An Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin

To those of us who read the Earthsea Saga when we were children, or picked up The Left Hand of Darkness as a matter of course when discovering the sci-fi canon as teenagers, Ursula K. Le Guin needs no introduction. She is not only the godmother of the sci-fi genre but also the writer of some seven collections of poetry, twenty-two novels, over a hundred short stories, four books of essays, twelve children’s books, and four books of translation. Her list of honors and awards, from 1968 to the present, runs on and on.

More than that, though, Le Guin is at the forefront of sci-fi writers who unabashedly point out when famous authors publish sci-fi novels under the guise of lit-fic for sales purposes. She had no problem returning to her Earthsea trilogy some eighteen years later firmly giving more space to her female protagonist in the next three Earthsea books, realizing that the gender dynamics of her work needed changing. Her books imagined, way before most books could imagine, worlds untouched by capitalism and expansionism, divested of racial or sexual discriminations; utopias, in other words, that made you recognize your own prejudices and yearn to change them. It’s no coincidence that the Occupy movement embraced Le Guin’s infamous story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and that The Dispossessed has been available on the anarchist library for years. Her stories inspire revolution.

At the same time though, when I was lucky enough to get an email from Ursula Le Guin agreeing to answer a few questions, and I dove into her story “Elementals,” I was reminded how it is her writing, haunting and evocative, that so quickly takes my breath away. “I took your questions over to Cannon Beach where I spent a nice quiet day with them,” Le Guin wrote to me a week later with her answers, published below. I looked for Cannon Beach online and found Haystack Rock, a frightening geological formation towering out of the Pacific Ocean and over the Oregon beach. And for a second I thought I was looking out at the Earthsea Archipelagos from Gont, and that Kalessin the dragon was about to fly in.

Entire worlds change when you read Ursula Le Guin.


Alexandra Manglis: It would seem more natural, perhaps, to begin a conversation with you on the subject of the EarthSea saga, or the Hainish Cycle – the books in which so many of your admirers, myself included, first discovered your writings. But I thought it might be more interesting to start somewhere recent. I’m thinking about one of your latest stories, “Elementals”, published last year in Tin House’s “Portland / Brooklyn” issue. (The issue itself is a treasure trove of writing, also featuring Ben Lerner, Vanessa Veslka, and Charles D’Ambrosio.) I was struck by how familiar to me the narrator’s voice in Elementals was. It reminded me of the voice in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – the gentle, authoritative, academic voice – almost dispassionate, sometimes teasing – so that the fantastic things it is describing lose their sense of being unreal or fictitious, resulting in the reader feeling just pure wonderment at the glorious existence of airlings, booklets, chthons, and draks. Could you tell me a little bit about this voice? Where it comes from, how you use it, when it’s needed?

Ursula K Le Guin: It’s a pleasure to talk about new work, rather than what I wrote forty years ago – Thank you!

But if I knew the origin of a story and the voice that tells it, I could answer the famous question, “Where do you get your ideas from?” 

The only answer I have is, You go fishing in the Ocean of Story. There are a lot of fish there, and some of them are talking fish. Some stories are their voice. They tell themselves. My job is to listen to that voice carefully and with patience and write down what it says as it says it. 

The pieces that became “Elementals” aren’t stories in the sense of narrating an event, they’re more like declarations of existence. A talking fish came up beside my boat and told me that airlings exist, and how they exist, and I wrote it all down carefully.

I wish talking fish were more common, or that I knew some way to attract them; but they come and go at their own will.

AM: Who do you read, what are you reading? Aside from being widely read in sci-fi and fantasy writers, in the spirit of Wave Composition’s vibe I can’t help but notice the inclusion of a Levertov poem in the Buffalo Gal‘s collected stories, similar environmental anxieties and Amerindian mythological rewritings as Snyder, the way you easily and casually discuss Stein and Woolf, and your love, so clearly articulated in your reviews, of surrealist and experimenting writers like Marquez, Bolano, Borges, Calvino, and Saramago. Maybe “who do you read” is the wrong question and “who are you writing with?” is a better one.

UKL: I’ve read so much fiction and poetry all my life that any choice of major ‘influences’ or companionships feels arbitrary.  I’m trying to think what I respond to, in general terms.        

Landscape — in poetry, fiction (and painting, and music –maybe that’s fanciful, except for Beethoven’s Sixth — but I just heard the first movement of the Shostakovich Tenth exploring a landscape of sorrow, rage, pain, compassion, a vast, dark country.)

Imaginative intelligence, wit, invention (but less so when they’re  essentially cerebral, as in much science fiction and most surrealism). 

The chance to feel with people in a story. As in Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, Tolstoy, Hardy, etc etc.  (When the characters are shallow, or I’m kept at a distance by authorial hyper-control, or am offered only action & sex, I get bored.)

The chance to inhabit a different world (real, as in Austen’s England,  or invented as in Middle Earth,  or a combination — Kingsolver’s Virginia in Flight Behavior).

The music of the language. I respond helplessly to it in poetry. Even Swinburne at his most brainless can still make my breath catch and tears start. When music is meaning, Shakespeare or Shelley or Hopkins or Housman or a poet I never heard of, that beats all. In prose the harmonies are syntactic and structural and the rhythms are so large I’m not normally aware of them, but I know they make the absolute delight of reading Austen or Woolf or Tolkien. And then there’s our American colloquial writing, like the best of Mark Twain, like H.L. Davis or Kent Haruf or Molly Gloss, where you hear the true Western cadence –  music to my ears.

