They carry eye patches in their pockets as they tour around the country, clowning around like best friends half their age. Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry and bestselling novelist Ridley Pearson have been making music together in a band called The Rock Bottom Remainders for twelve years. Now, for the first time, they've collaborated on the page. The result, Peter and the Starcatchers, is a nearly perfect adventure, a brilliantly conceived prequel to Peter Pan.
After all this time, why share a writing credit now? "It was a great idea, and Ridley had it," Barry explains, "so I couldn't just take it."
How did Peter learn to fly, anyway? And what's this about him never growing old? In the first of at least two swashbuckling novels, Barry and Pearson fill in the blanks, tracking Peter and his friends from St. Norbert's Home for Wayward Boys over stormy, treacherous seas to the island of Neverland, where a pirate named Black Stache means to intercept a mysterious trunk that holds the greatest treasure on earth.
Starcatchers is "compulsively readable," vows Kirkus Review. "A rousing tale," Booklist agrees. "This deserves the hype."
Dave W.: The book's acknowledgements thank Ridley's daughter "for asking her daddy one night, after her bedtime story, exactly how a flying boy met a certain pirate."
Ridley Pearson: I was reading Peter Pan to her, and she looked up into my eyes and said, "Yeah, Dad, but how did Peter Pan meet Captain Hook in the first place?"
I just kind of thought for a second, and I said, "Paige, that's its own book. And Daddy's going to write it."
Dave W.: "And in just two years or so you'll know the answer."
Ridley Pearson: Exactly.
About a week later Dave and I were playing a gig down in Miami where he lives. We were talking about projects, and I said, "I'm seriously considering writing a prequel to Peter Pan." He kind of looked interested, so I gathered my courage and asked, "Would you ever think about co-writing it with me?" And here we are.
Dave W.: Had you co-written a book before?
Ridley Pearson: No. Neither of us had collaborated.
Dave W.: Had the idea come up?
Ridley Pearson: Not that I can remember.
Dave Barry: No, it probably would have been the last thing on our minds.
Ridley Pearson: We'd collaborated on a lot of music together, but not on the written word.
Dave W.: What made this project, as opposed to any other, one to tackle together?
Ridley Pearson: Well, we both have kids at this age.
Why would you ever agree to do this with me, Dave?
Dave Barry: Everybody has the same reaction when we tell them about the story: "Oh, that's a great idea." Because it is. It's one of those ideas that somebody was going to have sooner or later and do something with.
It's a story everyone knows, but it's very surreal in the way Barrie presents the scene. That's the magic of the original story: Of course there's a flying boy and he never grows old and he lost his shadow and he has a fairy and he lives on an island with mermaids. Of course.
Because Barrie is so good at presenting that, nobody ever thinks about it. Ridley's daughter thought about it.
It was a great idea, and Ridley had it, so I couldn't just take it.
Ridley Pearson: He was stuck with me, really.
Dave Barry: No, Ridley and I are actually friends. Even having written a book and gone out on book tour, we're still friends, which is amazing. I don't think I would have said yes if it was any other writer that I know.
Dave W.: In the early stages, did you think that your styles and perspectives would complement each other, and how did the process bear that out?
Ridley Pearson: I wasn't worried about that because of Big Trouble and Tricky Business, two of Dave's novels. Having read them and seen how fast-paced and funny they were, and how well written, it wasn't a concern of mine.
We write very differently. Even in the approach to this book we wrote differently, but somewhere along the line we started writing as a single entity. Then we wrote to that new voice, and it worked out really well. And it was fun in the process.
Dave Barry: We never had any esoteric discussions. Seriously. Every now and then Ridley would mention arc or—what was the other thing? —acts.
I don't know about arcs or acts, but we're both meat and potatoes guys who write for a living. We don't think of ourselves as advancing the cause of great literature so much as we like to tell stories. We were so focused on How would they do that? and Why would they do that?, the nuts and bolts of the plot and making the story fun—that was always our priority.
Dave W.: Did you set out with a list of the questions you needed to answer? About Captain Hook and so forth?
Ridley Pearson: We outlined the whole book. We outlined half of it, then by the time we wrote that half we'd outlined the rest.
To keep characters consistent, we each took a set. If the chapter dealt with my characters, I wrote the chapter. Dave edited it, I edited the edit, he edited that, and then we'd finally move on.
