Peter S. Beagle Talks About Editors
with Connor Cochran (Friend, Daily Trial, and Current Main Editor)
This interview is the transcript of a conversation between Peter S. Beagle and Connor Cochran which took place in the Hildegard Silverstone Memorial Annex of the Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room in the Library here at the Green Man offices. The weather, outside, was frightful; but inside it was definitely delightful, what with heavy quilts, wicker armchairs, extra logs on the fire, and hot mulled cider in the mug. Someone forgot to tell Spring it was due...but nonetheless a perfect setting in which to discuss every writer's eternal bane and boon (beyond the basic fact of writing itself).
Connor: One word to light the fuse: 'editors.'
Peter: Editors are, on balance, a good thing. Some are professional, some aren't. They can be problematic — in my time I've had some very bad ones — but a really good professional editor is worth his or her weight in gold. Now, even the bad ones can be useful. You can talk over points with them, and sometimes they get things right.
Connor: Or else they rouse you to defend your work in ways that help make it as strong as possible.
Peter: There are worse categories than mere good and bad. There's having no editor at all, for example. And every now and then you run into an editor who really wants to have written your book., and will write it over if you let him or her do it. That happened to me once, and for the first and only time I has to throw a fit with a publisher and put the following in writing: 'I want this woman off of my book, out of my hair, and — if possible — sleeping with the fishes.'
Connor: What was she doing?
Peter: Literally rewriting whole sentences, whole paragraphs, intentionally moving the book in a entirely different direction than I had intended.
Connor: Well... I've certainly done that to you, in my Beagle editing, as we argue things back and forth. Sometimes pretty aggressively
Peter: No, you've done that with the kind of suggestions I would have made, given some additional time and perspective. She was literally trying to change the book into something it wasn't supposed to be, and in fact couldn't be. That's different.
Connor: You started your book career with a truly great editor.
Peter: I was luckier than I deserved, if you will, with my first book, A Fine and Private Place. And far luckier than my behavior should have entitled me to. I was 19 years old and got edited by Marshall Best, of sainted memory. He is not only worshipfully remembered by me, but by other writers whom I've met since. If he had not done what he did with A Fine and Private Place, I don't think the book would still be in print. There was no comma placement too small for him to argue about, and he stood up to my 19 year-old wrath when I was so outraged that he wanted to take out the beautiful mystery subplot that I had worked so hard on. But he was absolutely right. He even found the title for the book, when was reading poetry to his wife one night and came across those two lines from Andrew Marvell: 'The grave's a fine and private place/But none, I think, do there embrace.' That caught the book beautifully, which my own offered title, The Dark City, absolutely did not. He's long gone, of course, and I've always hoped that I did thank him sufficiently.
Connor: Did you ever meet him face to face?
Peter: I did, at Viking's offices, right at the beginning, but only once. For the most part we worked through the 1960 equivalent of the internet — phone calls, letters, and telegrams — because I was either at school in Pittsburgh or out of the country traveling in Europe for close to a year after I graduated. People wired things in those days, and he would catch me at train stations in Italy somehow, I remember that.
Connor: To argue over commas.
Peter: There was nothing too small for him to argue about, which was perfectly admirable. He loved books. He loved doing books right.
Connor: Did he make you rewrite anything?
Peter: Oh yeah. Nothing terribly drastic, but there were certain passages and episodes that he would make me go over. The big change, as I mentioned, was that he cut out four whole chapters comprising an entire outside-the-graveyard mystery subplot about my ghost character Michael's death, including an elaborately staged faculty dinner party and a sharp-tongued defense attorney named Tyne who doggedly interrogated people and tracked down clues. I'd put so much time into making it the best New Yorker-style contemporary slice-of-life fiction I could, really sweated over it, and he wanted to chuck the lot. 32,000 words of my lovely writing, a full quarter of the total manuscript —pfft! He wrote a long editorial memo about this that was circulated internally at Viking and then sent to me later, along with specific manuscript notes, and it really shows what he was like as an editor. I've got it here somewhere...
