Facing the Cossacks
(Ten Anecdotes in Search of a Punchline)

 

Conversational exchange circa October 2002:

— We've been working together for a year, Peter, and I've had a chance to review all your records. Do you realize that there's not a single contract you've signed in the last four decades that I would have let you sign, had I been on the scene? Some of them don't scream for a lot of changes, true, but all of them needed something. And a bunch are absolute kryptonite. Why did you say yes to these?

— My agents told me to. They said: these are the deals. And I trusted them. Connor, you've got to understand. My people were Russian and Polish Jews who believed the path to safety lay in hiding from the Cossacks. Literally! My mother and her family only survived to get out of their little Russian village because there were some Christians who hid them in a cellar when the soldiers came around. So I was raised not to stick my head up, not to make a fuss.

— Well, it's a good thing I came along, then. Because my people went to war for hundreds of years over a cow. And then we made it our national epic.

1. FINDING BEAGLE

My first encounter with Peter S. Beagle was in the backseat of my parents' car. I was 12 and didn't know any better. He was 28, but he'd been using this particular song and dance on impressionable victims since he was 23 (so while he didn't know any better either, he probably should have). Truth be told, the guy didn't impress me that much, him and his little fantasies and fancies. I liked Tom Disch better. Tom really blew my mind.

...I'm talking about a book, of course. 1967's New Worlds of Fantasy, edited by Terry Carr, and published by Ace. This was the title that brought Peter's writing into my world.

My family was headed south down the interstate from Kansas City, which was home, to Oklahoma City, where my paternal grandmother lived, and as a matter of mental and physical self-defense I was in standard Ignore-Everybody-Else mode: just me and a sack full of recently-purchased paperbacks. My treasure trove. My sanity. My imagination's fuel. What was visible outside the windows was okay, sure — but what was happening in all the universes within these not-so-acid-free pages, that stuff was one mainlined miracle after another. And the pen-and-ink drawings Kelly Freas had produced for each story in this particular book were like nova blasts, they seemed so perfect.

I remember that I'd just finished reading Thomas M. Disch's "The Squirrel Cage." For someone who hadn't yet encountered Kafka, Beckett, or Duchamp — all of whom "The Squirrel Cage" owed a debt — this little story was phenomenal stuff. Serious existential brain-bending. So I was all charged up for something modern, bright, and shiny, something that would put chrome on my eyeballs and neon in my hair. Instead I turned to the next page in the book and hit

This all happened in England a long time ago, when that George who spoke English with a heavy German accent and hated his sons was King.

The story was "Come Lady Death," by Peter S. Beagle. This was its third appearance in print. In 1963 it had premiered in The Atlantic Monthly. Then in August 1966 it was reprinted in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. Now Terry Carr was presenting it, and he had this to say as he did:

Like Jorge Luis Borges, Peter S. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer who is largely unknown among readers of the genre. His first novel, A Fine and Private Place, was pure fantasy, as is his second, an as-yet-untitled book to appear next year.

It's funny now to think of Peter as "largely unknown" to fantasy readers. But he was. First hardcover publication of The Last Unicorn was still more than 14 months in the future, and the Ballantine paperback version that would really spread his name wouldn't come out for another year after that. Meanwhile, in this particular moment, leaning hard against the car door and shutting everything else out, I lost my virginity and read him for the first time. As with most first times, I didn't like it that much, or realize what it would someday mean. At 12 years old I was all rockets and space rangers, and obviously destined to live forever, right? "Come Lady Death" just didn't speak to me.

2. STEALING BEAGLE

Childhood is not generally known as a time of precise ethical definitions. When I was around 8 years old, for example, possessed of limited allowance and no way to earn my own money, I convinced myself that it was perfectly all right to take new comic books off the rack at the local Rexall Drug Store without paying for them...

...just so long as I put old ones back at the same time.

I was not precisely a shoplifter, then, but more of a shopswapper. A one-boy tribute to the flexibility of personal definitions. And I must have had remarkably nimble fingers, because I got away with it right up until the time I was old enough to make seasonally-dependent money by mowing lawns and raking leaves and shoveling snow. At that point I could finally stop the swapping and indulge myself in the luxury of buying books and comics that I could keep, rather than return to the rack.

In fact, I only stole one book in my entire life: the 1969 Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperback edition of The Last Unicorn.

And I got caught.

