Peter S. Beagle Revisits "The Last Unicorn"

Tue, January 18th, 2011 at 10:58am PST

Comic Books
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer

Peter Beagle's legendary novel, "The Last Unicorn," recently turned 40

Peter S. Beagle is one of the acclaimed and honored writers in contemporary fantasy. Boasting a career that launched in the early sixties, Beagle spent time at Stanford University where he was a Stegner Fellow alongside fellow writers Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry. Throughout his career, he's written many popular books including "The Innkeeper's Song," "Giant Bones," "Tamsin" and "The Folk of the Air," but he remains best remembered for his second novel.

More than being one of the most beloved and critically praised fantasy novels in recent decades, "The Last Unicorn" was also adapted into a wildly popular animated film in 1982 and has since been released in a restored Blu-ray edition. Most recently, the novel was adapted into a comic book miniseries from IDW Publishing. Beagle spoke with CBR about the project, taking a look back and forward at his long and storied career.

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CBR News: "The Last Unicorn" is a book that's been around for more than forty years and remains in print, which in and of itself is impressive and speaks to its lasting popularity. What is it that made you say yes to adapting it to comics?

The fortieth anniversary edition of Beagle's "The Last Unicorn"

Peter S. Beagle: When "The Last Unicorn" first came out in 1968, I was warned by a fellow writer that "this is going to be the book that people know, who don't know you ever wrote anything else." Well, if that's the way it is, then that's the way it is. I certainly want people to know about my other books and stories, of course, but if "The Last Unicorn" is destined to be the best known, then let it be known as widely as possible, so long as the different versions are done well. The idea of a comic adaptation actually started with my business manager/agent/editor friend Connor Cochran, who worked in the comics field back in the '70s and '80s. Eventually he wants to see everything of mine available in graphic form, and he felt it made sense to start with "The Last Unicorn." Our first attempt was a one-volume deal with Scholastic's Graphix line. The art was going to be done by Michael Wm. Kaluta, with me scripting, but it never got off the ground. Michael did some very interesting character sketches, no question, and I would have enjoyed seeing what he did with the art, but I just couldn't agree to how much Scholastic wanted to compress and simplify the story. So we canceled the contract. Then we got into talks with a company called EigoMANGA about a manga version of "The Last Unicorn." Whether or not that will ever happen I don't know, but through them we did meet a manga-influenced artist named Peter Yuthrayard, and for a couple of years now he's been working on an highly-stylized, insanely-detailed b&w adaptation that Conlan Press is going to put out when it is finally finished. Then, of course, there's IDW. They got in touch in 2009 and now, about a year and a half later, they're just wrapping up a six-issue adaptation that will come out in a single volume sometime next year.

Why did you not want to adapt the IDW version yourself?

The Scholastic experience showed me that I wasn't fluent in the structural "language" of writing for comics, which is different than all the other kinds of writing I've done over the years, even screenwriting. It's probably closest to screenwriting, but still, it's not the same. I'm sure I could learn to do it just fine, eventually, but since I was booked up for several years to come on other projects, it felt better to hand this one off to someone I felt I could trust. And I'm honestly awed at the job Peter Gillis did -- keeping what was necessary and beautiful, while eliminating what didn't need to be there in this medium.

What made Peter B. Gillis the right person to write the book?

Partly that he was extremely experienced, obviously. And partly that he really loved the book. But primarily that he's not only very literate, he's also a very learned man. He's aware of history and literature beyond last week, beyond the most recent bestseller list in any given field, and he brought to the table an ability to capture the story's depth without losing sight of a comic book's need to flow quickly and smoothly from panel to panel, and page to page.

Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon are the artists on the IDW project, and I don't think that anyone who reads the book will not be stunned by some the images they've created for the adaptation. They're fabulously talented but what was it about their work that made it clear they would be right for this project?

