Writing Nameless Things: An Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin




GREAT HONORS ARE flowing to Ursula K. Le Guin. Last year, the Library of America began a publishing program devoted to her work, a rare achievement for a living writer. The second and third volumes, containing much of her classic early SF, are now out. Her collected shorter fiction has been published in two volumes by Saga Press. In 2014, she received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This year, once again, she was on the betting list for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Le Guin lives quietly in Portland, Oregon, with her husband of many decades, Charles.

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DAVID STREITFELD: How’s your health?

URSULA K. LE GUIN: Okay.

How’s your mood?

Okay. [Laughs.] One slows down increasingly in one’s upper 80s, believe me. I’ve dropped most of my public obligations. I say, “No, thank you,” a lot. It’s too bad. I love reading at Powell’s Books. I’m a ham. Their audiences are great. But it is just physically impossible.

Much of the work in these two new Library of America volumes was done in a short span of time — a few years during the late 1960s and early ’70s. You were on fire, writing The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) practically back to back. That was a period when you also wrote the first Earthsea novels.

I worked just as hard before that and just as hard after. The work of that period isn’t all my significant work. There’s pretty good stuff after.

You were also raising three young children.

I had a child under age five for seven or eight years. Number three came along slightly unexpectedly, about the time number two was beginning to go off to kindergarten. I could not possibly have done it if Charles had not been a full-time parent. Over and over I’ve said it — two people can do three jobs but one person cannot do two. Well, sometimes they do, but it’s a killer.

How did you pace yourself?

I was very careful in those years not to work to a deadline. I never promised a book — ever. I left myself what leeway I could in what I did when. My actual time to work on my writing was going to be limited to what was left after the needs of my kids. I don’t want to be pollyannish, but the fact is both jobs were very rewarding. They were immediately rewarding. I enjoy writing and I enjoyed the kids.

I remember you once said that having kids doesn’t make the writing easier but it makes it better. Still, it took a lot of juggling.

When I discovered I was pregnant the third time, I went through a bad patch. How are we going to do this whole thing all over again? Pregnancy can be pretty devouring. But it was an easy pregnancy, a great baby, and we were really glad we did. There was all this vitality in the house.

It was clearly a time of great fecundity in all sorts of ways.

Apparently I could do it on both fronts. I was healthy and the kids were healthy. That makes such a difference. But it all didn’t seem remarkable. I was of a generation when women were expected to have kids.

When did you write?

After the kids were put to bed, or left in their bed with a book. My kids went to bed much earlier than most kids do now. I was appalled to learn my grandchildren were staying up to 11:00. That would have driven me up the wall. We kept old-fashioned hours — 8:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m. I would go up to the attic, and work 9:00 to midnight. If I was tired, it was a little tough. But I was kind of gung-ho to do it. I like to write. It’s exciting, something I’m really happy doing.

Does being in the Library of America make you feel you’ve joined the immortals? You’re now up there with all the greats — Twain, Poe, Wharton.

I grew up with a set of Mark Twain in the house. Collections of authors’ work were not such a big deal. And my agent was hesitant about the contract, since the pay upfront was less than she’s used to settling for. She’s a good agent. Her job is to make money. What I did not realize is that being published in the Library of America is a real and enduring honor. Especially while you’re still alive. Philip Roth and I make a peculiar but exclusive club.

The first book of yours in the Library of America came out last year. It was called “The Complete Orsinia,” and had some of your less famous work.

I bullied Library of America into doing it first. I didn’t realize I was bullying them, but I was. They were very good-natured about it.

Malafrena (1979), the novel that is the volume’s centerpiece, takes place during a failed revolution in the early 19th century in an imaginary European country somewhere near Hungary.

It’s one of my works that is neither fantasy nor science fiction. So what do you call it? It’s not alternative history because it’s fully connected to real European history. There is no name for it. That’s my problem, I do nameless things.

It’s been a long journey for some of these books. Fifty years ago, they were originally published as SF paperbacks.

I’m not remotely ashamed of their origins, but I am not captivated by them either the way some people are. Some people are fascinated by the pulps — there’s something remote and glamorous in the whole idea of a 25-cent book. I am in the middle of rereading Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Michael is enthralled by the whole comic book thing. That is perfectly understandable and I enjoy his fascination, but my mind doesn’t work that way. I am into content. Presentation is something that just has to be there.

Fifty years ago, science fiction and fantasy were marginal genres. They weren’t respectable. In 1974, you gave a talk entitled “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”

There’s a tendency in American culture to leave the imagination to kids — they’ll grow out of it and grow up to be good businessmen or politicians.

Hasn’t that changed? We seem inundated with fantasy now.

But much of it is derivative; you can a mash lot of orcs and unicorns and intergalactic wars together without actually imagining anything. One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. It needs exercise. It needs practice. You can’t tell a story unless you’ve listened to a lot of stories and then learned how to do it.

You’ve been concerned recently about some of the downsides of the imagination.