The self-convicted offers up no serious defense. Just these facts: I was 14. I was in the ebb tide when all the leaves have been raked and no grass is growing, but snow isn't falling yet either, so my pockets were empty of coin. And there were these two books, see...the paperback of A Fine and Private Place, which I'd already bought and read and adored. And The Last Unicorn. Another fix of this astonishing writer's astonishing words. Right there. In reach. So...so tempting...so...I...

The store manager nailed me not four feet past the front door. Nimble of finger? Not so much anymore, apparently. But nimble of tongue? A different story. I spun out a line of bullshit so completely bland and affect-less and perfectly honed that this poor fellow realized that he didn't have me: I had him. He simply could not prove that the copy of The Last Unicorn in my pocket hadn't been tucked away there before I even entered his establishment.

Frustrated, he let me go. I have never since shoplifted. There's luck, and there's pressing your luck, and somehow I've always known that my getaway was the latter. If it's true that you get one free pass, well, that was mine. Never again.

These days, I tell Peter that I'm knocking myself out for him over guilt about the seven-and-a-half cents of royalties I denied him by copping that book. (Hey, compound interest over 37 years adds up!)

3. READING BEAGLE

A Fine and Private Place was the second thing by Peter that I read. It absolutely nailed me from its first paragraph: at the time I thought it was probably the greatest book I had ever read. (I still get a blast from reading that opening to people, and watching how it effects them.) Then came my stolen time with The Last Unicorn. A couple of years later, after my family had moved to southern California, I discovered Peter's nonfiction side with I See By My Outfit, which in some ways I liked even more than the other two. And not just because of the section of the book where Peter and his friend Phil Sigunick travel through Kansas City, maybe five miles from where I grew up. I wonder...if I could go back in time to 1963 and tell the 9 year-old me and the 23 year-old Beagle what lay ahead for the two of them, and how their lives would someday become entangled, which one would have been more surprised?

Three published books. Two published fantasy stories (the one I'd already discovered back in 1967, and "Farrell and Lila the Werewolf"). I looked for more, but there simply wasn't more to find. So I went back to the three books I had on the shelf and read them all over again. I did that lots of times.

During my junior year of high school I re-read "Come Lady Death" and finally got it. By high school you know about death...and the idea that death might be a beautiful young girl? To a teenage boy just beginning to date? Well duh.

4. HEARING BEAGLE

Then: science fiction fandom. Fanzines and the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society and conventions. A bolt from the blue, triggering a cascade of changes which are still rolling down my years.

One of the big ones was finally getting to know my own gods — actually getting to stand in the same room with the people whose books and cover art and illustrations I'd been virtually worshipping. But of The Beagle, there was no sign. Just rumors and talk. Apparently he didn't come to conventions, or at least only did so rarely. A recluse, some said. Too busy doing the Hollywood screenwriter thing, said others. I got to know people who said they knew him, but the man himself remained elusive.

One thing I kept hearing was how great a singer and guitarist he was, how terrific a showman: a silver-tongued devil armed with an acoustic guitar and much too innocent a smile. This was easy for me to believe. Ever since I See By My Outfit, I'd had this picture in my head of Peter charming his way out of tough spots all across the United States, using nothing more than the right song and a joke. A little like me and the drug store manager, come to think of it, except for the addition of a beard and some French folk music.

Years passed. Cue the 1980s, and my second time living in New York City. Intersecting social circles eventually brought a fellow named Joe Mazo into regular orbit around the Frog Palace, the quasi-communal Brooklyn home I shared with my wife and a changing cast of friends. Joe was a major dance critic and magazine writer. He also happened to have been Peter S. Beagle's best friend since they were in high school together, and they were still buddies. Joe made it a point to get together with Peter out on the West Coast on a fairly regular basis.

Now I really started hearing Beagle stories, all from Joe. Good ones, too, as in colorful and eccentric and who else but Peter, eh?

Somewhere in there I had reason to call Peter's California number on somebody else's behalf, and wound up leaving a message on his phone answering machine. The recorded voice that picked up his line had to be heard to be believed. If it wasn't the Perfect Baritone, it was bloody close: a rich dark rumble I envied the minute it landed in my ear.

When I heard that some small fannish company had released a cassette of Peter in live performance, playing and singing, I moved considerable bits of heaven and earth to get my hands on a copy.

