Paradoxa Interview with Peter Beagle, April 1999
Here is an interview with Peter Beagle that was first published in Paradoxa, #13-14 (2000). They have graciously allowed reproduction of the interview for this website.
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Paradoxa Interview with Peter Beagle
(The interview was conducted between Peter Beagle and Colin Greenland in April, 1999, at "Reconvene," the 50th UK National Science Fiction Convention, at the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, England. The interview was made available to us by Peter Beagle, Colin Greenland and Farah Mendelsohn, the latter two from the publication Foundation, and was published with the kind permission of all three.)
Colin Greenland: Ladies & Gentlemen welcome, and welcome Peter Beagle as Guest of Honor at our convention. PB, the author of not only the perfect fantasy novel, The Last Unicorn, but also libretti for opera,
Peter Beagle: One libretto
CG: One libretto for an opera, of a book about Denim, a book about elephants, a book about Hieronymous Bosch, and one of my favorites, a travel book, an account of an epic journey across the American continent from the Bronx to SF on motorscooters, which is called I See By My Outfit. Peter Beagle, you said once that you thought the best thing to do is to avoid the attentions of the Gods. How far do you think you've managed that?
PB: Well the idea is sort of to fly under the radar. All over the world, especially in Asia, there is an understanding that to attract the attention of the Gods is, by definition, not good. Give the child the ugliest name you can think of, and you spend as much time as possible announcing loudly to the neighbors "what a horrible looking baby this is," because you don't want the Gods to notice, you don't want them to get jealous. In that line I've always believed the best thing is probably to sidle along close to the wall. The heroine of the novel I've got coming out in October, the book is called Tamsin, the narrator is Jenny Gluckstein, she's 13. Jenny says, the first line in the book is, "When I was young, the thing I wanted most was to be invisible." And I've done a lot of invisible. Or at least I think I have. I may be completely deluded.
CG: You were born in NY, into a family of painters, I believe you said once.
PB: My mother had four brothers, and 3 of them became painters. I was the one in the family who couldn't draw. I still believe that I came to writing and telling stories out of frustration, because I'd go with my parents to the Museum of Natural History and try to draw a stuffed elk, and I'd cry with confusion and frustration because I couldn't get it right. I never could. To this day I literally can't draw a thing. And I regret it. I've been surrounded by artists all my life and it's not in me to do.
CG: And so you started telling stories as retaliation.
PB: Yes I think so.
CG: Were you the sort of ... did you tell stories as a child?
PB: Yes, for one thing I had a reputation in my family for being able to read right out of the box, so to speak, at a very early age. This was not true. What I did have, and do have, was a hell of memory. I would memorize a story, and then sit there on the floor with the book loudly reciting the story to myself, and when I judged it was time to turn the page I'd turn the page. So I had a reputation young. And I loved telling stories, preferably to an audience. My mother has a memory-my parents are both teachers-my mother has a clear memory of my coming to a class of hers and briskly taking over the afternoon and telling her students all about unicorns. I don't remember that. I have to take her word for that, but you always do with your parents. I would sit under the stairs in our apartment building... I still dream of this little space once in a while. It was right across from the mail boxes. There was a space under the stairs just right for a small boy to sit and tell himself stories. So there didn't have to be an audience, you see. There was just me. But that's what I'd do. And in a very large measure that's still what I do.
CG: What is it about unicorns? You and unicorns? It's always unicorns.
