A Conversation with Peter S. Beagle, June 2006
This interview is the transcript of a conversation between myself and Peter Beagle (plus a visitor or two) which took place in the Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room in the Library here at the Green Man offices, on a rather sultry afternoon near Summer Solstice in 2006. My thanks to Peter's business manager and editor at Conlan Press, Connor Freff Cochran, for volunteering to handle the recording and transcription. This left Peter and me free to drink a delightful German beer called Aventinus and converse at will.
Cat: I've been reading the latest draft of your forthcoming novel, Summerlong, which is one of the finest novels I've had the privilege to read. Are there aspects of the lead male character, Abe, that are autobiographical in nature? He is a white-haired writer in his 60s who revels in being, to use your own words, "gracefully grown more debauched and depraved." So how much of Abe is you?
Peter: Certain things I know are me, such as Abe's passion for music. With me, it is singing and the guitar. With Abe, it's the harmonica. (And beer, of course. Let's not forget beer. Though I don't try and brew beer, like Abe does, I am an appalling beer snob.) Abe actually is the excellent musician I'd like to be — I enjoyed letting him discover, in the course of the story, that he really can keep up with a band consisting of people 20 or 25 years younger than he. There's also the fact that Abe is a creature of habit, as Joanna remarks. I know I am. And her line to him, the one where she complains about him being too reasonable, I have had those words spoken to me. So certain things about Abe are very familiar, and certain things about Abe are just Abe.
Cat: Following up on that question, I was very impressed with the strong sense of place that permeates Summerlong. It has been nigh onto twenty years since I lived in Seattle (Cowan Park area, to be precise) but you captured the feel of both city and island life quite well. I see from the Tachyon Publications press kit that came with The Line Between, your new story collection, that you now live in Oakland, California, which is more or less the setting of The Folk of The Air novel you wrote some ways back. What research did you do in order to capture the settings in Summerlong so perfectly?
Peter: One basic item of research is that I lived in the area for six years. One year in Seattle on Queen Anne Hill, and five years on Bainbridge Island, both of which I liked very much. The place Abe lives, which I call Gardner Island, is basically a version of Bainbridge Island. And Joanna, one of the other lead characters in Summerlong, actually does live on Queen Anne Hill. In fact, the place where she lives is very much like the condominium where I lived for that year.
I'm very complimented by your comments on my sense of place, because I never feel that I have one. And I really have to work at creating one when I'm writing. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I grew up in New York, in an area where everyone was the child of an immigrant of one sort or another. Even the black kids' parents had migrated from the south, which was certainly another country. Then I went to Stanford and I was in a writing class with people like Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry, Gurney Norman, James Baker Hall...all of whom came from specific places that had strongly developed identities. Larry from Texas, obviously. Ken from Oregon. Gurney and Jim from Kentucky. And they had come from there for a long time, if you see what I mean: their ancestors had lived there for several generations. At Stanford I became very aware that I didn't have the same kind of sense of place that they did. I remember saying to Gurney, thinking about our youth, that in some ways I had to invent a planet to be from. There are people who always seem to me to be able to draw on their sense of place, of their origin place, without ever being aware they are doing it. It is utterly natural for them. Not me. Coleridge had a notion of poetry being emotion recollected in tranquility — I'm that way with place. I couldn't have written about Seattle while I was living there: it took a number of years. It's always that way with me. [laughs] Now that I've been away from Davis for nearly five years, I'll probably write something set there next.
The Folk of the Air was more or less the first time I ever wrote about Berkeley. I fell in love with Berkeley somewhere around 1960. I haven't lived in this area until these last few years, but I have always been in and out of it, and I always knew it...in a way, for instance, that I'll never know San Francisco, even though it is close and I spend time there. I just have a very deep tenderness for the East Bay in general. But for all that, readers should be aware that Avicenna is only as much Berkeley as I want it to be. I have no hesitation about moving geography around, and constructing my own specific setting between land and sea. The bay where Farrell rolls down his van window and sniffs the distinctive air of low tide, that isn't necessarily San Francisco bay.
