Interviews

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Art of Fiction No. 221

Interviewed by John Wray

In the early 1960s, when Ursula K. Le Guin began to publish, science fiction was dominated by so-called hard sci-fi: speculative fiction grounded in physics, chemistry, and, to a lesser extent, biology. The understanding of technological progress as an unalloyed good went largely unquestioned; America was enjoying unprecedented prominence in world affairs, and the science fiction of what has come to be known as the “golden age” projected this same sense of exceptionalism onto the cosmos. The space adventures that filled the pages of Amazing Stories and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction tended to be written by, for, and about white men, with only occasional nods to racial or gender (or, for that matter, species) diversity. Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World (1966), which featured a classic man of science as its hero, did little to upset the status quo. But a sea change was coming.

No single work did more to upend the genre’s conventions than The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). In this novel, her fourth, Le Guin imagined a world whose human inhabitants have no fixed gender: their sexual roles are determined by context and express themselves only once every month. The form of the book is a mosaic of primary sources, an interstellar ethnographer’s notebook, ranging from matter-of-fact journal entries to fragments of alien myth. Writers as diverse as Zadie Smith and Algis Budrys have cited The Left Hand of Darkness as an influence, and Harold Bloom included it in The Western Canon. In the decades that followed, Le Guin continued to broaden both her range and her readership, writing the fantasy series she has perhaps become best known for, Earthsea, as well as the anarchist utopian allegory The Dispossessed, to name just a few books among dozens. Her productivity is remarkable. Lavinia (2008), her most recent novel, was her twenty-third book-length work of fiction.

Ursula Kroeber was born in Berkeley, California, in 1929, the daughter of Alfred L. Kroeber, a prominent anthropologist, and Theodora Kroeber, the author of a best-selling biography of Ishi, the “Last Wild Indian in North America,” who lived out the last years of his life on display at a museum on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Her childhood was spent in the company of her large family and their many academic visitors, as well as members of the Native American community. She went on to study at Radcliffe and Columbia, which granted her an M.A. in French and Italian Renaissance literature in 1952, at the age of twenty-two. On a steamer bound for France in 1953, she met the historian Charles Le Guin, whom she married a few months later.

For the past half century, Le Guin and Charles, a professor of history at Portland State University, have lived in a handsome but inconspicuous Victorian on a steep, tree-lined street just below Portland’s Forest Park. The house—which, appropriately for a writer of science fiction, appears larger on the inside than it does from without—harbors a surprise: a veranda with a view of the ruined cone of Mount Saint Helens. Le Guin received me in the parlor, but we soon moved out onto the veranda, in part to escape the fierce attentions of her cat.

John Wray

 

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about the term science fiction, as connected to your work?

LE GUIN

Well, that’s very complicated, Wray.

INTERVIEWER

I’m sorry. Are you at peace with it? Do you find it reductive?

LE GUIN

I don’t think science fiction is a very good name for it, but it’s the name that we’ve got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.

INTERVIEWER

That’s how one can identify a sci-fi author, I guess—tentacles coming out of the pigeonhole.

LE GUIN

That’s right.

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me there might be authors whose work is more accurately described by the term science fiction than your own—someone like Arthur C. Clarke, for example, whose work is often directly connected to a specific scientific concept. In your fiction, by contrast, hard science is perhaps less important than philosophy or religion or social science.

LE GUIN

The “hard”–science fiction writers dismiss everything except, well, physics, astronomy, and maybe chemistry. Biology, sociology, anthropology—that’s not science to them, that’s soft stuff. They’re not that interested in what human beings do, really. But I am. I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that.

INTERVIEWER

Might that be why your fiction has been more readily admired in so-called literary circles—that it’s more engaged with human complexity and psychology?

LE GUIN

It’s helped to make my stuff more accessible to people who don’t, as they say, read science fiction. But the prejudice against genre has been so strong until recently. It’s all changing now, which is wonderful. For most of my career, getting that label—sci-fi—slapped on you was, critically, a kiss of death. It meant you got reviewed in a little box with some cute title about Martians—or tentacles.

INTERVIEWER

Since we’re on the subject, what was it like to grow up as the child of a prominent anthropologist? Did it contribute to your beginnings as a writer?

LE GUIN

That’s a question I’ve been asked about a billion times, and it’s really hard to answer. Obviously, my father’s interest and temperament set some kind of ... well, I almost want to say a moral tone. He was interested in everything. Living with a mind like that is, of course, a kind of education. His field of science was a human one, and that’s really good luck for a novelist.