PB: Actually the truth is I can take 'em or leave 'em alone. I tried to make a deal with Ursula Le Guin once, trading my unicorns even up for her dragons. Fat chance. She knew a good deal when she had one. So I couldn't get away with that. But I had no intention of ever touching unicorns again after The Last Unicorn. I don't like to repeat myself anyway. And it became obvious that I was going to be stuck with unicorns forever so I better avoid the issue as much as possible. But there's a book... I blame Janet Berliner, an American writer, an old friend, and my co-editor on the one book I ever co-edited, for a lot of this, because Janet called me once with one of her notions. Ted Turner's company had recently published, very successfully, a book called Dinotopia, about a world in which dinosaurs and humans exist in a kind of symbiosis. And she thought, "publishers being what they are, maybe Turner would like something like this, only not like this, only kind of like this, only with unicorns instead of dinosaurs. How's about it?" My response was short and simple. "I'd rather die." And Janet's response was just as short - we've known each other a long time as I've said - and Janet said: "I can never remember. Is the balloon payment on your house due in May or June?" I said, "We'll talk." And I wound up doing The Unicorn Sonata, which isn't a bad book, but I think of it as the "balloon payment book." And then because she roped me into co-editing "Immortal Unicorn," a collection of original stories, for which she did most of the work, but to which I had to contribute one story for the hardback, and another new one for the paperback issue, there I was with unicorns again. And I swear to God that the story that I did for that paperback, "Julie's Unicorn," which brings back Julie and Joe Farrell from The Folk of the Air, I swear that's absolutely the last one. Honest to God. I'm off it entirely. I'm clean.
CG: The other thing that occurred to me about your work is that you started out very young writing A Fine and Private Place at the age of what was it, nineteen?
PB: I was 19 when I was working on it. It was published when I'd just turned 21.
CG: Yes, and that is a book in which all the characters are either old or dead, and some of them are both.
PB: That's actually been a trait in my work much earlier than that.
CG: Your story, "My Daughter's Name is Sara," is another. That's another very perceptive story told from the point of view of an old man.
PB: It's hard to explain exactly why this happens. I blame certain things on my old hero, the French songwriter Georges Brassens, in whose songs death frequently turns up, in one guise or another as a character in Brassens' little theater. But the truth is that it's another way of being invisible, if you like, writing about people who are not you. One of the writers I most admire in the world, is an English writer named Joyce Cary who is known, or remembered more for a book called The Horse's Mouth than anything. Alec Guiness made it into a movie. But The Horse's Mouth is part of a trilogy, and the trilogy shows off Cary's incredible gift for writing from the point of view of people who were not Joyce Cary. That first person, which I avoided for years, tends to bring out the impulse to tell the story of one's own life, one's own loves, and one's own hatreds and fears once again, and, honestly, that's always bored the bejeezus out of me. I love being somebody who isn't me. I love, for instance one of the projects I have in mind is the autobiography of a real historical figure, a man named William Marshall, Guillaume le Maréchal, a man who worked for the Plantagenets for Henry II and his appalling kids, and who wound up in the '70s being Regent of England for quite some while. It was a very interesting life, and William obviously never had the time to write anything down. But I'd much rather write his autobiography than I'd ever consider writing my own. It's a much more interesting life than mine. I mostly sit in one place and make stuff up.
CG: That is true. Writers... everybody thinks that writers are glamorous people, but really we sit in one place and peck out things on a keyboard if we're lucky.
PB: Excitement is when I get up and walk around my office cursing. That's more or less it.
CG: So now, having started out writing about old people, you seem to be writing about 13 year old girls?
PB: That's been interesting. I very much liked being Jenny Glickstein for a couple of years. I grew quite fond of her. It probably affected my own life in certain ways that I'd rather not think about. One thing is that, male or female, everybody remembers what being 13 was like. It's not something that goes away. You may get scar tissue over it, but it's there.
CG: And this book is Tamsin, which you mentioned...
PB: It's a ghost story, if you like. It's my first ghost story in almost 40 years, since A Fine and Private Place. It has to do with an American girl, a New York girl specifically, whose mother marries an Englishman and moves her kicking and screaming to Dorset, where her step-father is going to be trying to bring an old estate, quite old, back into life as a working farm. Jenny's only connection with her New York world, her New York life, is her very sleek cool role model of a New York street cat, who's just called "Mr. Cat," and he's going to be in quarantine for 6 months. So it's a very rough first 6 months. She's mortally afraid that he'll never forgive her for putting him in quarantine. And when she does visit him at the 'cattery' where he's being kept, he won't speak to her. But she does become involved during this time with the ghost of the young girl whose family created that farm, who died during an episode of British history which isn't terribly well known in America called "Monmouth's Rebellion." So I read as much as I could about it, and wound up with the first villain I've never felt sorry for. From King Haggard on I've always had a nagging tendency to identify with my villains, and I've never done one for whom I didn't feel some human sympathy. Fortunately when you've got the ghost of Judge Jefferies as the villain of your novel, the issue doesn't come up. Although Jenny has her moments. There are a couple of moments when she can almost feel a pang for the dreadful ghost of this dreadful psychopathic man.
