Playwright John Pielmeier, author of Broadway dramas such as Agnes of God and Voices in the Dark, has taken an interesting turn in his career. By indulging in a boyhood obsession, he has discovered Neverland and Captain Hook’s past.
The idea for Hook’s Tale, Pielmeier’s first novel, came to him while on a cruise with his wife. The ship stopped on Robinson Crusoe Island off the coast of Chile. “It is the proto-Neverland, where, early in the 18th century, Alexander Selkirk was marooned for four years,” explains Pielmeier. On Selkirk’s return to England, he told his story to a newspaper, which printed his saga. Daniel Defoe read the account and then wrote his ground-breaking novel Robinson Crusoe.
“We were hiking up the ridge where Selkirk would climb every day to light a fire to attract help, and stopped for a moment to catch our breath,” continues Pielmeier. “We looked out, and way off in the distance we could see the cruise ship in the bay. Suddenly all these thoughts occurred to me in an instant: The cruise ship was exactly where Captain Hook would have anchored.”
It was as if the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle had suddenly arranged themselves in place, and Pielmeier’s imagination kicked into high gear with a vision of Peter Pan, Captain Hook, a certain crocodile, a fairy, and Tiger Lily, the lovely native princess.
It wasn’t as if the ground for this wasn’t already fertile. Indeed, it was plowed and sown, for John Pielmeier had been a fan of Edwardian-era author J.M. Barrie for most of his life.
“It began early; my mother would read Peter Pan to me. Probably a version based on the Disney film. And that was the first movie I ever saw. I had the book pretty much memorized by then.”
And then later in life, in 1980, as he was transitioning into his acting career, had written two plays, and had major success with Agnes of God, he saw a production of What Every Woman Knows (a play by Barrie, first performed in 1908) “and it just blew me away. I went to the library and I read all of his plays. I was just like, ‘Wow — this man was great.”
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While Pielmeier is best known for drama (he recently adapted Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth into a television mini-series), Hook’s Tale is evidence that he is a romantic at heart. The novel begins with one James Cook, the purported author of this memoir. Mysteriously supported by his father’s family in London, Cook’s childhood comes to an abrupt end at his single mother’s passing. He flees the city in search of the paternal family he never knew, but becomes “pressed” into the crew of a sailing ship and ends up in the mysterious “Never Isles” on his maiden voyage. From there on we see the tale we know turned upside down, and in the end a deliciously complex story of Dickensian dimensions unfolds as we learn the true story of poor Captain Hook, down to the crocodile with that bizarre timepiece in its innards.
This isn’t Pielmeier’s first venture into Barrie territory. In the early ’80s he wrote Courage, a one-man show inspired by an address that Barrie gave to students at Saint Andrews University in Edinburgh.
“I became obsessed,” says Pielmeier, “a full-on, mini-expert on Barrie, though I don’t claim to be as knowledgeable as some people on this subject. But when I came to write Hook’s Tale, I was so familiar with his phrasing and so much of the commentary on his life that it was a bit like stepping into the man’s shoes.”
Pielmeier, who grew up in Altoona, PA, now resides in Garrison with his wife, the poet Irene O’Garden. “We love the Valley,” he says. “We moved here in 1984 and never looked back. Relocating from Midtown Manhattan to an old farmhouse on a dirt road in Putnam County, we expected to have some period of adjustment. Nope — felt right at home. We’re in a different house now, but we’ve never considered living in any other area.”
Hook’s Tale, by John Pielmeier, was published in July by Scribner.