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Peter S. Beagle on his new novel, the hero's journey, and why villains talk so much

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Something big threatens the kingdom of Bellemontagne - many somethings, which prefer their humans roasted. The new novel "I'm Afraid You've Got Dragons" is about that threat and also about reluctant heroes and an evildoer who just can't keep his yap shut. It's by Peter S. Beagle, who celebrated for his 1968 novel "The Last Unicorn," which, of course, charmed generations of young and not-so-young readers. Peter S. Beagle joins us from Berkeley, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.

PETER BEAGLE: It's a pleasure, truly, to be here.

SIMON: Tell us about the dragons in the kingdom and the surrounding kingdoms. Come in all shapes and sizes, don't they?

BEAGLE: Well, in the world of the heroes, dragons mostly have shrunk down. Only the forest folk vaguely remember the really big ones. Mostly, the hero himself is an eliminator of dragons. Dragons are like cockroaches, are like small animals you can't get rid of. And it's his job to clear them out. He hates doing it. He's always hated it.

SIMON: Yeah. We should explain your hero is - forgive me any mispronunciation - Gaius Aurelius Constantine Heliogabalus...

BEAGLE: Gabalus. Heliogabalus.

SIMON: ...Thrax. But we can call him Robert, right?

BEAGLE: He'd really prefer it.

SIMON: Does he feel a kinship with dragons?

BEAGLE: Yes, and he doesn't know why. Much of the time, he doesn't want to think about it. It's nothing that he wants to know. That's true for most of the characters in this book. The princess doesn't want to be a princess.

SIMON: Princess Cerise. Yeah.

BEAGLE: Prince Reginald doesn't particularly want to be a prince. What he mostly wants to do is go off somewhere where his father can't bother him and just lie in the grass and think about things and get drunk. That would be nice.

SIMON: (Laughter) What makes a hero? This is a subject you've returned to in your novels.

BEAGLE: Well, in my own experience, there are very few heroic deeds I've gotten through in my life. And each time, I didn't want to do it. I knew exactly what I had to do, and I did not want to do it. And so I understand Robert. I understand his position altogether too well.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the wizard in the book 'cause he can't keep his yap shut about what he's hellbent on doing. Why is that?

BEAGLE: Well, you can't possibly blame him. After all, he has been destroyed and come back. He has ridden with dragons. He knows so much about dragons, just not the important stuff. But because of his experience, he thinks he knows more than he does. And that's fatal. I know that myself.

SIMON: That's happened to you?

BEAGLE: It has. It has. Not with dragons, particularly.

SIMON: Yeah.

BEAGLE: But with everything from the English language to automobile engines. Yeah, it's happened.

SIMON: It's been 56 years since "The Last Unicorn."

BEAGLE: Boy, that was quick.

SIMON: How does that feel?

BEAGLE: Very strange some nights when I lie in bed and think about it. And at my age, I do think about those things. The main thing is, I don't know if I've done my best work yet. You always hope there's something beyond what you've done. What worries me about this book is that I like it. I never like books when I'm through with them. I always know what I've screwed up. And by the time I've figured that out, the book is already published. There's nothing to do, but go back and do the next one. With this one, "I'm Afraid You've Got Dragons," I actually like it. I've asked friends, will somebody please tell me how I've screwed this one up? So far, nobody has.

SIMON: I liked it. I don't think you screwed up anything.

BEAGLE: Maybe. Well, I'm old enough. Maybe I finally got away with it.

SIMON: (Laughter) Can fantasies help us get hold of the real world all around us?

BEAGLE: In a strange way, it's the only way I've ever gotten hold of the real world. In honesty, much of the time, I'm faking it. Maybe other people are. But mostly, that's what I do. I only know how to tell stories. Everything else I've just done the best I could. I raised children. I've held one or two jobs, but I've always known I'm supposed to tell stories. That's it. And the best I can do is tell them the best I can. Beyond that, at my age, I've gotten very good at pretending I know what I'm doing. Sometimes I even believe it myself.

SIMON: You're in your 80s, right?

BEAGLE: Eight-five as a week or so ago.

SIMON: Happy birthday.

BEAGLE: Thank you.

SIMON: You know, there are millions of readers all over the world who want to say thank you to you.

BEAGLE: I hope so. They write to me letters, and I'm very grateful. I always answer the letters.

SIMON: I must say this book has totally changed the way I think of dragons.

BEAGLE: Good, because it changed mine. Rather, I've always thought about dragons. Somebody did write to me wishing I had told more about dragons. Maybe I will another day. But right now, I'm glad I was able to say as much as I did.

SIMON: Peter S. Beagle, his new novel "I'm Afraid You've Got Dragons." Thank you so very much for being with us.

BEAGLE: It's been a great pleasure, more than I can tell you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.