Cat: Setting aside for a minute the superb magic realism of Summerlong, I was impressed, like I was in The Folk of The Air, by how real the characters in this novel felt. I was particularly amazed and pleased by the relationship between Abe and his long-time lover, Joanna, because most fiction handles characters and their relationships rather piss poorly and your book didn't. How did Abe and Joanna come to be? Is their relationship based, at least in part, on a couple you knew?
Peter: Not so much the relationship of those two characters...but I do have a distinct memory of how Summerlong began. I was then living in a two-room apartment in Sacramento, fooling around at the computer, and I remember leaning on it and thinking of a couple I did know for a long time...I say did know, sadly, because the male half of the pair, a writer named Jack Cady, died a couple of years ago. Jack lived in Port Townsend, Washington, while his lover of long standing lived in Seattle and worked at the university. They had been an item for well over 20 years, but they never lived together. They traveled together, they went camping together, they worked at his house together...but they were somehow separate and together at the same time. Unquestionably together, yes, yet also distinctly separate. And their lives suited them very well. I remember thinking "This is probably the only sort of relationship that I could decently sustain." And literally, the next thing I knew I was beginning to write about Abe and Joanna. Somehow they came very quickly. You have to be a certain age to write certain things, I guess, and I was finally ready for Abe and Joanna. Joanna, by the way, while not being based on Jack's partner at all, does take a certain reality from the year I was living in Seattle. My neighbor downstairs — whose name was Joan, as it happens — was a senior flight attendant for United Airlines. What I know of Joanna's life in Summerlong, I know very largely from things Joan used to tell me about what she actually did in her work, starting from when she'd head to the airport, at around 3:30 AM, and look up and see my lighted window. I was working on The Folk of the Air at the time, and Joan would wave to me, while quietly calling out "Here goes the flying waitress!" Her attitude towards what she did definitely finds a certain voice in Joanna.
Cat: Conlan Press is including a collector's edition hardcover chapbook of Two Hearts, the coda to The Last Unicorn, with the first 3,000 unabridged audiobooks of that novel. And the story is also included in your new collection, The Line Between. (I've listened to the first few chapters of the audiobook. Based on what I've heard, Last Unicorn fans will be pleased with it.) Why, after all these years, did you decide to write a sequel to what is probably your most beloved novel? (In the interest of full disclosure, my favorite work by you before reading Summerlong was The Folk of The Air. Now it's Summerlong.) What do you expect fans to think of "Two Hearts?"
Peter: I never know what fans will think, and if I start thinking about that I become paralyzed. Connor suggested the possibility of setting a story in the world of The Last Unicorn, not necessarily including any of the characters from the original book. In fact, he specifically told me I needn't do that at all. I grumbled more than a bit, but when I actually sat down to write the piece, and started with nine-and-a-half year-old Sooz, something took hold of me. Completely. Sooz herself, I should think. I often start with voices and go from there. And once I'd started, once I had the voice, the rest seemed to follow as naturally as anything I'd ever written. I didn't know, really, that Schmendrick and Molly were going to be the people that Sooz encounters. But I didn't question it when it happened. It seemed as though this were its time, as though — as Lir says in The Last Unicorn, "Things must happen when it is time for them to happen." Clearly it was time for me write this story.
It's interesting...when I wrote the last bit of Sooz's opening statement, the part that goes, "I think everything happened exactly the way it should have done. Except for the sad parts, and maybe those too," I had no idea what was coming up, or what any of the specific sad parts would be. I just knew they were there, but I didn't know what or why until I got to them. That's the way stories happen to me.
Cat: Following along on the subject of The Last Unicorn, I know you got royally shafted by London-based Granada Media, which has sold over 600,000 DVDs and videotapes of the animated version without paying you any royalties at all. Will we see the script you did for this film released by Conlan Press at some point? And has there been any progress made at getting Granada Media to do the honorable thing and pay you what you are rightfully owed?
