From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Novelist Peter Beagle

Peter S. Beagle is perhaps best known for his 1968 novel The Last Unicorn, one of the most popular fantasy novels of the 20th century. He has written many novels, stories, screenplays, essays, and songs since writing his first novel, A Fine and Private Place, when he was 19. He has had a variety of screenplays and teleplays produced, including for the animated adaptations of both The Last Unicorn and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, as well as for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Numerous new books are scheduled for 2006, including a new novel, Summerlong. Peter S. Beagle currently lives in Oakland, California.

You are a musician as well as a writer, and at least one of your novels, The Inkeeper’s Song, was inspired by a song you wrote. How does music affect your writing?
It’s always there. From the very beginning, especially in terms of language, certainly. I associate writing and singing on an almost one-to-one basis. But it also has to do with structure. I can remember thinking about certain passages or sections of dialog, “this is a woodwind stretch,” or “this is definitely a string quartet with voices interplaying, moving in and out of each other.” So yes, music is always there, even if the subject isn’t music. There’s a lot of it in my first novel, A Fine and Private Place, much of which is talk. But all the same I thought of it in terms of instruments, of musical voices talking to each other, and also in the tone of the conversations: brass or strings or woodwinds as the case may be. And it runs more subtly through The Innkeeper’s Song, where I tend to think of individual voices as individual instruments. I thought of Karsh, for instance, the old innkeeper, as definitely either a trombone or a bass clarinet depending on his mood or the tone of his passage. And Lukassa, a young girl, I always thought of as a soprano saxophone. That’s one of my favorite instruments.

Do you think of yourself as a “fantasy writer”?
I think of myself as a fantasy thinker. I’ve done a lot of writing that wasn’t fantasy, but I know that “fantastic thinking” is a particular mindset of mine. There was a piece in today’s San Francisco Chronicle about a writer I know slightly, Christopher Moore, and in it Moore talks about wanting to write horror from quite an early age, but finding that somehow his horror always turned funny. Because that’s the way Moore is. So it just did. In the same way I could be writing about the minutes of a Congressional committee meeting, and somehow a fantasy element would enter without my knowledge.

Peter Jackson has said the movie you wrote of The Lord of the Rings was one of the first things to incite his interest in Tolkien. Were there movies that particularly captured your own interest as a child?
Certainly. I loved movies. There weren’t a great many fantasy-based movies when I was a boy, of course. Even The Wizard of Oz didn’t become commonly popular until it started showing up on television in the ‘60s as an annual event. The films I remember . . . I always loved a Burt Lancaster picture called The Crimson Pirate, which managed to be both a pirate movie and a spoof on pirate movies at the same time. I’ve always wanted to do that—to take the conventions of something and then do something else with it. Years later my son sent me a postcard saying I had to go see a movie called The Princess Bride: “It’s The Crimson Pirate of my generation.” And he was absolutely right.

Really, though, it was books that inspired me as a child. If I had to pick one book that did it, it was The Wind in the Willows, which was sent home to me while I was sick by a particular second-grade teacher. I know I got out of that bed and came back to school wanting to write like Kenneth Grahame. I used to sit in the back of her class and try to do that.

How has the experience of writing scripts for animated movies been different from writing for live-action movies and TV shows?
The most basic thing to remember is that animation hates to stand still. It hates it when people are sitting around the table exchanging elements of the back story. It fidgets, just by its very nature. And so writing The Lord of the Rings script, which is very heavy in back story—indeed, in some respects back story is all The Lord of the Rings is—was very difficult. You just had to cram that exposition into dialog wherever you could. It was absolutely necessary for the development of the story. I can still remember telling Ralph Bakshi, when I was about three-quarters of the way through the script, that we hadn’t yet gotten to the Riders of Rohan, and Bakshi literally just groaned, because he’d forgotten all about them. So you learn, if you do animation at all, what animation will put up with and even enhance, and what you just might as well leave out because inevitably it is going to get cut.

Your writing has a strong sense of voice, of characters and narrators with distinctive voices. Is the sound of the narrative ever what inspires you to write a particular story?

Yes. As, for instance, with “Salt Wine,” from the very first line I could hear Ben Hazeltine’s voice and I just followed it straight through, as closely as I could. It was the same way with my novel Tamsin and the voice of that book’s teenage girl narrator. And also each of the voices in The Innkeeper’s Song. I’ve always felt if I can just hear the voice, then it’s like following the signal from a radar beacon: I can’t go too far wrong and, more to the point, I’ll know almost instantly when I get off the beam. In a way it is related to all the magazine work and interviews I used to do. I knew that I couldn’t shove a tape recorder in someone’s face—I’d inevitably screw up any machine I tried to use—and people would get nervous if they saw you constantly taking notes. That would spoil the flow of the conversation. I learned that if I could zero in on the rhythms, on the patterns in the way people spoke, I could probably reconstruct the conversation later. In that sense every person’s sound and rhythm is unique. Like fingerprints.

Did “Salt Wine” require any research? Is the narrator’s dialect based on any particular actual or historical dialect?
The language is as close as I could come to the slang phrases and argot of the late 18th and early 19th century, without making it look as though I’d found a glossary of terms and just larded them all in there. I wouldn’t pretend to absolute accuracy, but there are words in there which I know were in use that just happen to suit Ben’s way of telling a story. As for research, the only significant bit I can remember is the discovery that I couldn’t use the names of certain very early passenger/freighter lines, like Cunard. Ben would have known about those in later life, but in the timeframe of his narration those companies didn’t exist yet.

What can we expect from your new novel, Summerlong?
With The Innkeeper’s Song—I think of it as the turning point—I entered what I think of as my “grown-up” stage. Summerlong continues an aspect of that, because it is about two couples of a certain age, and the unspoken patterns, understandings, and misunderstandings that exist between one of those couples after well over twenty years of intimacy, and between the other couple after uncounted millennia of a different kind of intimacy. And I tried . . . well, you see, I never can seem to write about a place while I’m there. It’s always afterwards. So this is the first story I’ve ever written taking place in the Pacific Northwest. The Seattle area, including the commuter islands just a ferry ride away. I lived there for some time, and I had a lot of fun using that place, that atmosphere, as I remember them. I very deliberately made the story as contemporary as I possibly could, getting it completely out of fairy-tale mold. Every now and then rather than going off into imaginary worlds—which I love and always retreat to—it’s nice to set a story in the world that the other part of me knows.

Is there any sort of writing you haven’t yet had a chance to explore that you would like to?

Since college I’ve never written a play, if you don’t count the libretto for The Midnight Angel, an opera based on my story “Come Lady Death.” I think I got scared off theater, which I love dearly, by so many of the changes which have happened in the last thirty, forty years. I wouldn’t dream of trying to write like Harold Pinter or Tony Kushner or so many of the other theater artists I’ve read about or whose work I’ve seen. For me to go back now it would almost have to be as though I’d never seen a play. As though I were inventing plays for the first time. I don’t know if I could do that. But I think about it because I love theater so much. Another thing I haven’t written since college is poetry. I’ve written song lyrics, but that’s different. I’ve no idea any more if I could write what I’d consider real poetry. But I would love to be able to sit back, throw the rest of my responsibilities to the winds for a bit, and see if I could do that.

Matthew Cheney has previously interviewed Jeff VanderMeer, Holly Phillips, M. Rickert, K.J. Bishop, Sonya Taaffe, and Alan DeNiro, among others, for such places as SF Site, Infinity Plus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, and his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award. He has written reviews for Locus and Rain Taxi, and his fiction has been published in Rabid Transit: Menagerie, Abyss & Apex, Failbetter.com, and Pindeldyboz.

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