Bestselling Author Ridley Pearson Tell Us How To Write A Book [Be Inkandescent magazine, February 2012]
What child hasn’t wanted to fly to the “second star to the right, and straight on till morning,” to find themselves on the island of Neverland?
“Certainly no one I’ve ever met,” says bestselling author Ridley Pearson, whose novels cover a lot of ground, from the paranormal to the Peter Pan prequels, which he co-authored with humorist Dave Barry. Pearson is perhaps best known for his crime fiction novels, which have been translated into 22 languages and sell in 70 countries: ridleypearson.com.
What makes Pearson’s novels so engaging, critics agree, is his ability to pull in readers in the first paragraph—and keep them hanging on until the last page.
Consider the opening scene from “Peter and the Starcatchers”: “The tired old carriage, pulled by two tired old horses, rumbled onto the wharf, its creaky wheels bumpety-bumping on the uneven planks, waking Peter from his restless slumber. The carriage interior, hot and stuffy, smelled of five smallish boys and one largish man, none of whom was keen on bathing.”
In the following 450 paperback pages, we learn that Peter is the leader of the boys—because he was the oldest. Or so he said. This charismatic leader who dresses in tights and has a flying fairy for a best friend can’t help but capture your heart and imagination.
And so, readers are sucked in to the fast-paced adventure that ensues on the high seas as Peter and his new gal-pal Molly (a character created in the image of the strong young women that Pearson and Barry were themselves raising) overcome pirates and thieves in their quest to keep the world safe from evil.
Despite his gift as a wordsmith, Pearson’s first love wasn’t books. It was music.
“I always wanted to grow up to be the leader of a band,” says the Connecticut native (pictured, right, a few years back when he had the chance to play with Steve Martin). He attended boarding school at the Pomfret School before heading off to Kansas University with his best bud, Otis Read.
When Otis was diagnosed with cancer during sophomore year, however, it was a game changer for both men.
“He asked me to help him through the treatments, and how could I refuse,” asks Pearson, who was also tempted by Read’s offer to start a band. “When Otis recovered, we started playing music together, Hall & Oates style, and it was a dream come true.”
While Pearson did return to college at Brown University, he never graduated. “It’s one of the biggest regrets of my life,” he admits. “Somewhere around year five of the band, I also realized what a difficult life it is to be a full-time musician. But we were young and determined, and so we persevered.”
Read and Pearson made their way from gig to gig for 11 years. They put together a variety of other bands during that period, and had a ball traveling the country and scraping by.
“We knew when we were in our late 20s that we didn’t want to be earning little money, and lugging tons of equipment around in our converted school bus when we were 40.
And so, after a barely lucrative night playing at a coffeehouse called the Big O in Bend, Oregon, the band decided to call it quits. “It was one of the saddest days of my life,” Pearson admits, “but it had to be done.”
During the last few years of his music career, Pearson began writing. “I went into the writing business naively, which proved to be a benefit,” says Pearson. “I wasn’t aware of the odds, but even if I was, it would have seemed like a better opportunity than the hard-knocks music business.”
Fortunately, tenacity is Pearson’s friend, because he wrote for more than eight years before selling a single manuscript.
“I started writing on-spec scripts for TV shows like ‘Columbo,’ because I loved the genre,” he shares, admitting that he never sold one. “But I was really fortunate during that time to find some guys who were willing to mentor me, and their advice, and my trial and error, was what got me to the point where I could finally sell something. I got an agent, and I got lucky.”
That book, Never Look Back, was published in 1984.
“Getting the hardcover book in the mail was one of the highlights of my life,” Pearson shares. “At the time, I was living in a house that my parents had built in Idaho, and I remember clearly the UPS man handing me the package. Before I even signed for it, I tore it open, and there it was—my novel. It was a breathless moment. I went running into the backyard, jumping around and screaming with delight. It was an out-of-body experience.”
To achieve those spectacular moments, Pearson says the key is to never, ever give up. “The thing about success is that if you are doing something you love, you can’t make yourself give up,” he insists. “I have had umpteen zillion part-time jobs to support myself so that I could do what I loved, and I’d still be doing whatever it took to play music and tell stories. Even if I was working in a corporation to support my family,” he says. “I’d be playing music and writing in my spare time. It’s who I am. I am a storyteller.”
Despite the fact that his career as an author was taking off by the 1990s, he couldn’t give up his passion for music. And that’s when he met Dave Barry, and the other founding members of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band founded in 1992 by Kathi Kamen Goldmark.
“The arts are for sharks,” Pearson knows. “You have to keep swimming. You can’t rest—or you will sink or get eaten.”
Pearson says he never stops studying, learning, creating, and working with other creative people. “And every day, I think I’m a little better at what I do for what I read, the movies I watch—and just being in the world and listening. It makes the sentences better, the plots deeper, and the stories richer.”
That approach to his work is what brought Pearson and Dave Barry together in 2002.
“We had been friends for years and one day decided that it would be fun to work together,” Pearson explains. “We got to thinking about Peter Pan, and what his life was like before he made his way into the Darlings’ house. Either of us could have probably written the series alone, but we knew that if we came together, the story would be more powerful.”
The “Peter and the Starcatchers” series has “sold more copies than napkins,” Pearson jokes.
Indeed, another highlight of his life was the night that he, Barry, and the cast and crew were waiting for critic Ben Brantley’s review at a bar called Phoebe’s in NoHo. “It was like a scene from one of those old movies, where the cast and crew are all dressed up and drinking cocktails, waiting for the verdict to arrive.”
This being the digital era, the review came across as a text, so someone handed Pearson a BlackBerry.
“Everyone’s face was glowing blue in the light of the machine, and then we were all literally crying with joy and relief. It was another one of those amazing pinch-me moments,” he recalls.
What can you do to hit the big time? Pearson and two dozen other authors offer their advice in this month’s Tips for Entrepreneurs column. Read their words of wisdom—then get back to working on that book! Happy writing!
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