CG: As well as all these books, you've of course written quite a lot for the screen, too, haven't you. Screen plays.
PB: It tells you something about the world of screenwriting, if I say that the screenwriter's guild is the only union I belong to where, in their directory you can list unproduced screenplays as credits that count. Because everybody's got more stuff that for one reason or another never got made, than they do things that actually got on screen. It's a bread-and-butter gig. I don't love it. I know people who do. I know people who love screenwriting so much that they think in those terms and they eventually become directors because it's the only way in which you ever have the least chance of protecting your work. I don't have that in me. It's just not there. I do the best I can professionally, and some of the projects have been fun. And it is very exciting when you get to that stage of working with actors, I like that part. But it's not like writing a book. The best way I can describe it is, if I write a screenplay, and I want to set certain scenes out of doors, I have to remember that even if it's the tiniest scene possible, it's going to take all day, by definition it's going to take all day setting up the lights, and getting people there, and keeping an eye on the natural light, and on top of that the craft unions at that time will have gotten a raise, all across the board, because they've got a better union than we do, and that's going to figure in the budget. I've lost projects, or probably gotten in the way of some of them getting made because I've set too much of it out of doors. But when I'm writing a book I have the biggest budget in the world, and there's so much I don't have to think about.
CG: There're so many other people that you're not answerable to.
PB: And nobody's going to call. I know people who've gone from novel writing fiction into screen writing precisely because they couldn't stand the loneliness of just working on a book. But when you're working on a movie or a television project somebody's always calling.
CG: And interfering I would guess?
PB: And interfering, but some people even like the interference, perhaps because it relieves you of certain responsibilities, because it gives you an illusion of being involved in the real process of making the movie. And as the writer, you are not. They begin by telling you, "Well we start with a script. We wouldn't be here if not for you." And that's the last of that you ever hear. There's a whole body of screenwriter jokes, and every one of them deal with powerlessness. The ex-screenwriter joke, and I apologize to any of you who have heard this but it sets up that world better than any one I know..., the oldest one is the joke about the young woman from the mid-west who was going to be an actress and she didn't care what she had to do or with whom, or in what position, to accomplish this. Unfortunately, and the story is always told like this, unfortunately she was a very stupid woman. And I have seen a room full of screenwriters ask dutifully in chorus, "How stupid was she?" And who ever is telling the story finishes by saying, "She was so stupid she slept with a writer." And that's it. That's exactly the writer's position.
CG: There must be good things though in that work, in that discipline. There must be good things that you've picked up from writing screenplays?
PB: Yes, it's good training in certain ways. I used to get locked in passages or scenes in a book which would hold me up for days because I couldn't figure out how they worked. At the same time I couldn't skip them. I would always explain, I think too linearly. I don't know what's going to happen in the following scene unless I get this one worked out, and I'd literally be hung-up on a very small scene, in The Last Unicorn for instance, for a couple of weeks and be unable to move. But movies are so modular, that much of the time you can snap a scene out, snap it in over here, move it from place to place, and because of movie work I'm much more able to say, "All right, I'll come back and work this out later," and just leave a gap and go on. And again, writing for movies has made me a lot more visual. I don't see well. I don't look at... I'll walk through a scene, I'll walk through a very interesting world, and not really see it because I'm thinking about something else. I hear well. I hear the way people speak, and I pay attention to it, but movies have made me pay a lot more attention to what's actually in front of me because when you're writing a movie you're running a film that doesn't exist through your head, frame by frame, and you have to be alert at every moment to what's on this imaginary screen. So I've learned that. And you learn how to tell a story with a camera, and not depend on your dialog, not depend on a voice-over. The camera moving from here to there means something, and the audience will know what it means if you do it right, and you're spared having to write a passage of dialogue explaining what you're doing, which is boring.
