05-20-11:A 2011 Interview with Peter S. Beagle at SF in SF on April 16, 2011
"The fact that I was writing songs forced structure on me and forced economy on me..."
—Peter S. Beagle
It's an accident, this pairing of Peter S. Beagle and Alta Ifland. But it is not without justice, as Beagle works in a territory that is not so far from that of Ifland. Structure and economy are surely commonalities. But the way both writers use the elements of the fantastic connects them as well. Beagle is a masterful writer, and every chance to speak with him unearths some new and wildly intelligent insight.
Beagle's readings that night at SF in SF were superb, and in fact so superb that I recently broadcast his story "Up the Down Beanstalk" on my show "Talk of the Bay" for KUSP. Our conversation this time took him back to his roots as a singer and songwriter, as that is how a good friend first knew him. For me Beagle has always been the author of 'The Last Unicorn.' But when I first mentioned the name to my friend, he didn't say, "You mean the World Fantasy Award Winner?" He said, "You mean the guy who played guitar at my wedding?"
Sometimes you just have to be there — literally. As much as I can record the proceedings of The Agony Column Live, as much as we can commit them to tape, it is no substitute for being there. There is a power in the presence of the writers. Of course, there is also generally an electric current flowing as well, which tends to help the whole recording aspect of the show.
I was lucky, and knew it, to have the honor of two such fine guests for The Agony Column Live last month. Meg Wolitzer is one of our premiere writers of American fiction, and her latest novel, 'The Uncoupling,' fits perfectly into the purview of my readers' and listeners' interests — literary fiction with a twist of the fantastic. Alta Ifland is a superb poet and prose writer of fables and the grotesque who spins out nuggets from another world that happens, more often than not, to be part of our world. In some ways they couldn't be more different, but somehow they fit together perfectly and created a unique air in the Capitola Book Café.
You Think That's Bad,Jim ShepardandKurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories, 1963-1973,Kurt Vonnegut and Sidney Offit
It's funny, how well seemingly disparate books can fit together. On the surface, what could be more different than a contemporary collection of short stories and a selection of classic novels from the 1960's and 1970's? You can rest assured, however, that Alan Cheuse is going to get under the surface to explore the themes and tropes of any work he reads. This week, we talked about 'You Think That's Bad,' by Jim Shepard and 'Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories, 1963-1973,' by Kurt Vonnegut and with an introduction by Sidney Offit.
Perhaps it was the selection, or perhaps it was just years of talking about books, but this discussion with NPR'S Alan Cheuse seemed particularly enjoyable. Of course, it helps that we chose two books that we both really enjoyed.
Jim Shepard's collection of short stories is so packed and dense, with each story having so much back-story, that it is almost like a collection of novels. The stories are dense and funny, and there's a sort of bravado about all of them. Shepard takes readers everywhere and everywhen; from the ultra-violence of medieval France to the ultra-paranoia of the 21st century.
The Vonnegut collection is almost shockingly late, but I find it fascinating how, here in the 21st century, the Library of America is, in its own way, validating the science fiction of the 20th century. But the true virtue of the Library of America's work is that they offer readers (and reviewers!) a means of re-reading favorite titles in a different setting, something that does not get talked about much in these days of eternal invention and original release.
Yes, there is more than a nugget of truth to Keith Thomson's 'Once a Spy' and 'Twice a Spy.' In fact, there's an actual surveillance drone — which you can see Thomson holding in the photograph above. When he and I talked before the interview, he asked if I wanted him to bring along a surveillance drone. We got to launch the drone in the radio station, with KUSP's photographer, Steve Laufer on hand to record the events. Of course, there's an App for that.
Photo by Steve Laufer.
Thomson showed up at the station with an enormous burlap sack. Had he been so inclined, or had the morals of some of the less law-abiding characters he creates in his novels, he could probably have chopped up my body into pieces and carried it out to dump it in the Yacht Harbor next to KUSP. (That wouldn't have been a good idea, as the tsunami might have washed it up.) Inside the sack, however, was the drone — so no room for a bloody torso.
First, of course, we discussed his new novel, 'Twice a Spy,' in detail, but without revealing any plot points. If you haven't read 'Once a Spy' go buy it, read it, and then come back to this page. Now that you've been warned, I can say that for all the scientific research and tradecraft connections that Thomson has, he's a writer who mines his creative muse, not someone who plots by brand name. But there are a lot of stories behind the stories he writes, and those stories are not surprisingly just as interesting as those that end up in his novels.
Photo by Steve Laufer.
When we finished talking, we got to play with his drone, which was every bit as fun as I anticipated. I admit that I did not anticipate that it would literally be run by an iPhone app. You not only drive it from the iPhone, you also spy from the iPhone. You can see in the photos taken by Steve Laufer that the screen on the iPhone shows me taking a photo of the drone in the air. Of course, as tech like this gets cheaper and cheaper those who use it will be less and less under any sort of control. Your neighbor might use it to terrorize your dogs and make them bark all night. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
05-04-13: Commentary : Reasons Not to Leave the House, Reality Check : The Truth Hurts Edition: 'Down the Up Escalator' by Barbara Garson, 'The Wolf and the Watchman' by Scott C. Johnson,'The Book of Woe' by Gary Greenberg, 'Confessions of a Sociopath' by M. E. Thomas