Peter: The internet is a wonderful thing. I've come to not only respect it enormously, but to understand its potential. I'm overwhelmed by the response to my public appeal for help and support on this problem. Because Granada is clearly becoming nervous, for lack of a better word. They are starting to ask "Why us? Why are you mad at us? We've got English accents!" I can't talk much about it yet, but there seem to be all sorts of possibilities in the works — real possibilities, as opposed to your usual written-in-sand movie possibilities. I do think we might be able to resolve this issue, and also that a live-action Last Unicorn has a good chance of happening. As for publishing the screenplay, that's really not in my power. I don't own it. And I don't imagine that I will own it, no matter who eventually makes the movie, should that happen at all. So I'm not thinking about that very much. Like Satchel Paige, I try not to look back. But I do get a lot of enjoyment right now out of looking forward.
Cat: Setting aside the royalties issue, what is your opinion of the animated version of The Last Unicorn? It certainly was more or less faithful to your novel.
Peter: My stock answer is "I can live with it." In fact, I can live with it a lot better than I expected at the time. We'd been everywhere in the animation business, trying to sell the story, without any success. Rankin-Bass was practically all that was left. The only other place to go, as Michael Chase Walker said — he's the guy who got the film made — was Hanna-Barbera. And I was braced for that, I really was. But Rankin-Bass did say yes, and it is the best thing they ever did. It has had much more of a life than I ever thought it would, and I'm very grateful that it has introduced a lot of people to the book. So I have a genuine affection for it, especially for the vocal work and the two actors I made friends with, Christopher Lee and Rene Auberjenois.
Recently I got to see Arthur Rankin again after all these years...the last time I saw him was in Germany, more than 20 years ago. It was a delight to get together because he is very much aware of what they made, and where its strengths and weaknesses lie. And he's as sharp and perceptive as I remember him. Talking to him gives me hope for a functional and productive old age. And in our different ways, and undoubtedly for our different reasons, we're both happy with the movie and the memories we have of making it. He wishes he‘d had more money to spend on its production values, certainly. But overall he is distinctly proud of it, and I'm glad.
Cat: The animated Last Unicorn certainly worked much better than Ralph Bakshi's animated Lord of The Rings, which came out in 1978, and for which you wrote the screenplay. How did the Bakshi film end up as such a mess?
Peter: It took a lot of work to make it that much of a mess. It took a lot of double-crossing, if you will, and a lot of misunderstanding. Somewhere in the middle of the writing, when I got to the Riders of Rohan — which Bakshi had forgotten about completely, and was horror-stricken to be reminded of — I began to wonder if he'd actually finished the trilogy in the first place. I don't know. But you're right, the film is a mess, and the best that I can say for it is that the vocal work is very good, and that I did the absolute best I could with the screenplay, all things considered.
I think the film became the mess it is, as much as anything, because Bakshi simply didn't have any coherent plan in mind. I think he kept changing his mind about how he wanted to make it: certainly the style of the film changes constantly from one sequence to the next. It was sloppily made and sloppily thought through, to the point where I had to write at least eight versions of the screenplay, and, after recording all the actors' voices in a marathon session in London, Bakshi still eventually had to round up the cast, go back, and do it over again. I doubt that there was much real communication between Bakshi and Saul Zaentz.
Another problem is that it was always meant to be the first of at least two movies. And it was originally released with a title card at the end saying "Here ends the first part of the Lord of the Rings." I can remember typing that in, and seeing it that way in the theater when it opened. But by the time the picture went into wider release, Saul Zaentz certainly knew that there wasn't going to be any Lord of the Rings, Part 2. So somebody decided to flip a couple of reels around in an attempt to make it look like a complete story in one film, and the title card promising a second installment was dropped. This was utterly absurd, of course, and practically guaranteed all by itself that the film would be a disaster and a failure. And yet, interestingly, the Bakshi version has had a life of sorts. When the first film in Peter Jackson's version of The Lord of the Rings came out, I was amazed to discover from some friends that our original version had been remarkably popular in England and stayed in print all those years. One never know, do one?
