Peter S. Beagle has a long and celebrated writing career, and his most recent novel, Summerlong, is the latest well-received addition to his extensive body of work. Today Mr. Beagle stopped by Fantasy Literature to discuss mythology, fantastical realism, and good dark beer.
One random commenter with a U.S. mailing address will win a signed copy of Summerlong!
Jana Nyman: Classic myths, along with their various heroes and gods, seem to be back in vogue right now. Why do you think they have such an enduring charm throughout the ages? What is the appeal to you, personally?
Peter S. Beagle: When I was ten or eleven years old, my father gave me a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology, which I still have. At that age, I was fascinated by the stories of gods and monsters, as one would be by a comic strip — or a blockbuster film, for that matter. As I grew older, the tales came to matter to me on a human level: the failures and foolishness and doomed ambitions affected me in a different way, as they still do. Later, I became involved with the legends of other, non-Western cultures — Asian, Mideastern, Polynesian, First Nations — and I still reread all of them, on a regular basis. Without imagining that they belong to me, they’re always there.
Summerlong is a novel in which the ordinary world is colored by fantastic moments. Was it difficult for you to maintain the careful balance between the real and the unreal?
All my work, one way or another, deals with that blur — if that’s the word I want — between the officially real and the supposedly fantastic. My major influence in that way was Robert Nathan, who isn’t widely read these days, I suppose, but who moved through time and the unlikely with an effortless grace that I’ve been trying to duplicate since I first came across his work in college. Sometimes I almost get it right.
I was surprised by how much detail about kayaking and home-brewing you incorporated into Summerlong without ever bogging down the narrative. Are these topics you were already familiar with before writing the novel? And would you mind sharing a little insight into your writing process? Are you the type of writer who has an idea and goes about creating the world which fits that idea, or do you start with a concept and start researching it before you write?
Brewing I know something about, being a great fan of proper dark beer. Delta blues and Piedmont-style guitar I probably know more about, having been one of the few Jewish kids in the 1950s Bronx who knew who Big Bill Broonzy was — not to mention Sonny Boy Williamson and Brownie McGhee. On the completely other hand, to be perfectly honest, I’ve never set foot in a kayak in my life, though I’ve always wanted to. Joanna’s yearning is entirely real to me. My research, such as it is, is a shockingly unorganized mess, but it always begins with voices in my head … the voices of people I’ve never met and don’t yet know. Without the voices, I’m helpless as an artist. I listen for them all the time, and pray that they’ll show up once more.
You write so eloquently about people and their relationships with nature. Whenever I read your work, I feel as though I’ve been transported to whichever place you’re describing, whether it’s Hagsgate or Puget Sound. Do you deliberately set out to immerse your readers in another time and place, or is that secondary, in your mind, to character and plot development?
I’m honored by your praise of my landscape and atmospheric writing. I have absolutely no faith in my ability to convey a place, a locale or a world. Dialogue and characterization come fairly easily to me … but physical setting is another matter. I work really hard on that aspect of creating a believable setting for an imaginary world. Ursula LeGuin is wonderful at it, but told me more than once that she had a hard time with dialogue. Hard to believe.
It’s amazing how long the legacy of your works like The Last Unicorn (both the novel and the screenplay), or your screenplays for Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings films, has lasted. You’ve written for television, you’ve written fiction in every form possible, and you’ve written various types of non-fiction. Is there a medium you haven’t worked in yet, but would like to? Are there any upcoming projects you’re especially excited about?
I was raised on New York theatre, and it’s still the most exciting art form to me. I wrote plays in college — the book and lyrics for a musical once! — and I’m a freak for the great classic lyricists, like Frank Loesser, Larry Hart, Dorothy Fields (and, of course, Stephen Sondheim!). But theatre’s changed so much in the last fifty years that it’s hard for me to imagine writing a play now. I don’t even know how to think about it. But I’m always quoting the great jazz musician Fats Waller, whose signature line was “One never know, do one?” No, one never do … I do have a novel in mind, set in Hollywod just at the beginning of World War II — Raymond Chandler country, which is pretty daunting. Might not happen, but I think about it…
When you have time to read for pleasure, do you have a go-to genre or author, or are you the type of reader who wanders through a bookstore and lets the right book find you?
I love mysteries, and wish I could write a proper one. I’ve read all of Reginald Hill, and most of Ruth Rendell, and always sigh with mingled pleasure and envy. Lord, now if I could just do something like that!
Finally, I’d like to ask if you have a favorite drink. Are there any beverages which you enjoyed while working on Summerlong, or which you drank to celebrate its publication?
My drinks, God help me, are dark beer and orange juice. Not in combination, obviously. I usually drink beer one afternoon a week, with my friend Alan Badger, whom I met when he was the produce manager at Safeway. We have a pint each, trade books, talk about absolutely everything, as we always have, and then we split that third pint, and I wander home and go back to work. Orange juice … that’s a comfort from my childhood, when it was the only way my mother could wake me up to go to school. That’s all.
Thank you so much, Mr. Beagle! I’m very excited to read your next work!
Readers, comment below for a chance to win a signed copy of Summerlong. U.S.-based mailing addresses only, please.
I would love to dive into and experience the world that you have created.
Great interview, Jana! It was interesting to learn more about Mr. Beagle. I’m looking forward to reading Summerlong.
It sounds like an interesting style you (and Robert Nathan) have. I’ve yet to read either, but I can relate to the mess.
Dreams, scenes … voices in boxes.
Thank you for the interview.
I’m looking forward to reading Summerlong.
When I saw Peter S. Beagle’s name, I hit my phone’s screen so hard I almost broke the screen protector. I’m so happy that he’s continuing to write and explore.
Man, to have a pint and a half with Peter S Beagle. Lucky so and so….
I would drool on myself for this.
I’ve been looking foward to Summerlong comming out for months.
Peter S. Beagle should really be read more by more people. Good interview!
I can’t wait to read this!!
Always good to know when Peter has published a new book! I will always cherish the memory of chatting with Mr. Beagle one DragonCon long ago, about stories and songs that made us cry.
Peter Beagle was my introduction to fantasy, and i’m always so happy to find a book of his i haven’t read yet. To enter the contest, do you need to include your mailing address in the comments?
Hi, Sophia! You don’t need to include your address in the comments; once a random winner has been chosen, Marion Deeds will leave a comment notifying that person, and she’ll provide an e-mail address that the winner can send their mailing address to. Thanks!
Okay, thank you for clarifying!
Oh, this sounds like a wonderful book — definitely in for my reading list!
I shrieked aloud with delight when I saw the news of this book. I’ve been waiting for it ever since I read an excerpt on The Green Man Review years ago.
I’d like a copy!
This sounds like a lovely read, especially with the strong connection to nature. Great interview!
It is always an event when a new Peter Beagle book comes out, there are many years of waiting. I read excerpt from Green Man Review 10 years ago, and now the book is finally here. Yes indeed I would cherish a signed copy, thank you!
Thank you for the chance to win!
Charis, if you have a USA mailing address, you win a signed copy of SUMMERLONG!
Please contact me (Marion) with your US address and I’ll have the book sent right away. Happy reading!