20 Questions: Ridley Pearson

[22 July 2009]

By Karen Zarker

PopMatters Managing Editor

Ridley Pearson is perhaps best known for his role in the all-author ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll band, Rockbottom Remainders (“We play music as well as Metallica writes novels”).  Haven’t heard of them? You know, with Stephen King singing lead ...?

Well then, perhaps you know Pearson for his award-winning young readers books, some penned with pal Dave Barry, as in ‘The Never Land Series’ (fans: next up with Barry, Peter and the Sword of Mercy.

No? Well, for your demographic, no doubt his name rings a bell in the killer crime fiction category, most recently Killer Summer (June 2009)—that’s book #34 by this prolific author, thus far.

Pearson rather fancies himself a bit like George Clooney and Harold, of Harold and His Purple Crayon—sans the blanket, of course. 

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I’ve spent the last year (2008-9) living in Shanghai, where I taught creative writing in English to Chinese university students. As my reference I used To Kill a Mockingbird, my favorite novel of all time.

It’s a tissue-box book and movie. I can never get through the final few minutes as Boo Radley comes onto screen for the first time, and Scout encourages him to “pet” her brother, and Boo’s determined reluctance. I showed that scene (ran the film) for my class, and even some of the students had to hide their faces at the film’s closing.

The book, the story and characters, are just so real and moving. Not that I’ve ever cried, mind you, since I’m a manly man known to crush and vanquish enemies at every turn. But if I did happen to cry over a book or movie, it would be over To Kill a Mockingbird.

2. The fictional character most like you?
You need to check your grammar here. What fictional character would most like you?  What fictional character is most like you?  These are polar opposites—if you happen to live in the poles.

First—and this is something about which I have to school my readers who email questions about what my characters “are doing now?”—fictional characters are in fact fictional. Meaning they can’t actually think about me, so I will discard that first possibility.

As to what fictional character best represents me—Brad Pitt comes to mind, because he’s so fictional.

George Clooney, of course. Then there’s always Mighty Mouse, Goofy, and Harold in Harold and His Purple Crayon.

I think I’d have to lean toward Harold—not in looks of course, I no longer travel with my baby blanket—but Harold and I share a love of imagination, of seeing a place and ending up there, often for hours at a time. Of entering an extraordinary world and allowing it to seep out slowly in the form of words and ideas. Harold’s my man (or working on being a man, as am I).

3. The greatest album, ever?
The greatest Albom ever is Mitch, of course (as in Mitch Albom)—a bandmate of mine in the Rockbottom Remainders. The best musical album ever for me is probably the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, though Sergeant Pepper’s would be right up there. I could throw in an opera or two.

And Broadway musicals (Mary Poppins, recently staged by Disney is an incredible recording). Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkle—the cut “Tin Soldier” by Donovan, an all-time favorite cut.

Sadly, I’ve recorded two albums myself, and they can’t even make my list, so they sure won’t make anyone else’s. Music is so constantly changing. Taylor Swift’s Fearless is just an amazingly flawless work. If you can wear out digital recordings, I’ve done so. (She’s kinda cute too!) 

I listen to music while writing—sometimes very loud. I used to favor jazz; then rock; then opera; now back to rock. It’s a moveable feast.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
TV or Film?  You can see the blatant unfairness here.

I would have to answer: the first Indiana Jones. There aren’t that many perfect films (To Kill a Mockingbird is one of them), but I would put Indiana #1 right up there. A major moment in cinema, never mind that it was a retro-minded work.

A perfectly flawed hero: “Snakes? I hate snakes.”  The idea enemy: Nazis. And pure action. Star Wars #1 would make my top 20, but the later films wrecked the series for me.

I enjoyed the recent StarTrek film (the prequel) but the time traveling threw me; and how is it, please explain, that the aged Spock can actually meet and speak to the early Spock?  I love the work of JJ Abrams, but I mean, really…

cover art

Killer Summer

Ridley Pearson

(Penguin; US: Jun 2009)

5. Your ideal brain food?
Music. It works when I write, when I cook, and other unmentionables. Anyway: trust me, it works.

What continues to amaze me, and will until my grave, is that 12 notes do all that. Twelve notes and some beats. And we have thousands of words. So why can’t a book ever get close to emoting like a sonata?

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Again, I question your grammar. Specifically what accomplishment?  That I haven’t fallen asleep at the keyboard?  That I’ve made it past 55? 

