'Giant Bones' marks Beagle's return to a familiar fantasy land

September 21, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us
[ "Giant Bones" is on Elisabeth Sherwin's List of Best Books, the 1997 compilation ]

Arguably, Davis fantasy writer Peter S. Beagle's greatest book of fiction - and his favorite - is "The Innkeeper's Song" published in 1993.

And in a recent interview, Beagle described his most recent book, "Giant Bones" ( Roc, 1997, $9.95), as a collection of six novellas set in the general time and place found in "The Innkeeper's Song."

To back up a little, Beagle, who also is a singer/songwriter, said "The Innkeeper's Song" started out as a song. The innkeeper in the song is shocked when three beautiful women show up at his inn one night. One is black, one is brown, and one is very white. They take over the place, drinking his wine and eating his bread and cheese, laughing, arguing and at some point in the evening calling for the stable boy. In the morning, they're gone. The only thing he's really sure of is that he's going to have to get a new stable boy.

"And some years later I decided it would be nice to find out who they were...and that became the story 'The Innkeeper's Song,' which is set in a totally imaginary world," Beagle said.

"It's still, I think, the best book I've ever done. Once it was done with and out there it was gone and for the first time I missed a world I'd made up. It never happened before.

" 'Giant Bones' is a series of stories that take place in that world. Only one story uses characters out of 'The Innkeeper's Song.' The rest are just different people living in that world.''

Beagle said it took him about a year to write the six stories in "Giant Bones." He doesn't have an academic background in history but his works read as if he does.

"I have a good deal of amateur interest in Medieval and Renaissance history - I just read what crosses my path and I'm a slapdash researcher. But I have a synthesizing mind...I'm good at borrowing something and changing it around a little."

Beagle was born in New York in 1939 and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1959. He was a creative writing major.

"But my father was a history teacher," he said. "My father had taught in junior high schools and high schools in New York City, in some of the worst parts of it, where he learned that the only way to hold the students' interest in something like history was to bring out the story aspect.

"I got terrible grades in everything but history and English. I entered a Scholastic Magazine poetry writing contest and won...and I didn't know that a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh came with first prize. It took me two minutes to decide I was going to Pittsburgh and it was the best thing that could have happened to me."

Later, his agent put him up for a Wallace Stegner writing fellowship at Stanford. "I suddenly found out that I was booked for California. I was 21 years old and had already published a book and my ego was at a pretty decent size and I found myself in a class that contained Larry McMurtry, Ken Kesey, and other wonderful writers. My ego took a serious pounding.

"I had published 'A Fine and Private Place' but I was working that year on a truly terrible second novel that never got published. I did write 'Come Lady Death' but apart from that it was a year in which I learned that these guys were wonderful writers and I can't write like that. I do something else.

"I had started 'The Last Unicorn' and later came back to it. I was married to my first wife and had an instant family and suddenly had to figure out how to feed people. I began to do magazine work for the Saturday Evening Post and I learned a trade, how to be a free-lancer. It was a real skill to have and mainly it put food on the table."

Several of Beagle's early journalism pieces will be out in December in a collection called "The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche" by Tachyon Press.

Beagle and his wife, writer Padma Hejmadi, are celebrating their 9th wedding anniversary this year and he says there are lots of things they'd like to do - trips to take, people to visit, places to go. But they are both writers and that takes time. Few people - Beagle being a notable exception - can actually make a living at writing.

"Somehow it has always been my living whether it was magazine writing feeding us or occasional television or movie work or a large size advance on a book. Finally, all I'm fit to do is tell stories."

Beagle has advice for writers. "You learn that you don't sit still, you make something up, you tell a story - you have something out there to sell. You have to write a whole lot even if most of it never sells...you also better love what you're doing because that's going to be your major reward," he said.

Peter Beagle returns to Printed Matter on the Air on September 29, 1997; see Elisabeth's bio page for more information. Beagle was previously interviewed and his work reviewed in Elisabeth Sherwin's February 25, 1995 column, "Writer's range extends from unicorns to elephants."

Picture of Peter Beagle before Dancing With God Peter S. Beagle is the author of
"Giant Bones"
( Roc, 1997, $9.95)
"The Innkeeper's Song" and
"The Last Unicorn"

Elisabeth Sherwin interviews Peter Beagle in
"'Giant Bones' marks Beagle's return to a familiar fantasy land,"
the September 21, 1997 Printed Matter column.

Photo -- G. Richard Yamagata
Taken at Beagle's September 1997 reading at
The Next Chapter bookstore in Davis, CA

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