We spent every summer, all summer, at a ranch he had bought in Napa Valley. It was very run-down, easygoing, and my parents had lots and lots of guests. My father would entertain his fellow academics and people from abroad—this was the late thirties, and there were refugees coming in, people from all over the world. Among the guests were a couple of Indians who had been “informants,” as they called them then—they don’t use that word anymore—tribal members my father had come to know as friends through working with them, learning their language and customs from them. One of them, Juan Dolores, was a Papago, or O’odham—he was a real family friend. And he would stay for a couple weeks or a month. So we sort of had this Indian uncle. Just having these people from a truly other culture—it was a tremendous gift.

INTERVIEWER

What was the nature of that gift?

LE GUIN

Maybe simply the experience of the “other”? A lot of people never have it, or don’t take the chance when offered. Everybody in the industrial nations now sees “others” on the TV, and so on, but that’s not the same as living with them. Even if only one or two of them.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that you were “raised as irreligious as a jackrabbit.” And yet an interest in religion is present in a great deal of your writing.

LE GUIN

I think I have—well, I can’t call it a religious temperament, because the trouble is the word religion. I am profoundly interested in both Taoism and Buddhism, and they’ve given me a lot. Taoism is just part of the structure of my mind by now. And Buddhism is intensely interesting to me. But if you don’t call it a religious cast of mind, then you have to call it something like spiritual, and that’s woo-woo and wishy-washy. There are these big issues that religion tries to deal with, and I’m quite interested in that.

INTERVIEWER

Could you say a bit more about what Taoism and Buddhism have given you?

LE GUIN

Taoism gave me a handle on how to look at life and how to lead it when I was an adolescent hunting for ways to make sense of the world without going off into the God business. Returning to Lao-tzu throughout the years, I’ve always found—and find—him offering what I want or need to learn. My translation, version, whatever it is, of the Tao Te Ching is a by-product of that long and happy association.

My knowledge of Buddhism is much scantier and more recent, but it’s become indispensable in showing me how to use meditation usefully and in giving a steady north to my moral compass.

INTERVIEWER

Kurt Vonnegut, in his Art of Fiction interview, in 1977, described anthropology as his only religion.

LE GUIN

That’s not quite enough for me, but I know exactly what he means, and it is what I fall back on. If I had to pick a hero, it would be Charles Darwin—the size of his mind, which included all that scientific curiosity and knowledge seeking, and the ability to put it all together. There is a genuine spirituality about Darwin’s thinking. And he felt it, too.

INTERVIEWER

Could it be—I’m going out on a limb here—that this search for a satisfactory or sufficient religion might have influenced your direction as a writer? If none of our extant religions satisfy, in other words, why not invent one yourself?

LE GUIN

I’m not a quester or a searcher for the truth. I don’t really think there is one answer, so I never went looking for it. My impulse is less questing and more playful. I like trying on ideas and ways of life and religious approaches. I’m just not a good candidate for conversion.

INTERVIEWER

What it is that draws you to this “trying on” of other existences?

LE GUIN

Oh, intellectual energy and curiosity, I suppose. An inborn interest in various and alternative ways of doing things and thinking about them.

That could be part of what led me to write more about possible worlds than about the actual one. And, in a deeper sense, what led me to write fiction, maybe. A novelist is always “trying on” other people.

INTERVIEWER

When you were starting out, did you know that you wanted to write speculative fiction?

LE GUIN

No, no, no. I just knew from extremely early on—it sounds ridiculous, but five or six—that writing was something I was going to do, always. But just writing, not any mode in particular. It started as poetry. I think I was nine or ten before I really wrote a story. And it was a fantasy story, because that’s mostly what I was reading. By then, my brother and I were putting our quarters together to buy, now and then, a ten-cent magazine called something like “Fantastic Tales”—pulp magazines, you know.

INTERVIEWER

Amazing Stories?

LE GUIN

Yeah! So the fiction I read, because I was an early beginner, tended toward the fantastic. Realism is a very sophisticated form of literature, a very grown-up one. And that may be its weakness. But fantasy seems to be eternal and omnipresent and always attractive to kids.

But when people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer. I didn’t want to be a writer and lead the writer’s life and be glamorous and go to New York. I just wanted to do my job writing, and to do it really well.

INTERVIEWER

In relation to other writers?

LE GUIN

How else can you judge? It has to be, in a sense, competitive or comparative.

INTERVIEWER

Against whom were you measuring your work?

LE GUIN

Writers I’d have liked to be as good as, although not like?

INTERVIEWER

Right.