Or, might you be referring to Killer Summer, my latest Sheriff Walt Fleming novel [available at stores everywhere!] (oh, that!)  In which case I would say I am extremely proud because, as you can see, writing is a slow and difficult process and it takes over a year to write each book—so it becomes, and is, a labor of love.

So I love my book. With love comes pride, so I suppose I’m proud of it as well—though I don’t think about it that way. I think about Walt as a living character, and his stories as pieces of my history. I love writing. I have the best job in the world.

7. You want to be remembered for…?
At least three minutes.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Is this where I list former girlfriends leading up to Marcelle, my most wonderful wife?  That  kind of inspiration?  Or should I list my religious leanings—do you have enough NoDoz for that?  (pass the black tea…)  Or do you mean writers? 

I think there are writers who work off inspiration, and then there’s the rest of us: who just work. I get up in the morning and hit the keyboard. I write, and write some more. It is all inspired, in that I love what I do and I do what I love way. But I don’t hear angels, or choirs. I don’t get goosebumps (though sometimes my pulse is rather quick).

My inspiration, per se, is to further a story, dig deeper to know or understand a character. I love to read; I read everything I can; I so admire anyone who does what we all do because it’s hard, and it’s a long term commitment and it deserves to be viewed in this light.

I happen to adore Shakespeare. That sounds so snotty, but I don’t mean it that way: it’s just to think that he had the same alphabet to work with as the rest of us—that just seems wrong; it can’t be case.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
To Kill A Mockingbird (see above). The Joy of Cooking. The Bible. Harold and his Purple Crayon.

Then there’s Masterpiece Theater (PBS), which I’d take any credit for, but can claim none. There’s Mozart (pick a number). Shakespeare. Any Scott Turow. Good barbecue. Fine wine (I don’t drink, but I can dream, can’t I?)  Thankfully, somehow my two daughters bear my signature (think tattoo); and they are by the creative masterpieces I am most proud of and proud to be associated with. (They’re entering their teens, so it won’t last long from their perspective, I’m sure!) 

There is nothing like family, nothing like a great wife and two amazing daughters. Thirty-four novels?  Toss them aside. It’s all Storey and Paige for me. All day. Every day.

cover art

Killer View

Ridley Pearson

(Penguin; US: Jun 2009)

10. Your hidden talents…?
Not dropping the soap in the shower?  Snoring from either side of the pillow?  Staying in my chair when I know I’m not writing very well (like now!)?  Getting over jet lag?  Driving with two hands on the wheel? Playing in a rock band with Dave Barry and keeping a straight face? Looking in the mirror and keeping a straight face?

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Marry your best friend. Don’t speak unless you have something good to say. Drive between the lines. Stay in the chair. Say please and thank you. Thy will be done. Put it back where you found it. Clean up after your own mess. Floss. Your kids love to be hugged as much as you do. Wipe your feet on the mat; that’s what it’s there for. Floss. Untangle your earphones without cursing. Roll up the inside of the cereal box before putting it away. Make the bed. Fill it up if it’s under half full. Respect your elders. Don’t fart in elevators.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
The best thing I ever had that I lost was my father. It has been a year and a half and I think of him every day with a knot in my throat. No regrets; he died of old age. Just that knot of remembrance. He was a bit of a miracle.

An absentee dad for much of my developing years—all of them, actually. The man in the gray flannel suit. He commuted into New York City each morning to work for an oil company. He stopped at the bar on the way in and had a shot of vodka at 8AM. And at noon. And on the way home on the train that night.

Not a mean drunk. He didn’t have mean in him. Just a quiet, sick, sad guy for my first ten years. He nearly died of it three different times. Was smuggling vodka into the hospital ward and hiding the bottle under his pillow. Then my mother told him it was sanitarium or AA. He chose AA, which he’d already tried a few times, but it hadn’t stuck. This time it did. He got sober. He slowly rebuilt his life.

He discovered his family. He went on to manage AA worldwide for 15 years. Got hundreds of people sober. Maybe saved a few lives in there as I smelled coffee from downstairs at three in the morning and heard the mumble of dispirited voices.

A good man. A man who cared. A spiritual man by midlife and a quirky, bright, loving man who is now in photographs, and memories, and who puts a lump in my throat just to remind me to love my neighbor regardless of circumstance.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
I feel best in love. I’ve tried it out of love. Nowhere near as much fun.