September 28, 1959
(THE DARK CITY) by Peter Beagle
This memo is an attempt to put on paper our joint thinking about the book. My second complete re-reading of the manuscript sharpens both my enthusiasm and my admiration, and my sense of our responsibility in helping the author to put it in final form. At its best, it's an imaginative, original, and mature creation, truly remarkable for a first novel, and likely to be remembered for a long time by sympathetic readers. The writing is on a very high plane, full of wit and poetry; the author's ear for dialog is phenomenal.
The book still suffers, however, from two artistic flaws, related to each other, which keep it from being all that we hoped and all that it can be if the author will do some more work on it. It's most unfortunate that he is out of reach. Compared to face-to-face discussion, what I say here is bound to sound arbitrary and dogmatic. He must try to make allowances for that, and patiently consider our points, and argue back about them if he likes. We are in agreement that there is something the matter. There is probably more than one possible cure; but in this memo I have to concentrate on the one that seems best to me, and this will be the premise of everything I say. If he can't accept this premise, we will have to begin all over again. But I'll take that chance and hope he will find he can accept it.
See what I mean? Sincere concern for his author's feelings and opinions, clearly expressed, without backing away from the fact that we faced serious issues. Then he got down to the nub of the problem, as he saw it...
To carry such a story, however, the book is much too long — perhaps 40% too long. And it suffers from a further serious flaw, in that it is written in two entirely different tones or conventions of fiction. These two tones are quite unhappy together; they make most uncomfortable bookfellows. The first and major one — the one we start and end with, and the one in which the author enchants us with his particular inventiveness — is the tone of fantasy. It's a difficult one to master, yet he does it without straining, because he has remembered the one thing essential to fantasy: once he has established his arbitrary rules (that there are ghosts, that they behave according to certain laws, and that Mr. Rebeck can talk to them) everything else must be convincing in terms of everyday realism. His handling of this is masterly. The sturdy Mrs. Klapper is the perfect realistic foil, and the chapter of her life outside the cemetery is superb. Since she is one of the two principal characters, it's natural to follow her home, and the chapter is not only completely convincing but supplies just the right reminder of the world from which Rebeck has fled and to which he will return, a changed man. It's an integral part of the story.
By contrast, the chapters on the living Michael and on Sandra and Mooney and Tyne are written in a totally different vein. Let's call it the vein of psychological realism. It's a much more conventional type of fiction and very well done in its way. In fact the dialog is marvelous, and the party chapter in itself is mature and brilliant irony. (Wish it could be published as a short story.) The plotting of the mystery element is somewhat contrived and not entirely convincing — the lawyer's tracking down of the poison and its bearing on the case might get by in an average whodunit but is not quite credible if you analyze it closely. The legal procedure, too, is decidedly shaky.
That, however, is not the point. What I object to is that all this, besides being in a different tone, is not at all relevant to Mr. Rebeck's story. It's not Rebeck's world at any point; and in fact he never even hears the whole story. Once granted that Michael is a secondary and not a primary character, all that matters to our story is the fact that his body had to be removed from the cemetery. The reason for this must be established; but his personality in life, and the struggle with his wife, don't really matter to Rebeck or to us. Of course we want him to be a rounded character, for the sake of his ghostly relation to Laura; and the author should know all about him to be sure that he makes him consistent. But he only needs to give the reader enough to make Michael's ghostly behavior plausible. It's much better not to be too explicit — we are put to an initial strain to accept the ghost at all, and can't afford to get too complicated about him. Readers who happily go along with the fantasy of Mr. Rebeck will be put off badly by this almost melodramatic intrusion; readers who don't like fantasy but might like Michael's story for its own sake will never get to chapter 8 anyway.
What we are suggesting, as the author will have guessed, is that he omit chapters 8, 9, 10, and 14 entirely. This is drastic. He has done an enormous amount of good work on them. He put them in for a reason I can understand — but I think it was a wrong reason. He was thinking of Michael as a principal rather than a secondary character. If he can accept the fact that this is Rebeck's story, not Michael's, maybe he will agree to this major surgery. I hope so. It will cure both ills at one stroke — reducing the length and removing the conflict of tone.