Cat: You have often been quoted as saying The Innkeeper's Song The Innkeeper's Song is your favorite work. It certainly is a wonderfully written and complex tale, with its shifting viewpoints giving it a feel that is not common in your other writings. But why is it your favorite? And why did you return to the novel's world in the six stories you collected in Giant Bones, only one of which is directly connected to the earlier book? What makes this particular setting so appealing to you?
Peter: I say The Innkeeper's Song is my favorite work because I think of it as my first grown-up novel. It's not a ghost story, and it's not a fairy tale — it's an attempt to deal with very real people in an imaginary world. And while it does have my first group sex scene in it, that's not why I think of it as my first grown-up novel either...I just think there's a depth of emotion in it that, for me, seems like the beginning of a mature period. I was able to access certain things I either couldn't reach before, or just played around with. An exploration of what love means, for instance, because by the time Tikat catches up with his fiancée, Lukassa, the girl who has died and been brought back to life, at first she doesn't remember him. She does gradually remember, but not what they were. And while he is only a boy, he is wise enough to know that in a certain real way he will have to start over, which he is willing to do because of his feelings for her and what they have already been through together. I don't think I could have done that once, in the same way I couldn't have created as complex and tormented a character as Lal -- who has excellent reasons for having the nightmares that she has, yet gives up the ring that shields her from the nightmares, the ring that was given to her for that reason, in order to bring someone back from a worse nightmare. I couldn't have done either of these, earlier.
As for the world itself, I'd never created an imaginary world or done anything like a series. I don't imagine that people would consider this a series, actually. It's very much a playground for me. I like exploring it and finding out different parts of its folklore, geography, history, and so on. And the only way I can do that is to write the stories. I never find things out except by doing them. The reason I know how Soukyan and the Fox met, for example, is that Connor asked me, and I didn't know. So I wrote the story to find out. Things happen to me like that in this world, so I'm still very excited about it and it is still fresh to me.
As for why I came back to it in the Giant Bones collection — which was called The Magician of Karakosk everywhere else in the world, and will be called that here, too, when it is reprinted — that return was entirely by accident.
The first story in the collection, "The Last Song of Sirit Byar," was also my first journey back to the Innkeeper's well. What happened is that Anne McCaffrey asked me to contribute an original story dealing with vocal music to her Space Opera anthology, and I had such a blast writing "Sirit Byar" for her that by the time I was done I knew I'd have to go back yet again. I wasn't working on a novel, so I had time, and start writing, just one piece after another: '"The Magician of Karakosk," "The Tragical Historie of the Jiril's Players," "Lal and Soukyan," "Chousi-wai's Story." At the end, though, I was still one story short for a collection. I could feel that I was one story short, and hung fire that way for several weeks. Then one morning I got out of the shower and suddenly found myself thinking of my close friends John and Maria Crush, and their son James, and how when they all lived in my house James was a small kid obsessed with growing tall. He wanted to be 6'7' and weigh 240 pounds. Every time he passed through a door he'd reach up and hang from the lintel. [laughs] He stretched himself to 6'3', eventually, though he doesn't weigh 240 pounds. Anyway, by the time I was out of the shower, from that one trigger I had the entire "Giant Bones" story, and that was how I wrapped the book.
Cat: Connor Freff Cochran is President, Publisher, and Vortex (as he describes himself on the website) of Conlan Press. On the CP site he has announced that all of your works will be released in what he calls the Definitive Editions, which will eventually be a Boxed Set. (BLISS!) You are quoted on the website as saying "I've always wanted to be a boxed set. To have all my different titles available in one unified edition." What, other than being well-crafted hardcover editions. will be in these volumes? New introductions? Reworking of the texts themselves so that they are your preferred texts?
