Many celebrated novelists are not especially keen on interviews. They have nothing to say or they’ve said it all before or they’d rather spend their time writing or they’re afraid of giving up the hard-won secrets to their work. An interview is, at best, something to be endured.
Ursula K. Le Guin was different. She loved the push and pull of a good conversation. Her stories were laden with meaning, but she wrote without conscious intention, as a voyage of discovery—which meant that after publication she was delighted to entertain readers’ conclusions about where she ended up. She liked to do interviews in front of an audience and liked to do them by mail or email so she could weigh her replies. And she did them in person in her home, sometimes improving the transcript later, sometimes not. She always had something to say.
When necessary, Le Guin could play the role of the interviewer too, always better than whoever nominally had the job. Paul Walker, doing a Q&A for the fanzine Luna Monthly in 1976, could not visit her at her home in Oregon, so he asked from afar what would happen if he showed up and said, “Tell me about yourself.”
“Sure,” Le Guin playfully responded, “I could give you a vivid description of Mrs. Le Guin (Tall, balding, full-bearded, she met me at the door with a hearty handclasp. ‘Come in and help us gut the elk’ she boomed). But then I could give you other descriptions equally vivid (It was at first difficult to induce Mrs. Le Guin to speak, as she hung placidly head downward from a branch of the large catalpa tree in the drawing room).”
And then, the joke made, she cut to her point: “But what is truth, as jesting Pilate remarked, and what is the good of the cult of personality, I wonder? I mean some of us are Norman Mailer, right on, but others of us are middle-aged Portland housewives. It seems to me that my public self is in my books, and my private self is and should be of real interest only to myself and family.”
She maintained that distinction for more than forty years, talking publicly but not privately. It was enough. Some writers need experience to feed the imagination, but Le Guin’s experiences were all in her head. She prided herself in having as few external stimuli as possible. She told an interviewer from Poland in 1988 her ideal schedule:
5:30 a.m.—wake up and lie there and think.
6:15 a.m.—get up and eat breakfast (lots).
7:15 a.m.—get to work writing, writing, writing.
1:00-3:00 p.m.—reading, music.
3:00-5:00 p.m.—correspondence, maybe house cleaning.
5:00-8:00 p.m.—make dinner and eat it.
After 8:00 p.m.—I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this.
She felt sorry for writers who have to force themselves to the typewriter. She didn’t understand writer’s block. “I have always liked to work,” she confessed. There was nowhere else she wanted to be, and even if there was, she couldn’t get there: she didn’t drive. She took a sabbatical year in London, went to Australia for a convention, and visited her family’s Napa Valley ranch every summer. That was about it. “I did that introversion/extroversion test once long ago, and I was just off the charts on introvert,” she told Interview magazine in 2015. “I was slightly inhuman. It was sort of scary.”
With such a passion for routine and order, the wonder is that the books were not routine as well. She could have written forty-three volumes set in the Earthsea archipelago instead of a mere six, made a bundle off them, and, given our debased age, been just as acclaimed. But she let her inspiration guide her, and it went all over the place. She wrote novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, essays, performance art, commencement speeches, how-to-write manuals, introductions, translations, criticism, children’s picture books, books for young adults, the text for photography volumes, and letters to the editor. She liked blogging, even after it was no longer in vogue. She was a political activist in word and deed. She did not like Twitter.
Her first story, at age nine, was about a man who sees elves. No one else can see them, but they get him in the end. That might have been the bleakest thing she ever wrote. She spent her twenties unknown and unpublished, learning her craft, then another five years breaking into the field of science fiction with pleasant but minor works. Then bang, in her late thirties she wrote and published her first masterpieces, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness, within months of each other. The former was issued by an obscure Berkeley press, the latter as a paperback from Ace, the big sci-fi factory, but the reputation of both quickly transcended these modest beginnings. Left Hand was particularly influential with other writers, showing them how they could stretch their subject matter into areas like gender, but I suspect Wizard molded more readers. It taught them what they owe to the world—a reversal of most fantasy, which is about what the world owes you. Wizard is about power and responsibility, and how the greatest enemy is often within.
