Ridley Pearson, well-known author, has published over 36 books, a half dozen short stories, and wrote the screenplay for a 2-hour ABC movie based on one of his novels --most of which are suspense crime stories. He also writes popular children’s series: Peter and the Starcatchers, The Kingdom Keepers, Steel Trapp. During our interview, Ridley shares how he became a professional writer, why listening is key, and how the Bible helps him. Read on to discover what he’s learned as a result of collaborating; why humility, getting rid of ego, and letting God lead are central to success; and more.
A lot of people want to become writers. How did you translate that desire into action?
I went through the school of hard knocks. I started out as a “wannabe” folk rock musician and spent ten years on the road doing that. Halfway into the late nights and not much money, I decided to be a professional writer. It took eight and a half years to get published, during which I wrote eight or nine screenplays; a first novel, which went through six drafts and about 4000 pages; and then a second novel, which, on it’s fourth draft, sold as a hard cover fiction espionage novel. When it sold, I found out that the publisher didn’t like the story, just my writing. So I had to rewrite it. There’s a lot of humility associated with this business. Never a day passes that I’m not humbled, and that’s even after having thirty-six books published. But I’ve been on a real streak lately -- of humility.
How do you get your ideas? Is there any inspiration that helps you?
My quip answer is, "Walmart." But seriously, I get ideas from conversations, the news media, anywhere. If you’re a writer, you know it. You write whether or not someone else is sending you a check. I wrote all those years I played music. Ideas have never been a problem for me. Inspired ideas -- now that’s different. I think it’s smart to wait around for the inspired idea, and that comes from listening to the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). We can choose to turn away from the voice or embrace it.
And for me, it’s not really a voice I hear; it’s more like thoughts. I have these idea thoughts that scroll below my screen like the crawl on TV news or sports stations. For years I let them scroll across and often didn’t pay attention to them. I let so many go across and become missed opportunities. I’ve learned to listen to them.
Do you have any examples where listening to “thoughts” helped you?
My family was traveling in London. We’re type-A+ travelers, especially me. Usually we have everything all planned out. We were all determined to wake up early and go to a particular museum. But for whatever reason (which was, in fact, a thought from God), I woke up feeling like we didn’t have to push it. It’s so easy to push things, too. But that day, we didn’t rush. An hour later, terrorists struck on the subway. In all likelihood, we would have been on or near one of those trains that got blown up. You just don’t know why you get those voices. But I don’t want to blow off those thoughts that come to me because they could be angel messages.
How important is the Bible to you in your daily life, and how do you use it?
I read passages from the Bible everyday. If I don’t, I have found that I reach stretches in my life where things aren’t going right. In every single case, if my relationships or professional work deteriorate, I realize I have stopped reading excerpts from the Bible in the morning. When I get back on the train, everything smooths out. Reading the Bible creates calm water that is far more navigable than normal life. It allows me to quiet myself so I can be creative. If I get away from reading the Bible daily, the waters get all churned up, and my ability to be creative is impeded. I'm not saying it's for everybody -- far from it. But for me, it happens to work.
How did you move from suspense crime stories to the incredibly creative Peter and the Starcatchers series for children … and for us childlike adults?
I kept my eyes and ears open. I was reading Peter Pan to our then 5-year-old daughter. She asked me how Peter Pan met Captain Hook in the first place. I thought about it and told her, “That’s its own story. In fact, that’s its own book, and I’m going to write it.” So I had to figure out how a boy could fly, be chased by pirates, travel around with a personal fairy, and never grow old. The question she was asking was, “How did a boy become Peter Pan?”
I realized that I was ill-equipped to write it, so I talked to Dave Barry. He and I are in a rock band together. I’m a founding member and play bass guitar. I was staying at his house for a gig at the same time that I was considering writing this prequel to Peter Pan. I turned to him and said, “You’re a 12-year-old in a fifty-something body, likely to never mature. I kill people for a living -- in my books. Would you be interested in writing a Peter Pan prequel with me?” When he said yes, we had to figure out how to collaborate. I introduced him to a word called “outlining.” He had to look it up in the dictionary. We outlined the story ideas, trying to answer all the questions about Peter Pan.