Now that's a great editor. That's loving attention and focused literary concern. I remember being very upset when I first read the memo, but the thing is, he was right. If I had won the argument — I really did argue — and those chapters had stayed in, I'm sure that the book would not have received the acclaim that it did, nor would it have still been happily in print nearly 50 years later. So I really do owe him.
Connor: Your next full-length work was a mainstream novel you called The Mirror Kingdom, which you did a lot of work on in Europe and during your Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford, where Ken Kesey was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Christopher Koch started The Year of Living Dangerously. Viking didn't take the book when it was offered to them, so in effect it never saw any outside editing at all. Was it Marshall Best who rejected the submission?
Peter: I don't know. I don't think it was Marshall — or Marshall alone, anyway — but by the time it came through my agent, Elizabeth Otis, it was a very gentle rejection. They were quite nice about it.
Connor: I'm still determined to find some way to do something with that book.
Peter: For me it's like the old joke about the curate's egg —it's very good in parts.
Connor: And I'm not saying that just because the book has a character named 'Connor.'
Peter: That was before I knew anybody named Connor. And anyway, he's black, which you're not.
Connor: And gay, likewise.
Peter: And gay.
Connor: A rarity in 1960's fiction.
Peter: More of a rarity still, in that he's black, gay, and out.
Connor: A little easier for you then because it was set in Paris...
Peter: That makes a difference. I was talking with someone recently about James Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room, and while in 1956 it was one of the early novels to deal pretty directly with homosexuality, you really don't know whether the characters are black or white. For myself as a reader, I think they were white, but I think Baldwin himself was determined to write a novel leaving race completely out of it.
Connor: Who was your editor on your second published book, I See By My Outfit?
Peter: Aaron Asher at Viking. He died about a year ago. Aaron was another of the great editors — at different times he worked with Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Arthur Miller, Frank Conroy, Milan Kundera, and lots more. He was also the first person I ever knew who felt that he'd been kept alive, literally, by lithium. This was the 1960s and I'd never before heard of lithium and anyone needing an antidepressant. He swore by it. I remember discussing it with him and being fascinated.
Connor: How about The Last Unicorn? Who edited that?
Peter: I'm vague on the details now because there were several of them, people who came and went while I was working on the manuscript. The one I remember best was the last after-the-fact editor on the project, because he contributed the most useful feedback. They farmed it out for copyediting to an English professor at Brooklyn College named Bernard Grebanier, which was actually 'Reinaberg' spelled backwards. There was a rumor — and I emphasize that back then it was only a rumor — that Bernard was a fink during the McCarthy years (turns out he actually did denounce a fellow professor as a communist, but during a Supreme Court case, not in front of McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee). Bernard wrote very good books about Shakespeare's theater, and the history of acting, and he also did a remarkable book called The Great Shakespeare Forgery. I remember being fascinated by him, even though we never met, because I knew that he was a friend and great admirer of my theatrical hero, Alfred Drake, who had been raised in the Bronx like me. I don't now remember any details about the suggestions Bernard made on The Last Unicorn, but I do remember them as being very good.
Connor: Is there any chance you might still have some of that correspondence?
Peter: Oh, I doubt that any of it survived, even in the menacing filing cabinet. But you're welcome to search.
Connor: Consider the hunt on. During the period between when you moved out to California in 1963 and the beginning of your screenplay work in the early 1970s, you tackled a new field, magazine writing. What kind of editing did you get there?
Peter: The serialized version of I See By My Outfit, which ran in two parts in Holiday magazine under the title 'A Long Way To Go,' was butchered. They didn't really have a choice, because of space considerations, but what's there is a tattered and rather ugly patchwork compared to the book itself. But paradoxically I had very good editors on the articles I wrote for them, people like Harry Sions and John Weaver. John in particular was a fine writer himself, and these guys taught me everything I know about magazine writing. They realized that I was a young writer with a young family and hadn't a clue how to make money, so they would give me assignments and then teach me how to do them.
