Welcome to a new interview series! Its been a while since the last one and this is one I think you’re going to enjoy! Our guest this time is Peter Beagle, one of this generation’s absolute best writers. Peter wrote The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place, two classics that would have earned him a place in literary history if he had just stopped right there. But of course he didn’t and we’re all the richer for Peter’s continuing to share his stories, his vision and his beautiful soul with the rest of us.
You don’t have to believe me — ask the folks who know a thing or two like fellow author Neil Gaiman or the Science Fiction folks who awarded Peter the Hugo Award this year at the World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles.
By the way, The Last Unicorn is now available on audio book being read by Peter Beagle himself. And he has a fabulous voice for reading! Absolutely mellifluous!
But the one thing I CAN tell you is that interviewing Peter is a once in a lifetime honor. So with that, let me invite you to listen in on our chat about dogs, ducks, cats, horses and life. This is the first part in a series of three parts.
Joy: Were here with Peter S. Beagle, the man known for The Last Unicorn and numerous other works. Were talking about your dogs, dogs who have made a real impression on your life. Can you tell me about one or more of them?
Peter Beagle: There were two in particular Id say that left a special impression. One was a dog who came with the first house I rented when I was married to my first wife, the mother of my children suddenly I was 24 with an instant family with 3 kids. We were just able to rent a house in the hills north of Santa Cruz in 1963. It had no central heat, no basement; it was perched over a hole in the ground. And it did come with 9 acres of wild land, which my kids loved. They just ran all over it and enjoyed it to the fullest. There was a stable down the hill that was half taken apart, probably for firewood, where I used to work if the weather was bad; otherwise I worked outside, sitting on a small hillside along the driveway, which my oldest daughter came to call Pete’s Hill.” The dog that came with the house was half boxer, half German shepherd, and he belonged to the landlords brother. His name was Schnapps. His best friend was a pigeon a very fat pigeon because she lived off dog food. And we named her Duck. She had obviously been hand-raised; there was a band around her leg. I never knew the full story of either one of them. But Duck and Schnapps were an item there wasn’t any question about it. They slept together. If he rolled over in sleep and squished her she would be talking to herself, mumbling, pigeon talking, but shed move just a little bit away. Wherever I went with Schnapps, I could hear her wings. Took a lot to get her into the air, as I said, because she was a fat pigeon. But she flew after us. I used to see her just pecking gently at him, and Id think shed be after bugs, or I thought shed be grooming him, and then I realized, no, Duck doesn’t eat bugs, she eats dog food. She really doesn’t bother the bugs, that’s just affection. Shes just doing that.
JW: What goes through your mind about this relationship between Schnapps and Duck?
PSB: Well it had nothing to do with words, nothing to do with species, even, though I know nothing more about how It came to be than I know how an orphan hippopotamus I read this recently appears to have hooked up with a very large tortoise: the hippo lost its parents, and somehow bonded with this tortoise. Things like this happen. I remember Schnapps as a saint among dogs, you might say. He didn’t like fighting. He was a lover not a fighter, without any question, but there was another dog, a German shepherd over the hill, belonging to our neighbors, he was about twice as big and infinitely meaner. Turk liked to fight and Schnapps didn’t. There was a female in heat one summer and Turk would be coming over don’t know where the hell she was, never saw her in the town but Turk would come over and you could see Schnapps just sigh ah God, here it goes again, hardly recovered from the last time, but its my turf, I live here and he doesn’t . He has no business here. Damn, here we go again. And he would go out full tilt to challenge Turk. And Schnapps idea of fighting was to get a good firm hold on his opponents ear and hang on. Turk, that damn dog; Id try to break them up
JW: What did you learn from Schnapps? Here was a dog that can have a relationship with nothing to do with words, nothing to do with the species and still has this sort of relationship with a femme fatale and has this antagonism with Turk. What did you learn from him?
PSB: Well, I learned from Schnapps that one part of your life is doing what you have to do. Your instincts are to guard your turf, you have no real choice in the matter: your gonads tell you to go after this lady dog, I would have liked to have seen her, somewhere around. Its not stuff Schnapps seemed to feel he had any choice about, just something he had to do. But Duck the pigeon, that was somehow a matter of choice. The thing that was not programmed the thing that was not a matter of Schnapps genes or Schnapps involuntary muscle system or Schnapps hormones. It was something else. That was dog and pigeon as individuals. What made the pigeon bond with the dog?
JW: Whats important about doing that something else?
PSB: Well, Id say it keeps us human. In Schnapps case, it kept him an individual. He never knew any other dog who did anything like that. He also had a way of sneaking up on something that he wanted. Schnapps believed firmly that he was a lap dog. He was not a lap dog he was bigger than the average lap. But he would stand beside your chair at night, scratching his head, watching the children, and suddenly a hind leg, not a front leg; a hind leg would be in my lap. If I wouldn’t do anything about it, by and by here would come the other back leg and there Schnapps would be, standing on his front paws with his back legs in my lap, pretending nothing was happening. But he could sneak up on you.
He looked more like a boxer. There wasn’t much German shepherd about him, short haired, and tan with white patches. And a little pink, up here (points to mouth).
Ill do a children’s story about him and Duck. But the difference is that Id like it to have a happy ending. Schnapps died of a tick bite, just gradually wasted away. We took him to the vet a lot and Duck would always fly down when we came back, whether we had him or not, and perch in the open window, and look in. She understood that we had taken him away, in that station wagon, and when he died, we tried to get another dog for her. Found a puppy that was approximately Schnapps color, thinking color would have something to do with it. And we tried to introduce them. Duck wanted nothing to do with him. The puppy was perfectly willing to play, he liked her, and shed just fall on him and chase him away if he got too exasperating. And she died, eventually. You cant say a pigeon died of a broken heart, but I don’t know. All I know is that he died, then she died. I don’t know how old she was, could have been very old.
JW: You’re saying that he was an individual. Whats important about him being an individual in this way, just as you’re saying, you would say it makes us human? But in his case, an individual.
PSB: There’s so many things that people do, that dogs do, that pigeons do. There’s certain things we are hardwired to do and its very rare that we go against those wired-in items, those genes, that history. I’m always struck when people do something that they shouldn’t be able to do; that they have no business doing this, mentally or physically. What allows a large dog, what provokes a large dog to bond with a pigeon? I just feel that it was Schnapps own idea and Ducks own idea.
JW: When you’re saying its his own idea, how does that make you feel that they can overcome their hard wiring?
PSB: It makes me feel very good, and hopeful, which I’m not always. Because if they can do it, people can do it.
JW: Tell me more about that.
PSB: I don’t like people very much as a species. I have people I’m very fond of, people I love. I make friends, as far as it goes, easily. But I don’t like the species; I don’t like all the darkness under the surface. And we’ve used our imagination, which is special to humans, to invent varieties of cruelty that animals never think of. Yes, we’ve also created great art, great buildings, great institutions, but I never feel that humans are that far away from rending and devouring. Um. That’s why I’ve always gotten annoyed and aggravated when someone referred to a thuggish sort of person as a gorilla. Of all the creatures in the world, the gorilla has always struck me as the most inherently decent in the human sense.
Join us tomorrow for part two of the Peter Beagle Interview Series!