Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I Want to Write The Last Unicorn: Peter Beagle’s Effect on My Current Novel

When I finally whittled them down, there were seven ideas that could sustain themselves as novels. There was the epistolary about a Superman analog dealing with real world crises; there was the rich widower who feigned brain damage to get away from his family; the one about thieves in a forest that perpetually vanishes. Those might show up in print some day, but I decided on a different novel, because I had my heart set on writing The Last Unicorn.

It was Borgesian of me. Peter S. Beagle beat me to The Last Unicorn by several years. Even in the current literary climate of intellectual theft, where it’s both profitable and fashionable to reboot Frankenstein or continue Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, writing something even that even aped The Last Unicorn would be ugly. It’s a distinct novel, and I’m here to do my own work.

I didn’t want to write the exact book. I wanted to write my Nobody’s House, about a prison break of monsters. Succubae, centaurs, triclopes, imps, wizards, serial killers, sentient balls of snakes, and one petty crook caught amidst them. There are no unicorns or red bulls in the entire place. Beagle didn’t come to mind until I started writing it and seeing what was so appealing unfold. What I desired were certain characteristics Beagle he’d instilled into his novel.

The Last Unicorn is unusual for a Fantasy novel. It grows grim enough to satisfy Gothic fetishists, yet has a romantic sincerity that speaks to our gentler natures. Its linguistic complexity and referential breadth are so great that effete professors can nod at it. It opens as accessibly as any YA book, though not a page of it reads as restrained or sanitized for any audience. Where it goes light or sweet, this is because of eccentricity rather than pandering.

Oh, and it’s one book. The Two Hearts written four decades later isn’t fooling anybody; there is no sequel to The Last Unicorn. It doesn’t call for one. This isn’t Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time. The characters reveal themselves, grow and act sufficiently for a single book. Beagle’s little work has a beginning, a journey, a goal and a conclusion. We do not come back for the next year of classes at Hogwarts. It is a defining non-franchise. That makes it a rarity in the Fantasy canon, where series rule the earth (and bookshelf). How charming an idea, another world all in-between one set of covers.

That non-franchise trait is part of its accessibility. It is one book, scarcely over two-hundred pages, that completes the engagement. Anyone could pick it up, even those who only read a couple of Fantasies per year. They wouldn’t have to worry about when the next volume came out to get the ending.

Nor, in engaging with it, are there dense political schemes or magic systems to learn. Such things are the marks of greatness in Gormenghast and Lord of the Rings, but there is a charm to a book’s world being only what it is. Unicorns are this way. There are caravans of illusory beasts. You can trap magical creatures in the tides. Things are strange and weighty. To the sharper reader, it reminds us that our reality would be ridiculous if we didn’t live in it.

Not that my project necessarily shared all those traits. My stories are often preoccupied with how ridiculous our world is for having us live in it. Our ideas of romance differ, or are least differently skewed. As my characters grew, I let them go and redefine Nobody’s House into something utterly different. I became more influenced by Pixar’s mastery of parallel concerns and seeded motivations. And like any good work, it soon influenced itself more than anything in the real world did. The most Nobody’s House and The Last Unicorn wound up having in common was they both featured a bunch of monsters.

Well, that’s not true. The most they have in common is a theme. You see, The Last Unicorn is not a complete world. It is a character’s complete experience of a world. There’s a lot more haunting this world than what we see on the way to Haggard’s castle. So, too, in Nobody’s House, there’s much more than what goes on in the prison after the breakout. But you get one character’s complete experience of it.

It’s been humbling, in typing the last chapters of the book, to see how potential sequels open up. Fantasy is a series-dominated market, so I have gut inclinations to let it keep going. The survivors had more they could do – in another story.

But there’s this unicorn poking me in the conscience. I told her, “Your book’s more for kids, you can’t influence me like that."

She scoffed and told me, “Yeah, you read it three times.”

You can’t win fights with imaginary unicorns. Whether there’s a series following Nobody’s House, and whether audiences demand one, this will be a complete story. One quite a bit longer than two hundred pages, and one with very different populations. To the best of my knowledge Beagle never wrote a succubus tonguing a satyr to death, nor about a room of mutilated children waiting for story time, nor about slapping a giant spider across the mandibles and telling him to man up. Like every other writer who inspired some ideal into me, I’ve gone and written nothing like Beagle. I don’t know what he’d think of this book. It’d be wonderful, though, if some day he read it.


  1. Love love love. I hope I get to see a draft of this novel...! Also, email Peter Beagle. He will totally email back. I know. I've done it.

  2. Funny since the Last Unicorn was the last book I read. I first read it when I was 11, and it stuck with me all these years. I kept meaning to pick it up again. I wonder if the similarities in your book and his book would be apparent to the reader.

    You never know, maybe Beagle will read this blog post. Such is the wonder of the internet. :)

  3. Great post, John. I applaud you for focusing on character above series potential. I can't wait to get a peak at Nobody's House.

  4. Vanessa, how long was response to you?

    T.S., did you mean it was the first book you read? I can't imagine you giving up reading everything! I somehow doubt similarities will shine through for readers, though I'll be curious for their responses.

    Danni, the characters define this novel. It's bigger than the protagonist, but it's his experience and everyone is necessary to flesh it out. I can't imagine sacrificing them for franchise.

  5. Oh, by last, I meant to say I re-read it just a couple weeks ago as an adult. Many many books between that first reading and this one. :)

  6. I have not read this book yet, but I think it just jumped up to the top of my list.

    Both the Last Unicorn and Nobody's House sound like they take the same tone as the stand-alone fantasy I'm putting the finishing touches on.

    I'm very curious to see both.

    Thanks a lot!

  7. It's refreshing to see someone in the fantasy realm wanting to write something other than LoTR! ;-)

    Frankly, your monster-jailbreak sounds a lot more interesting. I hope you get it published.

  8. TS, I see. That makes more sense. I'm glad it's held up for you as an adult. It's actually been years since I've read it - I keep thinking it's fairer to read Beagle's other, more recent work. And then, my reading list gets away from me.

    Michael, it won't take you long to read it, unless you decide to dwell on Beagle's wealth of references. Well worth picking up, even if you and I aren't in the target demographic for it. Good luck on your own stand-alone project. How are you releasing it?

    Mr. FAR, I wanted to write Lord of the Rings when I was 11. And 13. And 16. And in college. Tolkien had more influence on me than almost any other single author, though I'll think you'll agree it doesn't show so much in my prose style or characters. Just as I don't want to ape Last Unicorn, I damned sure don't want to ape the Bible of Fantasy. I strongly believe in paying homage by doing your own thing. Thanks for the well wishes!

  9. A.) Nobody's House sounds good. I want to read it in the quite near future.

    B.) I wish I'd packed a copy of The Last Unicorn. I could do with a lilac woods right about now.

    C.) I came to the fantasy genre in a round about way and never read any of the big series until years after I'd read The Last Unicorn. To me, it was a novel. I've never thought about it as being so different from much of the genre.

  10. You can’t win fights with imaginary unicorns? I beg to differ.

    And I can't wait to see what Nobody's House has in store!


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