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The Oak King: A Conversation with Peter S. Beagle

Omnivoracious readers may remember my brief post on Peter S. Beagle's great novel A Fine and Private Place back in November. As I wrote then, "If there's one novel that makes you contemplate life, friendship, love, and your place in the world, A Fine and Private Place is that book. A love story with ghosts that features a talking raven, told with a quiet eloquence and a wisdom that is satisfying without being sentimental, it's still my favorite novel by Beagle." Since then, Beagle took time out of his busy schedule to answer the following questions.

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Amazon.com: When you were writing A Fine and Private Place, did you have any idea it was going to have such staying power?

Beagle: No. Not at all, of course. When I was 19 years old I never thought in terms of classics or being permanently around. I’d known enough writers, even at that age, to see that what happens to your work is so far out of your control you simply can’t afford to let that kind of concern enter your thinking.

Amazon.com: The publisher asked you to remove four chapters from the book. At the time, did you agree with the decision? Have your feelings about it changed over the years?

Beagle: At the time I was outraged. I fought every step of the way, and every sentence. Today I’m inordinately grateful to Marshall Best, the editor who did that. Marshall is long gone, so I just hope that back then I had sense and courtesy enough to say thank you. But I don’t think I realized fully what his effect on the book had been until many years later. If it weren’t for him I don’t think the book would still be in print. He’s also the one who came up with the title and the allusion to those marvelously appropriate lines from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”--I'd originally called the book The Dark City, after the way that Jonathan Rebeck saw the graveyard. Titles, sad to say, have never been my strong suit. Most of my best have actually come from friends or editors.

Amazon.com: To what extent are any of the characters in A Fine and Private Place autobiographical? I ask because the detail work in the novel, especially with regard to older people, seems so fresh and free of cliche.

Beagle: I think that A Fine and Private Place is very nearly, though not quite, my first attempt to capture the voices in the Bronx neighborhood where I grew up. Nobody is based on any one person, but there’s a piece here and a piece there was was useful. I hung fire on creating Laura Durant, when it came time to bring her into the story, until I decided to base her physically--not emotionally, but physically--on a Pittsburgh actress I was in a play with. I just didn’t know enough young women in those days. And there are scenes in there which people from the old neighborhood would recognize--when Mrs. Klapper goes into the Wireman's grocery, that is very much the little store on the corner across from my house. Yet even there I mixed things up. I think what keeps the book fresh isn't the fantasy, but the fact that I was trying very hard to make it real. To make the voices real. In the end it is always the voices, for me.

Amazon.com: Your books have, over the years, resonated with readers everywhere. Have reader reactions or opinions changed the way you think of the books?

Beagle: Only in the sense that they sometimes make me go back and look at them. When you do this writing thing day by day, you don't do a lot of reflecting on your own relationship to the old work. What does get me, though, is just how much the books have actually influenced the real lives of real people in ways I couldn't imagine. That’s enormously touching for me.

Amazon.com: One of my favorite moments in your fiction is when the true Medieval infringes on the fake Medieval in The Folk of the Air. You manage to convey a real sense of the alien perspective--a sense that if we were to travel back in time, we might find our ancestors as hard to understand as we would creatures from outer space. Did you research your way into that moment and that effect, or...?

Beagle: I've thought about it a lot, having read a great deal of history (my father was a history teacher). And there are fiction writers out there who are so good at bringing the literal stink of a certain period into your nostrils as you read...well, for me they are intimidating, because there are novels I'd like to write based on certain historical events that I'm just not sure I could. In the case of The Folk of the Air I did a lot of research, from many angles, because the real group that my imaginary one was based on didn’t limit itself to a narrow span of time, but rather built characters and personas out of events as far back as the Viking era and as recent as 1650. And the history as presented in their gatherings wasn't necessarily the most accurate. So on the one hand I was trying to go for a certain sense of the real, when it does come, in contrast to some fanciful, semi-informed imaginings.

Amazon.com: What are you currently working on--and where should we look for your short fiction in the next year or so?

Beagle: In terms of short fiction, I've got a chapbook coming out from Dreamhaven Books early in 2008 called Strange Roads, with three stories inspired by the art of Lisa Snellings-Clark. There are also six or eight pieces of short fiction appearing in various original fantasy anthologies, magazines, and fiction websites, and I'm working on a quartet of season-themed stories that will premiere not in print, but as podcasts. That last set is for a wonderful little website called The Green Man Review. They did a whole special issue about me and also named me their official Oak King this year, so it's the least I could do. In terms of book-length work, 2008 is going to be absolutely crazy with original books and reprints. Just crazy. There are a couple of new novels finally coming out, a manga-style graphic adaptation of The Last Unicorn, several new collections, and at least two nonfiction books. I can hardly keep track of it all myself, so the best way for anyone to stay up to date would be to visit my website or Conlan Press, or just sign up for my free email newsletter, The Raven. Whatever else I might think about being 68, the simple fact is that I'm busier than ever. It's like George Burns used to say: “I can't die--I'm booked!” --JeffV

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