Peter S. Beagle On Unicorns, Golems, and the LawS

We Never Talk About My Brother is a newly-released collection of fiction by the celebrated Peter S. Beagle. We recently caught up with the writer to talk books, lawsuits, and life.

io9: Do you see much distinction between being a musician and being a writer?

PB: Being a musician has always seemed like luxury to me, perhaps because I don't do it for a living. It's like Mark Twain's line that work consists of whatever a body's obliged to do, and play consists of what a body's not obliged to do. So I take music very seriously, but it's not my work in the same way that writing is. For me it's something of a vacation, something of a luxury. But that said, there are many similarities in the two things. There is so much about both which only has to do with structure. You have to say to yourself "Okay, this isn't working, so let's try it some other way." I've written entire stories in first person that needed to be rewritten in third person before they clicked, just the same way you might try a piece of music in a different key or on a different instrument to make it feel right. As you work you start saying to yourself "Maybe I can do that French thing of sliding back and forth between major and minor? Hey, I stole that chord progression from Brassens, so maybe I can steal this key change from Jimmy Reed?" When it comes down to doing it, there's always a right way, and I just have to find it.

Who do you enjoy listening to these days?

I'm not listening to a whole lot of music these days, for various reasons, but when I do it tends to be Django Reinhardt and people of that sort. Rex Stewart. Coleman Hawkins. Mostly older jazz.

What music inspires your writing?

I was always influenced one way or the other by French cabaret music, and jazz in general for its improvisational quality. I tend to think — I always have — in musical terms while I'm writing fiction. I'll think "This is definitely a horn section. This is definitely a string quartet." I really do think like that. I was very conscious of this when working on A Fine and Private Place. Everyone in that book was a different stringed instrument to me, and doing scenes with Michael and Mr. Rebeck and Laura and Campos, the cemetery guard, felt just like I was writing for a string quartet. I was very aware of voices and strings playing against each other.

You have cited authors like James Stephens, Lord Dunsany, James Thurber, and Edgar Pangborn as being influential to your decision to become a writer. What current authors do you admire today? In other word, read any good books lately?

There are old favorites like Charles de Lint, Patricia McKillip, and Robin McKinley. Ursula LeGuin, always. And then there are people I've never heard of before, people I've just stumbled on, like Michael Gruber. He's about my age and lives up in Seattle, and I don't know a thing more about him except that I'll read anything with his name on it. His erudition, his sense of proportion and characterization, are astonishing. Each book is different than the one before, which has always been an attraction for me since I try and do it in my own work. I was also delighted to discover, at the last convention I went to, that the mystery writer Stuart Kaminsky is a fan of mine, because I've been a great fan of his for years. Every now and then it's nice to find yourself in another mutual admiration society.

The author Robert Nathan, although successful and prolific is mainly remembered for only one novel, Portrait of Jennie. When The Last Unicorn came out he warned you that it would become "your Jennie". It seems that has been the case. Does it bug you that fans only know you for that book?

I've long since passed being tired of that particular way of looking at my work. As Robert also said, it's a lot better to be remembered for something than not to be remembered at all - he was grateful for Jennie. But this is an issue that doesn't take up a lot of my time. I like it when people discover the book from the movie, and I like it when people discover others of my books from that one. There's no way to predict it, and absolutely no sense in staying up nights with it. I just try and make the books different from each other because that's what is important to me.

Peter S. Beagle On Unicorns, Golems, and the Law

Have you gotten a bit sick of unicorns, or do they still mean something wonderful to you?

It's a funny thing. I never did imagine I would take them on again, for a lot of reasons. But then I went and wrote a couple of stories involving unicorns - or things that call themselves unicorns, anyway - one of which, "Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros," is my own favorite among my shorter pieces of fiction. And I wrote a YA book called The Unicorn Sonata which utterly vanished when the publisher went under, but which I'm going to bring back as a four-book series, probably starting next year. So they were still there, in a lesser kind of way. Then "Two Hearts" came along in 2005 and my unicorn, the unicorn, you might say, was back in my life. This one has inevitably led me to another novel, which will follow up on Sooz, to see what happens to her starting when she turns 17. That's how I find out about my characters: I write about them. There's an old saying in various languages that goes "You want to give God a good giggle? Make a plan." The Germans simply say "Man plans, God laughs." So I don't make plans that way any more. I have certain things I've agreed to do, and certain things I feel I have to do, but beyond those I never know what's going to come next, or what I'll be doing. Over the years I've usually been very surprised.

Could you comment about your current legal dispute with Granada Media over the animated film of The Last Unicorn ?

Very simply, making this as open and shut as I can, by the terms of my contract Granada owes me 5% of the profits from The Last Unicorn. Now, their first reaction when we asked to be paid back in 2003 was to claim that they didn't have to pay me anything because no one told them there were any active contracts when they bought the film. That was legally meaningless, and we told them so. Their next position was that they had bought the film out of bankruptcy, which meant they were not obligated to pay me anything I might have been owed from before their purchase. This is true enough, but not to any particular point, since of course I wasn't asking them to pay me for anything prior to their purchase. Just for my proper share of what they'd made. At that point they went silent and stonewalled until we posted the whole controversy on the web in 2005, asking for fan support. After they started getting complaint letters and faxes, in 2006 they came to yet a third position - that old Hollywood standby of claiming that the film was still in the red. In fact, their official line is that due to various accounting and contractual matters, the movie version of The Last Unicorn — which cost only $3 million to make in the early ‘80s — is now somehow $15 million in the hole, 27 years later. According to them it has never made a profit, despite all these years of good business, despite current cable deals in multiple countries, despite the fact that over 1.5 million DVDs have been sold worldwide in the past five years. Right now, 8,000 new DVDs of the film sell every week in North America through major retailers, and I get nothing from any of them. Not a cent. Only the copies people buy through Conlan Press make any money for me at all. It's rather frustrating. We're not done with the issue, though, and sooner or later I believe I'll win what I'm due. Regarding some things I'm very stubborn, and I've certainly got the facts and the law on my side.