CG: I think while we're on the screen, people here will lynch me if I don't ask you about writing for Star Trek. You did, did you not, write an episode for The Next Generation?
PB: Yes I did.
CG: Tell us about that. What was that like?
PB: Well, my favorite quotation from Samuel Johnson is the one where he says "Depend upon it Sir. When a man knows that he is to be hanged within a week, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." We needed the money. It was a very bad winter in Seattle, and nothing was coming in for once. Nothing that would make the house payments, and I gambled. I was tipped off, by a science fiction writer, bless her, named Diana Gallagher, that Star Trek was looking for scripts and interviewing writers. And I remember that I shot pretty much what was left of our savings on a first class flight from Seattle to Los Angeles, the theory being that if I did get the gig I'd want a couple of drinks on the way back to celebrate, and if I didn't get the gig, I was going to need the drinks. And I went down there and went into a meeting with several of the people who are still running Star Trek today, the various spin-offs, including Michael Pillar, and I told them stories, because that's what I do. And I thought I might be getting somewhere because at a certain point they stopped taking notes on their yellow pads and just sat there and listened. It's like "Lal" (?) in the Innkeeper's Song, who is trained as a storyteller, and who has wondered very far from that in her life, but who realizes at a certain moment that "I can still do that. It hasn't left me. I still know how to do that."
CG: If you can make a Star Trek producer put down their yellow pad then you've really got the gift.
PB: And I did get it, as it happens. What was interesting was that, for one thing, I got taken under the wing of a tiny lovely person named Melinda Snodgrass who was their story editor at the time, who did some of their best scripts, including the one in which Data has to prove that he is not simply a machine, a script called "Measure of a Man," which is still one of the best things they ever did. Melinda told me why they were so nervous at Star Trek. And they were. This was only their second season. She said this is the only show where the writers get more letters than the actors. And they were very very edgy about comparisons with the original Star Trek. They went back and forth. It's amazing. I was writing a script about Spock's father when in fact there was an ordinance at the time about never mentioning Spock or Sarek or Kirk, or anybody from the original script. And they changed their minds constantly. I had to deal with that, and in the same way I kept having to write Whoopi Goldberg in and out of the script. I did that several times. She was doing Guinan at the time, but she had also just gotten a gig for a television show based on a very good movie, Baghdad Cafe. It was going to be an episodic spin-off series. And she was in that, then she wasn't, then she was, and then the series was canceled. And I wrote her in and out of that script at least 3 times. The final decision was "out," which I regret because I'd loved to have written dialog for Whoopi Goldberg. But on the whole it was a pleasant experience, and Dear God we needed the money.
CG: And did you get the mail?
PB: I never did get any real mail. At least none was ever forwarded to me.
CG: Maybe they protected you on that?
PB: Or Melinda might have done that. A couple of things I do remember, Melinda said by far the nicest person involved with the show was Michael Dorn [^Ê?]. She was crazy about him. If she hadn't had a boyfriend at the time she would have made a dead [^Ê?] at Michael Dorn. I can't say anything much about the rest of the cast. I didn't meet them. Except that whenever a phone call came in at a writer's meeting you could tell it was from Patrick Stewart because whoever got it would cover the phone and say, "It's the actor." That's all I know.
CG: The other element that we must put in is something which has been there all the way through, in everything that I know of your work, which of course is music. Music has always been one of the most important things, one of the most important currents in your fiction. Is that something that goes back to your childhood? Was it a musical family?