This tape proved to be my second disappointment with the man, the first being The Folk of the Air (which had read well enough, but just couldn't live up to 16 years of gathering expectation). Peter's songs were great, and his guitar playing was okay, if a little unfocused. But his singing was...off. The pitch wandered, and not in a good way. It was like he and his melodies were dancers out on a first date, not quite sure how tightly to hold on to each other. His word rhythm was wonky, too. In every song there were moments that reminded me of Professor Peter Schickele's joke about how "analysis of the dance music if P.D.Q. Bach has revealed that one of his legs was shorter than the other one."

This was the guy I'd heard so much about? The guy I'd built up to be such an amazing performer in my head? Wow, was I ever wrong.

In an odd way the revelation was comforting. It was nice to know that someone so bloody brilliant at one particular thing, writing, was actually a flawed human being after all.

I should have known better.

Years later, when I finally saw Peter perform live, I was completely blown away. It wasn't like the concert on the cassette at all. So I asked, and Peter confessed that he wished he'd never agreed to do that early recording. Turns out that he was under a trifecta of weathers: a terrible head cold, a bad case of jet lag, and a little too much dinner drinking in response to the first two.

Obviously we are going to have to get him into a studio someday and finally do this right.

(His pitch does wander ever so slightly, as it happens. But only on his own songs. It's as if some part of his subconscious is always suggesting ideas for newer and better melodies, and he can't quite ignore it.)

5. MEETING BEAGLE

Alan Beatts is to blame. It's his fault.

Alan is the owner of Borderlands Books in San Francisco. Back in September, 2001 he screwed up and didn't get his store's email newsletter out on time, so on the night before a particular author signing he sent out a special oops! notice to absolutely everyone on his list, including me.

In the normal course of events I wouldn't have gone. But that was not a normal week: 9/11 had happened just four days before. Like everyone else I was reeling, and as I stared at Alan's email it occurred to me that a nice bookstore reading on a Sunday afternoon was probably the most prosaic thing I could possibly do in the entire world, and therefore Obviously Very Good. Then I noticed that one of the authors who would be reading was Peter S. Beagle, and I was hooked. Finally a chance to meet the man!

The next morning I was at brunch with my business partner, David Roudebush, trying to explain just who Peter was and why he was important. Somewhere in that conversation it hit me that if A Fine and Private Place were a movie, I'd go rent it and watch it 20 times straight through to deal with the murky cloud of stuff I was feeling. Love, death, resurrection, New York — everything was there.

So I went to Borderlands, and Peter and I crossed paths in person at last. First impressions: he was shorter than I expected, and slighter of build, and he carried himself pleasantly enough but was somehow clouded: a little tense, a little distracted. A quiet man. That baritone voice was gently gracious, not a booming rumble. And he was older by nearly 10 years than the last author photo I'd seen. When I introduced myself we went through a brief flurry of mutual oh-you're-that-guy-isms, because it turned out that Joe Mazo had been telling stories in both directions all those years, right up to his untimely death in 1995. Peter already knew a whole lot about me and the Frog Palace crew.

Then I asked him an unexpectedly fateful question: what was up with the film rights on A Fine and Private Place? And he told me.

Timing is everything, accidental or not. After 15 years in limbo with one producer, those rights had become available again just ten days earlier. Right now nobody had them.

Less than a week later I did.

6. SAVING BEAGLE

Shortly after starting on the new screenplay adaptation, I learned why Peter seemed so distracted. His life was in the dumpster.

It was hard for me to believe. As it may be hard for you to believe, reading this. I mean, we're talking about the author of the friggin' Last Unicorn, here. Millions of copies sold. It got made into an animated movie which has been running on cable for decades. And he wrote a Star Trek episode and he did the screenplay for the first film version of The Lord of the Rings. This guy should be set for life.

Yah. But that wasn't the 2001 scorecard, which in actual fact read:

Swear to God, if it weren't for Peter's twice-daily syndicated Buffy the Vampire Slayer fix, I'm half-convinced he might have decided to check out. As it was he was intermittently paralyzed, panicked, and unproductive: convinced down to his toes that he was a 62 year-old failure.

This wasn't right. This was so not right I couldn't even put words to how not right it was. All I could do was dive in to the drowning pool and do my very best to pull him out.

David Roudebush dove in, too. With his help we got Peter's entire life into storage, and moved him from Davis, California, down to his mother's house in Oakland. She was 95 and needed full-time live-in care that the family couldn't afford, so this new arrangement was a winner all the way round. In the meantime I negotiated the terms of Peter's divorce for him, since he couldn't afford an attorney (and every time he had to speak to his ex's lawyer he was so depressed he couldn't write for days). And David, working with a local realtor, got the Davis house cleaned up, emptied, and sold before the foreclosure deadline. Then I took the part of that money that didn't go in the divorce settlement, and negotiated payment on most of Peter's debts, usually at 20 or 30 cents on the dollar.