I really enjoyed your recent stories inspired by your Jewish upbringing in the Bronx. Are you planning any more pieces in that vein?

It sounds like you're talking about "The Rabbi's Hobby," in Eclipse Two, and "Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel," which came out in Strange Roads from Dreamhaven Books and is also in my latest collection, We Never Talk About My Brother. I didn't plan to do those at all, it's just the way they came into my head. And they were certainly fun to write, but I don't think you should expect to see any more rabbis in my work because I was not raised particularly observant, was never Bar Mitzvahed, and didn't know any rabbis on what you might call a professional basis. Well, maybe one more...my business manager told me once that the autocorrect in Word had changed his mistyping of "The Rabbi's Hobby" into "The Rabbi's Holiday," and that tickled me because the titular rabbi's name, Tuvim, means "holiday" in Hebrew. So I might yet write one about Rabbi "Holiday's" holiday. We'll see. If you liked those stories you might also like a series of seasonally-themed podcasts I've been doing for the Green Man Review. They aren't about being Jewish, but they are set in the Bronx of my childhood, and feature me and my friends from back then. One of those - -"The Stickball Witch" — shows up in print for the first time in Brother. There are four more, and sometime later this year I hope to see them collected in a single volume called Four Years, Five Seasons.

Would you consider doing a story using the Golem legend?

As a matter of fact, there's a novel I've been thinking about — the working title is Famous Monsters — that will feature a mild-mannered, very gentlemanly English actor who may very well be the Golem. Or my version, anyway. I'll have to see how it comes out.

Would that English actor be at all based on William Henry Pratt?

Yes. For some years now I've been thinking about doing a book based on the real-life friendship between Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi. Lon Chaney, Jr., and Peter Lorre...or, as they were actually named, William Henry Pratt, Béla Blaskó, Creighton Chaney, and László Löwenstein. None of them were really what they seemed; they were all so much more complex and interesting than the monstrous characters they played. And I got the notion that maybe there was yet another level to the four of them, and that's what I've been exploring ever since. There's a tremendous amount of research to be done on this one. And of course it takes place in Los Angeles at the end of the 1930s, right on the brink of World War Two. That's Raymond Chandler/Nathaniel West territory, they really own that, so I will have to try and write about that time as if I've never read either of them.

What can you tell us about some of your upcoming projects, especially novels like Summerlong , Sweet Lightning, and I'm Afraid You've Got Dragons?

They are all at various stages of work and rework. Summerlong needs one more cleanup pass, and some major rewriting of the last two chapters. I plan on being done with that by the end of April, so Conlan Press can bring out the hardcover this year, to be followed by a trade paperback edition from Tachyon Publications in 2010. This one has been a long time coming — I originally wrote it for Simon & Schuster back in 2001 and 2002, but the editor bounced my second draft because I didn't follow any of his suggestions. He meant well, to be sure, but they were all terrible suggestions. Not quite on par with insisting I put in sharks and terrorists — or terrorist sharks — but similarly unaware of what the story was actually meant to be doing. This one is fantasy of the sort that literary critics tend to call "magical realism," and it is set in and around modern-day Seattle.

I'm Afraid You've Got Dragons is completely different, and something of a rollercoaster: it starts out mostly lighthearted and funny, but turns rather dark and scary in the middle and in the end, well...I thought I'd never come back to playing with kings and princes and princesses, and certainly I never thought I would ever write an entire novel about dragons. But this story was too much fun to turn my back on. I hope readers will like it.

Sweet Lightning is the farthest from completion, because it is so personal for me. I'll be working on this one for a while. It's both a baseball fantasy — I love baseball, I always have — and a love letter to the Pittsburgh I discovered when I went to college there in the mid-1950s.

After those three are out of the way I've got the maybe-golem book to consider, the full sequel to The Last Unicorn, the four-volume Unicorn Sonata series...and those are just the novels on the to-do list. There are non-fiction books and children's books I'm working on, new poetry and song lyrics, several collections, old books to revise and bring back into print, maybe some theatre, lots of stories — over thirty finished in the last two years, including three new Schmendrick stories. I'm still not quite sure how I happened to become a prolific short fiction writer at my advanced and supposedly set-in-my-ways age, but there they are, with more on the way. And I'm definitely getting back to occasionally performing live as a guitarist and singer, after having so much fun doing shows with my old friend Phil Sigunick in upstate New York last summer. As George Burns liked to joke, "I can't die, I'm booked!"

The simple fact is that I've been working at this for over 50 years, and I'm still not getting it right. But I do think I'm getting closer.

Commenter Grey_Area is known to Peter S. Beagle as Christopher Hsiang. He is deeply grateful for Mr. Beagle's time and that of Connor Cochran, his business manager. Chris really looks forward to reading Famous Monsters - squee!