Looking for a literary tie between Seattle and Pittsburgh? It may seem as hard to find as a unicorn. But it actually involves a unicorn.
When the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America honors its next SFWA Grand Master, that award will go to Peter S. Beagle, author of well-known, and much-loved, fantasy classic, The Last Unicorn. Not only will the honor be bestowed at the SFWA Nebula Conference, which is in Pittsburgh this year, but Beagle himself has connections to both cities.
Beagle is the 34th recipient of the lifetime achievement award from SFWA, an organization for professionals in the field. It’s officially called the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, after the science fiction author and editor. Previous recipients include Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. LeGuin, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Joe Haldeman.
Beagle’s work, according to SFWA President Cat Rambo, “has been the gateway for multitudes of fantasy readers, but also writers as well, including myself. His work shines a light on the human heart and its beauties even when that heart is flawed and wanting, showing how that beauty arises from such imperfect conditions.”
In addition to being known for the 1968 novel The Last Unicorn, Beagle has won fantasy’s Mythopoeic Award for his books The Folk of the Air and Tamsin, was nominated for a Hugo Award after adapting The Lord of the Rings for Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 animated film, and wrote the screenplay for the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Sarek.” He also has won the Hugo and Nebula awards for short fiction.
Beagle, who now resides in California, lived in Seattle and on Bainbridge Island for a half-dozen years starting in 1985. It was while on Bainbridge that he wrote the novel The Innkeeper’s Song and the Star Trek: TNG script. “I liked the Northwest a lot, rain and perpetual overcast and all, and I enjoyed the two quarters that I spent teaching fiction and screenwriting at the University of Washington,” he told GeekWire. “I even had my own sliver of beach, where I dug clams when friends came for dinner.”
Bainbridge later inspired the setting of his 2016 novel Summerlong, which takes place on an island in Puget Sound. Kirkus Reviews described it as “an intimate drama between the members of a family who are slowly blindsided by myth and magic spilling into their ordinary world.” Beagle said his short story “Underbridge” is set on Queen Anne and in Fremont, “where the Troll lives.”
But Pittsburgh? That’s where Beagle got his start as a writer, at least formally.
Beagle said he came to the University of Pittsburgh as a writing student in 1955, when he was 16 years old. “It was the Steel City of legend then: legendary for its griminess, its foul air, its wretched baseball team, the blazing mills along the river going night and day,” he recalled. “Seeing it from an airplane at night (which was my first sight of the city) was truly like being welcomed to hell.”
Yet the city grew on him. “I came to cherish Pittsburgh, as I still do, even though there literally isn’t a brick on a brick remaining of the mid-fifties town I knew,” he said.
It’s in modern Pittsburgh where Beagle will be honored by SFWA for his lifetime contributions to science fiction and fantasy literature during the Nebula Awards and conference, to be held May 17-20 at the Pittsburgh Marriott City Center.
SFWA’s Rambo, who lives in Seattle, said this is the second consecutive time the Nebulas have been in Pittsburgh (the location rotates every two years). Rambo said Pittsburgh has plenty of fantasy and science fiction ties, from its own fan events to media references. “It’s been mentioned in Star Trek, Buck Rogers, and the Quantum Leap season finale, as well as in novels, comic books, and games,” she said.
The Nebula Conference is open to anyone paying to register, not just SFWA members. “There are some excellent programming tracks related to career management and the craft of writing,” SFWA Executive Director Kate Baker said. “If you want to geek out, we anticipate some of the biggest names in the SFF genres to be there.”
And there is a no-cost, open-to-the-public opportunity for readers in Pittsburgh as well. “Our mass autographing session on Sunday afternoon will give fans a unique opportunity to get books signed by their favorite authors, for free,” Baker said, expecting more than 75 writers to be on hand. “You do not have to be an attendee of the conference to get into that event, just bring in something to sign.”
The awards, in categories ranging from short fiction to screenplay, will be handed out Saturday night, along with the Grand Master Award. Those new to his work may find it worthwhile to read beyond Beagle’s best-known.
“Being stuck with a ‘signature book’ has all the benefits and frustrations of an actor at once stalled and celebrated by the single role that made him or her forever famous,” Beagle said of The Last Unicorn. His favorite of his works is the now out-of-print The Innkeeper’s Song, and he said he’s “very proud” of the books Tamsin and In Calabria.
His first novel, A Fine and Private Place, has its own audience, but he said he can’t judge it himself.
“All I can see when I look at it is that teenager in Schenley Hall, tapping away on his Hermes portable typewriter late at night, earnestly trying not to wake up his roommate,” Beagle said. “It was all very long ago, and — as I’ve said — neither that Pittsburgh or that kid exist anymore.”