It’s difficult to think of a bigger children’s literature success story from the past decade than R.J. Palacio’s Wonder. The emotional tale about the importance of kindness has sold more than 12 million copies since it was published in 2012 and still regularly earns a spot on bestseller lists. In Pony, Palacio creates a very different tale: a slim, taut odyssey set in the American Midwest in 1860, anchored by a young boy named Silas, whom readers will find as irresistible as Auggie. BookPage chatted with Palacio about why she had to throw her new novel away (literally) in order to unlock the key to writing it.
Could you start by introducing us to Silas and Pa?
Silas is a 12-year-old boy growing up in an isolated house on the American frontier. He’s being lovingly raised by his widowed father, Martin, who’s an inventor and something of a genius, with only 16-year-old Mittenwool, whom no one else can see or hear, for a companion. Silas, it turns out, can see ghosts.
The story opens when three horsemen storm their little house in the middle of the night and take Pa away. Silas is left alone and quite shaken, so when the white-faced pony that one of the men had been leading shows up on his doorstep the next day, Silas takes it as a sign from the universe that he has to ride the pony in search of his father. Mittenwool, who is very protective of Silas, tries to talk him out of it, but Silas is determined to go.
The book is called Pony, so I have to ask: Do you ride? Do you like horses?
I love horses! When Iw as little, I used to draw them all the time. I would doodle them in my notebooks. I was obsessed—so much so that my parents got me horseback riding lessons when I was about 8 years old. Imagine two Colombian immigrants shelling out money they didn't have so they could give their daughter weekly riding lessons in Flushing, New York. It was kind of crazy, but they did it. I only took lessons for a few years, and no, I don't have a horse now or ride. I can still draw horses, though!
Family history, revealed in pieces over time, is such an important motif in Pony. Did any of your family’s stories inspire parts of Silas’ story?
The whole story of Pony was sparked by a scary dream my older son had when he was young. The events of the dream are different, but the imagery was taken right out of his head.
I had my father in my mind when describing Martin. My dad was easily the most brilliant person I’ve ever known, an encyclopedia of knowledge. He could build anything, make anything, remember everything. He was the kind of father who would wake me up in the middle of the night so we could go up to the roof of our building to watch a meteor shower.
And of course, my mother is someone I speak with every day, even though she’s been gone for almost 20 years. We hold the people we love close to us, no matter where they are. I think of this book as a love letter to my mom and dad.
How did you develop the rules for the novel’s ghosts?
Silas sees and experiences the ghosts in Pony as they see and experience themselves. If they wear the wounds of their deaths, that’s how he sees them. If they don’t know they’re dead, Silas also doesn’t know they’re dead.
As to why some people stay behind and some don’t, Silas doesn’t know, and neither do they. He guesses that some people are more ready to go than others. Some people may have things they still want to see through. But in time, when they’re ready, they pass on. Everyone does eventually. Which is what I wanted to say: People leave us, but not forever.
Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had an encounter with something you couldn’t explain?
I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’ve experienced a sense of connection with loved ones who are no longer here. Whether that’s internal or external, whether there’s a science to it or it’s just wishful thinking, I can’t tell you. I don’t know. That’s part of the mystery of life, which is what this book is about. Silas learns to embrace the mysteries.
Pony features incredible old photographs throughout the book. You discuss these in your author’s note, but can you tell us a little bit about them here?
This book takes place during the dawn of early photography. New processes were being invented all over the world. People were experimenting with the incredible notion of being able to use sunlight and a mix of chemicals to freeze an image onto glass or paper. It’s pretty extraordinary! Silas’ father is one of those early tinkerers and invents a new form of photography.
I’ve had a daguerreotype collection for years, long before I wrote this book. I’ve always been drawn to old cameras and photographs in flea markets and antiques shops. As I was writing, faces from my collection would come to me. They helped form the characters in my mind. Ultimately, as I designed the book, I decided to use the images that literally inspired the characters as chapter openers.
In addition to your passion for old photographs, do you enjoy photography yourself?
I was a photographer for my school yearbook in middle school, which is when I got my first Pentax K1000 camera, and I've been hooked ever since. I love taking photographs on film, but I shoot digitally now, though I do miss the feeling of processing a latent image in a darkroom.
Your author’s note begins, “I spent many years researching this book, and I hope none of it shows.” Authors are often asked to discuss their research process, but instead, I want to ask you: Can you tell us about the work you did to hide all that research?
I was 400 pages into the first draft of Pony, which represented about two years of work, when I realized it wasn’t the book I wanted to write. I had so many notes, so much information. I knew how many miles and hours an Arabian horse could ride in a day. I knew their provenance, the name of the Bedouin tribe that Pony had come from. I knew the different photographic processes, what kind of lanterns were used, the names of real counterfeiters, the types of horse carts that were driven. I had topographic maps of the woods and the ravines and, well, so much!
I had a vision in my mind about the kind of novel I wanted Pony to be: a “quick epic.” That first draft, had I continued it, would have turned into a James Michener novel! So I literally threw it away. And I do mean that literally. But the story stayed with me, even as I worked on other projects. I knew I’d figure out a way to write it with the minimalism I had in my head for it.
After years had passed, I suddenly had a vision for how to approach it. I realized that I’d remembered all the essential parts of the research I’d done and forgotten what wasn’t important. The research had settled into the recesses of my mind, and that’s what made its way into the book. The woods became the Woods. The ravine was the Ravine. The only map of the world I needed was the one in Silas’ mind. That’s not to say the world wasn’t built, because it was—utterly and completely—but it didn’t need to be fully described.
The world is full of mysterious pockets and unexplainable and unfathomable crevices. That’s the kind of world I wanted to build. If you answer every question, you ruin the mystery for the reader. We can’t see everything in the dark. We see only what we shine a light on. That’s what I was trying to do here.
I kept saying I wanted to write Pony almost like it was a radio play, just voices in the dark, and then during lockdown, it started flowing out of me one day. It was a remarkable writing experience.
Your note also says, “Historical novels can be seen as road maps through history, but this book is more like a river running through it.” I love this metaphor. What were the challenges of telling a story with such a tight focus? What was rewarding about it?
It was really challenging to tell a story with as few words as you can. I kept trying to strip every sentence of words. Paragraphs. Pages. I wanted to get everything down to the bare minimum: enough to deliver an idea of the world, describe a linear sequence of events, and let the story almost tell itself. In that way, the narrative felt more like a river. It’s just barreling through. Going in one direction. And that’s all the reader gets.
Now, as the river passes through, we get the idea that it’s passing through other stories. We know there’s a lot going on with the other characters. The picaresque adventures of Chalfont and Beautyman, two characters Silas meets along his journey, could fill their own novel! But, see, that would have been part of that original epic that I had started to write. It’s not the epic I wanted to write, though.
The final version of Pony really is the closest I could get to the image in my head of what I wanted to do. Good or bad, right or wrong: It’s faithful to the image.