LE GUIN

Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. And then, when I finally learned to read her, Virginia Woolf. Shoot for the top, always. You know you’ll never make it, but what’s the fun if you don’t shoot for the top?

INTERVIEWER

When you began sending your work out into the world, did you have some idea of the writer you wanted to be?

LE GUIN



I knew by then that my main shtick was fiction, but that I would always write poetry. My first publications were all poetry, and that’s partly because of my father. He realized that sending out poetry is quite a big job. It takes method and a certain amount of diligence and a good deal of time. And he said, I could help you do that, that would be fun! He got interested in the subculture of the little magazines and realized that it is a little world, with rules all its own.

INTERVIEWER

So he studied it anthropologically?

LE GUIN

He was curious about everything! And he actually did some of the mailing-out stuff.

INTERVIEWER

How old were you at the time?

LE GUIN

I would have been in my twenties. I was also writing fiction and submitting it, and, again, my father comes into it. The first novel I ever wrote was very strange, very ambitious. It covered many generations in my invented Central European country, Orsinia. My father knew Alfred Knopf personally. I’d had recorder lessons with Blanche Knopf when I was seventeen. Blanche—she was a real grande dame, oh God, she was scary. And I’d go in with my little tooter.

INTERVIEWER

Was this in New York?

LE GUIN

This was in New York. When I was about twenty-three, I asked my father if he felt that my submitting the novel to Knopf would presume on their friendship, and he said, No, go ahead and try him. So I did, and Knopf wrote a lovely letter back. He said, I can’t take this damn thing. I would’ve done it ten years ago, but I can’t afford to now. He said, This is a very strange book, but you’re going somewhere! That was all I needed. I didn’t need acceptance.

INTERVIEWER

I’m guessing that was not Mr. Knopf ’s typical response.

LE GUIN

And I don’t think he was just being nice to my father, either, because Alfred Knopf was not a very nice man. My dad called him the Pirate.

INTERVIEWER

And this Orsinia novel never saw the light of day?

 

LE GUIN

No, it didn’t. May a curse fall upon any academic who digs it out and publishes it.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written that you can’t get underway with a project until you have the characters clear in your mind. But I suspect that some of your books may have begun not with a set of characters but with an idea you wanted to explore.

LE GUIN

That is probably truest of The Dispossessed. Although it started as a short story. I had this physicist and he was in a prison camp somewhere. The story just went nowhere, but I knew that character was real. I had this lump of concrete and somewhere inside it was a diamond, but getting into the lump of concrete—it took years. For whatever reason, I started reading pacifist literature, and I was also involved in antiwar protests, Ban the Bomb and all that. I had been a pacifist activist of sorts for a long time, but I realized I didn’t know much about my cause. I’d never read Gandhi, for starters.

So I put myself through a sort of course, reading that literature, and that led me to utopianism. And that led me, through Kropotkin, into anarchism, pacifist anarchism. And at some point it occurred to me that nobody had written an anarchist utopia. We’d had socialist utopias and dystopias and all the rest, but anarchism—hey, that would be fun. So then I read all the anarchist literature I could get, which was quite a lot, if you went to the right little stores in Portland.

INTERVIEWER

Where you got your books in a brown paper bag?

LE GUIN

You had to get to know the owner of the store. And if he trusted you, he’d take you to the back room and show you this wealth of material, some of which was violent anarchism and would have been frowned on by the government.

I swam around in that stuff for a couple years before I could approach my lump of concrete again, and I discovered it had fallen apart. I had my character, and he was a physicist, but he wasn’t who I thought he was. So that book started not with an idea but with a whole group of ideas coming together. It was a very demanding book to write, because I had to invent that society pretty much from scratch, with a lot of help from the anarchist writers, particularly Americans like Paul Goodman, who had actually tried to envision what an anarchist society might be like.

INTERVIEWER

It’s anything but a starry-eyed treatment.

LE GUIN

I was not writing a program, I was writing a novel. After I wrote The Dispossessed, I thought further about utopia, and I realized that utopia as a concept was dying, that people were not able to write it. Dystopias all over the place. I did write one other one, in Always Coming Home—I think that’s my best utopia. But it’s Dispossessed that appeals to the idea-minded. They see Always Coming Home as a sort of hippie utopia, advocating that we all return to the teepee. All I can say is, read it a little more carefully, guys!

INTERVIEWER

What’s it actually doing?

LE GUIN

Offering a completely different way of life—not as a blueprint, only as a vision—to a civilization more and more intent on one costly and destructive kind of progress.



INTERVIEWER

Didn’t you publish a version that came with a cassette tape that actually re-created some of the folk songs from the novel?

