In Conversation With Playwright, Actor, Producer and Author, John Pielmeier
Norm Goldman

Reviewer & Author Interviewer, Norm Goldman. Norm is the Publisher & Editor of

He has been reviewing books for the past twenty years after retiring from the legal profession.

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By Norm Goldman
Published on January 29, 2018

Credit: Jordan Matter welcomes as our guest playwright, actor, producer and author, John Pielmeier. John began his career with the play and movie Agnes of God. Since then, he has had three more plays mounted on Broadway and more than 25 film, television movies and miniseries produced. Most recently, he has written and acted in the internationally successful limited series The Pillars of the Earth (named the Fifth Best Miniseries of All Time) and recently prepped his stage adaptation of The Exorcist, which had its West End premiere in late autumn 2017.


                                                                                                   Credit: Jordan Matter welcomes as our guest playwright, actor, producer and author, John Pielmeier. John began his career with the play and movie Agnes of God. Since then, he has had three more plays mounted on Broadway and more than 25 film, television movies and miniseries produced. Most recently, he has written and acted in the internationally successful limited series The Pillars of the Earth (named the Fifth Best Miniseries of All Time) and recently prepped his stage adaptation of The Exorcist, which had its West End premiere in late autumn 2017.

His first novel, Hook’s Tale, was published by Scribner in July 2017. In addition, he has received the Humanitas Award (plus two nominations), five Writers’ Guild Award nominations, a Gemini nomination, an Edgar Award, the Camie Award, a Christopher Award, and his projects have won a Gemini Award and been nominated for the Emmy Award (three times) and the Golden Globe Award.

Norm: Good day John and thanks for participating in our interview.

What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your various careers?

John: Wow. What a tough question to begin! I guess—and I’m not sure why—I don’t think in terms of “success.” Of course Agnes was a success, and many other things I’ve written have been successful, but I prefer to think in terms of “things I am proud of.” I’m certainly proud of Hook’s Tale. I’m proud of Agnes, of course, and very proud of my adaptation of The Pillars of the Earth.

I’m proud to have won an Edgar Award for my play Voices In The Dark. I’m also proud of things that weren’t “successful,” like my play The Boys of Winter.

I’m proud to be a writer. I’m proud of some performances I’ve given in my acting career. I’m proud of my determination and stick-to-it-iveness, but that could be another way of saying I’m just plain stubborn. I’m proud that I still enjoy putting pen to paper, or rather fingertips to keyboard.

Norm: What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today?

John: I guess it’s a feeling of not being worthy of success. It’s still a bit of a struggle at times. (Do you detect a theme here?) I’m also learning, with Hook’s Tale, to toot my own horn, as ‘twere. To be my own publicist. To talk about my work with pride. (See above.)

Norm: What was your first job in theater and as a follow up, why do you think theater is important?

John: My first paying job in the theatre was as an actor at Olney Theatre in Maryland. I was ending my sophomore year in college at Catholic University, and the Drama Department there ran Olney as a professional summer theatre. They were doing a production of Life With Father and I was asked to play the second of the four sons.

It was not a large part but I got paid $35 a week for it, plus room, and best of all I was singled out in the Washington Post review as being an actor to watch.

This was at a time when I hadn’t quite fallen for theatre yet. I wanted to be a movie actor, but they didn’t have training programs for that back then, so I majored in Drama. It wasn’t until my junior year, while waiting offstage for my entrance in a play, that it suddenly struck me: I love doing this! I love the immediacy of it, and the fact that I get to re-experience that immediacy again and again night after night. Shortly after that I began writing plays.

Norm: What do you see as the influences on your writing?

John: I’ve been inspired by teachers; most especially by a man named Archie Smith, an acting teacher I had in grad school at Penn State. Archie helped me be a better actor, and that in turn helped me—and still helps me—be a better writer. He helped me understand character arcs and through-lines; he helped me understand emotional truth, and getting to those tough unpleasant places that all actors and writers strive to find.

In terms of writers who have influenced me, I’ve always felt closely attuned to Thornton Wilder and (no surprise) to J.M. Barrie. They both understood the full meaning of the word “theatrical,” that thing the theatre can do that no other media can come close to achieving. Don’t ask me to define it other than this: seeing an actor playing Peter Pan on stage “fly” is much more thrilling than seeing an actor in a movie do the same thing. Miracles are happening right before your eyes in the theatre, in the very space where you are seated! Yes, the actors are well-rehearsed; yes, there are stage mechanics involved; but at the same time it’s as magical as watching a thrilling, spontaneous moment in sports. It can be heart-stopping.

Norm: How do you approach the work of writing for the stage and screen?

John: I’m much more organized in that kind of writing. I outline, I stick to a deadline, I’m aware of time limits, commercial breaks, etc. I spend most of my time in preparing a very detailed treatment; after that, the execution of that treatment is very speedy.

Norm: I notice you wear many hats, what genre are you most comfortable writing and why?

John: I guess that depends on what I’m writing when you ask the question. I used to think I could never write a novel; now I love swimming in that particular pool of storytelling. Yes, it is about changing hats, but once the particular hat is on my head, I feel right at home.

Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write for the stage and screen? What was least useful or most destructive?

John: I’ve never taken a class in screenwriting, or read any manual about it. I don’t like to feel tied down by any rules. I watch, I listen, I read, and I write and write and write.

Practice may not make perfect, but it certainly makes better. I see as many movies as I can, especially what one might call “classic” movies. I love films from the “silent” era, as well as from the ‘30’s and the ‘40’s—they’re all about storytelling. And I read all sorts of books; I always have at least two books going at a time: a novel and a work of nonfiction.