Rather than both trying to write from the same point of view, which I think would have sort of melted down these characters, Dave took this set and I took the other.
Dave W.: Were there elements in the original that you didn't like as much? Material you wanted to jettison?
Ridley Pearson: There were a couple of not-likes in it.
Dave Barry: As far as the original is concerned, we did not try to be academic purists and write in the style of J. M. Barrie or in perfect harmony with his work. Our experience is that no one ever read the work of J. M. Barrie, anyway.
Most people are familiar with the Disney version or just the myth of Peter Pan in its nine million incarnations. We were trying to get to that myth more than trying to get at what J. M. Barrie would have written, had he written a prequel. We did not presume to do that.
Ridley Pearson: There are just those five or six big questions that literally are asked in the first two pages of his piece.
Dave Barry: We wanted to get to there. But as far as things we didn't like? Again, I think our reactions were more to the Disney cartoon than to the Barrie novel, but in fact it's embarrassing to watch that cartoon now and see how the Indians come across.
We knew we were going to have an island, and we knew there were going to be natives on it because we wanted that to be true to the story, but we didn't want them to be lame. Our goal was to create a more sophisticated, maybe a little scarier, certainly more competent and dignified native.
Ridley Pearson: The other was the girl character. In Peter Pan, all the girl characters are kind of weak. The mermaids are just bitchy, always jealous of Wendy. Wendy is a simpering little codependent. "Oh, Peter." They're all competing for Peter's attention, even Tiger Lily. And the mermaids are like Barbies with tails on them. Ours are not.
Dave Barry: We both have daughters, and we wanted there to be a girl character who was strong and brave. So we ended up creating what turned out to be my favorite character, this little girl named Molly who really is the hero of the book.
Ridley Pearson: She really is.
Dave Barry: Peter is the protagonist, but Molly is the hero. She is the one who in the end gets it done despite incredible odds. She's the one who saves the world—with Peter's help. She is the brave strong character who brings Peter up to her level. That was the other big change. We wanted a kick-ass girl in there.
Dave W.: And now you've agreed to write two more books together, is what I heard.
Ridley Pearson: At least one of this size, and we're also going to write some small chapter books.
Dave Barry: But I want to say, somewhat defensively, that when we started to do this we had a simple idea: to tell one story. And in our minds it was not a very long story.
Ridley Pearson: A hundred seventy-five or two hundred pages.
Dave Barry: We ended up with a four hundred fifty-page book that just starts going in the direction we want. We got so into in the world we created and the characters and the reason for Peter Pan even existing that it became much bigger than one little book. We just liked it.
Pretty early on Ridley was saying, "You know, we could do another book." By the time we finished, we'd already outlined another. But I guess the point I'm trying to make is that we didn't set out and say, "We need to create a franchise."
Ridley Pearson: Exactly. It wasn't until the book was in and we literally had bound galleys that we got a call from Disney publishing, having read the book, asking "Would you ever consider doing this and this and this under a Starcatchers umbrella?" Maybe we will and maybe we won't, but we're going to do at least one more.
This book just gets you to that point where now you know why Peter can fly and where Tinkerbell came from. You know all those things, so now we can throw them into an adventure. That's fun.
Dave W.: How are the chapter books related?
Ridley Pearson: We're going to do a couple chapter books that focus on the characters that remain on the island: the lost boys, the mermaids? All that stuff has never been written about, and it's fun.
These books will be focusing on Peter and Molly. The other ones will be very small, fun reads for our two younger ones. Dave has a four-year-old girl and I have a five-year-old, and this stuff is way over their heads. The chapter books will be aimed more at them as they get into first grade.
Dave W.: Dave, you have your columns and novels. Ridley, in addition to novels you've written for TV and for film. Neither of you had written a children's book previously, but now you're both diving into this.
Ridley Pearson: Because we're telling a story, that's the thing. We're not trying to write for children. We're just telling a story.
Dave Barry: But obviously most people perceive the audience of the book as kids. Most people are buying the book for kids. That's been great. When we go to signings, there's a huge difference. You get the Ridley Pearson fans or the Dave Barry fans, that's who comes, but then as more and more kids have been coming they don't know Ridley and they don't know me. They don't read reviews, they don't know about critics, and they don't know about bestseller lists. They just either like the book or they don't, and if they don't they read about three pages.