Peter: Well, all of the Definitive Editions will be illustrated by artists of my own choice. And there will be new introductions or afterwords, certainly. I can't predict what changes will be made in what texts, though I do feel that will happen. I'll make those decisions book by book. In some cases the changes might be as minor as finally fixing typos which have bothered me for decades; in other cases — and here The Folk of the Air and The Unicorn Sonata both come to mind — I will be doing major literary surgery.
Apart from anything else, just putting them together will be an astonishing personal retrospective of where I've been and where I think I might be going. Just to step back and look at them, and think "what can I do beyond these in the time I've got? And how can I learn from what I've done?"
Cat: The Tachyon press packet that came with The Line Between ARC says that lately you've been writing for the massive multiplayer online game Horizons: Empire of Istaria. I see from a Google search that "Horizons is played in a vast land of high fantasy. Battles are won through the might of a handcrafted sword and the power of magical spells. Fantastic creatures, from the horrors of the risen dead to the majesty of the ancient dragons, prowl the land. Heroes arise to protect civilization from marauding beasts, journey to distant lands, create wondrous objects, and complete epic quests." How much creative freedom are you allowed to working within what is generally called a sharecropped story? In other words, what do you bring to this reality which makes it more than just another MMOG?
Peter: A dwarf NPC named Irving. No, seriously....
Dialog is really what I'm best at. I love writing dialog and creating characters. And so far, learning the game as I have been, and as much of a beginner as I still am, I'm having a very good time making up dialog for quests. Lines for NPCs to speak in all possibilities and circumstances, and to elevate the dialog from the kind of cardboard quasi-medieval sort of talk that is standard for the gaming industry, to something that manages, I hope, to be both funny and of some practical use.
It's very hard for me, no matter how dark or complex or strange the story, it's very hard for me to write something that's not funny, or that at least has some strain of humor that surfaces unexpectedly. There's a lot of both in my first quest for Horizons, involving a half-giant/gnome wedding, and the reasons why certain people very much want it to go forward, and certain people definitely don't. As a player you have the option of helping either outcome to occur, of course. But the half-giant and the gnome? They're really just a couple of crazy kids.
I'm working on other quests now, and deliberately changing things up, exploring what intrigues me as I consider the characters and settings. As I have often said, I like doing things I've never done before — and in terms of storytelling form and possibilities the game world definitely qualifies. If it works out well, Connor says he'd love to see a MMOG set entirely in my own "Innkeeper's World" universe. Right now I can hardly imagine such a thing, but it would be a delight.
Cat: I have a confession. After reading your first novel, A Fine and Private Place, some twenty years ago when I was living in Seattle, I thought that you were an English writer. (James Hetley who lives in Texas would later do that again to me with his Evenmere novels, which too were English in feel.) There's some things in that novel that remind me of both the Lord Peter Wimsey sense of manners and just the dry wit of English fantasy writers in general. Was this intentional?
Peter: I certainly read a great many of the English fantasy writers. Whether it is because of them, or other things I've read, or my own peculiar nature, my humor has always tended toward the dry side. Weird, but dry. And I certainly know the Peter Wimsey novels, but I can't honestly say that they effected me in any way that I know about. I am aware of Dorothy Sayers as a good bit of an anti-Semite...and her books remind me, in a way, of what someone once said about my beloved Jungle Book — that it was "an exercise in how to be snobbish through savage."
If there is any flavor of England in that first book, it wasn't deliberate — though I do love many English writers, especially English children's book writers; I'd love to be as good as Eva Ibbotson or E. Nesbit or Joan Aiken. But as far I was concerned then, and still think now, to all intents and purposes what I was doing at 19 was imitating an American author named Robert Nathan, especially a book of his called One More Spring. You might say I wrote A Fine And Private Place because I wanted to write One More Spring, but Robert had already beaten me to it.
Cat: Kathleen Bartholomew who is doing a number of the reviews in our Peter Beagle issue has just dropped by. Being Kathleen, she couldn't resist asking a few questions, and it wouldn't be Green Man form to deny her the opportunity....