PB: Yes, well my father in particular always sang. There was always music in the house. One of the nice things about growing up with the people I grew up with is that it didn't matter whom you brought home for dinner, or whom you dated, or what music you listened to. I was raised listening to everything from opera, to my boy on the shirt, Django Reinhart, to jazz of all sorts, to blues, folk music, and when I listen to klesmer music now I hear the way my father used to sing, or scat quietly to himself while he was shaving or driving the car. I recognize this stuff. What it comes down to, I suppose, first, is that, as much as I live with words, and as much as I love them, as much as they're part of me, words generally don't make me cry. Music does. Music reaches me in a particular place that even words don't. I'm good enough as a guitarist and singer, I'm just good enough, to know what really good is. And with Joe Farrell, for instance, in Lila the Werewolf, and The Folk of the Air, I indulged myself, I allowed Farrell to be the first rate musician I always wanted to be. That was deliberate, and I knew it. It's never far from whatever it is I'm doing. Also I love writing songs, and if I were to go back to school today I'd go back as a music student. I've learned everything by imitation, and it would be nice to have some actual knowledge...
CG: ... some formal knowledge...
PB: ... because I'm in the position of the jazz musicians in the 30s. Wingy Manown (?) who was asked if he could read notes said, "Yeah, I can read 'em. I just can't separate 'em." Which is about my level of sight reading.
CG: Music is a language of emotion, as you say. It's something that you can reach for at certain points in a plot which moves things onwards in a way that the action or the characters will not necessarily do. It takes things to another level. I wonder, is music magic?
PB: You might ask, "What's the musical component of magic?" When you think how much of classical ritual magic really does have to do with singing... One of the things that... Tolkien did not affect me the way that most people think he did. I'm very often compared to him and C.S. Lewis. I'm stuck with those 2. In fact, while I admire Tolkien in many ways, I don't find him in my work, except for the fact that I loved his notion of including song and verse in The Lord of the Rings, naturally. His people fell back on either well-known songs or made them up as they were going along. And I was definitely imitating that in The Last Unicorn. I know that. That's how come the incidental lyrics. Incidentally every now and then I get as much as $75 in a royalty check because one person or another has set something from The Last Unicorn to music. I'm very proud of that. I know that for me it is magic. For me music is something separate..., not separate, if you will, but greater than this thing I do all the time. Even greater than storytelling and I think that very little is greater than that.
CG: Hmmm, because it's more direct?
PB: Somehow it is. I used to watch my children react to a piece of music depending on whether it was in a major or minor key. And it would touch them. Very distinctly, and they wouldn't know why.
CG: What's the difference? Why did they react differently between the two?
PB: Oh the thing that crosses my mind is that there was a piece of music, a French tune popular in America more than 30 years ago, called "Love is Blue." I used to see in my smallest, my son, and in his sister, they were both actually affected, come close to crying, when that piece was on the radio, and they wouldn't know why, it was just something in the melody. I'm affected by certain pieces like that for reasons I can't explain.
CG: Perhaps it's the fact that we can't explain it, that tells us that the power is there.
CG: Music of course has led directly to one of your books, for example, which is The Innkeeper's Song [the novel opens with the lyrics of a song of the same name, which tells the story in ballad form-CG]. I discovered recently that the song came first.
PB: Yes, and it came in in a fairly unusual way. I remember being alone in my house and suddenly found myself making up words and music at the same time. Which is unusual for me - it's usually, words first, find the melody later. Once in a while there's a melody kicking around that I'll set words to, but in this case it was like that, and I had no more knowledge than the innkeeper of who these women were, what they were looking for, why they came to his inn, where they've gone. And it was some years later that I thought it might be interesting to find all that out. But at the time it was just a song that I added to the repertoire and didn't think any more about.
CG: So you were performing this song?
CG: And did people ask you about it?
PB: Sometime yes, sometimes no. But I was performing it for quite some time before the fact that there was more to the story took hold of me. I still sing the song, and now it's got depth to it for me that undoubtedly it didn't have before.
CG: You've sung and played professionally for many years.
PB: It's the only other thing that I've ever known to do for money, that and dishwashing, which got me through college. I'm a good dishwasher. You don't forget that sort of thing.
CG: Dishwashing is good. It's a good writerly thing to do. It's private, and it's quite peaceful. There's something quite meditative about cleaning a plate, and nobody actually interrupts you while you're doing it. I think they're always afraid that you might ask them to help.
