Say Never Never again

WHAT do you get when you put an American Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist and a bestselling thriller writer together in a garage band? The answer is a prequel to Peter Pan that has already sold more than half a million copies in America, with a 3-D computeranimated film being released with Disney next year.

"I've never even collaborated with myself before," says Dave Barry, the author of 25 humour books and a former syndicated columnist famed for barbecuing a Barbie doll on national television. "That's a very good line," murmurs his co-author - top crime-writer Ridley Pearson - once the laughter in a conference room at Walker Books in London has ebbed. The authors met in 1992 when they formed The Rock Bottom Remainders, a "literary rock band" whose members include Stephen King, Amy Tan and Mitch Albom with occasional appearances by celebrities such as Steve Martin and Bruce Springsteen.

"Ridley's the bass player. The bass has to keep the beat and Ridley's very good," says Barry. "He's one of the few people in the band who can actually play the instrument he's holding." The band members get together four times a year and play, not because they're talented and in demand, says Barry, but to raise money for an inner city literacy charity. "It was like camp when we started - we all became really good friends, although most us had never met before. We haven't really improved as a band but we enjoyed it."

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Out of the collaboration grew a friendship and the kind of trust that has enabled the authors to write a prequel to Peter Pan, with a sequel due for release next year along with a series of shorter books based on the same characters. In the Barry/Pearson version of what happened before Peter met Wendy, the eternal boy is an orphan despatched along with his mates on a ship named Never Land and bound for an unsavoury future as slaves to a South Sea island despot.

But Molly, a young girl Peter's age, is also on board and guarding a trunk leaking a mysterious material with magical properties. There are a host of pirates giving chase and the ship is wrecked on a desert island where Barry and Pearson have updated, modernised and reinvented the original characters. "We didn't want to set ourselves up as the literary heirs to JM Barrie," says Barry. "We wanted to come up with a great story that would lead to this amazing world he created and our goal was a rip-roaring story that would fit with everyone's image of these characters."

Barry grew up with Disney's 1953 animated version of Peter Pan which features a racist portrait of the "savage" Indians of Never Land and female characters who are either simpering or silent. "It's embarrassing to watch the Indian sequences so we changed them to the Mollusck tribe and they're quite sophisticated and smart," says Barry. "As parents of daughters we wanted a strong girl character in there. There was no way Molly was going to be like Wendy."

Pearson says the idea came from his then five-year-old daughter Paige one night when he was reading her the original Peter Pan. "She put her hand across the page and said, 'yeah but how did Peter Pan meet Captain Hook in the first place?' and I said, 'that's its own story - no, that's its own book and Daddy's going to write that book'." Gripped by the idea, Pearson went to play a gig in Miami the following week and, over the breakfast table, mentioned the idea to Barry.

"I told Dave I was seriously thinking about putting the crime stuff aside for a while and working on a prequel to Peter Pan and he seemed excited about it,' recalls Pearson. 'I asked, "is there any way you would ever do this with me?" knowing that his levity would help it tremendously, and he jumped right in.' Since then, the authors have established a working relationship by e-mail, dividing up the chapters roughly according to character and then sending each other drafts. They each have complete freedom to rewrite each other's work and still appear to be on speaking terms.

Pearson, an award-winning crime writer best known in American for his "frighteningly real suspense fiction", found the collaboration with Barry intensely enjoyable. "It was a blast because when you write the adult stuff it's an isolating, lonely thing to do and you do it for months and months," he says. "But working with Dave I get instant feedback. And if he rips 12 pages out of a 20-page chapter, that's because those 12 pages aren't working." They agree the co-writing works by putting aside their egos and operating on a basis of mutual trust and respect.

But while the writing was working smoothly, the authors had no idea that there might be objections from the Barrie Estate to their writing a Peter Pan prequel. As Disney had picked up the film rights, it was their solicitors who suggested that there would be no UK publication because of the estate.

"We were pretty nave about it and we felt pretty bad about it," says Barry, who admits that neither of them had even heard of Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, which holds the European literary rights to Barrie's classic novel. "At first the hospital was upset but then we came over and met them and we worked out this agreement."

The hospital will receive a royalty percentage for each copy of the book sold and the authors have noticed on book tours in the US, where Peter and the Starcatchers was published last year, that copies of Barrie's original have sold well too. "Disney did some of the front work with the hospital folks and showed them that it would be to their benefit," says Pearson.

The authors have already finished writing Peter and the Shadow Thieves, a sequel set in Victorian London. They have visited Barrie's home in Kensington and researched photo archives to create the right atmosphere for Peter wandering through the nation's capital a century ago, when he discovers that his shadow has disappeared. Barrie makes a cameo appearance in what the authors describe as a Back to the Future moment.

Adventure, magic and a story that moves like a rocket were the authors' main objectives, with Barry anxious to avoid the recent trend in American children's literature towards inserting a not-too-subtle "message". "We had a message in there but we took it out," laughs Barry. "If the message is that good is good and bad is bad, you don't need to be much preachier than that."

There is a straight-guy, funny-guy balance to Pearson and Ridley which suggests why they work well together. When Pearson launches into the anecdote about how he walked into daughter Paige's room one night with the finished manuscript of Peter and the Starcatchers as his answer to her original question, Barry grins. "And then she ran away from home," he says before Pearson seamlessly picks up the story. "Paige read this 500-page manuscript and she took five weeks reading it." One night she ran into Pearson's living room and shouted, "I've finished it." Barry shakes his head, his comic timing perfect. "That's our best blurb yet - 'I finished'."

Pearson trusted Barry so completely over this project that even though they needed, for legal reasons, to have an editor, the issue of ownership was really based on their friendship. "Even though this was my daughter's idea," Pearson tells me without a trace of irony, "I gave that to Dave because Dave's who you want to have the final say with it. It really feels like we're trying to make the best book and that's what's kept me in."

There are plans for a musical version of Peter and the Starcatchers with Disney due to the company's past success with theatrical productions based on such animated films as The Lion King. "We keep crossing our fingers that they might try this on Broadway," says Pearson. "Their point is that there have been other attempts to make a live-action film of Peter Pan and they've failed."

And with another Peter book on the cards, will the authors continue collaborating? According to Barry, "We've got Paige locked in a room until she has another idea."

• Peter and the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, is published by Walker Books, priced 12.99.