Best known for her children’s stories of wizards in Books of Earthsea and award-winning science-fiction such as The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin has brought her brilliant writing to historical fiction. Lavinia, her most recent book, is inspired by Virgil’s classic The Aeneid and brings Bronze Age Italy to life with this story of war and madness. Born in 1929 to an anthropologist father and writer mother, Le Guin submitted her first story at the tender age of twelve. It was rejected. But she persevered and has defied categorization by publishing mainstream stories, novels, children’s books, essays, literary criticism and poetry. She’s accumulated numerous awards including: the National Book Award, five Hugos, five Nebulas, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize and the Howard Vursell Award, among others. Ms. Le Guin talked to me from her home in Portland, Oregon.
FAITH L. JUSTICE: You’ve described yourself frequently as an artist. What does that mean to you?
Ursula K. Le Guin: There are dance artists, painting artists, writing artists. Authors are writing artists. I think people restrict the term artist to mean painters and sculptors. I think the practice of art, in whatever medium you do it in, is one large similar thing. I’m just glad that words are my medium, because I love them.
FLJ: So you consider it something of a sacred calling?
UKLG: It’s probably not a term that I would originate, but yes I do. Any craft pursued with real seriousness has a sacred quality about it, unless you’re just doing it for the money. That’s rather rare. Most people do it, at least partly, for their own sake. This is true of teaching or carpentry, not just the fine arts.
FLJ: Many social influences have been attributed to your work – your parents (anthropologist & author), their work with Native Americans, feminism. What are your literary influences?
UKLG: Oh God! Practically everybody that ever wrote a novel that I read…and a lot of poets too. I always read everything. What I like is a good book. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fantasy or science fiction or War and Peace. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s not, it’s not. When I’m cornered, I say one of the long term major influences on my work is Virginia Woolf. She has a lot of stuff that’s incredibly fruitful for me.
FLJ: What makes a good book?
UKLG: Magic. Things move, things change, you’re changed at the end of it as a reader. You’ve been taken somewhere and shown something.
FLJ: Many people say they’ve been changed after reading one of your books.
UKLG: I’ve been told by teenagers that I got them through a bad year. Boy, it makes you feel fairly humble and it’s a little scary, because you do realize you influence people when you tell a story. You have to take serious the fact that you may change a life.
FLJ: Does that affect you when you’re writing?
UKLG: Not exactly. Actually, nothing affects me when I’m writing. I’m just trying to do the story. Outward considerations aren’t there. There’s a kind of ethical question when you’re writing for kids. You have to stand back from the work and say “Could this scare an eight-year-old? Could it do any harm?” The editors don’t do that for you. With children’s literature, the writer has to be in the foreground. There’s a cruel streak to Roald Dahl. One of my daughters was very fond of his earlier books. I was very happy when she outgrew him, I have to say. There’s something a little gross and a little cruel in his work. Some of the books, like the Goosebumps books, look sort of gross or dumb, but they’re harmless. I think kids need a lot of dumb stuff. Roughage in the diet.
FLJ: You’ve occasionally been critical of the academic influence on literature calling it “stifling.” What’s the problem?
UKLG: The labeling. Goodness, I grew up academic. My husband’s a professor and I’ve taught. I love good literary criticism and I appreciate it. But there’s this queer thing in academia that says realism is the only literary fiction and all other kinds of fiction are sub-literary. That’s just crazy. That knocks out about nine-tenths of all American literature. Once the first South American came up with magical realism, you couldn’t say that only realism is literary. The magical realists were a great help to people like me. They broke down some of those arbitrary walls and categories.
FLJ: You’ve said that literature allows us to think through dreadful results; more importantly, allows us to think of alternatives.
UKLG: There are different ways of thinking, being and doing things. I think one of the functions of all fiction is to let you live other lives and see what they’re like. It widens the soul. I have to admit to a certain amount of calculation. If you look at my books, you’ll find that very few of the central characters are white; they’re mostly people of color. You don’t notice it particularly and you don’t see it on the cover. The publishers refuse to put people of color on book jackets, because they don’t sell. But I’ve always done that deliberately because most people aren’t white. My assumption is we’ll all turn out sort of café au lait colored. Look at Tiger Woods; that’s the way we’re going. This is the great thing about fiction; you can get inside somebody else’s skin. If it’s a different colored skin, that’s just more exciting.
FLJ: How do you “give back” to the artistic/writing community?
UKLG: I give classes. I teach at Portland State University in their writing programs. Last spring I did a whole semester at Santa Fe as a guest professor. I usually do one or two workshops in summer; and some others I’m moved to give. “Flight of the Mind” is my most regular workshop. It’s for women and a very good one.
FLJ: What do you teach?
UKLG: I always teach short story. When I have more than a week to do it, I teach a course called “The First Chapter of Your Novel.” It’s very hard to teach writing a novel. There’s too much for the other people in the class to read, but if you work on the first chapter it’s very interesting. These classes are really workshops with a peer group. I facilitate. Advice is absolutely specific to the story.
FLJ: Do you have any advice for writers?
UKLG: To read and to write. Some writers have to be told to write. They don’t know that you can’t be a writer without writing. That’s your job. Some really don’t realize that. They think their job is to meet agents and have experience. They think you can just be rich and famous. Their job is to write. And you can’t write unless you read. Just read around and find the people you like.
FLJ: What do you think will be the influence of technology – the web/eBooks/books on demand?
UKLG: The publishers are behaving like ostriches, shoving their heads deep in the sand. There’s been a lot of panic and misunderstanding on the part of publishers. They’re trying to grab rights from authors for technologies that haven’t even been invented yet. I don’t know what we’re going to do about copyrights; how to replace it with some other arrangement so we can keep our artists, writers, composers, musicians in peanut butter. It’s very nice for everybody to say literature is going to be free, but we’ve got to feed the people who make it.
The whole idea of everything being available electronically, so you don’t even have to go down to the library, isn’t going to hurt reading. This is wonderful for readers. They talk about reading being replaced, that there will be other things to do. There are already things like television and so on, but people are always going to like to read. It’s a different relationship to the story than film or whatever. My take on this whole technology – especially in regard to reading books – is that it’s very exciting.
I wish it had come along when I was a little bit younger. I’m one of those people who can’t program their VCR. I love my computer, but I don’t know how deep I want to get into the web. I don’t know if I’ve got time. As you get older you realize you have less energy and the days don’t seem to have quite as many hours, so I go on writing. At this point, I’m not plugged in. Lord, I have to answer enough letters as it is!
FLJ: Email might overwhelm you?
UKLG: I’m really afraid it would. Once you get in, you can’t hide. What’s the point of being there if you’re going to lurk and do nothing else. So at this point, I don’t have a modem. We would have to get a second phone line. I don’t know, maybe I’m just too lazy
FLJ: Thank you for your patience and candor. Where are you off to next?
UKLG: Those killer book tours! Harcourt has certainly been kind to me. I’m going to go up and down the West coast and New York and Harbor Front in Toronto. The rest of it I’m doing like this [by phone], which I think is wonderful. And God bless the web! You can get to a lot of people with a fresh and new interview.
Note: Portions of this interview appeared in “Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin” for Writer’s Digest, “A Brilliant Career: Ursula K. Le Guin” for Salon.com, “Ursula K. Le Guin Steers Her Craft” for Writing-World.com, and “An Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin” for Space & Time Magazine.