Photo credit: Dana Gluckstein
Ursula K. Le Guin is one of Oregon’s most beloved and well-known authors. Her Hainish Novels and Stories
have been reissued in a pair of gorgeous volumes from the Library of America. Volume I contains material mostly from the '60s and '70s, including The Dispossessed
and The Left Hand of Darkness
, both of which won the Hugo and Nebula awards. Volume II contains material mostly from the '90s, including Five Ways to Forgiveness
and The Telling
. Complete with an extensive chronology, maps, and all kinds of extras, this is definitely an upgrade from the battered paperbacks many of us own.
The Hainish portion of Le Guin’s work is an interesting beast. She has emphasized many times that this material is not a series or a cycle, but more of a future history, one that was written organically and not according to any set chronology. In the introduction to Volume I, she writes, “Irresponsible as a tourist, I wandered around in my universe forgetting what I’d said about it last time, and then trying to conceal discrepancies with implausibilities, or with silence.” We were delighted to be able to do an email interview with Ursula K. Le Guin, who is much loved among Powell's employees.
Mary Jo Schimelpfenig
: Several of your works have been adapted for film, television, and the stage. Which work would you like to be adapted next, and which format would you choose?
Ursula K. Le Guin
: I‘m happy to say that several of my works are under option for film or TV. John Schmor’s stage play of The Left Hand of Darkness
will be reproduced at the University of Oregon in November, and there’s an opera of Lavinia
in the works.
: In the fall of 2018, Saga Press will publish The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition
, with Charles Vess
illustrating. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog entries
discussing the collaborative process involved in creating the illustrations. What have you learned from this process, and are the illustrations finished yet?
: No, they aren’t. It’s a very long project for Charles, hard as he works.
I‘ve learned from it something I knew, but love to have reconfirmed: that collaboration between a writer and a compatible artist in a different art is exciting, a great learning experience, and a hoot.
: For many of us, social media has become our newspaper, magazine, and water cooler — where we find community, conflict, and engagement. How do you think about social media, and what is your relationship to it?
: Essentially zilch. My sense of what constitutes community and engagement, and my desire for it, are barely fulfilled by social media. (I guess you can find plenty of conflict if that’s what you’re after.) So I write letters — on email. And am grateful for it. I can keep up a connection with people I won’t ever see again, or haven’t even met, and the connection is real and satisfying.
: In recent years, speculative fiction has become much more culturally acceptable, and at least a tiny bit more diverse. I'm thinking of how much the field has changed in the last 45 years or so. I don't think authors like China Miéville
would have gotten published back then. Of course, there's still plenty of the more traditional stuff around, but perhaps we’ve moved forward. Do you agree?
: The “genres” of science fiction and fantasy have become a whole lot more diverse than they were 10 years ago. And about time too!
The other changes are higher literary standards in the genres, and above all the understanding by readers, reviewers, critics, and academics that imaginative fiction is literature. Forty-five years ago the accepted opinion was that all fantasy was kiddie-lit and that all science fiction was trash. (If you found it to be literature, you declared that it wasn’t science fiction. QED.) Ignorant prejudice is tough to uproot, but you can do it if you stick with the job.
All the same, if the noise is coming from something I turned on, I could consider the option of turning it off.
: Often the landscape in your books seems based on various parts of the Pacific Northwest. You've often said that your fiction is not plot-driven, and I would agree. However, landscape and a sense of place are integral to your work. Can you comment on the importance of place in your work?
: Only to say that more than one of my stories and novels have begun as a vivid sense of a particular place — real or imagined, known and beloved or merely seen in passing. A story is going to happen in that place. My job is to find out what.
: In The Telling
, Sutty is on her way to meet with the Envoy, and is constantly assaulted by noise and political propaganda in a culture that has essentially rendered its population functionally illiterate. This feels uncomfortably close to our current social climate. What’s our way forward? How do we climb out of this noisy hole we’ve dug ourselves into?
: Well, isn’t this question related at least in part to the question about social media? TV and electronic media make propaganda incredibly easy to propagate and extremely hard to avoid. I don’t want to say, “Well, if it’s a noisy hole, why not climb up out of it?” — that’s smug and simplistic. All the same, if the noise is coming from something I turned on, I could consider the option of turning it off.
: Who are some of the writers you admire and who you think deserve more attention?
: José Saramago
, Charles Darwin
: Last summer you wrote
, “These local actions won’t get attention the way weird presidential twitterings do. But they make me feel my Republic can and will survive the mindless destructivism of misled Republicans and the frightened apathy of an opposition without leadership. Two cheers for Oregon!”
Will we survive the misled politicians? What is our path going forward? Do you have hope?
: If I had no hope, I‘d be dead. (I’m probably not going to be alive a whole lot longer, but that’s irrelevant.) The Sermon on the Mount says,“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” And Lao Tzu
says that the path that goes forward and the path that goes back are both the Way.
: Your prose is so well crafted; it brings me such great joy. I have read it aloud, reveling in the language and sentence construction. How do you think about your prose on that word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence level?
: The way a carpenter thinks about the join he is making, or a potter thinks about the pot she is throwing. It isn’t exactly thinking at all. It’s being in what you’re doing.
: I worry about our ability to concentrate. The work of reading and writing takes a kind of deep attentiveness that we may be losing the capacity to sustain, and I’m not sure we can regain it. Have you seen this change over the years? How do we not get swept into it?
: Are we back to the earlier question?
Well, I’m not sure that the inability to pay prolonged close attention affects many more people than it ever did. It’s just that those who don’t want to be attentive now have endless entertainments and distractions to entertain and distract them, right in the palms of their hands.
In the USA, at this moment, with a president whose mind can contain nothing longer than a tweet, and that for 10 minutes or less, this continual flight from actuality, from the real, has become terrifyingly dangerous.
In the long run, to be ruthlessly Darwinian about it, I’d guess that those whose attention span doesn’t allow for coherent thought or action will get weeded out of a species for which intelligent intention is a major survival tactic. But the long run is cold comfort for us in the short run.
: How has your writing process changed over the years, if at all?
: Got shorter. Need fewer words.
: What are you reading and enjoying now?
: Elizabeth Bishop
’s collected poems (not all of them, but some of them very much) and Louise Erdrich’s recent novel LaRose
: How do you feel about having all of the Hainish novels and stories collected for the first time in the new Library of America editions?
: I’m delighted to see all those novels and stories gathered as one of Library of America’s beautiful editions. And relieved to see that they’re less of a hodgepodge than I thought they’d be — that there are some connections and lines of development made clear by having them all together. At this rate, if I don’t watch out, I may begin feeling respectable: a terrible fate for an artist.
÷ ÷ ÷
Ursula K. Le Guin
was born in Berkeley, California, in 1929. She is the bestselling author of the Earthsea Cycle
, the Hainish Cycle
, including The Left Hand of Darkness
, and the new collection, The Hainish Novels and Stories
. With the awarding of the 1975 Hugo and Nebula Awards to The Dispossessed
, she became the first author to win both awards twice for novels. Le Guin lives in Portland, Oregon.