Altoona native hooked by visit to ‘Neverland’: Playwright and novelist Pielmeier coming to area

Courtesy photo John Pielmeier stands in front of a map of Robinson Crusoe island off the coast of Chile.

Successful playwright and Altoona native John Pielmeier was hiking a mountain ridge on an island off the coast of Chile in 2014 when he suddenly realized he was probably looking at Neverland, the fictional setting for the story of “Peter Pan,” written more than 100 years earlier.

A well-read Pielmeier connected the convoluted dots, rooted in Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” written even earlier, in 1719.

Pielmeier returned to his home in the Hudson Valley of New York and started writing the backstory of Peter’s adversary, and he named it “Hook’s Tale.” Published by Scribner and released in July, its subtitle is “Being the Account of an Unjustly Villainized Pirate Written by Himself.”

Much like the book “Wicked” made the mean witch in Oz a sympathetic character, Pielmeier made Captain Hook the protagonist. The antagonist is that pesky flying boy who never grows old.

It’s “a splendid yarn,” wrote Publisher’s Weekly. The book also made the “New and Noteworthy” list from USA Today. It is available at online and store outlets, including Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Altoona, where Pielmeier is scheduled to appear for a book signing at 7 p.m. Sept. 11.

The next day, Pielmeier will make two other public appearances in the area to promote his first published novel, as well as discuss his continued success as a playwright. He will be at Penn State Altoona at noon on Sept. 12 in a free event open to the public at the Misciagna Family Center. And he will read from his book that evening at 7 p.m. at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art at Saint Francis University in Loretto. Books will be available for sale and signing at both events.

Jim Cayce, SAMA’s board president, said he is intrigued with “Hook’s Tale,” although he hasn’t read it yet.

“All the reviews I’ve read are positive,” he said.

Cayce said he was eager to get the prolific Pielmeier to the area to kick off a lecture series at the museum; Pielmeier’s event will include hors d’oeuvres, cost $20 and require a reservation by calling the museum at (814) 472-3920.

Pielmeier will not run out of things to discuss.

He wrote the stage adaptation for “The Exorcist” that premiered in Birmingham, England, last year and opens in London’s West End later this year. His is an adaptation of the William Peter Blatty book — not the movie — and he expects to visit London later this month to view a few rehearsals.

“In Birmingham, I was present for all the rehearsals,” Pielmeier said in a phone interview with the Mirror recently. “It was a script in development and I made little changes here and there. But the script now is more solidified, so I won’t be quite as present.”

Pielmeier said he expects “The Exorcist” to hit Broadway in the fall of 2018.

It won’t be his first time in the lights in the renowned theater district.

Growing up in Altoona

Pielmeier grew up in the Fairview neighborhood of Altoona and started writing plays long before he saw his first one, “Richard III,” at the Mishler Theatre while in junior high. His first performance outside his family’s living room was with the Altoona Community Theatre’s production of “Annie Get Your Gun.”

After he graduated from Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School in 1966, he attended Catholic American University in Washington, D.C., earning his bachelor’s degree. While working on his master’s of fine arts degree from Penn State, Pielmeier performed and wrote for regional theater companies in the Midwest.

By then, he had gained the confidence to move to New York City, and he started writing his first fully professional effort, “Agnes of God.” The play centers around a young nun who gives birth and insists the dead child was the result of a virgin conception, and it was first staged at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights’ Conference.

It eventually enjoyed a 17-month run on Broadway and another one on London’s West End before Pielmeier adapted it to the screen in a movie that starred Anne Bancroft, Jane Fonda and Meg Tilly.

Pielmeier’s other writing successes include “Courage,” a play about “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie; “Voices in the Dark,” a thriller that appeared on Broadway; and a Vietnam War drama, “The Boys of Winter,” which also appeared on Broadway in 1985, as well as at Penn State in 1987.

Pielmeier also wrote for television, including the movie “Choices of the Heart” about three American missionaries killed in El Salvador. Starring Melissa Gilbert and Helen Hunt, the effort netted Pielmeier a Christopher Award and a Humanitas Prize for the values promoted in the film.

Other made-for-TV movies followed, including “Sins of the Father” on FX and “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” on Lifetime, which was nominated for an Emmy for Best Television Movie in 2008.

Pielmeier also wrote the TV adapation for several best-selling novels, including Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth,” an eight-hour series that aired internationally in 2010. It received three Golden Globe nominations and an Emmy nomination, among other awards. His “World Without End” was broadcast on television in 2012.

Changing mediums

Eager to tackle another medium, Pielmeier wrote his first full-length novel that he said he has shown to no one, and he still is putting finishing touches on a third novel.

Meanwhile, he took a South American cruise with his wife, Irene O’Garden, a successful playwright, poet and published author in her own right.

“Our guidebook showed that our first stop was Robinson Crusoe Island,” Pielmeier recalled of the place off Chile. “I didn’t know anything about it.”

Long called Mas a Tierra, it took on the name of Defoe’s 18th century novel in 1966.

“It was a beautiful day and quite a vigorous hike to the top of the ridge that divides the island,” Pielmeier said. “We stopped to catch our breath. Then it suddenly occurred to me at that moment, it all came to me very quickly, that this is where Alexander Selkirk was marooned voluntarily.”

Selkirk, Pielmeier explained, was a Scottish sailor who lived on the uninhabited island in the late 1600s and whose story was loosely the premise for Defoe’s Crusoe.

Pielmeier said he knew that Defoe had inspired Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote “Treasure Island,” as well as Barrie, who created “Peter Pan.”

“This was in a matter of seconds that I realize that I’m hiking in Neverland,” he said. “Out in the bay where the cruise ship was docked is where Captain Hook’s ship was anchored. When we continued to the ridge and looked to the other side, there was Mermaids’ Lagoon. To the north, that’s Tiger Lily’s village.”

Real and imagined

“The island became so real to me. Neverland became so physically real to me,” Pielmeier said.

He said he had always wondered why Hook couldn’t find Peter’s underground home, but now he knows.

“This island was much larger than I imagined Neverland being,” Pielmeier said. “It was jungly and it was obvious why he could never find it. I started asking myself questions about Hook: How does he get here? Why doesn’t he fly?”

Pielmeier went home and wrote his version of the answers, and one of them, of course, is that Hook had a “very rough childhood.”

He said he wrote it with an adult audience in mind, but it’s appropriate for ages 12 and up; some “teenage boy gore” may make it a tad too violent for younger kids.

“It was fun,” he said. “No one was looking over my shoulder, I didn’t have a deadline, I didn’t have producer notes. What I love about theater and film is that it’s very much a collaborative process. You’re working with the director and sometimes the actors in creating the final product.

“But the book, I’m flying solo. That was fun.”

Pielmeier said he can’t imagine “Hook’s Tale” being adapted to the stage as the musical “Wicked” was adapted from Gregory Maguire’s book.

“There’s so much going on visually in this book, it would be a challenge to do it on the stage for less than an exorbitant amount of money,” he said. “The natives, all these pirates, it would be a huge cast.

“I may change my mind tomorrow,” he added with a laugh.

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.


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