PB: And I didn't know a thing about it being women's work because my father and my brother and I were usually the ones who did the dishes. My father would wash, and my brother and I would fight over who got to dry and who got to put them away. But I did it for a few years in college, which is Pittsburgh, in the 1950s, in a funky little restaurant long before the advent of the automatic dishwasher, just facing a stone wall, and scraping away at grease, and feeling oddly peaceful, as you say. But for years I had a gig in a French restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, Saturday nights, sometimes Sundays. I'd go in and spend a few hours singing mostly in French, and later as I got more confident and the restaurant began to feel like my place, I'd slip in songs in Spanish that my cousins had taught me, and Yiddish, which I'd grown up hearing. I remember doing "Mack The Knife" in German, my one German number. And as my guitar playing got better I'd sneak in a few instrumentals, but basically it was French, and there was a ritual involved. Time it, before it was time to go to the restaurant. Take a shower. Get into one or another of my Harry Belafonte style shirts, cut down to about here. Tune the guitar. And on the way in, because I'm not a trained singer, again it's imitation, Again, sing something in the car and check and see, "Do we have any tenor notes at all tonight"? or "Do we stick strictly to the sexy bass growl"? I loved it, because it had nothing to do with writing. There were people who came to the restaurant who not only didn't know that I was a writer, they didn't know that I spoke English. I had picked up French with Georges Brassens' southern accent, which was very heavy, very Mediterranean, and I still speak it like that when I speak it, and francophones who actually came to the restaurant, would come up to me and ask very earnestly, "Excuse me, monsieur, but in what part of Algeria were you born?" I remember saying to one of them "Actually I grew up in the Bronx, and I was imitating a southern Frenchman, and if anything I thought I'd have a southern accent." And he said, "Oh you do, you do. But you have moved so far south it has relocated in north Afrique." So I guess that's what I have.
CG: Who do you like to read? You've mentioned several writers so far-Joyce Cary, Dr. Johnson, for that matter, and perhaps not so much Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Who is it that inspires you?
PB: I don't read, interestingly, a lot of fantasy or science fiction for that matter. These days I notice I'm not reading a lot of fiction. I'm reading a good deal of history. And lately I've begun reading poetry which I haven't done for years. I lived with a poet for a while, and that'll do it to you. But I read..., for one thing, there's an Englishman named Peter Dickinson, who drives me up the wall he's so good. I'll read anything with Dickinson's name on it: fiction, non-fiction, mystery, children's book.
CG: Has he written non-fiction? I didn't know that.
PB: Yes, he's written a couple. But you can never be sure, with Dickinson, because at least in America he's published by so many different people, but I always look automatically for something I don't know. He has a book called Merlin Dreams, which is a collection of linked stories based on the notion that Merlyn actually went into that captivity, in the tree, or in this case, under the stone, voluntarily, being deeply in need of a break from the matter of Britain. I had that book by my bed, and I'd read part of it every night. And invariably I'd slam the thing down and turn off the light and lie there in the dark muttering "miserable limy son-of-a-bitch," and try to get some sleep, because he was doing so much what I wanted to do. And those are the ones who drive you crazy. And I read sometimes books that jump at me off the shelves for no reason I can explain. They can be anything. They can be a book about wasps, a book about ... I've read a lot of books, because of Tamsin, in 17th century England in general. But it's really hard to say. I read very randomly. There doesn't seem to be any pattern to it.
CG: I think that's the answer. Here's one somebody asked me once that gets you thinking. "There is a great conflagration, and all copies of all your books are destroyed irrevocably except one. Which would you wish it to be"?
PB: Well possibly my most recent edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia. That and inevitably of course, it's the collected Shakespeare. Actually, it's one particular edition which is gorgeously annotated. It was a college textbook. I always loved that one.
CG: Annotated by you?
PB: No, by whoever owned it first. I got it second hand.
CG: Oh those are great aren't they. Very bizarre things that people write in margins.
PB: Very useful. It might be a book of short stories that my grandfather wrote in Hebrew that my mother translated that was published in the late 80s. Or it could be... Lord, what really worries me, it's not so much the fiction or the books themselves, but it's all the music stuff I've got. I've really got enough guitar sheet music and instructional videos that I'm going to busy for the rest of my life trying to figure out how Chet Atkins or Jerry Reid does this. Right now I think that would be the stuff I'd try to save first.
