Interview with Peter S. Beagle
Peter S. Beagle is one of the greatest fantasy authors of our time. He is a novelist, poet, screenwriter, songwriter and — in the words of Tad Williams — “a bandit prince out to steal readers’ hearts.” He wrote his first novel A Fine and Private Place (1960) when he was only nineteen years old. At age sixty-six, he penned the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novelette Two Hearts (2005). During the years between he authored many more books and short stories, contributed to The Saturday Evening Post, wrote an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and much more. Beagle’s favorite of his novels is the reflective and bittersweet The Innkeeper’s Song (1993), and of all his books, he had the most fun writing his acclaimed cross-country memoir I See By My Outfit (1965). But Peter Soyer Beagle is still best known as the author of the novel and fantasy phenomenon The Last Unicorn, which has sold over five million copies, been translated into twenty languages, and was adapted for the 1982 animated film of the same name, for which he also wrote the screenplay. Today, I have the unparalleled honor of talking with Peter about his influences, his craft, his recent works, and the unicorn who has both tailed and guided him through the many paths of his fantastic career.
From your seventieth birthday on April 20th, 2009 through April of 2010, you created The 52/50 Project: a story, poem or song every Monday for a full year. What was it like to be so continuously tapped-into your creativity, but with the intention of only creating very short works? It sounds like a fascinating exercise.
It was. [My manager] Connor Cochran talked me into trying it, because he knew how much I had loved writing songs and poetry when I was younger, and he also knew I hadn’t done anything complete for a long time — just fragments that I would put into my stories. He promised me that if I’d write something fresh every week, then he would lay it out, typeset it, write up liner notes from my comments, illustrate it, and send a finished PDF version out to subscribers on a guaranteed schedule. It was a bold promise in both directions, and neither one of us wanting to let the other down is probably why we made it through the year. Coming up with ideas turned out to be surprisingly easy, once I got into the rhythm of it. Some weeks I’d find myself focusing on something I’d always wanted to write in song form, but never had. And sometimes there were things I hadn’t thought about before at all. A few of those were purely for fun, like “The Pirates of the D,” or my song about the search for the perfect beer. But as the run progressed I found myself turning more and more to things that really mattered to me — like wondering, when I used to watch my father as he napped, if he ever dreamed about the wretched little shtetl in Poland where he was born. I was always very proud at pulling off one more Monday, and I still like looking back at these pieces — there are 53, actually; we did an encore — and realizing that I’d said something in a short form that I might never have been able to say at a longer length.
I think people may be surprised to learn about your performing arts history: you have acted — once in the role of Algernon for a University staging of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest – and sung, playing live folk music in Santa Cruz throughout the seventies and eighties. What have been some of your favorite experiences in these avenues outside of writing? Did you ever try your hand at visual art?
Although I’ve loved art all my life — my mother’s brothers were successful fine artists, with work in museums all over the world — I don’t have the tiniest bit of visual talent. Even my stick figures are an embarrassment. But I love singing, particularly. I’ve been writing far too long to react to criticism, even good criticism, even praise, one way or the other, unless it comes completely out of left field and somebody says something nobody ever has before, or it comes from someone whose work I admire greatly. But praise my songs, possibly my singing, and I just roll over on my back with my legs up in the air for my tummy to be scratched. I’m vulnerable on that point.
How about the acting?
That was something I enjoyed doing, even though I don’t have a great deal of trust in myself as an actor because I don’t think I move well on stage. I’ve always wanted to be graceful and I just don’t think I am. I do know I’m good with my voice, and I’d probably be a decent radio announcer or dialog coach if I got the chance. But the stage work I did when going to the University of Pittsburgh. . . well, I let’s put it this way: I loved the experience of it, but I didn’t necessarily love my performances.
You’ve spoken before about your friendship with Robert Nathan — the author of Portrait of Jennie — which began when you were a young novelist and he was a veteran writer. What kind of impact did this special friendship have on your work? I know he is an author you greatly admired.