I'd never heard of Renae and Ray before Mariah Huehner, the book's editor at IDW, sent me their audition sketches for the project. At that point we'd already looked at four or five other possible artists, and none of them had seemed appropriate; competent and professional, yes, but just not right for my story. But I was knocked over by what Renae and Ray came up with. There was such a reach, such a sense of color, such a clear understanding of my characters and the overall feel of the tale. Those sketches made me feel immediately comfortable, and I knew that the book would be in good hands with them.

Was there anything they were able to do in the comic, an image or a sequence that was done in a way you hadn't expected and really pleased you?

Art from the IDW adaptation of "The Last Unicorn"

Only in the sense that they kept finding wonderful visual equivalents for things I did with words, shaping my language into beautiful and unsentimental art. Writing was actually a second choice in my life, coming as I did from a family of painters but being utterly unable to draw. So I truly appreciate their ability to capture the sense of my words as well as the specifics, and the fact that they then went beyond anything I wrote and brought their own imaginations to the table. For just the tiniest example, let me cite what they did with Schmendrick in the issue six epilog, after he has become a true magician at last: they got rid of his wizard's hat. That one simple alteration says huge things about the character without shouting them at the reader, and it's lovely.

Why do you think the story has endured and remained so popular over the last four decades? I know that many people my age have never known it was a book, but grew up on the movie and just love it to this day.

The movie certainly popularized the book, and led a great many people to it. I'm grateful for that. But it's hard for me to do anything but marvel at the impact the story has had. It was the hardest, least fun thing I've ever had to write, and back when I finished it I was convinced I'd utterly failed to do justice to the idea. I'm glad I appear to have been wrong!

IDW is also adapting your book "A Fine and Private Place" into comics as well. I don't know at what stage that is at, but what can you say about who's working on it?

IDW wanted to wait until "The Last Unicorn" was finished before starting on "A Fine and Private Place," so I honestly don't know anything about their thinking on that one yet. I just hope that Mariah will be our editor again, and that the adapting writer and artists will be as well-chosen this time as before.

In Chicago, there was an art exhibition, "The Art of the Last Unicorn," which opened the weekend of C2E2 earlier this year. What did you think of the show and was there any work that really stood out for you?

A lot of it stood out, though sitting here at the computer I couldn't name different artists' names for you. We'll be posting images and descriptions in an upcoming issue of my email newsletter, THE RAVEN (which people can sign up for here). What amazed me was the variety -- all the different angles from which people approached the story and characters -- and I was very happy to see that there was almost nothing which could be considered sentimental or classically romantic. The range covered the gamut from very funny to very startling, and there was a really huge crowd there on opening night. This one goes down in memory as an unexpected delight.

Your focus in recent years seems to have shifted to short fiction. The stories we read in "The Line Between" and "We Never Talk About My Brother," the upcoming novella "Return" and next year's collection "Sleight of Hand." One of the aspects of your career that I feel has been inspiring and interesting is how you seem to go out of your way to not repeat yourself.

Not repeating myself is very important to me. It may have cost me something in terms of developing some series that could just go on and on forever, but it does matter to me to see what else I can do. Apart from just not wanting to bore myself, at 71 years of age I'm still trying to see how far I can develop, to learn what's in me. I have my limits, God knows, like everyone else, but I hope I can stretch them out as far as possible. One of the statements that has always nagged at the back of my mind was from the French writer, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who proclaimed "Find out what you can do, and then do something else." Which was easy for that little bastard to say, multi-talented as he was.

Art from "The Last Unicorn" comic adaptation

What is it about short fiction that you enjoy?

Until very recently I really thought of myself strictly as a novelist who sometimes wrote nonfiction books and screenplays. Though I'd written short fiction before, there wasn't much -- six published pieces between 1957 and 1969, then nothing until a 10-story spate in the '90s, and nothing again after that until 2003. That's when Connor Cochran changed everything by nudging me into tackling the form more seriously. You could say he tricked me, in a way. He knew I always do my very best to meet my commitments, so he talked me into making a lot of commitments, and as a result I've written over 60 short stories, novelettes, and novellas in the last seven years, plus 53 new songs and poems. As for what I've enjoyed most about the process, that has to be the exploration, the chance to be so many more people than just myself. And maybe, just a little, the pleasure I get out of surprising readers. Recently a reviewer commented on one of my new stories and called me "the suddenly prolific Peter S. Beagle." I liked that.