CG: Well maybe some other people would have questions for you. Do you have any questions out there? Ah, there's one. Dave, in the front.
Audience: (inaudible) [something about finding wonderful guitars in pawnshops as PB & Phil Sigunick always hoped to do throughout I See By My Outfit-CG]
PB: No the guitars aren't in the pawn shops anymore. The good ones got picked off long ago. You can no longer go into somebody's bar and find an incredibly valuable guitar that they're willing to sell you for seven dollars and a paperback. People know the value of these things now, but I do have five guitars, and the oldest is about 104 or 105, and I've been complimented on the value of my investments because there is a definite investment market in guitars and in old musical instruments in general, but the fact is that while I've sold many things in my time when I needed the money, I couldn't possibly part with my guitars. They're not investments at all... I have them because they're beautiful. And because even the 105 year-old one sounds wonderful, and I wish I were good enough to play them properly, but I work at it.
CG: Any more? Any more hands? Ah, there's one.
Audience: (inaudible) [something about 'Since you love stories so much, could you tell us one now?'-CG]
PB: Actually, probably not, because I'm running on fumes. This has been a marvelous convention, and I've enjoyed it very much, but I don't seem to be sleeping. And I don't mean that I'm staying up partying. It's not that. I mean that I'm so overloaded by things that have happened and people that I've met that I wind up lying awake most of the night thinking about that, and when your head's that full, you seem to sort of forget how to sleep. I know there's a trick to it and I'll get it back sooner or later.
CG: Did you find any more good-bad movies on TV at 2 o'clock in the morning?
PB: No, I'm still... I lucked out one night with a movie called Far and Away. Which goes on forever, and which is so unlikely and full of so many improbably coincidences, that at 2 or 3 in the morning I was absolutely enchanted. I probably wouldn't have looked at it twice by daylight, but that got me through part of the night. I'm still trying to figure out how these English TV sets work.
CG: Oh, so are we.
PB: Oh good. That's a relief. But, no, ordinarily I'm telling stories most of the time, whether I realize it or not, but right now I'm punchy enough that I'm very impressed with myself for putting coherent sentences together.
CG: Someone else?
Audience: (inaudible) [something about historical re-enactment societies, one of which is the subject of The Folk of the Air-CG]
PB: It's a curious thing because my brother lives in Berkeley, and I've spent a lot of time there. The SCA [Society for Creative Anachronism] really originated in Berkeley in the late 60s, and my bother and I happened to be there, I think at their first public exercise, if you will. I think it was my brother who watched in fascination and said, "What do you suppose it would be like if this just took over in one's life? If the persona that you'd invented became more real than the personality you were stuck with most of the time. And I began fooling around with it. I liked the notion. I brought back Farrell from Lila the Werewolf, and ... that book took 18 years to do. It's my great shame. Because I'd gotten away with murder with A Fine and Private Place, and The Last Unicorn. I had not outlined them. I'd made them up as I was going along. I don't think I knew what the ending of The Last Unicorn was going to be until I was about 2 chapters from it. You can only do that for so long.
CG: You knew they were in the sea [viz., the rest of the unicorn's race]?
PB: I didn't know that at the beginning, no, I did not know that.
CG: Did you go back and write in all those very clever sea references, about staring out of the window at the sea, and all those things that you only notice the second time through?
PB: I went back and put those in.
CG: Oh, thank you. Genius I can live with.
