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Peter S. Beagle goes back to his fine and private place to continue the saga of The Last Unicorn


By Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose

Peter S. Beagle—author, songwriter and the first screenwriter to take an authorized swing at J.R.R. Tolkien's masterwork, The Lord of the Rings—began his writing career at the Bronx High School of Science as a regular contributing writer, followed by a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh by way of winning a contest by Scholastic Books in 1955. By age 19, he had written the book A Fine and Private Place, a benchmark in fantasy, and graduated with a degree in creative writing.

A Fine and Private Place was soon followed by The Last Unicorn, which not only became a much-beloved novel but also became an equally acclaimed animated feature-length film, now available on DVD. His passion for writing led him to write Ralph Bakshi's 1978 film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, a film that for years seemed the only vision viewers would receive of Tolkien's legendary world of Middle-earth.

Beagle, who continues to frequent the college lecture circuit, has also dipped his feet in the waters of the world of Star Trek, and back into his own with a follow-up novelette to The Last Unicorn, Two Hearts. His other forays into writing have included the nonfiction The Garden of Earthly Delights, the two-volume collections of Unicorn-related fantasy, Peter S. Beagle's Immortal Unicorn and the novels The Innkeeper's Song and Tamsin. Peter currently resides in California with his wife, artist and writer Padma Hejmadi.



For years, you said you would never write a sequel to The Last Unicorn, but then came Two Hearts. Why, after all this time?

Beagle: Well, the blunt truth is that I accidentally got prodded into it by my business manager. He wanted me to write a story set "in the world of The Last Unicorn" as a promotional extra for the release of the unabridged Last Unicorn audiobook, and he got around all my objections by telling me I didn't have to include any of the characters from the book. And once I started to do what he asked, well, things happened. The truth is that I had never given any thought to writing a sequel, but once I began this story that's what came out. I was startled at how easily it came. Maybe because I'm taking another stance altogether, maybe because this time I was telling it from a first-person point of view, but as difficult as The Last Unicorn was to write, Two Hearts was a comparative breeze.



Why is Two Hearts being published in a limited edition?

Beagle: It just seemed like a really intriguing idea to publish a limited hardcover edition as a bonus for the first 3,000 people who bought the audiobook. It was something I hadn't done before. I've seen other promotions like it, but the approach was new for me, and that aspect was really appealing.



There's been quite a bit of legal dealing regarding your involvement with both Bakshi's Lord of the Rings and The Last Unicorn. Can you give some details on what's happened?

Beagle: With both of them the problems began because I trusted my then-agent. I shouldn't have.

In the case of Lord of the Rings, following her advice meant I wound up writing that script God knows how many times, at least eight or nine drafts, for a bunch of never-fulfilled promises and a flat fee of $5,000—the second half of which I actually had to threaten to sue to collect. However you slice it, I was taken advantage of rather badly. Now, my work is what made it possible for Saul Zaentz to complete his film. And the film is what inspired Peter Jackson to read Tolkien, a happy coincidence that has so far directly benefited Saul to the tune of nearly $200 million. So I'm trying, at this late date, to stake my claim—to get Saul to live up to the promises he made and never came through on, all those years ago.

The issue with The Last Unicorn is simpler and purely contractual. According to the way my lawyer reads my contract and the financial records, Granada Media International owes me a sizable chunk of all the money they've been making on the film. They claim otherwise. So we edge closer and closer to court, which is where we're going to wind up unless one side or the other backs down. And I'm not going to back down. People who want to know more should go read the pages they'll find at www.conlanpress.com/youcanhelp.



Were you happy with the animated version of Lord of the Rings and/or The Last Unicorn?

Beagle: I thought that the animated Lord of the Rings, was, in an artistic sense, a disaster. I felt the screenplay was extremely good, and I was very proud of having a chance to work with actors like John Hurt and Peter Woodthorpe and William Squires. But I don't think it's much of a movie. I think it might have stood a chance if the second film was made, the way we always planned. But as a single movie I think it's incoherent. A lot of parts got cut up, or shoveled and jumbled together with no discernible pattern or rhythm. And yet it has survived. And I've been told by a fair number of people that they like it better than the Jackson film. I can't imagine saying that or feeling like that, myself, but there you are. As for The Last Unicorn, by comparison it is magnificent—at least it follows the story, as much as we could. Some parts of it are better than others.