AM: In 1862 Thoreau called for an American mythology – he describes it as the literature that most closely expressed the Wild and that can “transcend the order of time and development”. With the recent two-volume publication of your work The Unreal and the Real, some are saying that your stories are the forever types, “stories for the ages”. I think too that the myths made out of and for a nation can be the locations of political and social dissent. Your anarchist bent in works like The Dispossessed is well known, but I wondered about your myth-making: Coyote as a female in blue jeans, fucking, pissing, shitting, still a troublemaker, an adventurer, an “old person”; a half-burnt, mauled, raped, young woman becoming dragon; the road trip in “Places Names” where the travelers glimpse neglected myth characters as they cross the country. This is myth, I think when I read it, but this is *now*. What’s myth to you?

UKL: Mostly it’s a word I keep away from. At a conference on myth, years ago in New York, they were almost universally using the word to mean untruth — foolish belief or deliberate lie. To me that’s a misuse.  But in other circles ‘myth’ means a story whose Truth is inherently superior to the ‘mere’ factuality of science. I can’t go there either.

I guess growing up with an anthropologist left me using the word technically: myths are the foundation stories of a society and a culture. A mythology tells who “we” the People are, where we came from, where we’re going, and the right way to go.  

At this point, only remnant populations and splinter groups can have a coherent mythology, and it’s under constant assault from outside.  The rest of us can only borrow stories that make sense to us individually, as dragons or Coyote do to me. Our attempts at myth don’t unite into coherence (e.g., the science-fiction theme of Man Conquers the Galaxy, playing variations on the myth of human supremacy even as the fallacy of it was becoming clear.)  “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” Myths grow from the center of the world. Our world society has no center, only increasingly destructive growth, fractal growth.

AM: Always Coming Home, about the world of the Kesh, seems to me to the pinnacle of the generically undefinable text, where only the term “encyclopedic novel” really comes close. It’s fable, myth, anthropological study, dystopia, environmental fiction, science-fiction, an old tale of revolution and a heroine, written in multiple forms: poetry, scientific treatise, historical account, novel, artwork, musical accompaniment and often using an ostensible future language the reader is unfamiliar with. I can’t actually think of another sci-fi text that is as radically challenging to ideas of genre. (Even PK Dick’s Ubik or Delaney’s Dhalgren don’t really match up to what you’re doing there). The book itself seems to know this with its mullings on fiction and non-fiction narratives, on how the Kesh view the factual and non-factual. In Always Coming Home it’s clear that you love narrative, but that also you aren’t tied to the idea of narratives with beginnings and endings. Does that make sense? And how can that make sense, especially in terms of the seeming “straightness” of genre fiction?

UKL: I’m an extremely wilful writer. When I stumbled (happily) into writing science fiction and fantasy, I paid no mind to rules and expectations that didn’t suit me. I followed those that made sense to me –  such as Delany’s Law, that science fiction must not deny what is known to be known — or the Great Law of Fantasy, that you get to make up the rules but then must follow them. Other strictures, conventions, and notions — that sf should be “told straight,” should be journalistic and without “literary pretentions,” must be “about ideas,” must be based only the “hard” sciences, etc. — struck me as variously constricting, impossible, and silly.

I see, now, that being a woman in a powerfully and consciously masculist field, and writing a literature ignored and despised by academic/literary critics, I had a rare freedom. Life outside the pale, and under the radar, can be good. And my timing was good: I came into science fiction along with editors and writers who, like me, saw it as a literature barely explored, wide open to talent and invention. Masculism, criticism, who cares? Let’s go!

The Left Hand of Darkness was a very novel novel in 1969, not only in subject but in style, yet it won the Nebula Award, voted by sf writers, and the Hugo, voted by sf readers. The genre was ready for change. I couldn’t have published anything so extremely heterodox (even in litcrit terms), then, as Always Coming Home — but neither could I have written it.

By the early eighties (thanks largely to my agent, Virginia Kidd, and principal editor, Buz Wyeth), I was free to write whatever I would, without reference to genre restrictions, critical prejudices, or sales figures. I could do something as risky as Always Coming Home, exploring and pushing at the limits of two fictional genres (science fiction and utopia) and of fiction itself.

It’s curious to me to see the contortions and denials well-known contemporary writers who write sf but don’t wish to be identified as sf writers go through. They have all the freedom I had, and more, but they seem not to want it.

That’s why Saramago has become my hero.  He never played safe.

AM: I think empty-handed Shevek is one of those moments in literature few can forget. It says everything about the value culture we live in today, where to arrive empty-handed is something to be ashamed of. So many of your books and essays imagine a world where real value is based on how we interact with one another with the loci of those interactions situated in your societies’ norms of sex, gender, race, and class. It seems to be one of the building blocks of your writing. Are the two, writing and how humanity values itself, inseparable to you?

UKL:  This is the kind of question to which the only response is “Thank you.” 

I’m no good at abstract thought about values and such; I think in and through my writing — the inventions & the music. If the result is good, that’s good. But all I can honestly take credit for is the work, the workmanship. The rest comes through me, not from me. Or that’s how it feels to me.