The only screenwriting lesson I’ve sort of taken to heart is the one about the three-act structure. And I’ve learned to be open to other people’s constructive notes, especially the good ones. (How can you tell the good from the bad? Practice. But sometimes you can’t tell. Sometimes I fight a note for all it’s worth, and only in the end, when I’m exhausted fighting, realize it’s a really good note.) It helps to remember that writing for TV and film, and even writing for the stage, is part of a collaborative process—with producers, directors, actors, designers. If you don’t like collaboration, write something else, please.

Norm: How many times in your career have you experienced rejection? How did they shape you?

John: Rejection never, sadly, stops. You try not to take it personally, but sometimes you do. It helps, of course, if you consider the source of the rejection. If it comes from a stranger, as many do, you just have to shrug it off and move on. Who knows why this person rejected your masterpiece: bad day? no taste? Maybe you unknowingly ran over their mother in a car and they’ve never forgiven you. Critics, of course, have no mothers. They were born of bitterness and brimstone.

Norm: Could you tell our readers about Hook's Tale and what motivated you to write the novel?

John: Hook’s Tale, quite simply, is a memoir written by Captain James Hook, telling his version of the story. It’s a very Dickensian retelling from a different point of view, and starting long before Barrie’s tale begins.

I was inspired to write it on a cruise my wife and I took of the South Seas. We were traveling from Chile to Tahiti, and the first stop was Robinson Crusoe Island, the tiny island where Alexander Selkirk was marooned in the early 18th century.

Selkirk was a British mariner who, once he was kicked off his ship, lived alone on this uninhabited island for four years. When he was rescued and brought back to London he became very famous for 15 minutes: his story inspired Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe (hence the island’s name).

I sort of knew this on the day my wife and I hiked this gorgeous isle, heading up to a mountainous ridge where Selkirk would light his frequent rescue-me bonfires. We stopped to catch our breath and I looked out and saw our cruise ship lying far below us in the bay.

In an instant, a series of thoughts zipped through my brain—Selkirk inspired Defoe whose island inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island whose island in turn inspired Barrie’s Peter Pan. And then I thought: I am hiking on Neverland! There, instead of the cruise ship, we spied Captain Hook’s ship! On the other side of the ridge we spotted the Mermaid’s Lagoon! On the promontory to the north stood Tiger Lily’s village! And then I asked myself the first of many questions: how did Hook get here? Where did he sail when he wasn’t anchored off Neverland? What was the source of his enmity toward Peter, which pre-dated the loss of his hand? As soon as we returned home I began writing the novel.

Hook would argue, of course, that it’s not a novel. It’s the truth.

Norm: How did you develop the plot and characters? Did you use any set formula?

John: I have, for a long time, been very familiar with Barrie and all of his writing, as well as his personal story. I even wrote a one-person show on Barrie, a show I occasionally perform. So I knew Barrie, and his style, and Peter Pan, very very well. It was as if I had begun all of the research for the piece 35 years before. Now I simply re-read Barrie’s novelization and made notes. The rest just poured out, almost as if it were dictated. No set formula. It’s just telling a story.

The true story.

Norm: How was the writing of the novel different from your other writings for the stage and movies?

John: I felt freer than I’ve ever felt as a writer. No deadline, no length restraints, no one looking over my shoulder and giving me notes (other than Mr. Barrie and the good Captain).

Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?

John: I didn’t discover what the book was about until I was a little over halfway to the end. Then it all became clear. (No spoilers.) But the thing is—I didn’t have to do much rewriting once I knew where I was headed. The part of me that was doing the writing knew all along where we were going and didn’t feel the need to inform my conscious self at all. My conscious self kind of stumbled upon the direction, said “Aha,” and kept on writing.

Norm: What do you hope will be the everlasting thoughts for readers who finish your book?

John: I hope that readers will not feel I’ve ruined or bowdlerized the source material. I certainly don’t—I wrote the book with a deep respect for Mr. Barrie (who identified personally with Hook), and who I think would be very entertained by what I’ve done.

But I also hope that readers will find the funny parts (and there are a lot) very funny, and the moving parts (and there are a few) very moving.

I hope the book will inspire readers to return to Barrie’s original novelization, and read it or re-read it, and love every bit of it.

Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most about writing this book?

John: The most difficult part was just sitting down and doing it nonstop. But I loved what I was doing, and I was compelled to do it, and so even that wasn’t difficult at all.

What I most enjoyed about writing the book was meeting the characters who popped up: Daisy, especially, and Raleigh and Tiger Lily and Peter and Josephine and the wonderful, horrible Uriah Slinque.

Norm: When writing your book, did you ever have it in the back of your mind that you could turn it into a movie or television project? If so, who would you like to play the lead role?

John: I very much had a television project in mind, in a sort of loose way, in how I chose to structure it: 10 chapters = 10 episodes. I have no particular actor in mind to play the Young Hook; I don’t know many 14-year-olds who could get a movie made. The Middle Hook probably isn’t a big enough part for a major star. As for the Old Hook, there’s no one for it other than Sir Ian McKellen.

Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?

John: Just remember that the impulse to write is something that must be followed, no matter the outcome. (Read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic.) Writing is one thing; publishing or production is something else, and if you’re lucky both will meet up, but if they don’t, that doesn’t mean you’re not talented or deserving or that you should stop. If it makes you joyful, do it; if not, don’t.

Norm: Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)

John: My stage adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is currently playing in London and will, God willing, be coming to New York and then the rest of the world. I have a few other novels on which I’m doing final polishes; hopefully they’ll find a publisher and an audience. I will be turning Hook’s Tale into a one-person play. I have another new play I’m starting to dig into, one I’m very passionate about. I may direct a play of mine in Rome. I try to keep busy.

Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?

John: Go to my WEBSITE

Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?

John: “How can I go about buying hundreds of copies to give to all my friends?”

Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.

John: Thank you.