In the mid-1970s, when I was a science fiction–besotted teen, Wizard was reissued by Bantam with a cover showing a dragon intertwined with a town and its castle, his nostrils belching smoke. Neither too cute nor too grim, that cover sold me, and I read my first Le Guin. I liked the book and appreciated its Tolkien-flavored heroic quest, but nothing more. In 2003, covering a senseless war, I took my copy to Baghdad. At night I would crouch behind the bed in my hotel room, the safest place I could find, listening to the explosions in the distance and reading. The book had changed, acquiring depths I never noticed. I learned how Ged, the young wizard who has immense gifts and is arrogant about them, was apprenticed to the mage Ogion:
When it rained Ogion would not even say the spell that every weatherworker knows, to send the storm aside. In a land where sorcerers come thick, like Gont or the Enlades, you may see a raincloud blundering slowly from side to side and place to place as one spell shunts it on to the next, till at last it is buffeted out over the sea where it can rain in peace. But Ogion let the rain fall where it would. He found a thick fir-tree and lay down beneath it. Ged crouched among the dripping bushes wet and sullen, and wondered what was the point of having power if you were too wise to use it, and wished he had gone as prentice to that old weatherworker of the Vale, where at least he would have slept dry. He did not speak any of his thoughts aloud. He said not a word.
His master smiled, and fell asleep in the rain.
Wizard, its sequels, and Left Hand dominated discussion of Le Guin’s work for decades, with the occasional addition of The Dispossessed for those of a more political bent. This irritated the writer, who found herself endlessly talking about books she had written long ago. When Nick Gevers, in an interview reprinted in this volume, asked her in 2001 about her current work, her relief was palpable. As she moved through her eighties, the entire scope of her career became visible and she became a cultural sage. In 2007, Death Ray magazine tried to sum things up:
Q: You are at the height of a very fruitful career. You’ve already had a huge influence on many writers and readers. What do you hope your legacy will be?
LE GUIN: Irreverence toward undeserved authority, and passionate respect for the power of the word. Oh, and my books staying in print, too.
Q: Which are your favorite books from your own work?
LE GUIN: I love them all, the flawed little bastards.
The first interview with a writer I can remember reading was a conversation with Le Guin in a science fiction fanzine called Algol in 1975. It was originally a radio interview, and like many of the author’s interviews, she reworked it heavily for print. She had won a Hugo from the science fiction fans for The Left Hand of Darkness, and a National Book Award for children’s literature for The Farthest Shore, the third Earthsea book, and so the interviewer rather crassly asked:
Q: Which would you rather have, a National Book Award or a Hugo?
LE GUIN: Oh, a Nobel, of course.
Q: They don’t give Nobel Prize awards for fantasy.
LE GUIN: Maybe I can do something for peace.
By the time she was in her eighties, they were giving Nobels for fantasy (Portugal’s José Saramago, for one) and she herself was a contender. I told her one year she was given odds of twenty-five to one, and she fired back that she knew what that meant: “All I have to do in the next twenty-five years is outlive the other twenty-four writers.” Le Guin, in retrospect, never had a chance with the Swedish Academy, which was enmeshed in a sexual harassment and abuse scandal that it covered up for years.
Someday scholars will seek out every Le Guin interview in every fanzine and Oregon newspaper. They will transcribe all the Q&As on YouTube and track down the public appearances that are not. The result will be several fat volumes, full of wisdom and other good things. In the meantime, here’s a sampling of some quotes from interviews that did not fit into this volume, but which I found particularly illuminating.
Why even her bleakest stories are interwoven with optimism:
It may just be a refusal to take the counsel of despair. I think to admit despair and to revel in it—as many 20th- and 21st-century writers do—is an easy way out. Whenever I get really really depressed and discouraged about our politics in America and what we are doing, ecologically speaking, globally speaking, [with] our mad rush to destroy the world, it’s very easy to say, “To hell with us. This species is not successful.” Something tells me I have no right to say that. There are good people. Who am I to judge? The problem with despair is it gets judgmental.
