In 1982, the buzz wouldn’t stop about a controversial and groundbreaking new play on Broadway starring Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Ashley and Amanda Plummer.
The plot of Agnes of God was disturbing and philosophically challenging: A novice nun gives birth in a convent, proclaiming the baby has been born from a virgin conception. A psychiatrist is sent to investigate and runs head-on into the mother superior, who is vehemently protective of her confused young ward.
Plummer took a Tony Award for her role as Sister Agnes, while Page earned a Tony nomination for playing the mother superior. The 1985 film version starred Meg Tilly, Anne Bancroft and Jane Fonda.
Meanwhile, playwright-screenwriter-actor-poet John Leonard Pielmeier, who created Agnes of God, went on to cement his stature as a heavy-hitter—with a trophy case full of awards to prove it (including an Emmy, an Edgar and a Humanitas). He is known for his slew of plays (Voices in the Dark), made-for-TV movies (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter) and miniseries, including the screen adaptation of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of Earth.
Add “debut author” to his resume, as Pielmeier’s Hook’s Tale is now in bookstores.
Its publisher, Scribner, describes the novel as a “memoir” by the infamous pirate Captain Hook, which “allows Peter Pan’s legendary nemesis to finally set the record straight in the tradition of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked.” It explains how Hook “has been unjustly demonized, and why Peter Pan himself may be Neverland’s true menace.”
That’s a lot of finger-pointing, so I emailed Pielmeier to ask a few questions. Visit him at www.johnpielmeier.com.
Q: Where did you get the idea for revisiting Peter Pan from Hook’s point of view?
A: I have always been an avid fan of (Peter Pan playwright) J.M. Barrie and adventure novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. I even wrote a successful one-person play about Barrie, and visited Stevenson’s Samoan grave when I turned 50.
In December 2014, my wife and I embarked on a cruise of the South Seas. The first stop was Robinson Crusoe Island, where Alexander Selkirk (the model for Daniel Defoe’s character of Crusoe) was marooned.
In hiking the mountainous island, I stopped to catch my breath and observed our cruise ship anchored in the distant bay. It suddenly occurred to me that this island, mapped by Selkirk and described by Defoe, was most likely the model for Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Barrie’s Neverland.
There, where our cruise ship lay anchored, was the bay where Hook’s ship loomed! Over the crest of the mountain we were climbing we could spy Mermaid Lagoon! The far promontory was where the Indian Village was located, and all around us was jungle, suitable for concealing any number of Lost Boys.
I wondered what other islands sat near Neverland and how Hook got to this far-flung place. Those questions began to haunt me, and as soon as I returned home I began the writing of his tale.
Q: You’re an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. How did that expertise translate to writing a fanciful novel?
A: I’ve always felt comfortable writing dialogue, but I never felt competent in writing description. Then, several years ago, I thought I’d give it a try. And it was so freeing! Theater and film/TV are very collaborative media -- which is what I love about them—but suddenly I was on my own, writing for myself and no one else. Glorious!
And then Hook’s Tale came along and it was even glorious-er! For me, it was all centered around the ear—how do the words sound? In writing plays and teleplays, I always speak the dialogue aloud, again and yet again. I did the same with Hook’s Tale.
I read it aloud and rewrote it until I got the rhythm right. In a way, after all, the book is one long monologue, a much-maligned man’s fierce self-defense. The writing process was all about finding that man’s voice, his rhythm. That was the challenge and also the fun of it.
Q: Hook’s Tale is full of surprises, with major elements that in no way resemble J.M. Barrie’s “fairy play” of 1904 or his 1911 novel, Peter and Wendy. For instance, Captain Hook (ne: James Cook) and Peter Pan once were boyhood friends. Wendy calls Hook “Uncle James,” and refers to Peter as “that terrible boy...who’s like a little dictator.”
A: Well, yes. Not only is this a kind of “origin” tale, it is also the story told from another point of view. My byline on the book jacket reads “emended and edited by.” The word “emended” is very important. Not “amended.” “Emended” is all about righting a wrong.
At the same time, the book is very true to the spirit of Barrie and his seminal work. I adore Peter Pan and know it and Barrie rather well. Part of the fun of writing Hook’s Tale was taking a familiar episode and twisting it on its ear, the most obvious example being the climactic scene in which Hook claims to be rescuing the children from a life of never growing up. The heart of the book is Hook’s decision to live a full life, with joys and heartache and change. “Never growing up” is all about not changing.
The other fun I had was in finding origins for some of the elements in Barrie’s work. How did Smee get his name? Why is the ship’s cannon called “Long Tom”? How did Hook really lose his hand? My/Hook’s answers to these questions are also, I like to think, as much fun for readers to discover as they were for me.
Q: You made other changes to Barrie’s classic, in very imaginative ways.
A: There’s the story of Hook’s relationship with Tiger Lily, which eventually leads to his anger toward Peter and why Hook, for a time, sets out to destroy the boy. My favorite change involves the character of Daisy. The only thing I’ll tell your readers about this is that Daisy is a crocodile.
Q. For large part, James Cook is a sympathetic character, while Peter Pan is self-centered and frustrating. Not at all like the alluring boy in the Disney movie.
A: Even though Disney’s Peter Pan was the first movie I ever saw—and loved when I was 3—I don’t much care for it anymore. It misses the spirit of Barrie. Disney’s Peter is a bit of a spoiled adolescent, not the free-spirited child in Barrie’s play and book.
Q: Didn’t Barrie write the play for adults as well as children?
A: The opening-night audience was all adults, in spite of what that charming movie Finding Neverland says. To the surprise of many, they “clapped hands” when Peter asked them if they believed in fairies. If children were forbidden to go to the theater, I heartily believe there would still be a huge fan base for Peter Pan. Adults would throng to it.
This is because, behind all the fun and fantasy, Peter Pan is a very serious play, one that’s all about death. It’s been called “the Hamlet of children’s literature,” an odd but apt description. Which isn’t to say it still can’t be tremendous fun. “To die,” remarks Peter, “will be an awfully big adventure.” No place for that in Disney, is there?
Hook’s Tale acknowledges this theme, and goes on from there. Death goes hand-in-hand with life, and death should be embraced when it comes. Barrie’s Peter would certainly agree.
Q: The ending of your book is tragically realistic in that it mirrors the human condition. Did you ever envision a happier conclusion?
A: Spoiler alert! It’s true, it’s honest, it’s a bit sad—but I don’t think of it as tragic. Hook lives a long and fairly happy life after Neverland, with a family who loves him dearly and whom he loves in return. But his farewell to Daisy does make me cry whenever I re-read it. Hopefully all animal-lovers will feel the same thing.
Q: What reactions are you getting from readers? After all, this is not the story they have known and cherished since childhood.
A: The readers I’ve spoken to love it. Some are moved deeply, some laugh out loud. It certainly doesn’t erase any joy they might have from seeing or reading the original tale. This is just one man’s vision, and my somewhat tongue-in-cheek rendering of that vision. They love all the surprises; the book’s a bit meta in that sense, because most readers bring to it at least some knowledge of Barrie’s telling, comparing the two versions as they turn the pages.
But it also works for some as an adventure book, more along the lines of Treasure Island than Peter Pan. Which is one of the things I set out to do.
Q: Has writing the book had any profound effects on you?
A: I suppose it’s given me more confidence in myself as writer. It’s fun for me to re-read my “prose” and think, “My, that’s rather good.”