Connor: You may be exaggerating slightly regarding what they taught you. I've read the response letter you sent to Holiday when the editor asked you to write your first piece for them, about the Bronx that you'd left behind in your move west. And in that letter you say, in effect, 'You've asked me to outline the article, but I can't really do that, so I'm just going to tell you in general what I want to write.' And then you proceeded to write something which was actually a pretty nice little article all by itself. I haven't compared the letter to what was finally published, but I've been involved with magazine writing and editing all the way back to 1975, and there wasn't anything significantly wrong with what you did in that first-draft, off-the-top-of-of-your-head letter. It wasn't a real article, not quite, but it was damn close.
Peter: One thing I definitely learned from magazine writing was a sense of exactly how long 3,000 words is on a manual typewriter. You could write about pretty much any subject you'd like, because Holiday magazine wasn't totally about travel back then, not for a minute, but you had to stay within 3,000 words. In this and other things, Weaver and Sions were wonderful men and fine mentors. Harry Sions used to come out to California every year and visit what he thought of as 'his writers,' to see what kind of shape they were in. And he used to warn me particularly about the dangers of alcohol, because he'd lost so many writers to alcoholism. Meanwhile Weaver was not only a marvelous writer, but one of those people with a bulldog passion for justice. He became intensely involved with the families of the black soldiers who had been part of what became know as 'the Brownsville Raid,' where a black troop was supposed to have shot up this town in Texas. Of course it was all bullshit, but they got cashiered for it anyway. John got onto the story and wrote a book about it, which resulted in the few surviving families getting all the back pay that their members had merited, and the soldiers' dishonorable discharges taken completely off the record. John got exercised about things like that. When I was covering the Poor People's Campaign for the Saturday Evening Post, I literally turned a corner in that swamp the Washington Mall had been turned into by people and the rain, and ran into John. He had covered the Bonus Marchers of 1932 in very much the same place — the veterans from WWI who were in desperate straits from the Depression, who had come to the Mall to demand proper repayment for their sacrifices, their loss of life and limb, during the War. Eventually, at Hoover's command — though he always claimed his orders had been exceeded — Douglas MacArthur ran those old soldiers out of Washington. Came in on horseback and trampled their tents: classic MacArthur. And here was John years later, on the Mall again, come to see the Poor People's Campaign to find out what similarities there were. I learned so much about magazine writing just watching him at work.
Connor: So...editors good, sometimes. Editors bad, sometimes. But you said there was a third category which was worse than either of those, i.e., having no editor at all.
Peter: Then there's no sounding board. Sometimes an editor being wrong can be good, because it still makes you think about what you're doing. But when there's no feedback at all...that's the toughest. You're on your own, which is not the best place for any writer to be.
Connor: You've actually spent a lot of time in that place. Decades.
Peter: I got so I expected it. I've always nominally had editors, on every article or book or story, but for many years there, from 1968 through 2001, in any practical sense I wasn't getting any editing at all. On The Folk of the Air my editor was officially Lester Del Ray, but he never really gave me any feedback on that except to replace my own original choice of title — A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows — which I'd ceded to Poul Anderson years before because the book was taking so long, and Poul asked nicely. With Tamsin and The Innkeeper's Song and Giant Bones my editor at Roc was Laura Anne Gillman, who is a genuinely nice person and now writing her own books; but she was absolutely the wrong editor for me. She made very few suggestions, and for the most part they were simply wrong for what I was trying to do. I would wait to see if I could get anything out of them, and when eventually that didn't happen I'd just move on. She mostly didn't check on whether I followed her suggestions or not, which was another thing, so through that entire period of writing for Roc I kind of trained myself into the habit of simply not paying much attention to what anyone at the company said.
Connor: Did you ever get frustrated by not having a sounding board?
Peter: At times it was very frustrating. I'd resort to friends, to other writers, for feedback, and sometimes it helped and sometimes it didn't. Robert Nathan was one. And not Lester Del Ray, but Judy-Lynn Del Ray, his wife, who had been a magazine and book editor before they got married. Just thinking about it, the editing I got from friends was completely random, there was no pattern to it. One thing that did work, and which made a very great difference, was being married to Padma Hejmadi. She affected my work deeply. I am better not only for all the time we were married, but for all he time that we were friends before that, during which I admired her own work. I'm a better writer for having read things to her and having her read things to me. We both loved rich language, and she was the most intense writer I've ever known. More than any official editor I've ever had, Padma was the one whose suggestions I always took absolutely seriously, and never considered sloughing off. Anyone who wants to read her, should: she had four books and chapbooks published in this country: Coigns of Vantage, Dr. Salaam & Other Stories of India, Birthday Deathday and Other Stories, and Room To Fly: A Transcultural Memoir. As long separated as we are, and with every possibility that she will never speak with me again, I know the debt I owe her.
