Friday, May 02, 2014

Out-of-Town-Authors: Peter S. Beagle

My sister was unicorn-obsessed growing up: she had unicorn books and toys and blankets and posters. And so, when it was her turn to pick a movie at the video store, her choice was almost always The Last Unicorn (1982).

Peter S. Beagle published the The Last Unicorn in 1968 and adapted it for the Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr.-directed animation.

A few years ago, my mother-in-law picked up a DVD of the movie and, as soon as the girl overcame her fear of the Red Bull, it became one of her favourite movies too.

So I was happy to learn that not only was there was going to be a national tour of a new digital print of The Last Unicorn, but that Peter S. Beagle would be in attendance at the Winnipeg screening on May 5.

And then he agreed to an interview. Which strikes me as being as rare an occurrence as, say, a unicorn sighting...

What do you want a new generation of readers to know about The Last Unicorn?

I’d like then to know, in all honesty, that I was making it up as I went along. I didn’t have any overarching plan, allegory, morality tale, or anything like that in mind. I was just trying to do something that was both a fairy tale and a spoof on fairy tales, which is one of the reasons it took so long to write. Looking at it now I realize how often I surprised myself with what was going on in the story, so I’d like the readers to know that in many ways I was just as surprised and startled as any of them might have been when they encountered the book for the first time.

As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

I love reading aloud, the same way I love telling stories. It creates a space to play in for the dramatist inside me. Charles Dickens, who gave a great many public readings and loved it, would get so carried away with his own stories that he’d weep or break down laughing hysterically, and many of the people in his audience would do the same. I don’t manage that trick—only Dickens was Dickens—but I really do enjoy myself when I’m doing a reading. I get ready for them by going back over what I’ve written and checking the story’s landscape, as it were—reminding myself to slow down here, or be careful with diction here because the words might trip over each other. I also take the time to remind myself what audience I am reading for, and make adjustments for that.

What was it like adapting your own work for the screen? What surprised and dismayed you during this process?

I’d adapted other people’s work for the screen, so it wasn’t an altogether unfamiliar task. But I actually overdid it, the first time. I took out a section or two of the book because I figured the producers would do that anyway, only to be surprised when they insisted that they be put back in. The main thing was to stay conscious of the properties of animation. Animation needs to move. That sounds obvious, but so many stories—my own included—have long passages where the movement is all internal to the characters, or involves nothing more than standing there and talking. That doesn’t make for very interesting animation, so I had to do everything I could think of to keep the story proceeding effectively through events without losing the things that mattered most, emotionally. On the whole it was a very pleasant experience, and on the whole the movie came out much better than I expected it would. I’ve grown quite fond of it over the years.

As a society, we seem to keep returning to stories with unicorns and dragons, fairies and werewolves. What does invoking these creatures do for us?

I’m not sure. I won’t suggest that they symbolize something in our societal psyche, because I simply don’t know. It might simply be a phase we’re all going through culturally, since cultures do that. But in the end fantasy itself, as opposed to any one aspect of fantasy, always seems to survive these cultural waves. Some of that has to do with the basics of human imagination, but I think it’s also because writers and readers both need an escape valve, a door to a place you can’t ordinarily get to in our normal daily lives as we slog along through the 21st Century.

Speaking of which, have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?

No, I’ve never before been to Winnipeg. But I can remember being in North Dakota many years ago where they had no shopping, no place to go, nothing to do, and being told by the people I was visiting that whenever they wanted to do anything like that they went to Winnipeg. So strangely enough I associate Winnipeg with those friends, and winter in North Dakota.

What are you reading right now?

At the moment I’m reading a mystery called Cold Front, which I like. It takes place in South Dakota and the writer, Kathleen Taylor, gives a very good description of what it’s like to grow up there. In the middle of a murder mystery her gift for evoking that landscape is quite real. She’s the first writer I’ve read since Willa Cather who makes me see those plains that vividly.

What are you writing right now?

Several different things—a short story called “The Language of the Dead” is one, and the last edits on a new novel called Summerlong, and while traveling through Canada I’m also working on a tour diary which will be included in a new commemorative hardcover edition of The Last Unicorn once the tour ends.

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