InterGalactic Interview with Peter S. Beagle
by Edmund R. Schubert
"Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed."
Peter S. Beagle
Born in Manhattan in 1939, Peter S. Beagle wrote his first novel, A Fine And Private Place,
when he was nineteen, to great acclaim. Many years later he wrote a script for Star Trek: The
Next Generation Episode, about Spock's father (Sarek), at a time when the producers of ST:TNG
weren't inclined to use characters from the old show. His script was so good they produced it
anyway, and it went on to become one of the show's most popular episodes. Yet he is also a man
known almost as well for being cheated and/or mistreated by the producers of various movies
he's been involved with, as he is for being the author of the classic novel, The Last Unicorn.
If ever there were a man who could say "been there, done that," and call it a day, it's Peter S.
Yet Beagle shows no sign of being jaded, much less slowing down. If anything, he's been more
prolific in the past few years than ever before. "Two Hearts," a coda to The Last Unicorn, won
the Hugo Award (in 2006) and the Nebula (in 2007) for Best Novelette, and he is at work on four
new novels, including a book-length follow-up to The Last Unicorn. He's written dialogue for
the MMOG (massively multiplayer online game), Horizons: Empire of Istaria. And he's agreed
to an interview with InterGalactic Medicine Show…
ERS: You frequently talk about wanting to be invisible, to fly under the radar. In the introduction
to your collection, The Fantasy Worlds of Peter S. Beagle (published way back in 1978), you
describe yourself as a "self-made werewolf" and a "born hider… fascinated all my life by
disguise, camouflage, shape-changers, and everything that has to be approached backwards or
sideways." Where do you suppose this feeling came from, and, nearly 30 years later, would you
say it still applies?
PSB: On one level it probably has to do with coming from people in Russia and Poland who
literally had to hide in the cellars of kindly neighbors when the Cossacks came through town.
That's probably genetic. Then there's simply my own nature. I was a very shy kid, and it took me
e long time to learn to, as we say, "interact" with people. I was always good with animals, not so
much with people. Now I can speak to an audience of a thousand people and handle it perfectly
well, dexterously even, but it is very much learned behavior. I suppose I've always been
fascinated by shapeshifters because there have been times when I've almost literally had to
change my shape in a strange place to fit into odd, edgy societies, either because I was doing a
magazine article, or because of where I grew up, or where I was living at the time. I think of
myself as somebody who tries to keep things very simple, and is irritated on occasion because
they always wind up complicated.
ERS: Speaking of complicated, what is the latest news on your legal challenges with the movie
industry (specifically the animated versions of LOTR and Last Unicorn)?
PSB: Granada Media has gotten very tired of getting email and faxes from outraged fans who
want to know why they are so earnestly screwing me. It's more trouble than they really want to
handle, so there has been some possible motion towards a resolution. As for Saul Zaentz and The
Lord of the Rings, I wrote and rewrote that script God knows how many times, eight or nine at
least, for a consultant's fee with the understanding that when Part 2 came along I would be paid
extra to compensate for the skimpy payment on Part 1. Well there never was a Part 2, and Saul
Zaentz never felt morally obliged to live up to the promise he made. I'm not yet willing to give
up on that, but there's nothing new to report. There are people working on that.
ERS: You once said, "I try to de-glamorize free-lance writing. Because writing is really all about
showing up for work and staying there when no words are coming." With that in mind, what
other things do you think people should know about the realties of life as a writer?
PSB: It helps to have a backup job, which I never did. An independent income. Anything of that
sort...but I'll go with what my Uncle Moses, who was a painter, used to say. He and his brothers
were my role models, because they used to get up in the morning, have their breakfast, and go
down to the studio to work. There was no nonsense about waiting for inspiration. Uncle Moses
used to say, "If the muse is late, you start without her." That's been a motto of mine for a long
ERS: If you could go back in time and give your nineteen year-old self advice, what would that
PSB: Take it out. At nineteen I always had a tendency to overwrite, and a gift for similes and
metaphors and so on. And the nineteen year-old me - though he'd learned a good deal about
taking things out from reading Robert Nathan - really had a way to go before he could look at
something and say "That's very pretty...damn, that's a really good passage of description...it's got
to go." That took me time to learn, as it does for everybody. As for the other great lesson I'd
share, there are many things in terms of business that I would tell that young man not to do. From
that sense I'd simply say find someone knowledgeable about the business aspect that you can
trust - and be very careful about the trust. Don't make that choice lightly. It's like the saying
"Trust everybody, but cut the cards." I pretty trusted everyone, and it took me a very long while
to learn that I couldn't.
ERS: Several times during the 1990's I read interviews where you said in reference to your
novel, The Last Unicorn, that you were "unicorned out." What made you decide you were finally
ready to revisit your most popular creation?