I learned a great deal from Robert that other people were taught, in school, to learn from Hemingway or other heavyweight novelists, like never using two words where there was one perfectly good one available. Robert was very economical. He was also very gracious. He said something to me once, after we’d been friends for some time and he’d seen a good bit of my work, “I think your writing gets stronger and stronger as it moves further and further away from mine.” By the same token I’ve also learned some things not to do from watching Robert, especially about aging as a writer. Robert was bitter in his last years about having been neglected by his publishers. He’d outlived everyone he’d ever worked with at Knopf, and for all the jokes he made about being forgotten in the world of literary fiction, he hated it. I think about that and for me it’s not a question, really, of whether or not I’m forgotten in my old age, assuming I get that far. I just don’t want to care about being forgotten or not forgotten, the way Robert did. I just want to go ahead and continue my work as long as I can possibly do it.
The Last Unicorn is unarguably the masterpiece that you’re most revered for. Has it ever felt strange to be so closely identified with one particular work when you are the author of many other novels, screenplays, poems and stories?
Robert prepared me for that. The book is dedicated to him, in part, and when I sent the manuscript to him he actually called me from Los Angeles to warn me “You’re going to be stuck with this one the way I’m stuck with Portrait of Jennie. Wait and see. Jennie overshadows everything else I ever did, and sometimes I hate it because I did better books, but nobody knows them, they’re all out of print. But then I think of all the wonderful things that happened to me because of Jennie and I know I can’t possibly hate it after all. And I’ve gone back and forth with it ever since, and you will too with this one.” Then he laughed and said “Ah well, better to be remembered for something than not remembered at all.” And he was right. I don’t dislike The Last Unicorn, because it has brought many joys to my life, but there are books of mine that mean more to me.
You’ve talked about how writing The Last Unicorn was actually a long and difficult struggle. A lot was going on for you at that time — you were a becoming accustomed to being a father, and even though you had completed your cross-country memoir I See By My Outfit, you hadn’t seriously pursued fiction since your second, unpublished novel The Mirror Kingdom was rejected by Viking some years before. What made writing The Last Unicorn and that return to fiction such a challenge?
What made writing The Last Unicorn such a chore was that I really didn’t know what the focus of the book was while I was working, and never had the slightest clue what was going to happen next until I actually wrote it. This meant that the tiniest thing could hang me up and leave me staring at the typewriter for weeks. I wasn’t even entirely certain who the main character was! In my first try at the book, back in 1962, the unicorn’s companion on the road was a two-headed demon on the run from Hell, and after I wrote 85 pages I crashed into a wall because nothing was making any sense to me and I had absolutely no idea where to go with it. It wasn’t until three years later that I picked it up again. I was married now, and living in California with an instant family of three kids. My wife really wanted to know how the unicorn story came out, and while I still didn’t know I’m good at throwing things out and starting over when I have to. So that’s what I did. I tossed all but the first couple of pages and started over. And it was still a struggle, because I truly didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know where the unicorns were until the book was nearly over — I was just hoping that King Haggard would finally tell me. In those years we were living in a building that really was more of a shack then a house, and sometimes I’d write in the kitchen or the bedroom, and sometimes I’d write in the barn, and on a good day I’d sit out on what my older daughter came to call “Pete’s Hill,” writing with my manual typewriter in my lap and using a rock to keep the pages from blowing away. The whole time I was praying it would all work out in the end, because I didn’t have more than a fraction of a plan and the only parts I remember enjoying were the incidental lyrics and the section with Captain Cully and the outlaws.
The First Last Unicorn and Other Beginnings — which will come out next spring in hardcover from Conlan Press and in trade paperback from Tachyon Publications — collects those first 85 Last Unicorn pages and other unpublished chapters, vignettes, correspondence and commentary. What’s it like to revisit works from earlier in your career that have not yet been seen by the public eye?
A very mixed bag sometimes. As we put the set together I’d sometimes say “Whoa, glad nobody spotted that, glad that was never let out of its cage.” But other times I felt that things were pretty good. I’ll let readers come to their own conclusions about them, because that’s how it should be.
The Last Unicorn comic books that came out from IDW in 2010 were collected into a graphic novel earlier this year. How was the process of bringing this long-awaited project to fruition? Did it take very long to find a writer and artist whom you felt could capture the expectations that both you and your audience had for such an iconic book?
