Beagle's still surprised to be making a living at writing

October 18, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

If Peter S. Beagle's son could decide what to put on his father's tombstone, the inscription might read: "The things I'll do for money never cease to amaze me."

At least, this what Peter Beagle told an audience at the Winters Library recently (and as everyone knows, Winters is a small town in rural Yolo County, Calif.)

Beagle is one of the best known fantasy writers in the country, but he's had to work for living, too, just like everyone else.

He is most well-known for a book he wrote in 1968, "The Last Unicorn." But his most recent book is "Giant Bones" (Roc, 1997), a collection of six short stories set in a world he created. "The Innkeeper's Song" (1993), his favorite book, also is set in that world.

Beagle said he wanted to find out what happened to two characters from "The Innkeeper's Song," so he wrote a short story titled "Lal and Soukyan," which follows their lives. The story came about because he heard voices.

"I could hear them talking," he said, "and I could visualize them in Lal's hut. So I just took down what they said."

At the library, he read part of "Lal and Soukyan" from "Giant Bones."

"I hear voices," he said. "It sounds cute and playful but it's almost true and sometimes it is true and I get to listen in."

What is considerably less fun is the need to make money and put food on the table. And Beagle admits he goes out of his way to demolish the glamorous myth that it's easy and fun to make a living as a free-lance writer.

"I try to de-glamorize free-lance writing," he said. "Because writing is really all abut showing up for work and staying there when no words are coming."

Beagle has written novels, short stories, magazine articles, screenplays, TV scripts and even a libretto for an opera.

"The only reason I've never done advertising is that thank God no one ever asked me," he said.

But he's not complaining. "I never could do anything else but what I'm doing," he said. "People congratulate me on my courage when really I had no choice. I love to tell stories."

He is currently working in his Davis home on his next book, "Friends in the Night," which involves a 13-year-old American girl and a 300-year-old ghost. The girl is uprooted from her home in New York when her mother marries an Englishman. They move to Dorset where the girl's stepfather sets about restoring a 17th century farmhouse.

Beagle doesn't usually do much research for his books, which are frequently set in imaginary geographical locations of his own creation. But the location for "Friends" is a real place (Dorset) and Beagle also is relying on elements of British history for ghostly background.

So when he and his wife, the writer Padma Hejmadi, go to Liverpool next spring, they hope to make a side trip to Dorset. Beagle has been invited to attend the 50th anniversary meeting of the British Fantasy Society, which is meeting in Liverpool in April of 1999.

"Friends in the Night" will then be released late in 1999.

Beagle said his first book, "A Fine and Private Place," came about when he and his mother took a walk through a New York cemetery nearly 40 years ago. Some of the mausoleums were so large, his mother remarked, that you could practically live in them. By the time they walked out of the cemetery, Beagle had the complete plot for his first book.

"One person or another has being trying for 38 years to make a play or a movie out of that book," he said. "In all that time it has hardly ever been out of option. I've made money optioning the book rather than collecting royalties."

Beagle said he gets royalty checks twice a year. In good years, those checks have been in five figures. And in one lean year he got a check for $7.50.

"Writers live from advance to advance," he said. "You get an advance at the beginning (when the publisher accepts the book) and at delivery. But you have to earn back those advances out of your royalties and some books never earn back the advance."

Beagle recalls one occasion in which his agent suggested he write another book about unicorns. Beagle was absolutely dead-set against the idea and told her so.

"I can never remember," she replied. "Is that balloon payment on your house due in May or June?"

So he sat down and wrote "The Unicorn Sonata," the story of a 13-year-old girl in the Los Angeles suburbs who wanders into an alternative universe where the dominant species are unicorns.

"With no money coming in anywhere else, I can be very prolific," he said.

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