What did you think of Peter Jackson's film?

Beagle: I felt it was as good a Lord of the Rings as anybody's ever going to get on film. I thought it was a remarkable job, very powerful. Nothing is ever as good as the work of art that you have in your imagination, of course. So many millions of people have their own Middle-earth in their heads, and I've known several who have told me that they were disappointed in the Jackson films for not living up to their personal vision. But in terms of making a film of Tolkien's work, the Jackson movies are it. By the nature of film, I don't see how it could be any better.



Will we ever see a feature-length version of your work? Maybe A Fine and Private Place? I remember reading that Richard Dreyfuss was supposed to be in that.

Beagle: Dreyfuss was involved in it for a good 14 years, give or take. For a while the option payments on that were the nearest thing I had to a regular income. But in 2001 we told them they'd have to come up with a full buyout if they wanted to keep it, because we weren't going to renew their option—the amount that had made sense 14 years before was now way too little. And they dropped it, without a word. I've never heard anything from those people again. Them letting go was kind of nice in terms of timing, because it wasn't even two weeks later that Connor Cochran came along wanting to develop the picture. We started working on a new screenplay together, then one thing led to another, and he wound up becoming my business manager. Then, this last year, he set up Conlan Press to do new publishing for me as well. And we're still working on that much-delayed screenplay, reworking scenes, trying to get it right. I actually do have great hopes for live-action versions of both A Fine and Private Place and The Last Unicorn. There are also other books and stories of mine that I think would make excellent films, but whether or not they'll be made ... well, I don't lie awake nights thinking about that. I know better. In Hollywood you just do your best and try to push things towards reality. They'll happen or they won't.



Can you tell us about how you came to write for Star Trek: The Next Generation ["Sarek"]?

Beagle: I'm working on a book called Writing Sarek that tells the whole story and goes into lots of detail. But basically it was like this. A science-fiction writer named Diana Gallagher called me—at a particularly tight time in my life, financially—to let me know that the third season of the new Star Trek was short a couple of scripts. The show was typically house-written, so they very rarely took outside scripts, but now they needed a couple. I literally gambled on selling them something. I arranged to come in and speak, to come down from the Seattle area, where I was living, to meet with Michael Pillar and the other writer-producers. And I knew I was on to something at the point where they stopped taking notes on yellow pads of paper and just started just listening to the stories I was spinning. That's how it happened.



To quote from your song "When I Was A Young Man," in The Last Unicorn ... do you feel you have, as the lyrics note, "Gracefully grown more debauched and depraved"?

Beagle: I certainly hope whatever I've done has been graceful. I've always wanted to be graceful and never had to much hope for it. As for debauched and depraved ... well, one does what one can.



Do current events affect your work?

Beagle: Inevitably, but not on a one-to-one basis. Things certainly work their way in. I'm as aware of current events as most people, and they effect me. But I can't point to any specific line or event or character in my fiction that would make that plain. My nonfiction work, of course, is another matter, but there I am writing about the real world.



What attracted you to the genre of fantasy?

Beagle: Reading The Wind in the Willows when I was in the second or third grade. That was almost certainly the start. My beloved teacher, Margaret Butterweck, sent the book home to me when I was out of school sick—I was sick a lot as a kid. And I knew I'd never read anything like it before, and I just wanted to do that. If I had to pick any one book that turned me in the direction of fantasy, more than anything else that would be it.



Are you aware of or read any of the writers of the New Weird?

Beagle: No, I'm Old Weird. Or, rather, old and weird. Actually, I'm not sure what "New Weird" covers—it's the first time I've heard the phrase.



What is your opinion on the current practitioners of fantasy?

Beagle: I don't read a great deal of fantasy. I mean, at this stage in my life I seem to read a lot of history, and I'm reading more poetry than I have for quite a while. And I love mysteries, I wish I could write one. But fantasy? Not so much. There are people I do like very much, and some I admire enormously, like Robin McKinley and Patricia McKillip. My best friend always wanted me to read Guy Gavriel Kay, but I haven't gotten into his work yet. A lot of the time, when I do read fantasy I'm rereading older guys. There are a lot of really good young writers whom I simply don't yet know. I'll make their acquaintance sooner or later.

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