On my knees in my kid’s rooms laughing. Lying on the grass and looking at the clouds move slowly past. Watching the stars at night from Idaho where the Milky Way sits on top of you like a bully. In the movie theater when the popcorn is perfect and my wife’s hand has salt and some fake butter on the fingertips. In the kitchen when all the smells combine just right. On a snowboard with the wind in my face and the horizon somewhere odd but welcome.

Behind the keyboard.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
I would be dining alone because I’m at the Ritz on book tour. I will do four book tours this year—I will get to know the Ritz well. (Three young adult books follow Killer Summer.) 

I happen to like English sitting rooms, parlors and libraries. I like the Ritz. I like rick fabric and polite waitresses who know how to flirt without meaning it.

I have a fondness for nice hotels, nice rooms. Places that are quiet where I can write and someone will bring me a cup of tea before I’ve even realized I want it. A New York Times in my hands.

If I’m home, a dog at my feet and the steady heave of a deep sleep coming from her nose.

My favorite office was a cottage I built on a stream in the woods behind my house in Idaho. I sold it 12 years ago to move the kids closer to town; I’ve never found a place that was so conducive to writing. If you’d been led in blindfolded and looked around, you might have thought you were in a corner library at the Ritz. I did.

cover art

Killer Weekend

Ridley Pearson

(Penguin; US: Jun 2008)

15. Time travel: where, when and why?
It’s always time to travel. I looked at my schedule the other day and realized that from 7 September to 1 May (2010) I would be traveling every ten days to two weeks. The entire school year.

Sometimes for a single night—a speech or conference—sometimes for two or three weeks—book tour with Dave Barry for Peter and the Sword of Mercy. But constant travel.

In there somewhere I need to write three novels, be a dad, cook some dinners, fold some laundry, write my mother, attend the school band concert, watch a few soccer games, and take a shower.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Stress is a force exerted from the outside. Buildings suffer from it—high wind, snow load. 

Human challenges, on the other hand, should, in theory, be chances to learn something. If I were smarter I would realize this when I’m frustrated and grinding my teeth and sending emails to my agent.

Dave Barry has taught me “It’s just a ride. You can choose to enjoy it or not.”  Turns out we all possess the antidote: laughter. Humor. The ability to twist the current situation, to step back and see yourself in the third person—and suddenly you look stupid, and it’s funny and it can roll off your back. Always?  No. But it turns out it isn’t absence that makes the heart grow fonder, it’s laughter.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Family.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Currently I would choose Shanghai, as my residence of preference. I spent the last year there and could have spent many more.

But I’m in our cottage in Idaho writing this, and I love this place. Have been coming here for 29 years. There’s a peace here, for me, that is hard to find these days. I chase it. I seem to only catch it here.

But Shanghai has that pulse of humanity, that insane pace and live-for-the-moment that makes every second seem rewarding and useful. It tests you. It rewards you. And you can get a wonderful Chinese massage—60 minutes—for nine dollars.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Haven’t had the chance. Stop using tar to pave the highways: concrete lasts a decade longer and isn’t 90 percent oil.

Charge five dollars a month to own a mailbox and make it free to lease a post office box—think about it: the mailbox requires a vehicle, fuel, causes emissions; the post office box, can be delivered by a mail worker walking across the room. That would add over 500 million dollars a month to the postal system and we could drop the cost of postage back to a nickel. And ban junk mail before the trees throw a revolt.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
Is this a trick question?  This questionnaire, obviously.

And on improving my posture, and perfecting pulled-pork, and fifth grade math, whitening my teeth, trimming my beard (no one likes it but my wife, and she gets what she wants), on listening instead of just hearing, my patience, my friendships. There are books, of course. Two of them at the moment, several more to come.

Deals. There are always deals to be negotiated—a blessing, yes. Time management. Spending less. Making more. Paying for college—closer than I could have imagined.

Being interesting. A video for a book promotion. A conference call with a room full of people a lot smarter than I am. Knock on Wood, for the upcoming Rockbottom Remainders performance (Sun Valley, 1 August).

The perfect cup of tea. Time travel—you brought it up, not me. Cold fusion. Fixing the postal system (ibid). Understanding the remote control for the television. Heeling Cairo. The perfect crepe (daughter’s favorite breakfast food), being a better dad, better husband. Extending the 24 hour day to 26 (see time travel). When to say “no”.

Karen Zarker, Managing Editor at PopMatters, works with a talented array of writers throughout the magazine. She manages the PopMatters Books Series, and also holds many behind-the-scenes operational responsibilities. She can be reached at zarker(at)popmatters.com.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/108493-ridley-pearson/