Kathleen: Peter, did I just hear you say you read Kipling when you were a kid?
Peter: Yes I did. I still remember what my old copy of the second Jungle Book looked like, and I can still recite whole chunks of those stories by heart.
Kathleen: Have you heard the music of Roberts and Barand?
Peter: No. I'll look them up when I get home, though. I'm always interested in hearing new music.
Kathleen: How do you find the TIME?
Peter: Frequently I don't. I try to apportion my time between working and living the best way I can, but I'm always behind with something. [laughs] Connor's always reminding me of deadlines and snapping at my heels.
Kathleen: Did you know Louis Untermeyer? I loved that man's poetry anthologies. They were the Greek Chorus of my childhood, all those pages of deathless rhyme. I seem to recall you actually knew the gentleman, which if true would once have had me mad with envy.
Peter: Yes, I did know Louis, due to an odd set of circumstances. I sent a story in to Seventeen magazine's annual short fiction competition when I was 15. It was a kind of a fantasy western and of course I didn't win. But Bryna Ivens, who was the fiction editor there, became very interested in my stories and decided to track me down. This was more than ordinarily difficult because I'd forgotten to put a return address on the envelope! But the postmark showed that it had been notarized in the Bronx, which narrowed things down — any Beagle in the Bronx was a relative of mine. So Bryna finally did find me.
Bryna was Louis's wife. And she and Louis sort of adopted me, for lack of a better word. They began inviting me to visit them both in the apartment they kept in New York and at their house in Newton, CT. Louis was a truly remarkable man. I believe they gave him his high school diploma when he was 80. He'd never actually graduated, but he'd been everywhere, and knew everybody, and he spoke at least three languages and could translated back and forth acurately and evocatively between them. Louis was an amazing repository of arcane knowledge and poetry that everybody else had forgotten, and a font of endless puns.
And like I said, they took me under their wing. I'm almost embarrassed to recite this, but I'm terribly proud of it too, so here goes. Louis, for all practical purposes, discovered and promoted Robert Frost — in Frost's collected letters, there are something like 260 or 270 written to Louie. And Louie wrote about Frost, arranged all kinds of publicity and promotion for him, and was undoubtedly very proud of him. He never hesitated to let people know about his connection to Robert Frost. Well, Bryna used to tell people — and I only found this out later — "Peter Beagle's my Robert Frost."
Peter: I know.
Kathleen: Here's my last question, because I have to go. I was just passing by and couldn't resist after I peeked in. Peter, who and what do you consider to be your personal sources? I have always found you an especially original writer, and seldom find myself "attributing" you — you know, those moments where you suddenly think, "Ah, he read so-and-so, that's why he says this like that." I know you once said that Walt Kelly (one of my personal gods) influenced your writing style. Who else?
Peter: I've thought about this a lot lately, because I just wrote a whole book of essays on the topic that Conlan Press will be putting out under the title Sméagol, Déagol, and Beagle: Essays from the Headwaters of My Voice. The answer is that over the years any number of people from childhood on have influenced my style. For example, there was Thorne Smith when I was in high school, and also Anthony Boucher and then J. D. Salinger, and — much more seriously — Robert Nathan, whom I discovered in college and already mentioned briefly to Cat. If I had to pick one single lasting influence that was stronger than any other, it was probably Robert. But before Robert there were plenty of others: Lord Dunsany, T. H. White, James Thurber's The 13 Clocks and The Wonderful O. Not E. R. Eddison, really, although he did influence me for about 10 minutes while I was writing the last chapter of The Last Unicorn, because I read the Ballantine paperback reissue of The Worm Ouroboros around then. A teensy bit may have sneaked in at the end. In fact, this matter of influences is tricky. All my life I've always been a good literary mimic, with an instinct for the way other people made sentences and told stories. But now all those different influences are just one big compost pile, and I tend to let the stories and the storyteller set the tone. The voice I hear in my head is how I learn what the atmosphere and style of a story are going to be like.
