Q&A WITH RIDLEY PEARSON ’71


 

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Throughout his decades-long career, Ridley Pearson has surrounded himself with some great collaborators.

In addition to finding his love for writing at Pomfret, Ridley Pearson also found a great band. After graduating from college and playing in his band, he began to write to earn a living. After a few titles, Ridley “got lucky” as Stephen King would call it, and he found himself on a nationwide book tour and in a band with Mr. King himself. In his new band, he met humorist Dave Barry and the two wrote Peter and the Starcatchers. The youth title made the New York Times bestsellers list and was adapted into a Broadway play that won five Tonys. This year, Ridley returned to Pomfret to work with Theater Director Chip Lamb to stage a musical version of his book The Academy.    


Where did your love for writing begin?
Pomfret is where I learned to write. I never thought I could write. But I got the writing bug here from William “Terry” Murbach. He taught some interesting courses and became a mentor to me. Pomfret is also where I learned how to use my time, which is what writing is all about. We all have creative ideas, but you have to stay in the chair, put them down, and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Pomfret is also where I learned to love to read. In Mr. Murbach’s Insanity in Literature course, I couldn’t wait to read the books he assigned and talk about them. When I was a sophomore, I wrote a short story for my final exam. Mr. Murbach then used the story for a senior class final exam. It was a big boost to my belief I might actually be able to write well.

Ridley performing with Big Lost Rainbows.

When did you start writing professionally?
After college, for nearly a decade, I was a “professional” musician — but it wasn’t very professional. The folk-rock band — Big Lost Rainbow — started at Pomfret. Robin Pfoutz '71 played the cello, Otis Read ’71 and I played the guitar, Adam Berenson ’71 played the piano, Tony Morse ’71 played the flute, and Jacques Bailhé ’71 played bass. Halfway through that experience, I started writing full time because I just couldn’t live the lifestyle of a musician. I kept myself alive by writing non-fiction during the eight and half years of fiction failure. I learned a lot each step of the way. And then I got lucky. My first two books didn't do well, my third book did a little better, and my fourth hit bestseller lists. I was off and running. Stephen King says that “writing is 90 percent perseverance, 5 percent talent, and 5 percent luck.” I just got lucky.

Ridley performs with the Rock Bottom Remainders.

Tell us more about this band.
Since 1991, I’ve played bass in an all-author charity rock-and-roll band. Back in the day, during the long book tours in the larger cities, publishers had a media escort who would show you around and take care of you. One of those media escorts — Kathi Goldmark — realized she had toured enough authors who played music to make a band. None of us had any idea who was being asked. At that time, it was Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, and the “real” musician, Al Kooper. I was the "weenie" of the group and in awe of them. We called ourselves the Rock Bottom Remainders. In the book business, a remainder is an unsold book taking up space on a bookstore shelf. We have been doing it for more than thirty years and remain one of the worst bands ever. But, to our credit, we have raised over three and a half million dollars — mostly for literary causes or non-profits supporting first amendment rights.
 
So, that’s how you met Dave Barry.

I had been a huge Dave Barry fan for years. He had a weekly column, and I read it faithfully and laughed my tail off. Through the band, we became fast friends and ended up writing a bunch of books together. That started with Peter and the Starcatchers. The novel was adapted into a Broadway play and won five Tonys. I learned a great deal about writing from Dave. We had an amazing ten-year run.

Ridley and Dave Barry at the premiere of Peter and the Starcatcher. ​​​​​

Tell us about adapting Peter and the Starcatchers into a play.
Thankfully, Dave and I had nothing to do with it. If we had written the play, it wouldn’t have been good enough to perform for an elementary school. I had been a theater buff. My parents would take us to the theater in New York all the time. When Tom Schumacher, the president of the Disney Theatrical Group, was working on the adaptation and production with playwright Rick Elice, I asked to be a fly on the wall. I promised to keep quiet if they would allow me to watch and learn what it took to turn a book into a play. For six years, I followed the process. It was a phenomenal experience that I should write a book about it someday. It culminated in a sold-out off-Broadway show, got rave reviews in the New York Times, was produced Disney on Broadway, and won five Tonys.
 
And now you are working on The Academy, here at Pomfret.

Chip Lamb asked me if during my 50th reunion year Pomfret could stage The Academy from my Steel Trapp series — which was set in a fictional Pomfret. I was thrilled at the idea. I told Chip that I would be in the front row on opening night.
 
When the pandemic hit, the anniversary production and much of my publishing work was put on hold. I suggested to Chip that we might try making the show into a musical. Because of my music background, I always wanted to write a musical. While Peter and the Starcatcher was not a musical, I was energized seeing all the steps to make something good. I thought it would be like the days when I wrote for my band — I could write a song in a day, which is not the case, as it turns out, with musicals. The songs in The Academy took me two years to write.

Ridley works with Chip Lamb to stage a musical version of The Academy.

How is working on The Academy similar to Peter and the Starcatcher?
Both were such a collaborative effort. Having the right team where everyone feels like family is so important. Working with the creative team here at Pomfret has been so fun and makes everything possible. The songs have been changed two dozen times with the help of Dr. Burns, because he actually knows what he’s doing. Nina Joly is responsible for the movement of the actors and the choreography of the dancers. Beth Jacquet is the show’s costumer and producer. Students in the cast are fantastic and a huge help to the development of the script and the music.
 
If you were to give a Chapel Talk today, what would you say?

There are so many things I would say. I would give one talk on learning to make mistakes, which would encompass courage. My dad told me to pay attention to my mistakes, know how to fix them, and when to ask for help. I would give another talk on dedication and not giving up on your dreams. So many writers in the thriller field are lawyers who work fifty to sixty hours a week. They find time to write their books while on the train or dictating into a recorder in the car. The last talk I would give would be on relationships and the importance of friendship. Pomfret gave me incredible friendships. My close Pomfret friends stay in touch. We share our miseries and successes. And there’s a lot of laughter. 

What are your hobbies outside of writing and playing in the band?
I keep pretty busy playing pickleball and going hiking with my wife. I am also a huge Disney fan. I went to Disney World for the first time with my family and Dave’s family when I was forty-four years old. They treated us really well, and I wrote them a thank you note. That note led to Peter and the Starcatchers and the Kingdom Keepers series when I was on a call and a woman asked if I had ever thought about writing for kids. And that changed everything. Disney was a little reluctant at first because I wanted to do research and get into the parks after dark. At first, they said no because they didn’t allow anybody to do that. After a month, they called me back and sent me a VIP pass that I can use to get into any Disney park around the world for free. And if I tell them I am coming, they get an imagineer — the people who engineer and build the rides — to be my escort. They guide me through the parks and tell me about the rides, and I put them in my books. I have been to thirty of their parks after hours, and on their cruise ships. I just love them all. I’m a sap. 
 

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