I feel fine as far as literature is concerned. The place where the unbridled imagination worries me is when it becomes part of nonfiction — where you’re allowed to lie in a memoir. You’re encouraged to follow the “truth” instead of the facts. I’m not a curmudgeon, I’m just a scientist’s daughter. I really like facts. I have a huge respect for them. But there’s an indifference toward factuality that is encouraged in a lot of nonfiction. It worries me for instance when writers put living people into a novel, or even rather recently dead people. There’s a kind of insolence, a kind of colonialization of that person by the author. Is that right? Is that fair? And then, when we get these biographers where they are sort of making it up as they go along, I don’t want to read that. I find myself asking, what is it, a novel, a biography?

How do you feel about ebooks these days?

When I started writing about ebooks and print books, a lot of people were shouting, “The book is dead, the book is dead, it’s all going to be electronic.” I got tired of it. What I was trying to say is that now we have two ways of publishing, and we’re going to use them both. We had one, now we have two. How can that be bad? Creatures live longer if they can do things in different ways. I think I’ve been fairly consistent on that. But the tone of my voice might have changed. I was going against a trendy notion. There’s this joke I heard. You know what Gutenberg’s second book was, after the Bible? It was a book about how the book was dead.

You’re now a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

I almost wasn’t. It’s so embarrassing. Either the letter got lost in the mail or I tossed it thinking it was junk, but in either case I never got the invitation. They waited and waited and waited and finally got in touch with my agent, who immediately got in touch with me. I wrote them and said, “I wasn’t pulling a Dylan.” But they must have wondered.

It’s another honor, a significant one. What does it mean to you?

To paraphrase Mary Godwin’s line about the vindication of the rights of women, it’s a vindication of the rights of science fiction. To have my career recognized on this level makes it a lot harder for the diehards and holdouts to say, “Genre fiction isn’t literature.”

Do they still say that?

You’d be surprised.

You once clarified your political stance by saying, “I am not a progressive. I think the idea of progress an invidious and generally harmful mistake. I am interested in change, which is an entirely different matter.” Why is the idea of progress harmful? Surely in the great sweep of time, there has been progress on social issues because people have an idea or even an ideal of it.

I didn’t say progress was harmful, I said the idea of progress was generally harmful. I was thinking more as a Darwinist than in terms of social issues. I was thinking about the idea of evolution as an ascending staircase with amoebas at the bottom and Man at the top or near the top, maybe with some angels above him. And I was thinking of the idea of history as ascending infallibly to the better — which, it seems to me, is how the 19th and 20th centuries tended to use the word “progress.” We leave behind us the Dark Ages of ignorance, the primitive ages without steam engines, without airplanes/nuclear power/computers/whatever is next. Progress discards the old, leads ever to the new, the better, the faster, the bigger, et cetera. You see my problem with it? It just isn’t true.

How does evolution fit in?

Evolution is a wonderful process of change — of differentiation and diversification and complication, endless and splendid; but I can’t say that any one of its products is “better than” or “superior to” any other in general terms. Only in specific ways. Rats are more intelligent and more adaptable than koala bears, and those two superiorities will keep rats going while the koalas die out. On the other hand, if there were nothing around to eat but eucalyptus, the rats would be gone in no time and the koalas would thrive. Humans can do all kinds of stuff bacteria can’t do, but if I had to bet on really long-term global survival, my money would go to the bacteria.

In your 2014 acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation medal, you said, “Hard times are coming.”

I certainly didn’t foresee Donald Trump. I was talking about longer-term hard times than that. For 30 years I’ve been saying, we are making the world uninhabitable, for God’s sake. For 30 years!

And then, right after the election, you came up with a new model of resistance that elevates not the warrior but water: “The flow of a river is a model for me of courage that can keep me going — carry me through the bad places, the bad times. A courage that is compliant by choice and uses force only when compelled.”

It’s rooted firmly in Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching. He goes very deep in me, back to my teenage years.

Is this a notion that comes out of an earlier work?

Most of my real work was fictional, where you don’t express things like that directly. You build it in. Like in my novel The Lathe of Heaven (1971). George, the hero, is kind of watery. He goes with the flow, as they used to say. I was dubious about publishing that piece about water as a blog entry. It was so direct, and sounded like I was trying to be some sort of guru.

You are direct.

I like to hide it in fiction when I can. But I hardly ever write fiction anymore.

For a year or two, you thought you never would again.

But then I suddenly went and wrote a little story called “Calx” for Catamaran, and then in September a long story called “Pity and Shame.” I should have remembered what all good SF writers know: prediction is not our game.

Are you getting weary of being honored and lionized?

Always remember, you’re talking to a woman. And for a woman, any literary award, honors, notice of any sort has been an uphill climb. And if she insists upon flouting convention and writing SF and fantasy and indescribable stuff, it’s even harder.

And now?

I don’t think the rewards have been overdone. I think I’ve earned them. They are welcome and useful to me because they shore up my self-esteem, which wobbles as you get old and can’t do what you used to do.

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David Streitfeld is a reporter for The New York Times, where he covers new technologies.


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