How do you write the stories together? Who does what?
We decided to divide our writing not by chapters but by characters -- kids and villains. Dave took the happy-go-lucky kids, and I took pirates and everything menacing. I would send off to Dave what I thought was a fabulous chapter, and it would come back to me 60% rewritten. My initial response was often, “Man, what happened?” Then I would see that his way was far better, and I'd send it back later with some of my own edits. I’d edit his work the same way. We’d send chapters back and forth until we got them where we wanted them. It’s fun to see things improve. We both have to have zero ego.
What have you learned from this collaboration process?
This process depends upon an incredible sense of trust in the other guy -- that he won’t change things for egotistical reasons, but only to make the story better. I’ve also realized that I couldn’t do this work with anyone except Dave Barry. He’s brilliant, and I trust him.
Working with Dave has been incredibly instructive. As a journalist, Dave always has to have it right before he sends something in. It may take weeks or even months to perfect a chapter before we move on without either one of us changing a word. It’s been really helpful for my own crime fiction writing. I take my time now and make sure it’s right before I move on to the next chapter. I used to write books in six months and then take a year to edit them. Now I typically rewrite about three times before I turn a manuscript in.
How do you get ego totally out of the way?
This is where the Bible comes in handy. It’s the whole concept of “thy will be done” (Matt 26:42), and getting “me” out of there. Jesus changed things for thousands of years to come by saying, “It’s not me; it’s my Father.” I have a friend who talks about his direct connection to his Father, God, and I’ve really paid attention to that. When you’re with God, your “self” has to get out of the way. It’s a place of humility and reverence. The response may not always be what I want or envision, but I have to accept it. When I listen, I’m led.
I try to carry this attitude with me whenever I have meetings of any kind -- to get “self” out of the way and let the spirit of Christ lead me so that God’s will is done. And if I’m ever angry, I look to the Bible before I take action. I also look up key Bible words, reading everything around them. I always find some idea that’s incredibly helpful.
How did you get to the point where you were comfortable listening to and letting God lead?
I grew up in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) because my dad was an alcoholic. One of their first tenets is that you give yourself over to your higher power. That has been incredibly instructive in my life. Now my higher power is God. You either accept a higher power, or you don’t. It’s an individual choice. A close friend of mine is agnostic, but I don’t judge him on the fact that he doesn’t believe in God, and he doesn’t judge me on the fact that I do believe in God. But the higher power message from AA grabbed me, and some other writings have grabbed me. As a person who does not view myself as the end-all, there’s room in my life for something better.
God in my universe is not the white-bearded man in the sky. God is Good, a prevalent Good you can either pay attention to or not. Since I’ve had the intention to pay attention to God, my life has changed. Reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything doesn’t dispel the notion of God for me; it just confirms it. I read about the physicists’ models for how the universe began and how it continues to sustain itself. And someone can try to tell me there’s not another power behind all of this? It’s too cool and magnificent to be bad. It must be good!
So if we all start at the moment of good, why not be a part of the good? There’s a pulsing sensation of good in every molecule in this universe, and all we have to do is tap into the Good. I used to be able to write only one book a year. I can write four books a year now. That change in productivity came when I started to pay attention to my spirituality.
The Peter and the Starcatchers series shows good triumphing over evil. When you write, do you have a specific message you want to get across, or are you just trying to tell a good story?
I try not to "preach" in my writing, but I do like a story that moves along quickly with BELIEVABLE characters (super important, and not always accomplished!); the idea that all characters should be at least somewhat understood and even sympathetic; that good prevails. It may not prevail over evil, per se -- and good does not always win out in all of my short stories, and some of my novels -- but, at the end of the day, good will surface.
Do you have any advice for people who want to write?
Be true to yourself. Write the story you want to write. But if you want to write professionally, you need to find a sense of humility. What you’ve done can always be better. There are people who can edit your work objectively. We’re our own worst enemy if we think that our piece is so good that it doesn’t need help. I’ve worked with many “wannabe” writers. Those who took edits have made it. Those who didn’t take the edits are still waiting around, hoping to be published.