The Big Idea: Peter David
What does it take to return to Neverland? Author Peter David, who as a child dreamed of life among the Lost Boys, mulled over this question as an adult. His answer is Tigerheart, a pastiche and paean to Peter Pan and J.M. Barrie that is being praised as having “the same kind of atmosphere as William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.” That’s ringing the changes off two classics at once. How did David do it? By paying attention to the little things, as he explains in this Big Idea.
My fascination with Peter Pan goes back to my awareness of my name, since the Boy Who Never Grew Up was partly the inspiration for it. For that matter, my first real girlfriend was named Wendy. I was certain we’d wind up married purely on that basis. Anyway, the Mary Martin TV version helped cement my obsession with the character, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’d read the James Barrie book, not to mention the original play.
So when various Peter Pan sequels began hitting the stands, some of them written by people with remarkably well-suited surnames (James Barrie versus Dave Barry. Coincidence? I think not) I was first in line to pick them up.
Yet I found all of them–even the eventual “official” sequel–to be lacking. I couldn’t put my finger on why. Returning yet again to the Barrie original, though, I realized what it was, and why, though the flesh of the books may have been willing, the spirit was weak.
What most people seem to ignore, or perhaps even not get, is that the Neverland isn’t merely another place. It’s a dream realm. If you read the original Barrie play, it’s virtually unstageable. At least, it can’t be mounted if you try to stick to Barrie’s descriptions, because they’re written in a surreal, dreamlike manner that calls for all manner of things on stage that can’t be done. Any version you see of the play is of necessity watered down from Barrie’s original vision, and the subsequent novelization of his own play merely exacerbated that. The narrative is all over the place, by design. It reads like someone experiencing a dream, constantly switching perspective and perceptions. Sometimes you’re right alongside the characters, other times the narrator is speaking in the royal “we,” and on other occasions he changes to first person, seemingly at random. He comments on the characters, drops hints, openly manipulates the goings-on, and draws rather acerbic conclusions. Sometimes he even seems more sympathetic with Hook than he does his nominal hero. The story is not logical; it’s paralogical, set within a dreamlike state that makes sense in and of itself.
And I realized that that narrative voice was essential to make a Peter Pan sequel feel like a genuine sequel. You have to use the narrative in a far more active manner than anyone else had been doing because it has to sound like someone is recounting a dream they once had, possibly in childhood. It has to be surreal. And no one was doing it that way. They were treating Peter Pan like just another adventure character, no different than the Hardy Boys or Tarzan. It was the wrong approach.
Since no one else was doing it in a manner true to Barrie, I decided to.
Ironically, as the story developed, it became less and less an actual sequel to Peter Pan (or, if you go with the original title, Peter and Wendy) because my protagonist, Paul Dear, was the one who really drove the story. In the original, Peter Pan shows up seeking his wayward shadow and winds up transporting the Darling children to the Neverland in order to serve his emotional needs. Paul, by contrast, actively seeks out the dream realm in order to retrieve something he hopes will bring back together his family, shattered after an emotional loss. The Barrie characters wound up as the supporting characters. So, even though Pan et al were in public domain, I decided to do pastiche versions instead. I figured if it was good enough for Philip Jose Farmer, it was good enough for me.
But I maintained the ethereal, dreamlike style I had borrowed from Barrie. I felt it was even more important since I was setting aside the goodwill inherent in the Barrie characters and instead substituting archetypal versions that would have to stand or fall on their own merits. Plus I firmly believed that it would make the book unique against a field of other narratives that never wandered beyond the normal boundaries of either third person or first person.
Still, I wanted to have a modern sensibility set against the old-fashioned writing style. That’s why, for instance, I have Paul’s mother trying to deal with Paul’s flights of fancy (claiming he’s talking to animals or magical boys in the mirror) by bringing him to a psychiatrist and having him take medication. Layering 21st century methodology against an early 20th century writing style. I thought it would provide an interesting contrast.
It is, I admit, a risky proposition. No one’s really writing stories in that manner anymore, so anyone coming to Tigerheart without a real understanding of Barrie’s writing style may find themselves put off. It takes a few chapters to become accustomed to the notion that there’s a first-person, occasionally third-person narrator who’s not actually participating in the story, yet doesn’t hesitate to skew the outcome of events and even speak smugly about his ability to do so. To me, the ideal way to experience Tigerheart is to be a child listening to a loving parent reading it to him or her…or, for that matter, to be the parent doing the reading.