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WesternSFA
A Chat with Peter Beagle
by Catherine Book
May 26, 2012
Peter Beagle seems to pop up just about everywhere so the Phoenix Comicon was no exception. He was very gracious when I approached him for an interview; although finding the right time and quiet time was a bit challenging.

I started by asking him how long he’d been writing. All his life, he responded. He made up stories before he could even write and got his mother to write them down for him, starting around the tender age of three. Obviously, a born storyteller. He gives credit to his father, a high school history teacher, who read everything. Peter eventually sold his first story at seventeen, in 1956, by winning a fiction contest. The prize was $500. That money gave him the opportunity to quit his summer job pushing a clothes truck for his uncle’s business in NYC’s garment district. Freed from that, he could stay home to write more and read.

Peter’s father came from the border between Russia and Poland. His mother came from the Ukraine. His family name had originally been something like “Baigell,” although his father and uncles spelled it three different ways and no one was really quite certain which version was correct.

What were his influences? Absolutely everything; he was omnivorous. His parents’ living room was wall-to-wall books and nothing was forbidden. The only rule was that he could read any book that he was tall enough to reach. His family was quite artistic, so choosing a creative career was not strange or frowned-upon; however, one had to be quite serious about doing well. He didn’t recall any of his uncles using the word “inspiration.” One didn’t wait around for “inspiration.” One got up, had breakfast, and went to work – whatever that work might be.

I asked him how he writes – does he have a routine? He tries to write everyday – in-between daily chores and errands. A lot depends on what he’s currently working on. Sometimes he’s switching back and forth between two gigs. Right now he’s polishing the last draft of a novel called SUMMERLONG, which takes place in Seattle, where he used to live. (Funny thing for Peter, he can’t write about a place where he lives, he has to be gone from it for a time.) He can write just about anywhere. How about while he’s on the road? Well, yes…but it’s a little tricky. After all, if you’re on the road it’s usually for a purpose.

So, about that working on multiple projects….is it hard to switch between them? Yes, he mused…but it isn’t as hard as when he was younger. Laziness is a real occupational hazard and maybe getting caught up in a ballgame between writing pieces; but the Internet is the real problem. In an earlier time, one had to travel to a library. Now you just get on the Internet instead; which is a necessity for research but can be a distraction as well, leading you from one item to another and another and so on.

How long does it take Peter to write a story? It’s rather an evolutionary process. Some books have taken years, some much more quickly. He hopes to have SUMMERLONG done by 2013. He started that story back in 2000. He has several others that just need a bit of clean-up for a variety of reasons.

And what’s most important to Peter? Setting, plot or characters? Characters, he answered. If he can’t hear the way they sound or how they speak to one another, he’s in trouble. The best of times is when a character slams into his head and starts telling a story; then all he has to do is listen.

Does he do much research for his stories? He loves research, he laughed. It’s a great excuse to read and not be writing. He told me about a story he was researching about the Berlin Wall – he found an amazing amount of information online including blueprints of the wall. As he says – the Internet is a wonderful thing; if you work at it, there’s nothing you can’t find.

I’m always curious how a writer will answer when asked if they have a favorite story. His favorite novel is his THE INNKEEPER’S SONG (1993) with some characters of which he is quite fond. His favorite story is “Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros” which was in a short story collection titled THE RHINOCEROS WHO QUOTED NIETZSCHE AND OTHER ODD ACQUAINTANCES, a title which he says is funny because Nietzsche is about the only philosopher the rhinoceros doesn’t quote. (The publisher came up with the book’s title, not Peter.) The story is about a man who took his niece to the zoo and ends up with a rhinoceros following him home. The rhinoceros lives with him and keeps insisting it’s a unicorn. After he finished it, he realized there was a strong resemblance to Robert Nathan’s work, a writer who was quite important to Peter. He sent the story to the actress Anna Lee (General Hospital) who had been Robert Nathan’s wife and knew his work well. She sent back the comment that it was “the best story Robert never wrote.” Peter is obviously still pretty proud of that.

Wikipedia mentioned that Peter was the heir to Edgar Pangborn’s estate so I asked how his efforts to republish Pangborn’s works was coming along. In addition to inheriting Pangborn’s books, he also has scores of musical manuscripts that Edgar composed that he is working on digitizing so the world will be able to hear this music. He is quite hopeful that all this work will be public soon.

By next year, just about all of Peter’s work will be available as an e-book. He feels himself a bit old-fashioned, though. He still loves the smell and feel of a book and he still schleps real books with him when he travels. Even if we get to the point where books might not exist, Peter knows stories will still be around. People need stories and storytellers.

Thank you again, Peter. It was a privilege to have met you.

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