When my brother and I were teenagers, we made up a game to play while we were bored. One of us would quote a line from a movie we both knew well, and the other would have to come up with the next line from the movie. There were three or four movies we regularly pulled from, and one of the most popular was “The Last Unicorn.” Neither of us ever lost when we quoted “Unicorn,” because we both had the entire thing memorized.
Now, many years later, it’s still one of our favorite books and movies. I’ve gone into some detail here before about what a deep and profound impact the story has had on my life, so I won’t repeat it all again. Its influence has been huge and far-reaching, and frequently inspires the photos I take.
I have had two absolutely wonderful encounters meeting Peter S. Beagle in person, one of which I wrote about recently. It took a while for me to build up the courage, but eventually I e-mailed Mr. Beagle and asked if I could conduct an e-mail interview with him for my blog. To my great astonishment, he not only replied to my message, but said “yes.”
It is with great pride and pleasure that I present my interview with him here.
Is it strange to have written something which has touched so many lives and has been such a success, or are you used to it by now?
It’s been over 40 years since the book was published. I started writing it in 1962, so I’ve lived with it a long time. Yet I’m always surprised, even now, by the depth of people’s reactions. I’m still in a state of wonder over it.
Now that you have the rights to the story back, can we anticipate another Unicorn movie in the future?
It’s a bit more complicated than that – in settling past problems I didn’t actually get the rights back, for example, though in the new structure that’s taking shape I’m going to have a lot more say and influence. What I can tell you is that these changes are going to make it possible to renovate the original film, bringing many aspects of it up to today’s technical standards, after which it will be released in theaters worldwide. That much is a concrete plan, and I’m definitely looking forward to the results.
If you could live life as any of the characters in any of your books, who would you choose to be?
Well, that has different components to it. One character I’ve written, named Joe Farrell, is definitely an alter-ego of sorts. He’s been in short stories like “Lila the Werewolf,” “Spook,” and “Julie’s Unicorn,” and he was the main character in my novel The Folk of the Air. Aside from the fact that he’s a much better musician than I am, there’s a lot of me in Joe Farrell. But I’m really fond of all my characters, really, perhaps especially the mercenaries in Innkeeper’s Song, Soukyan and Lal. They matter a lot to me and I worry about them. The butterfly in The Last Unicorn is probably as much of a portrait of the inside of my head as I’ve ever drawn. But if I had to pick just one character to live as, it would probably be Joe Farrell.
What book or story has been easiest for you to write?
I’ve often mentioned that The Last Unicorn was a bit of a nightmare to write — and yet once I was talked into actually doing the coda story, Two Hearts, it came in one astonishingly smooth burst as though it had been waiting there all that time. The only other thing as easy as that was my non-fiction book, I See By My Outfit, which is all about a 1963 cross-country trip that my best childhood friend and I took on motor scooters. I See By My Outfit was more fun than any other book I’ve ever done, I think.
And the hardest?
The Last Unicorn is still my standard for hardest, in terms of emotional strain. But then again, The Folk of the Air took eighteen years of starts and stops from beginning to publication. I wrote at least four different versions of that book and still wasn’t happy with it when it came out. Never have been totally satisfied with it, actually – which is why I’m taking one more pass at revising it before it comes back into print. So while The Last Unicorn was the hardest, Folk clearly gets the longevity title.
The way you speak about the story of The Last Unicorn just coming to you reminds me of how the magic has to come to Schmendrick. Would you say that’s an accurate parallel?
Yes and no. Yes, because there are characters and passages in the book I can’t explain, things that I’m very proud of but that came by themselves. Molly Grue is a classic example: I don’t know where she came from or how I knew to write that scene when she first sees the unicorn.
I really don’t, it was a gift. I was twenty-six, maybe twenty-seven years old. How could I have possibly understood Molly at that age? But also no, because there are sequences in that book that I went over and over on, writing them and rewriting them, and other places where I skipped things completely, just jumped right over them because I had no idea what belonged there, and had to come back later and figure it out. A lot of what looks like surrendering to the magic, as Schmendrick did, was just plain bloody hard work. So it’s not entirely an accurate parallel, but in places there’s a connection.
In The Lost Version of The Last Unicorn, you wrote about Azazel and Webster, the two-headed demon who want to strike out on their own and start their own hell to rival Satan’s. The characters and concept are brilliant; have you ever consider writing a story just about them?
No I haven’t, although it’s an interesting idea. I really haven’t looked back at that story fragment in so long. At the time I was sharing a cabin in the Berkshires with the same friend I came across country with the next year, and we talked a lot like Azazel and Webster. So I’m not surprised that our particular style of loopy banter worked its way into my first attempt at the book. As for bringing them back in some form, well, that’s not a bad idea. I might do it, someday, if ever they speak up loudly enough inside my head and insist on it.
Was there one particular moment when you realized that you really could be successful as a writer?
It depends very much on what you mean by “successful,” whether you’re talking financially, artistically, or emotionally, even. I just knew early on, when I was a child, that writing was the only thing in the world I wanted to do. Success didn’t even come into it. I didn’t think about being successful, and no matter how much my parents may have worried about me and how I could possibly make a living for myself, let alone my family, they never gave me any reason to assume that I wouldn’t be successful. They never once indicated that I may have been doing something foolish. There are all kinds of success, of course. I know a fair number of artists who wouldn’t be considered successful by the standards that our culture uses: i.e., money or fame.
Yet I’ve always held them in the highest respect, and in some cases absolute awe. They did what they wanted to do and what they were gifted to do. They did what they were called to do, and without second-guessing themselves. That, by my standard, is success.
Do you have any advice for struggling artists and writers?
My standard advice is always “show up for work.” Because, apart from anything else, writing is labor. Or “labor intensive,” as they say nowadays. You have to be willing to put in the time, to sit there and drudge through the days when nothing comes and you find yourself rewriting a single paragraph multiple times.
Have you known any women who, as Molly says, can heal with their hands?
Yes…but that’s another story.
What’s your favorite thing to hear from fans when you meet them?
I’m very pleased when they know something I’ve written other than The Last Unicorn. In fact, I’m delighted, because some of these books and stories are “the runts of my litter,” the overlooked. So I’m delighted when someone praises them or talks about being affected by them.
Beyond that, the thing that’s still capable of stunning me is when someone tells me just how much The Last Unicorn — book, movie, or both — affected their life. When you do what I do, there are long stretches full of bad afternoons when you can’t imagine that what you do makes any difference to any other single human being. Being reassured that it does makes an enormous difference for me.
Many of your stories touch on the fantastic and supernatural. Do you believe that these creatures and spirits exist (or have existed) in real life?
Not in the literal sense. But all the same, the fact that they exist in legend — and have existed thus for so long — means that they say something about who we are as a culture and as human beings. Paradoxically, when I’m writing about them I do believe in them. I have to.
Many fans have talked about what a profound effect your works, especially The Last Unicorn, have had on them. What book that you have read has had the greatest effect on you?
It’s hard to pick one book. But if you made me choose, I think perhaps that a book my third grade teacher sent to me while I was at home sick in bed would be the one. In a very real sense, it can be said to have made me a fantasy writer. It was Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, which I know practically by heart because I’ve read it so many times.
Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, Mr. Beagle, for taking the time to answer my questions! It was such an incredible joy to be able to do this. In honor of the interview, I took another Unicorn-inspired self portrait. This one is inspired by the line, “We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream,” which is just as beautiful a quote as you could ever find.
What We Dream
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