Months later, when the emergency damage control phase finally ended, it was time to figure out how to rebuild.

We've been rebuilding ever since.

7. SIEVING BEAGLE

Back at the beginning of the process, David and I went up to Davis to do an assets inventory. Did Peter have anything that could be converted to quick cash, and if so, what? Did he have any papers or manuscripts that might be of interest to collectors or some University's special collection? Did he have any unsold books or stories that we might be able to find a home for? I'd read about his unpublished second novel, a mainstream project called The Mirror Kingdom. Was that available? Might there be others?

Unfortunately, the cross-the-board answer turned out to be pretty negative. Peter's physical property had sentimental value, but there was nothing bankable, and no time to use eBay to try and eke from it whatever we could: foreclosure was coming at him like the proverbial freight train; what couldn't be stored had to be tossed. The manuscript search was also a bust. The closet shelf in Peter's study yielded a few known items, but nothing amazing or valuable. Mostly it held lots of binders full of printed records from a fantasy baseball software program that Peter liked. That and some dead luggage.

There was an old computer in the room, the one Peter wrote on before getting his current laptop. He thought that it might have some interesting files on it, still, but he was fairly certain he'd transferred everything. We grabbed it just to be safe. Different story for all the floppy discs on his desk. He insisted that those were definitely all on the laptop's drive now, and he should have thrown the disks out ages ago. He just hadn't gotten around to it.

We pushed him. This was it? Everything? No other places to look, not even one?

"Absolutely. Sorry. I've just never been good at keeping this stuff."

Bummed by the day's unsatisfying exercise, David and I loaded what little we'd found into the car and got ready to go. But first we decided to treat Peter to an early dinner, so he'd have something other than rice and beans in his belly that week.

At the restaurant he quoted a line from one of his own old magazine articles. David liked it. "That's really cool. Is that one of the things we just put in the car? I want to read that."

Peter looked thoughtful and said "No...I think that one is in the filing cabinet in the garage."

[Insert appropriate expletive here. Then imagine it in stereo, because that's how it came out of our mouths.]

David and I didn't leave Davis until nearly midnight. When we did, the car was full up with everything we'd been looking for since morning, and a lot more besides.

...And those computer disks? Ah yes. Contrary to Peter's memory, he hadn't transferred their contents to his laptop after all. But that took four years to discover, during which they were locked out of reach in storage.

8. FACING BEAGLE

The real moments when bad things turn around don't look like they do in movies. The movie moments, those are actually punchlines — places in the story where the audience gets to cheer a sudden and obvious reversal of fortune. Off screen, the moments when Something New And Better truly begin most often fly past us invisibly, to be noticed only in retrospect.

The actual start of Peter's turnaround came about six months into 2002. It happened over brunch at the Easy Street Café in San Anselmo, which just happens to be the part of Marin County where George Lucas was living when he hatched STAR WARS. Nothing deliberate in the choice: it was just the nearest place to my house that Peter and I could go in order to grab a bite and talk.

Peter was putting hot sauce on his omelet when I brought up what had been bugging me.

"You keep telling me that your whole career you've been poor. But you haven't been poor, Peter. You've been screwed. I've done the digging. I know the numbers. Other people made millions of dollars off your work while they handed you pennies.

"Peter, we need to make you a business."

Right then, right there, that was the moment of turnaround. Because while Peter didn't even vaguely get it — it was clear the idea was as foreign to him as wearing a belt made from epoxy and kippers — he didn't run away from the notion, either. A few weeks before, he would have.

Things didn't proceed smoothly from there, not by a long shot, but they did proceed. And that is all that matters.

9. FORCING BEAGLE

Random scenes from the front.

— My computer dings at me and an email from Peter appears on screen. In it is a note forwarded from an editor in New York. The note starts by saying that only two weeks remain until deadline, and concludes by asking Peter "how is the story going?" Along with all this comes Peter's somewhat querulous message to me: Connor, is this something you got me into that you never told me about? The answer to that is no, of course not. It's a project he said yes to some six months earlier, never told me about, and then entirely forgot. Once this is clear he says "ummmmmm" and asks me to get him out of it, because he doesn't have any ideas. "No! You said yes to them months ago, and this is a guaranteed sale. You're a writer. Come up with something!" Of course he does: the story "El Regalo," which is now in The Line Between; which is about to appear in the Oct/Nov 2006 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction; has already been requested for one of next year's Best Fantasy of 2006 collections; and will eventually be expanded into a full novel. With results like this, I could almost pray that he never has any ideas.