What's been so great is having kids say, "Will Peter get off the island?"
Ridley Pearson: "Is Mr. Grin going to be in another book?" That's what we love.
Dave Barry: That doesn't happen with grown-ups.
Dave W.: It sounds like this provides a welcome change of pace from your other writing. It sounds like you're having more fun.
Ridley Pearson: It's really fun. I would drop everything to do ninety of these if it were practical. It's not really practical, but it's a fun process. And I get to write and work with this guy.
Dave Barry: Same here. This is the most fun I've ever had writing a book. By far.
Dave W.: In Boogers Are My Beat, you note: "Maturity is a crippling handicap for humor columnists, like height for jockeys or ethics for lawyers." It's an interesting line in relation to your work in general, but certainly to Peter Pan, in particular.
Dave Barry: I think where immaturity helps—it's kind of what we were talking about earlier—is that neither one of us ever aspires to some meta-message, some deeper meaning. Really, really, really, all we're trying to do is tell a story. Kids like that.
Kids don't particularly like to be preached to or taught, although lots of children's books try to do that. I really think what they like is to have a funny story or an exciting story. In that way, being immature probably helps because it's the way we think.
Ridley Pearson: We're not breaking any new ground there. Rowling broke that ground—she came along and said, They like good stories —but we'll gladly walk through the door. That's fine.
Dave W.: Ridley, in the essay you wrote for Powells.com, "Learning to Ice Climb," you described being iced in?
Dave Barry: That was a great essay. It made me feel guilty, Ridley talking about all this crap he has to do.
Dave W.: Exactly, a lot of juggling. You mentioned earlier that you're both professional writers. How long have you been writing your column?
Dave Barry: Close to thirty years now.
Ridley Pearson: And I've been published twenty-two or something.
Dave W.: Certainly the perception of a writing life is not the one described in that essay: twelve-hour days, one after the other. Lay readers are more likely to stereotype the odd literary author who takes ten years to write a novel.
Dave Barry: We envy them. We keep wondering how they do it.
Ridley Pearson: I've got four or five projects every time I look up, but that's because I'm trying to earn a living, to keep going and have fun and do things. That was part of the attraction of asking Dave to do this. It seemed sort of insurmountable to add another book to my plate, but he's much busier than I am. The idea of two of us trying? Maybe we could get through this.
In fact, because of our schedules, we had to stop this several times. I'm not used to that. I write alone, and I've never collaborated.
Dave Barry: You don't want to be collaborating with Ridley when he's on you to send the next chapter in. You send it, and then right away you get it back with edits.
Ridley Pearson: All my projects I work on a little every day so I can keep them moving, keep them fresh in my head.
With this, there were times we had to put it away for three weeks. I'm just chomping to get back at it, and I can't jump ahead. And I've already learned from working with Dave that so much good stuff is going to happen in this next chapter that if I jump three chapters ahead it's going to be irrelevant anyway. It was an interesting exercise to try to hold my reign.
Dave W.: The news is always providing fresh material, but after producing a weekly column for so long you must occasionally ask yourself, "What can I possibly talk about that's new?" On the other hand, you must have a dependable routine down.
Dave Barry: That's the endless question. If you're not focused on any particular topic, you're inclined to start thinking, I've been doing this so long there's nothing left to say. But then you look around, just read the newspaper, and there's always something.
The last column I wrote was a response to a survey about how people spend their time when they're not working. This survey showed that women spend twice as much time on childcare and housework than men. So here's a place where a humor column has to step in and defend men. There's always something.
Dave W.: We have at least one thing in common, I learned in Boogers Are My Beat. I, like you, have slept overnight in an RV at a Florida Wal-Mart.
Dave Barry: I did that.
Dave W.: I'd never been in an RV before. We rented one and drove around Spring Training. We don't know Florida, and a couple times very late at night we really didn't have many decent alternatives.
Dave Barry: Can I just say that some of the nicest places to stop and stay for the night in Florida are Wal-Mart parking lots? There are no good campgrounds.
Dave W.: They were all packed, anyway. We couldn't ever get a spot at night, so we stopped trying.
Ridley Pearson: They don't chase you off? You can just stay in the parking lot?
Dave Barry: They encourage you. They know you're going to come in and buy food.