A few years earlier there was one failed attempt at a Last Unicorn graphic novel with Scholastic publishing. They had a fine comic artist lined up, Michael Wm. Kaluta, but the editor’s attitude towards the story was all wrong. She wanted to make the book into something I wasn’t happy with, so we canceled the deal. IDW came along much later, and they were incredibly supportive. They let us pick the adapting writer, Peter Gillis, whom Connor introduced me to in Chicago about five years ago. And they let us turn down four or five suggested artists before the comic’s editor, Mariah Huehner, fortuitously suggested Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon. Peter and Renae and Ray and Mariah all did an amazing job. I’m delighted to say that the same team will be coming back to do a graphic novel version of “Two Hearts,” the sequel story.
The Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab perfumery is also rolling out a series of Last Unicorn fragrances. Can you tell us how that came about?
Pretty simple, really. A fan of theirs who is also a fan of my books suggested the idea, and after that it happened pretty fast.
Since 2004, you’ve been in a dispute with Granada Media International over their refusal to pay you a large sum of due royalties for many years’ worth of DVD and cable TV sales of The Last Unicorn animated film – for which you also wrote the screenplay. Can you tell us anything about the status of this creative rights injustice? Is it any closer to being rectified?
After eight years it’s finally over, and I’m very pleased with how things have wound up. What happened, basically, is that last summer we finally made contact with the top levels of ITV, the big European media conglomerate that owned Granada, and when they looked into the situation they agreed with us that joining forces would be a lot better for everyone than fighting. So that’s what we’ve done. We settled the dispute, I’m getting what I was always due, and Connor Cochran is busy putting together big new plans for the film that simply weren’t possible before, like getting a thoroughly renovated 30th anniversary edition into theaters all over the world sometime in 2013. And that’s just for starters. It’s a little dizzying for me to believe but the tide has actually turned after all these years in the wilderness, but it has, and I couldn’t be more delighted.
I’ve heard you sing French, and have read that you also speak German and Yiddish? Anyone who’s talked to you marvels at the unending fountain of knowledge you are on literature, mythology, folklore, art and film. Have you always so readily absorbed the creative world around you? Do you think your interest in classic works and your passion for the arts in general helped you as a writer?
I sing songs in French and Spanish, but I’m hardly fluent in those languages — though I do seem to know a lot of French words that were considered dirty back in the ‘50s, but which no one uses any more — and I have completed exactly one grammatical German sentence in my life. As for Yiddish, I’ve got the same smattering as any other Bronx-raised, not terribly observant Jew. So while It’s kind of you to be so complimentary, the truth is that I’ve never felt like an educated person. I know my own limitations. I’m a buff, not a scholar. I tell people that I have a magpie mind, constantly flying around and picking up shiny things that look interesting. Add my memory for things I’ve read or heard, which I will admit is better than most people’s, and I wind up looking much smarter than I actually am.
You began your career in 1960 as a novelist and short fiction writer, then shifted to writing nonfiction and articles until 1965, returned to novel-writing with The Last Unicorn which was published in 1968, and continued to branch out into screenwriting from there. I’m curious how your view of writing changed over the years as you began working in so many different writing industries, and within so many different types of deadlines and editorial attitudes.
I’ve learned new techniques in each field — for example, writing screenplays taught me that if I was stuck on one particular moment or scene I could always skip over it and write the next part of the story, instead of only writing linearly. But the core of writing doesn’t change, no matter what medium you’re working in. You’re still facing a blank page, or screen, armed with only imagination and whatever chutzpah you can muster. And you have to make that do.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
There’s only one piece of advice that matters: show up for work. No matter how hard it may be — and it is hard — you have to clear away distractions, sit down, and invest the hours. Even if nothing comes. . . or nothing good, anyway. It’s just as easy and horribly difficult as that.
Learn more about The 52/50 Project at Conlan Press.
Read Peter’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning novelette “Two Hearts” for free online.
Watch a video by the interviewer of a live musical performance by Peter on YouTube.
Photo of Peter S. Beagle with guitar by Rosemary Van Deuren.
Rosemary Van Deuren is the author of the young adult fantasy novel, Basajaun. View more of her fiction and essays at www.rosemaryvandeuren.com. You can also be Rosemary’s friend on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at @rosemaryvan.