Connor: And now we're coming to 2001, when you met me and I ruined your life.
Peter: Yes, I think that would be a reasonable assumption.
Connor: I apologize for ruining your life.
Peter: [dripping noblesse oblige] Oh well. These things happen.
Connor: [British Raj voice] That's so awfully white of you, sir.
Peter: Hah. I'm still fond of a moment where I was waiting to pick someone up at a BART station, and a black man about my age, give or take a little, first hit me up for a dollar, and then by and by came back and sat down next to me. He had missed his lunch in the local shelter. We spoke about that, and we spoke about his children — who were ashamed of him — and this very dignified man and I got to talking about movies and television shows and radio shows we were both old enough to have shared experience of. We had a lot of the same memories. And at one point he finally asked me, very carefully, 'I don't mean to intrude, but could you tell me what extraction you are from?' I'd heard that word extraction used that way in fiction, but never before in real life. 'Well,' I told him, 'It's pretty much straight Russian and Polish Jewish right down the line.' And he just reared back, slapped his leg, and said 'I know'd you wasn't white.'
Connor: We're joking about ruining your life, of course. But that glosses over a point, which is that I actually have held your feet to the fire more than anyone since your first editor, Marshall Best.
Peter: That's certainly true. There are stories that I've put through fourteen or fifteen drafts because of you, to the accompaniment of curses you will never hear.
Connor: [laughing] You don't hear the stuff on my side, either.
Peter: But it has been extremely valuable, because whether I like it or not, you have the editor's gift, which is putting your finger on the soft places in a story.
Connor: You make it very obvious. I swear. I mean, I look at your drafts when they come in, and the strong and weak points just scream. This works...but this doesn't work. This works...and this kind of works. This works...and this part over here would work if you do this. It's all clearly implied. Of course, I'm actually playing a different role than just being your editor, because as business manager and agent and publicist and sometime publisher I'm combining functions that are normally handled by different people. But perhaps the quality that is most relevant here is that I don't let you sit still and write just when you feel like writing. I'm constantly prodding and poking and pushing you to write, constantly getting you into commitments to write...
Peter: [mordantly] Yes.
Connor: Pushing you off the diving board...
Peter: Which is one reason, and I say this honestly, that it is kind of hard to remember not being tired.
Connor: It has been a bit of a drive lately, true. And yet — what do you think of the results?
Peter: I think of the results as perhaps the best work I've ever done, in honesty. There are stories I'm genuinely happy about and like to look at again, which has not always been the case. In spite of what people may think, I don't re-read The Last Unicorn a lot — people are always doing it for me. I'm much more likely to look back at a story like 'Dirae' — one of the new ones, where God knows you put me through a lot of drafts — and think with a smile 'Well, I got away with it, that one works.'
Connor: Again, it was simply what was implied. The biggest thing I did was get you into the game...when Gardner Dozois said 'Would Peter like to write something for an anthology I'm doing called Warriors?', I said 'Yes!' and turned around and told you 'We're signing this contract.' At that point you had no clue what you were going to do, and wandered off. But you came back with this really neat idea that was buried in the midst of all this muck.
Peter: A word like 'warriors' has come to mean, over the years, in the science fiction world, so much 'sword and sorcery,' that I wanted to stay as far away from that as I possibly could.
Connor: And you absolutely did that. Yet the bones of the idea, as I said, were lost in all this other stuff. The reason there were so many drafts on that one was that with every draft we were paring you back and back and back, to get to the starkest, most revealing core of your idea, with no window dressing to soften or obscure it. Now that we're done, I'll admit that I was actually surprised at what you did and how it began. When I got you the Warriors gig what I expected you to do was something from your Innkeepers World universe, something that would be more period-y, more obviously a Classic Fantasy Story in its setting and trappings.