Even when I'm writing in third-person. It's still a narrative voice, and depending on the subject, the time period, setting, and so-on, the right narrative voice will suggest itself.
Basically I read everything as a boy, and probably imitated most of it at one time or another. I even started a novel when I was in high school that was meant to be in the Thorne Smith style, but if I'm lucky that scrap is lost forever. I only wrote a few pages and gave up on it quickly. Eventually all these different influences coalesced into my own style, but before then I'd try anything.
Cat: 'Bye for now, Kathleen. See you back here later.
Peter: Please say hello to your sister for me.
Kathleen: Will do. Au revoir!
Cat: Kathleen dropping in reminds me that Robert Tilendis wanted to be here to meet you but couldn't, so he dropped off a couple of questions for me to ask you. Just pretend I'm him.
Peter: That's something of a stretch, Cat.
Cat: Try and bear with me. Here goes: "You have a broad range of moods at your command, from the classic fairy tale diction of a story like 'Come Lady Death' to the very contemporary, almost world-weary acceptance of 'Farrell and Lila the Werewolf.' For you, what's the relationship between story and mood? Do you consciously tailor the mood to fit the story, the other way around, or somewhere in between?
Peter: Things are always somewhere in between. As I said, if it's a first-person thing, the mood tends to come with the voice, which is usually very clear in my head. Frequently it's all I've got. For instance, when I was writing Tamsin I didn't always know if I was doing Jenny's voice right, but if I did fall off the beam I'd know in a page or so. Then I could go back to where I lost the voice, pick things up from that spot and get back to what I was doing. In third-person tone is suggested by a lot of exterior circumstances in the story. Time and place, primarily. I'm a good literary mimic. I have a lot of voices and styles in my head, and I'll use whatever I need. It's a little like this musician I love to listen to named Jim Nichols. Jim is a superb jazz guitarist in his own right, but he can also play perfectly, and even teach, in the style of Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, or half a dozen other thumb-style guitarists. He and his wife and brother tend to be the house band at the annual Nashville gathering of the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society, and Jim is always ready to back up anybody else who may be playing or writing, no matter what their style. He fits himself in without ever compromising his own talent.
Cat: Robert goes on here to say "Perhaps, rather than 'almost world-weary acceptance,' I should ask about the sense of whimsy that shows up in stories like 'Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros' and 'Julie's Unicorn.' (Hmm...more unicorns.) I get the feeling that you live in a universe in which anything can happen and probably will. In fact, that's how I opened my review of your collection The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche. Am I right?"
Peter: Essentially. Though said all by itself like that makes me feel like I'm sitting in some studio executive's office, pitching a sitcom. [adopts over-the-top agent's voice] "A world in which anything can happen, and usually does!" [returns to normal] But yeah, anything can happen in a story that I write, as long as it pays attention to the rules, or the style, or the milieu I've set down. Whimsy is a very delicate thing. For so many people it's a pejorative, referring to a story as all whimsy-whamsy. But I'm actually very realistic in my fantastic way, or at least I make a real effort to be. I don't let whimsy govern where a story is going. It's more a side thing, an illusion, a line of dialogue. But both "Professor Gottesman" and "Julie's Unicorn" have very tight rules, and they stick to them.
Cat: Peter, here at Green Man we spend almost as time discussing music as we talking about books. So let's jump topics. The fact that you are a folk musician is no secret to readers of your books and people who have seen you performing. But do you prefer any particular kind of folk music? Your reminiscences in I See by My Outfit suggest you go more for the kind of ballad music which was written in the 16th, 17th, and 18 centuries, as opposed to Appalachian compositions or the like.