How she became a feminist in the early 1970s:
It was a real mind shift. And I was a grown woman with kids. And mothers of children were not welcome among a lot of early feminists. I was living the bad dream. I was a mommy. You know there’s always prejudice in a revolutionary movement. I wasn’t even sure I was welcome. And I wasn’t to some of those people. It took a lot of thinking for me to find what kind of feminist I could be and why I wanted to be a feminist.
The humor in her work that many cannot see:
I roll around laughing sometimes writing it, and then the critics come on and they are so damned serious and talk about Discourses and Epiphanies and Battles of Good and Evil and all that. I remember trying to show the scriptwriter for Lathe of Heaven that the book was essentially comic. His script was quite humorless. Heavy-handed. So the poor guy laboriously stuck in some bad jokes, and we had to take them out again. Humor is a chancy thing; and when it’s an element of a serious book, a lot of people just miss it, perhaps because they don’t expect complexity, and there isn’t a laugh track.
On science fiction:
Here we’ve got science fiction, the most flexible, adaptable broad range, imaginative, crazy form that prose fiction has ever attained and we’re going to let it be used for making toy plastic ray guns that break when you play with them and prepackaged, precooked, predigested, indigestible flavorless TV dinners and big inflated rubber balloons containing nothing but hot air? Well, I say the hell with that.
On the unconventional form of her far-future Napa Valley novel Always Coming Home, which reversed her usual method of composition:
You know, a novelist’s job is largely leaving things out. Getting the story flowing clear of all the junk around it—the river banks. Well, in this book, I wanted to include the river banks. Not only the river, but the banks of the river and the bed of the river and the trees over the river. So in some ways I had to unlearn everything I’d learned about writing a book… Stuff has to go down inside of you, get into the dark and turn into something else, before you can use it in art. If you use raw experience, straight experience, you’re doing journalism which is another discipline.
Sex in fiction:
I find that as I get older, I write more freely and with more pleasure about sexuality. I don’t write very much about sex, the act of sex itself, because I don’t like to read about it. I have never enjoyed reading about sex. It’s like reading about a football game or a wrestling match. It might be fun to watch or to do but it isn’t any fun to read about.
I don’t feel the short story is a tight form. It can be made so; tight plotters and gimmick-ending writers like it so. But in itself it is potentially immense. To have read Chekhov is to know that as a certainty. It’s like the sonnet. Fourteen lines and a demanding rhyme scheme seems to be a tight, closed form, but Wordsworth got all of London and all the sunrise into it.
Whether she saw herself as a radical:
Yeah, I do. That’s easy enough. Of course, being a radical in the United States… you can be slightly left of center and you’re immediately called “radical.” I’ve always been something of a socialist in politics and so on, and that’s extremely radical over here. I think some of my writing is radical in a sort of quiet way. I don’t go in for dangerous writing and shocking people and so on. If radical means getting down to the roots of things you write, then I do see that as my job, trying to get down to the roots.
Why the map of Earthsea came before the stories:
At first the map could be adjusted to fit the story. This is the beauty of fantasy—your invention alters at need, at least at first. If I didn’t want it to take two weeks, say, to get from one island to another, I could simply move the islands closer. But once you’ve decided that the islands are that far apart, that’s it. The map is drawn. You have to adjust to it as if it were a reality. And it is.
How being a Westerner influenced her work and career:
Being far from the centers of commercial publishing and the ingroups and the anxieties and influences of East Coast literary circles, where the big question is, Am I with it?—we left-edgers, boondockers, prairie chickens, etc., often have an attitude which is more describable as, Oh, the hell with it. This is healthy. I don’t think it’s ever really healthy for a writer to be an insider.
The reality of made-up things:
It has something to do with the very nature of fiction. That age-old question, Why don’t I just write about what’s real? A lot of 20th century—and 21st century—American readers think that that’s all they want. They want nonfiction. They’ll say, I don’t read fiction because it isn’t real. This is incredibly naive. Fiction is something that only human beings do, and only in certain circumstances. We don’t know exactly for what purposes. But one of the things it does is lead you to recognize what you did not know before.