Peter: I love doing those, my own way. I love any excuse to sneak back to the Innkeeper's World. But it was the name Warriors that suggested altogether too much Robert E. Howard. I didn't want to do anything like that.
Connor: Right. And the thing that got me, when I read that first draft, was that the parts of it which I would normally expect you to excel at — the emotional scenes; the spiritually meaningful sequences — they were the garbage in the text, while what was incredibly strong were these precise, vivid, beautifully-written scenes of violence: the things the warrior was saving people from, or dealing with. And I couldn't believe it was Peter S. Beagle I was reading, because they were so starkly different from your normal output.
Peter: That's always been there. I've always known that, always felt it was within me. I just never had the opportunity.
Connor: You did it only once before, to my knowledge. That was in your unpublished second novel, The Mirror Kingdom, where you had one of the most offhandedly violent and shocking scenes I've ever read.
Peter: Yes, where Paul attacks Connor.
Connor: Early in the book you set things up when you introduce Paul this way, as he enters a folk music club in 1960 Paris:
Then someone — was it Connor? — someone said, 'Paul,' and all the dark, unhearing heads turned towards the door, like flowers at sunrise. 'Paul,' someone else said, and 'Paul,' they all said. He saw a ripple pass over them like wind among flowers, and his head too turned by itself to look at the door. And now, now that they were quiet, [Walker] heard himself singing. His voice sounded hoarse and thin, and it seemed foolish to sing anymore, so he stopped singing and rested his chin on the guitar. The wood was cool against his cheek and smelled like himself.
'Paul,' everyone was saying. 'Eh, Paul.' The blond man stood high on the stairs, looking down at them. 'Bon soir,' he said softly. Where Connor was dressed all in white, he wore a black sweater and black slacks. He kept his hands in his pockets and his small head was tilted back and to one side. He was wearing his torn blue cap.
On his shoulders, like a scarf, he wore a small gray cat. A short leash ran from one neck to the other, yoking them together. The cat was gray and very fluffy, and its eyes were almost indigo. It lay very quietly on Paul’s shoulders as he stood on the stairs, and at first Walker thought it was dead; but when Paul leaned his head against the wall, the cat made a high, tiny sound and scrambled to his far shoulder, stifflegged with fright. Paul winced and, for a second, his eyes were closed. 'Bon soir, Connor,' he said.
The pet kitten on Paul's shoulders, which he keeps there even when playing his guitar on stage, is only one of the character's affectations. There are bigger ones, like pretending to be French when he's actually American, and telling his gay lovers that he's probably straight and his straight lovers that he is probably gay. And Paul and Connor have this truly difficult, painful, friendship/relationship going in which Paul won't commit to Connor but is hugely jealous if he imagines that Connor might be interested in anyone else. Which sets up this scene toward the end of the book, and the horrific moment I was talking about:
[Walker] heard a sigh in the darkness, and breath drawn to answer him, but he never knew what Connor would have said. Someone screamed without words, first far away and then so close that the sound turned like a knife in his head. Simultaneously Connor’s sigh deepened into a grunt of pain and his arms were gone from around Walker. Something hit Walker a heavy, impersonal blow all along one side; it felt as though he had stumbled blindly into a wall. He fell off the stool and landed on Connor’s guitar. The back of the guitar crushed under him with a soft, splashing sound. The splintered wood ripped his shirt in two places.
The lights seemed to go on for him. He could see the cave again, strangely bright to him, lying among shadows. The few people remaining huddled near the stairs, all of them crouching slightly as they stared at something over him, behind him. When he turned his head he saw Connor standing with his eyes closed and his legs braced apart, and Paul embracing Connor like a strangling vine, kicking and punching his body, scratching at his face. There was blood on Connor’s mouth, and blood beading his cheek.
Walker could not see Paul’s face, but he could hear the deadly, familiar sound he was making. His little cat, still leashed to his neck, was trying frantically to climb back to his shoulders, hooking its claws in his shirt and being jolted loose each time Paul hit Connor. The cat’s mouth was wide open, but no sound was coming out. Paul’s woman ran up to him and began pulling at his arm. He batted her away without looking at her and she staggered into a stool and fell sitting, her legs spraddled and her hair straggling over her dazed eyes.