One aspect of your career I wanted to ask about the time early in your career when you were a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, one of a very notable class of writers. Your first book had been published by that time -- what was the atmosphere like and was it a good environment for a writer?

It was and is a very good environment for most writers, I should think. My own score there was mixed. It was a wonderful educational experience, and it changed my life because I met the woman who would be my first wife and the mother of my children, but it wasn't a very productive period for me as a writer. I wrote a not-very-good mainstream novel that I would never want to see published, and one story, "Come Lady Death," that has followed me around ever since -- it's even been made into an opera. But that's all. What amazed me, and just pounded me into powder there, was the sheer amount of talent in that class. And I'm not just talking about the obvious names like Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry, but people like Joanna Ostrow and James Baker Hall, Gurney Norman and Judith Rascoe, Christopher Koch -- it was just an amazing group of writers. My ego took one hell of a beating that year, which was a very good thing for me.

What else are you working on right now?

An enormous stack of stuff. There are at least six or seven more short pieces in the current pipeline, including some special fundraisers for Berkeley's The Other Change of Hobbit bookstore, and the final edits and rewrites on those two novels I mentioned. I also have two film treatments under way, one on spec and the other for a German film company; I'm in talks about writing the book and some lyrics for a musical version of "The Last Unicorn;" there's an opera company in Berkeley expressing interest in an opera version of "A Fine and Private Place," with me writing the libretto; and pretty soon we'll start recording all the songs from my recent 52-50 Project. It's a busy time, for which I'm grateful.

What are the fundraisers you mentioned?

The Other Change of Hobbit is one of the oldest Science fiction and fantasy bookstores in America, having been around more than 30 years, and it's a favorite local haunt of mine. Lately it has been hammered by all the usual problems that are hurting independent bookstores in this economy, but it's still hung in there. A few months ago, however, the store had to move locations when a new landlord took over their old building, and all the costs and downtime associated with that hurt the business a lot. I put together some projects with Jacob Weisman at Tachyon Publications, and with my business manager Connor Cochran at Conlan Press, to help them out. Here's what they are:

Conlan Press was already starting to sell original 35mm movie frames from the animated "The Last Unicorn" to fans and collectors, so I got Connor to agree to donate a percentage of all frame sales to The Other Change of Hobbit until the end of 2011.

The Blu-ray edition of the classic animated adaptation of "The Last Unicorn" will be released in February

Through Conlan Press I'm publishing a collector's hardcover called the "Special Beagle Double," which puts two original stories together in the same one-story-upside-down-compared-to-the-other format of the classic Ace Double books of my childhood. One of the stories, "Type NO," is my first and last word on vampires, and the other is an odd little comic/horror/adventure romp called "The Very Nasty Aquarium."

Finally, there are just under 400 original 1969 hardcover copies of Avram Davidson's wonderful fantasy novel "The Phoenix and the Mirror," donated by Jacob Weisman, which will modified by the addition of a special short story of mine featuring Avram himself as a character. It's going to be done up in letterpress and inserted into a fancy envelope that will be attached to the inside front cover of each copy. Avram was a brilliant and learned man -- I used to call him my own personal British Museum -- and I've missed him a lot since he died in 1993. He was also as eccentric as anyone I've ever known, and it's been great fun to honor his memory this way. I think he would have liked it. Anyone interested in learning more about any of these should go to the Conlan Press sales page, where's there is additional detail and a sales link for each of these three items. The more that sell, the better it will be for The Other Change of Hobbit.

You really are incredibly busy!

Apart from always quoting George Burns' line -- "I can't die, I'm booked!" -- I think I may have something in common with that woman in San Jose who believed that as long as she kept adding rooms to her house, she'd live forever. It didn't work out like that, of course, but she did get a lot of rooms done.

TAGS:  peter s beagle, the last unicorn, idw publishing

 
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