Florida is the worst camping state. I used to do a lot of outdoor stuff. Now I go to the beach, I'll go on a boat, but never would I camp out in that state. There's no topography. There's no shade. There's bugs. Campgrounds are hideous.
The one place to go if you ever do it again is the Keys. There are a couple places where you can camp right on the Atlantic. That's pretty nice.
Dave Barry: Warren Zevon played with us for years.
Ridley Pearson: Roger McGuinn has played with us for three years, and he's still playing with us now.
Dave Barry: Gloria Gaynor sang "I Will Survive" with us.
Ridley Pearson: Didn't someone from Creedence play with us?
Dave Barry: No, John Fogerty came up and said hi because he's a Stephen King fan. That would have been neat.
Dave W.: When these stars are up there, is there much musical interplay? Do you just try to hide behind them?
Ridley Pearson: Well, they all play just one song and run.
Dave Barry: They actually kind of like it. It's weird.
Oh, Judy Collins, too.
Ridley Pearson: Several times.
Dave Barry: Of all the people we've played with, that was truly scary because you can't make noise with her. It's got to be quiet, and her pitch is perfect. You play one wrong note and you can see her twitch a little bit.
Dave W.: You were both in the original band. How did it ever get formed?
Dave Barry: It was a woman named Kathy Goldmark, a media escort from San Francisco, who was also a musician. She'd taken a lot of authors around. She sent out some faxes asking if we wanted to do this. It was just a joke at first. Let's do it one night. It will be fun. The people who said yes became part of the band.
Ridley Pearson: Without knowing who was going to be involved.
Dave W.: Had you two met previously?
Dave Barry: I'd never met him. Most of us had never met.
Ridley Pearson: Maybe none of us.
Dave Barry: We were not good, but it was so much fun and we liked each other so much. It was like camp, practicing every day so we could get enough material together to do one show. We had so much fun. Stephen King said, "We have to do this again."
Ridley Pearson: We came off stage, and he said, "We're going to get a rock bus and do this in a big way!"
It's been twelve years now.
Dave W.: What other projects can we look forward to? Writing, I mean.
Dave Barry: I have a straightforward humor book I owe to Crown. Then the next Starcatchers will be after that.
Ridley Pearson: I have a thriller coming out in April, and I have a young adult novel with a much more limited audience that Starcatchers coming out in November. A few other things.
Dave W.: Any interesting reading lately?
Dave Barry: We're both reading?
Ridley Pearson: ?Patrick O'Brian. Dave got me started on it, and I can't quit. I'm like a junkie.
Dave Barry: I don't know if you've ever read his stuff, but it's very addictive. Once you start reading them, you want to read them all. The man is amazing.
Ridley Pearson: He is amazing. Dave's read seventeen of them or something. I've read three.
Dave W.: Meanwhile, the audio edition of Peter and the Starcatchers has been generating a lot of buzz.
Ridley Pearson: We were incredibly honored to have Jim Dale read the audio. That floored us because he hadn't done anything since Harry Potter. He just nails it. I just got another email today, somebody saying, "This is unbelievable."
We had a forty-minute conference call with him. He called "to discuss your characters with you." He was so far beyond what we were even thinking that it ended up a joke.
Dave Barry: We were like, "Peter should be a boy."
Ridley Pearson: He does Cockney, Welsh? He really does a great job.
Dave Barry: Also, we couldn't believe what a great job Disney did on the way this book looks. It's such a great book to give a kid. This incredible cover, the writing just glints at you.
The guy who drew the cover and did the illustrations is named Greg Call, who neither one of us has met. He lives in Montana. We just love the work he did. It's got that old-fashioned adventure feel.
Ridley Pearson: And he was excited by the project. He was hired, I think, to do eight illustrations, but he got the book and kept reading and kept sending stuff. They said, "You're past your eight," and he said, "No, you gotta see this." He ended up doing eighteen illustrations. They felt that they were all so good that they put them all in. That's what made the book grow, in part, was that Greg's contribution way outdid what he was contracted for. Now he's part of the future books, too.
Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson visited Powell's City of Books on September 24th. About ten o'clock in the evening, I happened to wander past a downtown restaurant where, right inside the window, the two good friends were kicking back after their reading with a table full of dinner and drinks. This interview took place five hours prior.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State