Connor was not fighting back. His eyes were tightly closed and every muscle in his face and neck was taut, drawing his head bank, his nostrils wide, and his mouth into a dead man’s smile. He stood still and let Paul hit him. Once his arms went partway out and around Paul’s body, as though he wanted to draw Paul gently into himself. Walker had felt strength enough in his hands to smash Paul like a berry, but Connor let his arms drop again and only moved them to keep his balance when Paul hit him.
To Walker, pushing himself to his feet, it seemed to take a very long time for Paul to bring the unresisting Connor down. He was hitting Connor quite professionally, putting all his body into the punches and bringing blood each time he hit Connor’s face. But Connor stayed on his feet, wincing and gasping occasionally, but not seeming to feel the blows any deeper than his bleeding skin. Paul’s thin screaming had died to a whistling hiss between his teeth; that, and the apparently futile pattering of his fists on Connor’s body were the only sounds in the cave. The hiss swelled again into a strangely pure shrill of delight as Connor finally swayed, held his balance, and at last went down slowly and stiffly, hitting the floor all at once, with nothing to break his fall. Walker could feel it in the soles of his feet when Connor fell.
He shouldn’t have touched me, he thought. He knew better than to touch me with Paul around. He heard Paul murmur, 'You bastard,' almost lovingly, and saw him kick Connor in the side. Connor’s tongue stuck out of his open mouth and his knees jerked up towards his chin. Paul’s cat lost its purchase on his shoulders and fell to the end of its leash, turning and bumping against Paul’s back, its body convulsing and springing out, but its eyes already beginning to glaze. Every time it doubled its legs, its claws raked straight down Paul’s back, but he did not seem to feel it.
What you did with the kitten made that scene so much sharper, so painful to read. And I hadn't known that kind of stuff was anywhere in you.
Peter: It's always been there. I've always known that there was a good deal of suppressed violence in me in one form or another. In my family that was the ultimate taboo, that was as bad as the violence of hurting feelings. That's why I know I've always kept a check on certain things. I've told you about that incident at the drive-in theater.
Connor: Hold it. No, you haven't. What incident?
Peter: I've never told you this? I could have sworn —
Peter: Well, when my kids were small, the only way we could take the two youngest ones to a movie was a drive-in. So Enid and the kids and I were sitting in our car in one such theater — the little ones had already fallen asleep, only Vicky was old enough to watch the movie with us — and there was a car just up ahead where child abuse, you'd say, was going on. A father was decidedly slapping his small son around. And I don't remember getting out of the car, I really don't, but suddenly I was standing next to the door of this guy's car, and I felt like...well, first you're hot, and sweaty, and shaking, and then you're very, very cold, and you can do anything. Cold and white, like a cold, white room. And I felt like I could have torn the door off the car. The guy took one look at me and instantly slapped down the lock on his door. And I realized, in a far off way, that he was afraid of me — and no one had ever been afraid of me, for God's sake. But in that moment I could have really hurt him, I could have done serious damage, I know I could. I finally came to myself, back in my car, and I watched him from there for the rest of the show. He didn't touch the kid again. And I buried the memory of that so deeply that I forgot about it until many, many years later in Seattle, when I was talking to a therapist. He brought that up in me and I started shaking and crying.
Connor: That is absolutely a new one on me. You really haven't mentioned that before.
Peter: That's there, you see. I know that's there, and I know what it's like to go over the edge. That's why I'm very, very careful in certain ways. But writing 'Dirae' brought it out.
Connor: More and more in the last few years I see you addressing issues of emotional and physical conflict more directly and intensely than in your earlier work. That's certainly the case in a whole host of the new stories -- in 'We Never Talk about My Brother,' in 'Underbridge,' in 'Vanishing.' Your upcoming novel I'm Afraid You've Got Dragons has this sweet, gentle, lovely, friendly, even funny tone up to a certain point, and then suddenly it shifts and becomes quite dark and brutal, in a way that's not gratuitous at all, but totally honest and realistic. Even for all the ritualized, historically-distanced Japanese storytelling style of 'The Tale of Junko and Sayuri,' you've got murder after murder after murder in the story, even though some of them appear accidental at the time.
