it’s been especially — not that it hasn’t been hard for the older kids. My seventeen-year-old son did really well. Still, it was a long time to be locked in with your parents. It’s tough.

Zibby: There’s no great age. There was no age where you’re like, good thing you were this age. There’s no good age.

Raquel: Actually, I have to say, my older son who’s twenty-four came back to live with us for the year. He hadn’t lived with us since before college. That was kind of cool. That was a good age. I didn’t mind getting a whole other extra year of having him around, so that was nice.

Zibby: Better for parents. I feel like it was a joy for a lot of parents. I’m just saying from the kids’ perspectives.

Raquel: For the kids, right.

Zibby: Is Pony going to be a movie? It must be, right?

Raquel: Yes, either a movie or possibly — I’ve already had several talks. The movie seems like a natural, but I kind of think it would make a really great binge-y, stream-y series. You know how Lost had the — you had the main narrative, but then you can actually have the backstories of all these characters. All of these characters exist in my head. They’re small and minor characters. The character of Pa in a movie would actually be a minor role because he doesn’t actually have a lot of airtime. Whereas in the series, Pa has an incredible backstory starting in Scotland and then an incredible love story with Silas’s mother, a poor man and a rich girl, 1850s Philadelphia society. It’s a really beautiful story that isn’t actually told but just hinted at in Pony, but in a series thing, I think really could be told. Then it would all tie in at the end. I’m thinking ten episodes is what we would need to really tell the story. That is the question, whether or not it would be better served as a movie or as maybe a — that’s harder to get off the ground, I believe, these days. We’ll see.

Zibby: I’m sure you’ll be okay either way getting it off the ground.

Raquel: We shall see.

Zibby: It has such universal appeal. It doesn’t matter what era it’s in. It’s so engrossing. That’s just going to make it better. I’m rambling.

Raquel: No, I love hearing this. Honestly, you have no idea. It’s music to my ears for many reasons, but mostly because, as I said, it’s so different from Wonder. I know that when I love an author and I love a book, I kind of want them to write the same book over and over again. I was really afraid of disappointing people. The response I’m getting is that people, they’re not being disappointed. I’m really thrilled.

Zibby: I think it’s great when authors try new things. Who did I talk to? Gosh, I’m starting to lose my mind in my old age of podcasting here. Paula McLain, who had written historical fiction and then wrote All the Stars or something, which was more of a thriller, psychological mystery. She was so worried when we had our conversation that she was shifting genres. I was like, I don’t think you should be this worried. It’s going to be a good book. Readers just really want great books. It turned out it was a best seller. It all works out.

Raquel: I think what happens is, between the writer and the reader, there’s all these in-betweens. There’s the booksellers. Then there’s the publishers. If you’re lucky enough as a writer to connect directly with the reader despite all the genres — there’s what shelf you end up in in the bookstore. There’s so much rigmarole. It’s hard.

Zibby: I know, but I think people don’t give enough credit to readers, honestly.

Raquel: I think you’re absolutely right.

Zibby: Speaking of, what advice would you have for aspiring authors? Then I’ll leave you alone. I promise.

Raquel: No, not at all. This has been wonderful. I could talk to you every day. I was about to say something that I’ve told people, but I don’t follow it. Now I’m not sure it’s true. I was about to say, continue without fail to write something every day. I really was told that that is what you’re supposed to do. Even if it’s not for a book or whatever, even if it’s journaling, whatever it is, write it. Get it down. I’m not entirely sure that that’s — I have to admit that I don’t write every day. I write when I have something to write. I don’t want to give advice that I’m not sticking to. I would say I think reading is just as important as writing. Every time I read something new, if it’s good, it goes into some sort of little piece of your brain. You don’t even realize later on when you’re writing that you’re activating your little homages. No one else might see them, but whether it’s a violin — I remembered loving Doctor Zhivago as a kid. There was a balalaika in there. That factors into things. Here I’m talking about movies. I should be talking about books. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which is a movie I referenced in Wonder, if you watch it again — it’s Rex Harrison, Gene Tierney, whatever, but there’s a ghost in it. I didn’t even realize that there are things that are coming up from that, which I remember seeing when I was a kid with my mom. With books, all the time, I feel like they’re little — there are books that I’ve read that aren’t even that great, but there might be an incredible scene or a moment or something that you remember, you absorb, and then manifests itself or sparks something in your own writing later on. I would say if you want to be a writer, you read everything all the time. Read with passion. It’s so easy to be distracted nowadays. I was just on vacation. I had my little stack of books, but I also had my phone. It’s so much easier sometimes to scroll, but you have to put the phone away. Then just start a book and love it. That’s it.

Zibby: That’s great advice, particularly about the phone.

Raquel: Put the phone away.

Zibby: Put the phone away. Easier said than done.

Raquel: Easier said than done, exactly.

Zibby: Raquel, thank you so much. This was so fun. Thank you for all you do. That was just a really immersive experience for me. I love feeling moved. I just love it, so thank you for doing that.

Raquel: Thank you. I so appreciate it. You have absolutely no idea how much your words really are impacting me. I’m going to go and cry in a little while. Thank you very much. I really, really appreciate it. It means so much to me. It really does. Thank you. Take care.

Zibby: Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Raquel: Thanks. You too. Buh-bye.

R.J. Palacio, PONY

PONY by R.J. Palacio

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