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Finding One Voice

Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson turn an unlikely pairing into a prequel to a children's classic.

What happens when a plot-driven suspense writer and a laid-back humorist co-author a children's novel? Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry hope the answer is a book that plays well with kids as well as adults.

Pearson and Barry joined forces to write Peter and the Starcatchers, a prequel to J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. The collaboration began when the two met in Miami for a gig with their rock band, the Rock Bottom Remainders (which also includes Stephen King, Mitch Albom, Scott Turow, Amy Tan, James McBride, Roy Blount Jr., Matt Groening, Kathi Kamen Goldmark and Greg Iles).

A Sneak Peek at Peter and the Starcatchers

Peter was the leader of the boys, because he was the oldest. Or maybe he wasn't. Peter had no idea how old he really was, so he gave himself whatever age suited him, and it suited him to always be one year older than the oldest of his mates. If Peter was nine, and a new boy came to St. Norbert's Home for Wayward Boys who said he was 10, why, then, Peter would declare himself to be 11. Also, he could spit the farthest. That made him the undisputed leader.
As leader, he made it his business to keep his eye on things in general. And he was not happy with the way things were shaping up today. The boys had been told only that they were going away on a ship. As much as Peter didn't like where he'd been living for the past seven years, the longer this carriage ride lasted, the scarier "away" sounded in his mind. They'd set out from St. Norbert's in the dark, but now Peter could see grayish daylight through the small, round coach window on his side. He looked out, squinting, and saw a dark shape looming by the wharf. It looked to Peter like a monster, with tall spines coming out of its back. Peter did not like the idea of walking into the belly of that monster. Is that it?" he asked. "The ship we're going on?" He ducked then, avoiding the hamlike right fist of Edward Grempkin. He was always keenly aware of where this fist was; he'd been dodging it for seven years now. Grempkin, second in command at St. Norbert's Home for Wayward Boys, was a man of numerous rules—many of them invented right on the spot, all of them enforced by means of a swift cuff to the ear. He paid little attention to whose ear his fist actually landed on; all the boys were rule-breakers, as far as Grempkin was concerned. This time the fist clipped an ear belonging to a boy named Thomas, who had been slumped, half asleep, in the carriage next to the ducking Peter. "OW!" said Thomas. "Do not end a sentence with a preposition," said Mr. Grempkin. He was also the grammar teacher at St. Norbert's. "But I didn't ... OW!" said Thomas, upon being cuffed a second time by Grempkin, who had a strict rule against back-talk. For a moment, the carriage was silent, except for the bumpety-bump. Then Peter tried again. "Sir," he said, "is that our ship?" He kept an eye on the fist, in case ship turned out to be a preposition. —Excerpted from Peter and the Starcatchers (Disney Editions/Hyperion Books for Children), © 2004, Dave Barry and Page One, Inc.

"Dave asked me what I was up to, and I told him I was writing a prequel to Peter Pan, and there was this spark in his eye," Pearson recalls. "So I said, `Dave, would you like to do that with me?' And he said, `Brother, would I!' "

Neither had collaborated with another author before, so this was a step into uncharted waters.

"I think I would've been reluctant to get into a co-writing project with anybody else," Barry says. "But I've known Ridley for more than 10 years. We're good friends, and I loved the idea. It was something different, and I felt a little safer doing it with him."

The idea originated while Pearson was reading Peter Pan to his daughter. She asked how Peter and Captain Hook met, which isn't explained in Barrie's book. Pearson's brain started spinning.

"I write menacing adult thrillers," he says. "And now I'm in my 50s and looking back and thinking, Darn, my kids can't read anything I wrote. This was the perfect chance for me to write something my kids could enjoy."

Since Pearson lives in St. Louis and Barry resides in Miami, the two decided to correspond via e-mail, which made the process much easier. Pearson sent Barry a sample of what he'd already worked on. The two began sharing plot ideas and established a basic outline. Then, according to Barry, came the toughest part—finding one voice.

"We're very different writers, so we had to agree on a tone," he says. "We rewrote, rewrote and rewrote the first chapter—not so much because of the plot, but because we had to work out writing details. Will it be from one person's point of view or from many points of view? How long will the chapters be? How much description? We needed to establish certain technique and style things you want to have consistent throughout the book."

Once they settled into a rhythm, the process turned into a game of e-mail Ping-Pong. Pearson would write a couple of chapters, then Barry would lay into it pretty heavily with a red pen. Barry would write a few, then Pearson would attack it. Both have incredibly different approaches—Pearson is a complicated plotter with outlines and breakdowns; Barry is a quick-witted funnyman who plots as he writes.

"There was this give-and-take of plot and humor in our writing, right down to how we'd write sentences," Pearson says. "I would put in more description, Dave would take some of it out. Dave would have a little less, and I would add some more in. We came out with a unique voice."

The process took about a year. Halfway through the novel, the two met at Pearson's summer home in Idaho and sat down to hammer out the rest of the book, scene by scene. They locked a new outline into place, which gave shape to the second half of the novel. Then both traveled back to their respective homes and continued to punch away at the keyboards. As chapters were sent via e-mail, red ink flowed freely until the book finally ended up with a single voice.

"I don't think there was a single chapter that went back and forth between us fewer than three times," Barry says. "Sometimes we can't tell which chapter which guy wrote. That's amazing to me."

When all was said and done, the book clocked in at 405 pages. The first time it came off the press at Pearson's office, he gave it to a second-grader. The child read it in two days and loved it. On the adult side, Pearson says, the Children's buyer for Borders was given half the book last November and was beating down the door to get the end of the book.

Says Pearson: "We're just thrilled that it appeals to all ages because we want to reach a large audience. It's such a fun story."

The book's publisher, Disney Editions, is so excited about the novel that it ordered a first printing of 200,000. The Mouse House is also eyeing a Starcatchers brand name, including merchandise, a possible movie and more. The company's confidence is so high that it's currently negotiating with the authors to do at least two more books in the series.

Both are excited by the possibly of working together again.

"Usually, once I'm finished with a book, I never want to write another one as long as I live," Barry jokes. "But I would work with Ridley again in a heartbeat."

"Despite all the humor and everything, Dave's one of the smarter guys you'll ever speak to," Pearson notes. "I'd love to do five or six more with him."

Peter and the Starcatchers hits bookshelves Sept. 14.

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