PSB: Circumstance as much as anything...and Connor Cochran [Beagle's business manager],
who suggested that it would be nice to include some story set in the world of The Last Unicorn -
not a sequel at all, he never said that - but a fairytale set in that fairytale world which would
accompany the audiobook that I'd recently recorded of The Last Unicorn. I grumped about it a
great deal, and finally sulked off and said "Well, I'll do something." And wound up writing a
coda to the original book, told by a nine year-old girl who simply took me over, as characters
sometimes do, and insisted on telling her own story of her own quest. By the time I was through
with the story I was simply too fascinated by Sooz herself to let her go. I needed to see where she
went when she was 17, and that will be the proper sequel. I can't say for certain, but I tend to
surprise myself. I'm also going to be working on a totally different unicorn project. A book of
mine from 1996, The Unicorn Sonata, really deserves to be more than it is. I'm going to expand
it into a four-book series with multitudinous characters and many changes of scene. I'm not
entirely sure yet where the whole thing is going, but I'm very happily in that stage where you
make things up by taking a shower or driving along, and you think of characters. It's like a kid
with clay - sometimes you squoosh and start over. That's where I am with that.
ERS: I was fascinated by a statement you made that when you're creating worlds, you don't 'see'
them very well, but you 'hear' them wonderfully. How would you say this works to your
advantage, and how would you say it serves as a hindrance?
PSB: Any time you see a passage of description of a world or a place, you can be assured I've
worked on it very hard. I have to make it visible to myself, and sometimes that's very difficult. I
don't think I look at things well the first time. The second or third time I may get it. But I hear
very well. I listen to the way people talk. That's important to me, If I can't hear my characters, I
can't see them. That's the major thing. I have to hear them in my head.
ERS: Music also holds an important place in your life. How consciously do you work to bring
that side of yourself into your fiction vs. how much would you say just slips in because it's an
intrinsic part of who you are?
PSB: Very consciously. I've always gotten hooked on the sound of words, running together,
rubbing against each other, chiming together, since I was quite little. And music constantly turns
up in my work. I write songs, and I often think of passages in a book as orchestral or jazz
passages - woodwinds, brass, sudden solo riff. I think in musical terms probably more than any
ERS: I read and enjoyed a quote where you said your career as a musician helped you understand
the desire people have to come to fantasy/science fiction conventions in costumes, celebrating
movie characters or something out of "The Hobbit." You said, "They don't just want to read the
books, they want to become them." Personally I think this is what good fiction does for people,
and you have obviously achieved it many time over with your own stories. Do you have a
particular method or thought process that you use in achieving that?
PSB: I don't think so. So much of it is unconscious. Something I do know that I do is to speak
my dialog aloud to myself. I'm very conscious of that. It has to be something that a character,
human or not, in that particular situation would actually say. I try and make the "unreality" of any
fantasy situation as real, as grounded in reality, as possible. That's very important. I don't believe
in airy nothingness. I have to ground things very solidly. If it's an imaginary world, it has to be a
real imaginary world. You're supposed to feel that it is just around the corner, because those are
the books that I love.
ERS: Aside from music, what are the things most likely to influence your writing?
PSB: I have to be careful whom I read, because I'm a natural mimic, in a literary sense. I can
usually tell, if I look back at a book, just who I was reading at that time. So when I'm writing
fiction I mostly read nonfiction. Mimicry is trick, a gift that comes in useful if you are writing a
movie script based on someone else's book, but it's dangerous otherwise. I have to be careful,
because I'm too easily influenced even now.
ERS: How did you get involved with online role-playing games (the MMOG), and what kind of
experience has that been?
PSB: I got involved with it because I was asked. I'm a sucker for anything I've never done,
which is how I wound up writing an opera libretto based on one of my stories. Here I'd never
played a roleplaying game in my life, and I'm still nothing resembling an expert on the field.
What I was mostly doing was jazzing up dialog laid out for the eleven races and three genders of
Istaria. It was exhausting, but I did enjoy it, and I was pleased that the dialog was accepted and
did find its way into the game. And I'm sorry that the game seems to be in some kind of limbo
state since it's been sold. Connor wants to see a whole MMORPG built up around my
Innkeeper's World, and maybe someday that will happen.
ERS: What are you working on now?
PSB: Altogether too many overdue things. Three stories...no, five. A novel that needs one last
pass to be finished. Two other novels that are under way, I'm Afraid You've Got Dragons and
Sweet Lightning, which is a 1950s baseball fantasy set in Pittsburgh. I find myself very often
quoting George Burns's line: "I can't die, I'm booked." I don't want to talk about any of the
things I'm working on to any great degree, because that kind of unwinds the spring that tells the
ERS: Anything else you think we should know about that I'm forgetting…?
PSB: For all the hard times, past and possibly to come - one never knows, as Fats Waller used to
say - I wouldn't have done anything else. I might have managed it better, organized it better. But
I'm very lucky because I never wanted to do anything but this, and I think that I'm slowly getting
better at it. I think.
ERS: Thanks very much for your time.
PSB: My pleasure.
Peter S. Beagle's story, "We Never Talk About My Brother" is the featured story in issue five of
Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show.