Peter: Well, Outfit has references mainly to 20th century French cabaret music, specifically George Brassens and Leo Ferre, and to blues, which Phil and I played a lot of. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family where it didn't matter what you listened to, it really didn't. As a consequence, I paid attention to everything from classical music to Broadway scores to the purest Delta blues to French cabaret music to absolutely indescribable stuff. And Gilbert and Sullivan as well, they were a large part of my childhood. As a consequence I can never say what sort of music I prefer. My ear tends towards the melodic, certainly. I'm undoubtedly old-fashioned in some ways. But I listen to a lot of guitar music and a lot of vocal music, though I usually keep them separated because they don't go well together. For instance, in my car I've been listening to a couple of Mozart quartets that I never really knew. But at home I'm also listening to Buster Jones and Tom Bresch playing guitar duets together. Very funky stuff, very raggy.
Cat: I know that your story "Come Lady Death" has been adapted into an opera called The Midnight Angel. You wrote the libretto and a composer named David Carlson wrote the music. An opera, that's a big project. Are you classically trained? And do you plan any future operatic works?
Peter: I had a wonderful time writing that libretto for David Carlson's music, and I'd love to do that again. I know writers who are full of opera creation horror stories. but I don't have a single one, from our diva on down. All the singers were delightful, talented, professional people and it was a pleasure to work with them. As for my musical education — well, I won't say that I'm not classically trained, because I can read music. But I can't write it properly. If I ever went back to school it would probably be as a music student, to learn to write the stuff down. What you could say is that I'm not exactly classically trained, but I am classically housebroken. I've learned what I know of singing by imitation and doing it. The nearest I come to training is hanging around singers, learning things from them. In Nashville every year I always take a particular master-level vocal class from a singer named Morning Nichols, who is Jim Nichols's wife. It probably doesn't count like a rigorous master class, but I always learn something from Morning, whether I'm singing or watching her sing.
Cat: Do you still prefer the guitar to other instruments? Do you play any other instruments? (I had a mental image just now of you playing the violin.) And I've heard you sing — you have a fine voice. Do you have any formal training in voice and/or instruments?
Peter: No, I've got enough trouble with the guitar. I admire multi-instrumentalists enormously, especially people who play non-fretted instruments, which require that you just sort of know where the fingers are supposed to go. But what I would like to be is a really good guitarist. And if not that, a good enough guitarist to work out proper arrangements behind my own singing. I've probably listened to guitars of all sorts more than any other instrument.
Cat: What made you want to play the guitar?
Peter: I wanted to be a singing cowboy. I was growing up in the era of Jimmy Wakely and Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and all that stuff. Maybe 10 years old. And you know, I wasn't alone. A lot of nice Jewish kids from the Bronx wanted to be cowboys. [laughs] A friend of mine recently sent me an English/Yiddish parody of "Back In The Saddle Again" which I'm seriously thinking of doing at my next gig.
Cat: Regarding filk music, I know that The Last Unicorn is popular with musicians of a filk bent, including the Brobdingnagian Bards, who do "None But A Harper." What's your take on all of this?
Peter: I enjoy it immensely. It's like being part of the folk culture, in some way. For example, one of the great French songwriters was the man you see in the Toulouse-Lautrec print, the fellow in the big black hat and black cloak and bright red muffle, Aristide Bruant. Bruant was a hell of a songwriter and a remarkable figure, a buddy of Lautrec's. And I have had any number of people, over the years, sing me one Aristide Bruant song or another as a French folk song. His creations have worked that far into the French national consciousness. That's happened with me and Prince Lir's song from The Last Unicorn. Somebody put it to the tune of "The Ash Grove" and now all sorts of people think it's Welsh and hundreds of years old, rather than mine from 1967. I love it.
I always go back to the great blues guitarist and singer, Big Bill Broonzy, who was asked rather late in his life if what he did could be considered folk music. And Broonzy just answered "I guess all songs is folk songs. I ain't never heard no horse sing 'em."
Cat: Thank you for coming in and talking with us this afternoon. Before we part, is there anything I should have asked you about which I didn't? Any last thoughts you'd like to leave with our readers?
Peter: Well...I've had such a good time, and this couch is pretty comfortable. And the beer's amazing. Do we really have to go?
illustration photograph of Peter S. Beagle taken by Connor Freff Cochran