When it comes to writers who’ve written numerous novels and stories, it can difficult, even daunting to know where to start. But it’s been my experience that it sometimes helps to begin with one of their short story collections. Which is what I’m going to do with writer Peter S Beagle, whose writing career began with the 1960 fantasy novel A Fine And Private Place and now encompasses numerous novels and story collections, including the iconic 1968 fantasy novel The Last Unicorn, as well as his newest collection of stories, The Overneath (paperback). Though in talking to him about The Overneath, he suggested there may be other books of his that will introduce him just as well.
The Overneath is a short story collection. But is there a theme to the book, a commonality to the stories you included?
No, there’s no common theme to The Overneath. These stories were all written over the last seven years or so, most for anthologies or individual magazines, in response to editors’ requests; others, such as “The Very Nasty Aquarium” and “The Way It Works Out, And All,” to find out what the titles meant. “The Story of Kao Yu,” “My Son Heydari And The Karkadann,” and “Olfert Dapper’s Day” were meant for a collection of tales about different cultures’ imaginings of unicorns, while “The Green-Eyed Boy” and “Schmendrick Alone“ are planned for a book tracing Schmendrick from his early adolescence and his training with Nikos to The Last Unicorn. “The Woman Who Married The Man In The Moon,” collected in Sleight Of Hand, is another one of those. My publisher Jacob Weisman selected the stories for The Overneath, determined the order, and even chose the title. I’m not great with titles.
I have always found that short story collections are a great way to be introduced to a writer. Do you think The Overneath is a good representation of what you’re about?
The Overneath is probably as good an introduction to my work — who I am, where I’ve been, and where I seem to be going — as any. Personally, I would suggest Giant Bones, which is a collection of six novelettes set in the nameless world I made up for the novel The Innkeeper’s Song, but it’s currently out of print. I’m still especially proud of those stories. And I do keep sneaking back to that world, every chance I get. “Great-Grandmother In The Cellar” [which is included in The Overneath] didn’t have to be set in that world, but I’m happy that it is, if that makes sense.
Is there an author, or a particular book, that you feel was a big influence on the stories in The Overneath? Or maybe just on a bunch of them?
The major influences on my work have always been pretty much the same ones: Robert Nathan, John Le Carre, James Stephens, T.H. White, Lord Dunsany, the comic strip Pogo — honest! — and the great French poet, songwriter, singer Georges Brassens. The title character in my older story “The Last Song of Sirit Byar,” is directly based on him.
Beyond those, there are people, not all of them fantasists, whom I’m constantly rereading, rediscovering, and falling in love with all over again, such as Diana Norman, Michael Gruber, Ursula LeGuin, Patricia McKillip, Joan Aiken, and Ruth Rendell. Just because I can’t do what they do doesn’t mean that I don’t wish I could.
What about non-literary influences; are there any movies or TV shows that had an influence on any of the stories in The Overneath?
No, there aren’t any movies or shows that directly influenced The Overneath. Though I did once meet Jane Espenson, one of the head writers on Buffy The Vampire Slayer at a convention, and tell her, in so many words, that I would have sold all three of my children into the most brutal, degrading form of slaver for a chance to write for that show. And the worst part of it is that, as the children of a freelance writer, they would have understood completely.
That’s funny. Now, four of the stories in The Overneath have never been published before, while a bunch were previously online on Tor.com, and others were part of a Humble Bundle package. But are the versions in this collection the same ones that appeared online?
Offhand, I can’t recall any difference between those versions of those stories and the ones in The Overneath. But I can’t swear to it; by the time individual stories and collections appear, I’m usually working on something else, as I am now. I’m 78 years old, and there’s stuff I need to get done. And I’m a slow writer.
I asked earlier about movies and TV shows that may have influenced some of the stories in The Overneath. But I’m also curious about going the other way; has there been any interest in adapting any of these stories into a movie or show?
Film or TV interest? Lord, people have been fussing around A Fine And Private Place, my first novel, since it was published in 1960. The celebrated screenwriter/director Joseph L. Mankitwicz [who directed such classic movies as 1950’s All About Eve and 1963’s Cleopatra] had the rights early on, as did the Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarden. Gary Edwards, the son of Ralph Edwards, optioned the book every year for more than a decade, but never bought it outright. I did a couple of script versions myself, neither one good, and there was a failed attempt at a musical…it’s hard to remember properly, after more than half a century.
Beyond that, I’ve always hoped for a TV series similar to Game Of Thrones based on The Innkeeper’s Song, and I do think that Tasmin would make an excellent movie. And there’s actually a short, award-winning film of my The Bridge Partner, which I’d love to see done in a full-length expansion. But, like most fantasy writers I know, I’m very much a realist. My dreams lie elsewhere.
Finally, we talked earlier about The Overneath being a good introduction to you. But if someone enjoys The Overneath, which of your other books would you suggest they read next?
Well, as I’ve indicated, I’m biased toward The Innkeeper’s Song and Tasmin. I can never judge A Fine And Private Place clearly; all I can see when I think about it is that 19-year-old kid writing in his college dorm room, too utterly young and inexperienced even to know what mistakes he’s making, or what he’s actually doing right or wrong. And I’m quite proud of the two most recent novels, Summerlong and In Calabria. I couldn’t have written either of those when I wrote The Last Unicorn, which, for good or ill, is the book people know if they don’t know I ever wrote anything else. I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to write those two.