The difference between listening to a good author speak and a great author is not what you’d expect. It isn’t how witty they are– writers are often witty folk. It isn’t how good their stories are– most writers are also good storytellers, and that’s the reason people show up to bookstores in the first place.
It’s the ratio.
A good author talks mostly about themselves, their own work, muses about their legacy, holds forth about their process. A great author will always talk about the work of others. They’ll give you names and titles of the books that made them, that shape their thinking, that make them want to put the book down and seriously consider whether they should get into another line of work.
That was Peter S. Beagle, all night. I got to interview him at a live event at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, and talk to him over dinner and on the ride home besides. Throughout all our conversations, both public and private, he spilled over with stories and books and names of other people who he thought were indispensable to the craft or to genre. From a long paean to T.H. Lawrence to a sharp recommendation that everyone in the room read “Mistress of the Art of Death” by Ariana Franklin, Beagle was constantly working to share the spotlight, even as we called him a celebrated legend and the reason so many of us got into fantasy.
It was so easy to see his spell encircle the room as he told his stories about unicorns, Christopher Lee, the love of his life, Elijah, his mother, writing for Star Trek, and his time at Stanford with gratitude and grace. I had very little work to do, as an interview partner. If I pointed Beagle down an avenue of memory, he’d stroll it at a leisurely pace, offering vignettes and conjured-up quotes from James Earl Jones for the delight of an audience hearing the voice of Darth Vader in their heads. I saw adults of all ages lean forward in their seats, elbows on their knees, utterly charmed and hanging on his every word. We could have danced all night.
I went through agonies at dinner, listening to Beagle talk about his Stegner fellowship and friendship with Larry McMurtry at the green end of both their careers. He casually mentioned that Ken Kesey was there, too, and that the two of them pursued some of the same partners.
“Peter,” I said. “Save some of this for when we have an audience, please. This is too good.”
But it was all too good. His stories to the full house at Kepler’s were just as wondrous and strange, and I was thrilled to get him to talk about my favorite of his books, “Summerlong.” I asked him some personal stuff while people were listening. Whether he’d been in love with someone who came in and out of his life like a season. Whether he wrote so lyrically from a heart that was broken or made whole. He answered that and every other thing with openness and a deep, trembling, wonderful candor. It was a charmed evening.
I watched him sign books for a line of people who were limited to three apiece, and so more than half of them went to the back of the line to take another turn. I saw him shake hands and receive praise, sign ancient, crumbling copies of “The Last Unicorn” and hear again and again without fatigue what it had meant to people. I saw him record a personal video greeting for a man’s three granddaughters, take selfies, and remember the names of old friends when they were mentioned to him.
Through all of this, he handed people off to his publisher at Tachyon, Jacob Weisman. “This guy did all the work,” he told them about their collection, “The Unicorn Anthology.” The ratio was still running. Beagle couldn’t wait to give credit away, or to tell people that he really heard them and felt it when they explained how much his books had touched them.
On the long drive back to San Francisco, Beagle did it again. He told some of his best stories with his mic off, with no one but the Weismans and myself around to hear. Vonda McIntyre told him to make friends with Harlan Ellison by offering “vicious and personal” insults to the famously irascible author as often as possible. This, apparently, yielded a lifelong friendship. A thousand other stories like this, with names you’d know. Some I can tell and some I cannot. The hour was late and we were all buzzing with the exhaustion that dogs the heels of an evening well-spent.
I grew up reading these people, thinking of them as demigods of creation. I have had the pleasure of meeting a few of these people whose names I knew from pressing my fingertips to the spines of their books at the library, as images of who I wanted to be, as legends.
They’re people, in the end, and not all of them are charming. When people say don’t meet your heroes, they don’t mean don’t go to the bookstore. They mean you should expect a person, not a perfect projection of all you hoped they’d be. Beagle is just a person. But that numinous, glowing haze overtook the evening, despite all I know about the danger of investing people with the qualities I want to see in a role model. I was enspelled. We all were.
The best story of the night actually did take place on the stage. I attempted the tricky maneuver of asking an author where to find him in his own work: whether in Schmendrick or Jonathan Rebeck or Sarek… and none of my guesses were right. We never are. Authors are too good at cutting themselves into pieces and sewing everything together to get caught.
But Beagle did answer.
He said he’s the butterfly in “The Last Unicorn.” If you haven’t read it, you might have seen the movie when you were a kid. The butterfly speaks in other people’s words, always. He’s full of odds and ends of verse, bits of songs and nonsense. He’s trying to make himself understood by telling you who he’s read. He’s using the ratio.
“That’s me,” Beagle said, turning his storyteller’s voice away from the crowd and back to me alone. His wet eyes were magnetic, and I was locked. “I’m the butterfly. Don’t listen to me; listen to me.”
I heard him. I hear him still.