— Not that the compressed development process on "El Regalo" is easy. Ever since The Innkeeper's Song, Peter has loved writing in first person, especially when he is trying to spin something up from little or nothing. In these cases the character's voice is an active collaborator in his imagination. He starts writing "El Regalo" that way as well, first-person inside the head of an angsty teenage girl named Angie Luke. The result is so eerily real it is almost entirely unreadable: Angie is that big an adolescent pain in the ass. I don't manage to break Peter free from this trap until the fourth draft, when he finally gives up and goes to third-person. After that it takes four more complete and partial drafts to get all the details right, so I can let the story out the door.

— "Two Hearts" is comparatively easy. Getting him to tackle it is tough, and something of an accident, but the story is basically finished on first draft. All I cut is a couple of sentences; and at someone else's suggestion Peter flips one minor character's gender, in order to avoid an unintentional echo of Tolkien.

— The hardest part of the "Two Hearts" process is finding the title. This takes nearly as long as writing the story in the first place, even though the best possible title is right there in the text all along, staring at us.

— "Two Hearts" garners a Hugo nomination. Peter's first. Very, very cool.

— There is a sign on Peter's forehead which is visible only to scoundrels, and it says "You can hustle me." Plumbers, electricians, and car mechanics have always been particularly good at taking advantage of this, so David and I train Peter to always get a second quote. Sometimes this is not enough. One day he calls me in an absolute panic. Sewage is backing up at his mother's house. The first plumber quotes a price of $7,500, explaining that 20 feet of pipe have to be replaced and the main connection between the house line and the street trunk must be dug up and exposed, which means variances from the city and all kids of paperwork...The second plumber concurs, pointed out additional problems, and asks for $10,000. "What am I going to do?" demands Peter. "You're going to sit there while I call a plumber and come over myself," I tell him. In the end it turns out to be a $175 rooting job.

— In 2004 he is invited to the Oscar party being thrown for The Return of the King by TheOneRing.net, during which they bring him up on stage to so they can introduce him to the assembled fans. The emcee doesn't even get as far as his name. He says "Here's the man who wrote The Last Unicorn —" and people flip out. Imagine 900 voices joined together in rock star screaming. Peter has never experienced anything like it. Call it a harbinger of things to come.

— Bill problems, bill payments. New contracts, some kept and others killed over creative differences. Companies that owe Peter lots of money identified and pursued. Conventions attended. Lots of them. And writing, always writing.

— When I study Peter's professional history, one thing leaps out: he writes steadily in exactly three — and only three — circumstances. The first being when he is screamingly desperate for money, the second when he is on fire from some deep personal inspiration, and the third being any time he has a contract. (There's that journeyman/craftsman self-identity thing exerting itself.) Since the whole idea is to get him away from the stick of being desperately poor, and inspirations come on their own timetable, that leaves only the carrot of contracts. I sign him up to everything I can find that makes sense. I sign him up to everything I can find that makes sense. And he delivers. (Sometimes in the manner of Kelly Freas, who once famously said "I've never made a deadline in my life, and I've never missed a real one." But delivery all the same.)

10. FREEING BEAGLE

The day Peter owns his own house again, and everything is out of storage, that will be victory.

The day that Peter owes nothing to anyone, and never needs to borrow, that will be victory.

The day Peter controls as many of his rights as possible, and is getting paid properly for the ones he previously sold, that will be victory.

The day that all of Peter's books are back in print, in wonderful editions, that will be victory.

...And every day there's a new Peter S. Beagle story or book in the world, a tale that was never there before, that's a step along the way. Peter has moved millions of people with his writing, but this is just the beginning. There are so many more hearts to touch, and change, and challenge. So many more dreams to inspire.

11. PUNCHLINE

We're still working on this part. But I think it will go something like:

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Peter S. Beagle doesn't think his.

Peter S. Beagle doesn't think his who?

Peter S. Beagle doesn't think his life's a bad joke any more.

Amen.

[Connor Freff Cochran]

illustration from on-line catalog