PB: No, the idea is to make it look like genius. The story tells itself, in a way, if you're listening intently enough, and then you have to go back and make it look as if you always knew. But because I felt I could keep this up for a while, I didn't outline The Folk of the Air at all. And that's why it took so bloody long. There are far more "out-takes," so to speak, from that novel than there are pages in the novel. I really did do it complete about 4 times, and you've no idea about some of the stuff that was in there. What interests me is that people come up to me to this day, who are SCA members, or have been. First they assume that I was, and I've never been, and secondly they say to me "I didn't know you knew so-and-so," and I never have. I have to explain it. And that tells me something at least about the book which is that if you're on a roll, or in gear, or any one of the images you want to use, you can make stuff up totally cold and it'll come out true. That does happen. And on good days I can do that. On good days anyone can do that, you just have to stick around through the bad days. One thing is that what I know about lutes and playing lutes, I know from a Black lutenist named Jeffrey Day who was playing around Santa Cruz when I had my gig at the French restaurant, and we'd catch each other's acts. If Jeffrey was through for the evening he'd come and have a glass of wine and listen to me, and I'd do the same thing if he was playing close by. Jeffrey played a very beautiful renaissance-style lute and anything I know about lutes and lutenists in general I pretty much know from him. And there again, iIf you're lucky, those people will show up.
CG: Another question at the back? (inaudible) So how many hours are you going to give him to answer this question?
PB: Oh that's really loaded.
CG: Maybe as, "narrative, things, maybe as ways of telling stories..."
PB: You use what you can. You use what seems to fit. So much of it is guess work. I've learned more by doing things wrong in my career than I've ever learned by planning something out cleverly in advance. Usually, you just try it that way and see if it works. If it doesn't, it's nice to have a plan B to fall back on, but I don't always. I have beaten my head for a long time against this or that aspect of the medium I'm working in, and I'm better at this now, but it used to take me forever to realize that what I'm trying to do with this medium simply won't work (few seconds' hole in tape), that you're in the wrong business, but there's such a thing as "something being too hard," and telling you that it doesn't want to be done like this, and you have to be ready to listen or you'll go mad. It's taken me a long time to make that adjustment.
CG: Another question? Yes.
Audience: (inaudible) [something about whether PB identifies with his characters-CG]
PB: I try not to. I hate to think that they were that close to me in that way. It is true that one part of me is sometimes able to step aside and look at me in a very detached way as though I were one of my own characters. Which is one reason I talk to myself ... (10 seconds' hole in tape) ... inevitably every character is connected to you in some way. You don't have to like them. That's not the issue. You don't have to like that part of yourself from which that character speaks. You just have to acknowledge that it's there. I know that sometimes I'll look at something somebody just said and say, "ooof, well she believes that. That's not my problem. That's her. And if I look at it long enough I'll think, "No, no that came too easily. That wasn't just her." When you live with imaginary characters, when you hear voices in your head, as I do, when you start taking down conversations that you weren't part of, really, when you spend lots of time describing landscapes you've never seen, it's often hard to know at what point you and the characters leave off from each other. And for some people it blurs fairly disastrously. It's like one actor who was quoted as saying about Humphrey Bogart, "Well the only trouble with Bogart, is that he thinks he's Bogart." And it's like that. Joe Farrell is enough like me that I can't quite be sure sometimes where he isn't, except that he's a much better musician. I'd hate to do a series character who'd run through a lot of books because I don't know what the effect on me would be. I don't know how people who have long-running series characters really manage this.
CG: You wouldn't want to do a long-running series full stop, would you? I mean, you've always said this thing about wanting all your books to be different from each other. You've just said that you hate repeating yourself.
PB: Yes, and that's real. I don't think I'd ever want to have a long series. And the occasional Joe Farrell story is about as close as I get. But with the world of the Innkeeper's Song, it's dangerously tempting because I've done my best work in that world, I think. I'm fond of the characters. I like going back and seeing them again. And although I'll do stories set in that world, I know that, it is something I'm fighting off. I allowed myself the one last story about Lal (?) and Sookyan (?) as old people, but I'm not going to do that again. I still like it, I look at it, I sneak back to it and read it to myself again. But I can't do that. I don't dare.
CG: It's a wholly laudable reason I think. Do we have one more question.
Audience: How did you come to write the text for American Denim?
PB: My son has said that if he has any influence on what goes on my tombstone, what he wants to have carved on it are the words that he grew up hearing, apparently, quite often: "The things I'll do for money never cease to amaze me."
CG: Ladies and gentlemen, Peter Beagle.
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