Peter: And the violent confrontation with the demon near the end, yes. Like I say, it's always been there. There just didn't happen to be an artistic situation for it. Another reason, if you will, is that I feel more confident about letting it out. It's a personal change. I no longer particularly worry about what people who love The Last Unicorn will think of this or that new story of mine. And a big part of it is being pushed. If it hadn't been for your pushing, who knows how much of this would have come out?
Connor: You've actually been very gracious about the process.
Peter: The aggravating thing? It's the horrifying sense, when I look at your notes, of 'Oh hell, he's right.'
[much mutual laughter]
Connor: It hasn't been entirely unpleasant, working together.
Peter: There have been some delightful moments, there really have been. But I'm not going to tell you which ones they were.
Connor: If I asked you to pick the most surprising thing that has happened in the last eight years because of our professional association, what would you select?
Peter: In the last of C. S. Lewis's Narnia books — which by the way I don't like, particularly — there is a line that goes 'further up, and farther in' which I do like. Because if there is anything that has happened with my writing in the last eight years, I do believe that it has gone further up and farther in. There are things that I write now that I know I wouldn't have written eight years ago.
Connor: But that phrase almost makes it sound as if your recent work is less accessible to readers, and I wouldn't agree with that.
Peter: That's not what I mean. I had a certain quote on the wall for a long time, from, of all people, P. G. Wodehouse. He said, somewhere, 'I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn…' Coming from Wodehouse that was startling. And the latter does reflect the process we go through.
Connor: There's a business reason I hold your feet to the fire, of course, which is pure branding. I don't ever want to see a Peter S. Beagle story showing up that is not an A-level story. That's how good you really are, and therefore how good every story should be. But on a practical level, as an editing reader, I can't let something out into the world when I can see that it isn't yet what your imagination has called you to do. Now, sometimes you hit the target right away. 'Two Hearts' was brilliant on the day you first handed it to me to read. My editing on that story was so minor it barely deserves mention: some comma discussions, cutting one minor bit of magic by Schmendrick that was too overt, noticing the title that was staring at us, plain in the face, in the story's own text. Biggest editorial change in that one was the gender switch on one minor character that prevented an entirely unnecessary and unintended Tolkien echo — and that idea came from Kim Flournoy, your webmaster, not from me. She was the brilliant one there. With these tiny exceptions, that story was you ringing the gong on the first swing, and it was very neat. But on certain other stories it's as though I can see exactly what your imagination has dragged you into the room to do, only you haven't quite gotten there. You dived 'right deep down,' as Wodehouse said, but then you came up for air too soon.
Peter: Much of the time I'm telling myself the story, and when I'm writing the first draft I'm likely not to know where the hell it's going, or how it's going to get there. An awful lot is improvised. Sometimes that works beautifully and sometimes it doesn't. The maddening thing is to know that you've got something good going, but not to be sure where to go with it.
Connor: The first time this issue really became clear to me was in 2005, when you were writing the last of the three new fables that made up the 'Four Fables' set in The Line Between. Your imagination had set itself a problem with the very first line — 'Once, deep down under the sea, down with the starfish and the sting rays and the conger eels, there lived an octopus who wanted to see God.' And for draft after draft you kept closing the story without really addressing that setup, spinning off one gotcha ending after another...which to me is always a clear sign of a writer thinking 'What have I gotten myself into? Let me out of here!' My job there was clearly to make you keep going back until you finally pulled it off, no matter how many drafts it took (about six, as I recall). Which brings me to my last question: given the state of the stories that I've got you currently working on, how many lashes would you like today, you proletarian tool of the editorial elite?
Peter: Can I have my people get back to you about that?
Connor: But I'm 'your people.'Peter: Then go talk to yourself for a while. If you'll pardon me, I have writing to do.
illustration photographs: Peter S. Beagle taken by Connor Cochran; Connor Cochran taken by Terri Kempton