I never know how long a book or a story is going to take me to write. My first novel, A Fine and Private Place
, took me a year, starting in the summer when I was a music counselor at a children’s camp and ending the following September, when I left for the requisite young-writer-wandering-Europe year. I See by My Outfit
— an account of a 1963 motorscooter voyage from New York City to Palo Alto with my lifelong painter friend Phil Sigunick — took five or six months, and was probably the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book. I started The Last Unicorn
in the summer of 1962, and published it in 1968. It only seemed
to take forever — I still think of it as an endless nightmare of revision, and would never have imagined it becoming the book known by people who don’t know I ever wrote anything else. The Folk of the Air
took 18 years, and four complete rewrites, on and off. I don’t talk about it much. And my favorite, The Innkeeper’s Song
, was plotted in India, during siestas, and seems to have flown to completion back in the States. That’s the one I still reread — not The Last Unicorn
— during the bad days, when I’m convinced that I’ll never again write a sentence that can possibly mean anything to any human being. I’m glad of that book, for a lot of reasons.
... I lived on an island once.
I started Summerlong
in 2000 — or maybe it was 2001; it’s hard to be certain with that one. What I do know is that it was the year when I lived in Sacramento, in what I still think of as “my dear little dump” on G Street. One big room, one bedroom, one small kitchen, and a surprisingly nice bathroom. Four-seventy-five a month, it was — heaven knows what the rent would be today. I was happy there.
I’ve told classes and audiences that, being a Real Writer, I have a license to hear voices in my head.
I was alone, with a dubious track record in relationships, and it occurred to me at one point that the only sort of intimacy I could probably sustain would be the sort that two friends of mine seemed to have been doing quite well with for many years. He was a writer — a truly excellent one — and a professor at a university in Tacoma; she taught at the University of Washington. They lived a hundred miles apart — never together, as far as I ever knew. They traveled together in the summers and spent a lot of time fixing up his old house. More than that I never really knew, but I was fond of them both, and envious.
started out to be about a middle-aged couple like them. I honestly can’t say where Lioness got into it — obviously pretty early in the story. I did have a friend — in Portland, as it happens — named Lioness; and, as it happens, the poem that won me a Scholastic Magazine contest and a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh was called “Persephone in September.” Joanne Delvecchio is based very loosely on a Seattle neighbor of mine whom I thought of fondly as “Joanie Downstairs” (although the rollerblading and hoop-shooting are lifted whole from my dear former agent Laurie Harper). I did know that Joanna would have a daughter from her one marriage, but I’d never planned for Lily to be gay. She just was, and she remains the character for whom I have the tenderest feelings. Maybe she embodies my own deep vulnerability, of which I’ve never been able to rid myself, as hard as I try. Anyway, the scene where Lioness comes to Lily’s little Wallingford apartment to say good-bye is, I think, the best love scene I’ve ever written. I’m very proud of it.
One of the writers who influenced me early on, especially during my high school years, was Thorne Smith, best remembered — if he’s remembered at all today — for writing the Topper
satiric fantasies and The Passionate Witch
, which became the Rene Clair movie I Married a Witch
and the uncredited begetter of Bewitched
. Smith wrote a sort of introduction to his work, which I recall in fragments, in which he said something like “I mostly wander into my stories, poke around for a while, and wander off, leaving nobody particularly improved. It doesn’t matter at what point you start reading: you will be equally mystified, if not revolted. I am myself.”
My technique isn’t all that different from Smith’s, not really. You could certainly set me down as lazy when it comes to devising plots. Characterization and dialogue are much more fun for me; physical description comes harder — I spent a lot of time on the locations and atmosphere of Summerlong
, and I’m shamelessly pleased when anyone calls attention to that. More than anything else, however, my books begin with voices — with people I don’t know talking in my head. I’ve told classes and audiences that, being a Real Writer, I have a license to hear voices in my head. Without that official sanction, I might very well be classified as a danger to myself and others, and led off to a gentle place where I couldn’t harm anyone. I could say, and frequently do, that I’m always in the process of telling myself a story, and if I knew in advance how it was due to come out, I’d lose all interest and never finish the thing. And that’s true, as far as it goes...
But the person I’m telling the story to isn’t me. It’s a small, plump little boy who already knew too many words out of too many books, and too few people. In the Bronx apartment building where I grew up, there was a sort of cubicle under the stairs, right across from the bank of mailboxes. It was just the right size for that weird, lonesome child to curl up and dream, to make up heroes and magical animals, to sing to himself and keep himself company. He hasn’t left me, and for all the trouble he’s caused me over 77 years, I’d despair if he ever did.
÷ ÷ ÷
Peter S. Beagle
is the bestselling author of The Last Unicorn
, which has sold a reported five million copies since its initial publication in 1968. His other novels include A Fine and Private Place
, The Innkeeper’s Song
, and Tamsin
. His short fiction has been collected in four volumes by Tachyon Publications, including The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche
, The Line Between
, We Never Talk About My Brother
, and Sleight of Hand
. He has won the Hugo, Nebula, Mythopoeic, and Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire awards and the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Summerlong
is his most recent novel.