The Big Idea: Peter David
Posted on June 17, 2008 Posted by John Scalzi 9 Comments
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.
Tigerheart: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s
Read an excerpt of Tigerheart here. Visit Peter David’s blog here.
Obviously, you let Peter David in here just to mess with me the day after I doubted your interest in comic books.Well-played. Anyway , Peter David is the kind of writer you think is great when you’re a kid , and then you go back to as an adult scared he won’t measure up, and he’s better than you remember. Bonus points (not that Peter Davis needs bonus ponts ) for his name dropping Philip Jose Farmer , who I think is somewhat overlooked these days. That’s a Big Idea coup, Scalzi. Now, write a column about why Edward Norton isn’t in a Mr. Fixit movie.
Monty – you can certainly become addicted to PAD (as he often calls himself) without reading his comics. I know I did. Of course, I ultimately started reading his comics, because that’s what you do when you become a fan of an author, you try to read everything. (Of course, the number of comics he’s written is so huge reading everything is next to impossible.)
His Sir Apropos novels are excellent
as are his Star Trek novels
Though Tigerheart is looking like it will be a breakthrough novel for him, which makes this fan happy.
Interesting. I like your moxy, buddy. All coming in here, saying “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you ain’t gonna like my book.” Being all, “Parents should read to their kids” and shit.
You got ’em.
Pan et al in the public domain.
That will come as a surprise to the Ormond Street Childrens Hospital, not to mention the numerous producers et al paying them royalties.
The novel was published in 1911 in the US and Barrie died in 1937, which should (even with the insane copyright extensions in the US) make the character public domain here, at least.
Also (still to Martyn44), note that PAD chose to not use the actual copyrighted characters.
And Monty, the problem with a Joe Fixit movie is that Norton wouldn’t have any screentime other than doing voicework. I suspect that he’s not willing to take a role where he can’t play Bruce Banner as well.
Sounds like he nailed it. He certainly did nail why some of these others sequels just haven’t had the right tone.
(Sir Apropos is brilliant. The King Arthur novels less so…but it’s Peter David, so I don’t care. Count me in as another PD fan who never read his comics.)
I read this article, and then the very next article in my RSS feed reader was a Slashdot story about a Dr. Paul Dear offering a $19,500 prize for anyone who can get a small satellite into orbit for $1,950.
IANAL, but the Peter Pan copyright is one of the more confusing cases of copyright law I’ve ever heard of. As I understand it, the Great Ormond Street Hospital still owns the rights to “certain elements” of Barrie’s work and has argued in US court that, due to US copyright extensions, the US copyright is still in force. By British law (I think), the hospital has the right to receive royalties from the use of the “elements” that it owns, but not the right to deny anyone the use of the characters. The whole situation has been complicated by Disney, clinging to its 1953 movie copyrights. Disney has evidently been occasionally on the hospital’s side and occasionally against the hospital. Frankly, it strikes me as a world-class mess.
Besides, as Adam Lipkin points out @6, the whole issue of just how far into “public domain” Peter Pan is, is largely irrelevant to this book–and I suspect that David’s publisher vetted the copyright prior to publication anyway, just in case.
Sounds like a good read. I’ll be looking for it.