from Interview with Peter S. Beagle
by Philip Martin
July 26, 2001
THE ART OF THE STORYTELLER AND THE WRITING OF TAMSIN
[Peter Beagle has been praised for his “opulence of imagination and mastery of style.” His light-hearted novel, The Last Unicorn (1968), was followed by marvelous subsequent works, including A Fine and Private Place and The Innkeeper’s Song. His lyrical style is that of the storyteller, offering compelling stories full of engaging characters whose voices ring true. In this interview, he talks about the writing of Tamsin (1999), a novel of ghostly apparitions set in New York and rural England.]
I can remember, a long time ago, when we were in the same writing class, Ken Kesey asking me: If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be?
And I said more or less without hesitation, I’d be one of those old guys who sat in the marketplace, cross-legged, telling stories. And at a certain point in the story, he stops, holds out his hand and says, “If you want to hear what happens to the princess and the genie – you’ll have to drop a few coins in here.”
There’s a good bit of the performer in me. I don’t use the word “artist” a lot. I think of myself first as a storyteller, and entertainer, and perhaps artist. But my first job is to tell a story.
I’m very aware that as a fantasist, you have to be a full-time realist. I’m asking you to believe something essentially impossible. And to do that I have to make the background – the world my story is happening in – as bedrock real as possible.
I recall something Isaac Asimov said to me once, when we were working together on a project. We spoke on the phone about some plot twist that I had put in and I asked, “Isaac, would you say this is scientifically feasible?” And he said, “Absolutely not. Now, what we have to do is make it plausible.”
And of course, that’s it. I work in my books very hard to make the essentially impossible . . . plausible.
I’m not really a minimalist, but I consider myself a Count Basie-ist. Count Basie said late in life: “It has taken me fifty years to learn what not to play.” That I understand. Sometimes I’ll put something in and look at it later and think, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s nicely written. But if you don’t need it, it’s got to go.
When I write, I tell the story. I will literally walk around the room talking dialogue and description to myself. I’m going for rhythm, without being too obvious about it. I love to read aloud. And I love to memorize poetry, as I did when I was a child.
It’s funny, but I’m often considered a Tolkien expert. I get letters now and then in Elvish, which of course I can’t read. I’m not really a Tolkien scholar, but I read him when I was in college in the late ’50s. And I loved the books. I wrote an early article on Tolkien for Holiday magazine and then was asked to write the Foreword that’s still included the Tolkien paperbacks.
But I don’t consider Tolkien a major influence on me. Not as much as T.H. White and Robert Nathan. And Lord Dunsany and James Thurber, and a wonderful Irish writer, James Stevens.
But what Tolkien illustrates best is the depth of passion a writer needs to have with his world and his characters. As a writer, you often find yourself talking about your characters – what they did that day – as if they were live children or something. Just as an actor psyches himself up into believing a character he’s playing, I really have to believe that the people I’m writing about are real, have their own wills, and I can’t simply manipulate them.
So many writers, young writers especially, but also published writers, think that fantasy is easy. All you have to do is rip off some elves, goblins, and a few other things from Tolkien and spend about ten minutes making up imaginary words and another ten minutes working up a rough idea of the country and a little local history and bingo, you’re in business. You’re a fantasist.
It’s not at all like that. What made Tolkien unique is that he spent fifty years building his world, and he built it from the inside out. Nobody else did it as thoroughly as he did. In the field of fantasy, the man was a mountain.
ON WRITING TAMSIN
You can write an outline for a book, and it’s important to do that. But it doesn’t explain where certain characters come from. It’s like Dickens as a young writer who just got a contract to serialize a novel in a London paper, which is a great thing and will feed his growing family – except that he doesn’t have a novel. And he just says in his biographical writings, “Then I thought of Mr. Pickwick.” He doesn’t say how he thought of Mr. Pickwick. It just happened. And that is how it works sometimes.
For me it’s always been something like possession – like what happens to actors when they’re working their way into a part. I was lucky with Jenny, because I heard her voice very clearly. It was rather like being locked on a radar beam. It didn’t tell me what to do, but if I got off the beam, if I wrote something that wasn’t Jenny’s voice, or tried to make the character do something Jenny wouldn’t do, I knew right away.
This is not always the case. You can get through a whole book, then realize that you forced certain characters to do things they never would do. But in Tamsin, I didn’t have that problem.
It didn’t matter that Jenny was a girl. I remember being 13. I wanted to be invisible too. I had to watch out to make sure I wasn’t putting too much in. I wanted to allow for the fact that Jenny at times whines and bitches, and she’s aware that she is. There’s a lot of self-knowledge. And she’s trying very hard to write an honest book.
One way I can tell if I’ve done it right is that when I finish, I miss the characters. And I really miss Jenny. I enjoyed my time of being Jenny.
Before, I’d always either written about an area I knew pretty well or I’d simply make up an imaginary world. But I’d never been to Dorset, where most of Tamsin takes place. And you can only get so much out of Thomas Harding, even if you read all his books. I did go to Dorset after the first draft was done. What pleases me is that I knew a few people in Dorset who say that it’s accurate – that it doesn’t read as though it were written by an American making it up.
I’d been reading a book by Robert Graves, called Wife to Mr. Milton, set more or less in Tamsin’s period. And in the back, Graves included a glossary of late 17th-century slang phrases and catch words. Then I came across a book published in 1876 of Dorset dialect. There I found an embarrassment of riches, a lot of phrases for the local people. But I didn’t want to overdo it. I put some phrases in and then took them out again, because it just sounded like I had gotten hold of a book of Dorset dialect.
As for Tamsin’s appearance, I deliberately delayed it – partly because I felt that was right for the book. Before Tamsin appeared, I knew I had to establish Jenny’s situation beyond any question, her physical reality. I knew I had to make the house and Dorset real and show Jenny’s growing awareness of this new place.
But also, I was scared. I didn’t know, after all the build-up, how not to have the story climax when the ghost does show up. But the moment Tamsin showed up, there she was. Even then, I didn’t know what her secret was. Tamsin didn’t remember, and neither did I. I really didn’t. I just had to trust that I would know when the time came.
When I’m really working, it’s kind of like just tightening the focus on a microscope of some sort. Just screwing down this lens as closely and tightly as I can. Eventually, things come into view that were always there; they just weren’t in focus yet.
But I always have an overall plan. Without a detailed plan, ideally chapter by chapter, I find myself thinking “Is that enough? Am I putting in too much time on this, when I should be getting to that? What’s the right proportion here?” That’s always the concern – getting the proportions right, and the rhythm of the story.
I always feel I can get it eventually, because if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to rewrite. I don’t have any shame in turning around and saying “Well, that didn’t work—and it’s a good thing nobody saw it. Let’s try it another way.” But I still feel I waste a lot of time leaning on my elbow and thinking to myself, “alright sucker, now what?”
I used to get hung up over a paragraph for weeks because something was wrong. I couldn’t just skip it and come back and fix it later on. That was one thing scriptwriting taught me. Movie work is so modular – you can snap scenes out here and snap them back in somewhere else. From that I learned – alright, skip this, pick up here. You know what’s missing. You’ll come back and put that in.
But as baseball players say, when you hit the ball right, when you hit on the sweet spot of the bat – everything gets into it, your wrists, your shoulders. You can feel the shock through your whole body and you know it’s going out before you’ve taken a few steps away from home plate.
There are days like that with the English language, too.