LE GUIN

The record is called Music and Poetry of the Kesh. It was composed by Todd Barton, who was the music director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He and I made it with some of his singers. It’s all in fourths, fifths, and ninths, and things like that, because that’s how the Kesh would do it. We had a hell of a lot of fun making that album, and then we wanted to copyright it. We heard back from the copyright office, and they said, You cannot copyright folk music. It’s the music of an indigenous people. So we had the pleasure of saying, Well, we made up the indigenous people. Can we copyright them, too?

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever catch yourself thinking about potential book sales when you were considering a project?

LE GUIN

Early on. It took me so long to get my fiction published—years and years of submitting and rejection, submitting and rejection—that I was getting a little desperate. I was beginning to wonder, Am I just writing for my attic? And I deliberately wrote a fantasy story, a genre story, to see if I could sell it. There was some impulse like that behind “April in Paris,” which was one of the first stories I sold.

INTERVIEWER

“April in Paris” is barely a genre story, isn’t it?

LE GUIN

It’s fantasy, time-travel fantasy. And the very same week it was accepted, “An die Musik,” which is an Orsinian tale and realistic, although set in an imaginary country, sold to a little literary magazine. You asked about sales? Well, the little magazine gave me five copies as payment. I think it was Fantastic that took “April in Paris,” and they paid me thirty dollars, which is about like three hundred now. Pretty good for a short story.

INTERVIEWER

Is it true that you were your own agent at the beginning of your career?

LE GUIN

Yes, I sold my first three novels to Don Wollheim, at Ace Books. They were doing these Ace Doubles, two short novels upside down from one another. Kind of a cute idea. Then I wrote Left Hand of Darkness, and I realized it was of a slightly different order than my first three science-fiction novels.

INTERVIEWER

So, when you’d finished Left Hand of Darkness, you sensed that it was—

LE GUIN

Bigger.

INTERVIEWER

Bigger in what sense?

LE GUIN

It took on a lot more intellectual and moral ground, and it was quite experi- mental, after all. A novel about people with no gender is not your typical Ace Double. But I came into science fiction at a very good time, when the doors were getting thrown open to all kinds of more experimental writing, more literary writing, riskier writing. It wasn’t all imitation Heinlein or Asimov. And of course, women were creeping in, infiltrating. Infesting the premises.

INTERVIEWER

Who were some of the writers—men or women—you admired at the time?

LE GUIN

What do the names matter now? That was nearly fifty years ago. I’d have to explain who so many of them were, and still nobody would know who I was talking about. The point is that, whoever opened them, the doors were being opened. A narrow, defensive branch of literature was enlarging itself to contain multitudes.

INTERVIEWER

I imagine that few genres of literature, at least in the twentieth century, were more male than sci-fi during that era.

LE GUIN

Women had to pretend to be men, or just used their initials.

INTERVIEWER

Your work has sometimes been called a counterpoint, or even a corrective, to the testosterone-steeped science-fiction scene in America in the sixties and seventies. Philip K. Dick, for example, was a direct contemporary of yours. The worlds he creates can, at times, feel oppressively masculine.

LE GUIN

Yes. And his style—he’s a real puzzle stylistically. But oh man, of course he was a huge influence on me.

INTERVIEWER

What was it about Dick’s work that caught your attention?

LE GUIN

Partly it was that he and I had similar interests in certain things, such as Taoism and the I Ching—after all we were both Berkeley kids of exactly the same generation. And then, his sci-fi novels were about ordinary, unexceptional, confused people, when so much sci-fi consisted of Campbellian or militaristic heroes and faceless multitudes. Mr. Tagomi, in The Man in the High Castle, was a revelation to me of what you could do with sci-fi if you really took it seriously as a novelist. Did you know we were in the same high school?

INTERVIEWER

You and Philip K. Dick? Really?

LE GUIN

Berkeley High, thirty-five hundred kids. Big, huge school. Nobody knew Phil Dick. I have not found one person from Berkeley High who knew him. He was the invisible classmate.

INTERVIEWER

That could almost be taken from one of his novels. So you didn’t know him at all?

LE GUIN

No! We got into correspondence as adults. But I never met him physically.

INTERVIEWER

Was he already a published writer when you began?

LE GUIN

Yeah, I think Phil got published earlier than me. But he never hit it. I think he was the typical exploited genre writer, you know? I think he found he couldn’t publish his non-science-fiction books, his realistic novels, so he tried science fiction. Obviously he had a gift for it. But his career was very unrewarding. He did get noticed by the French while he was still alive and working. The French developed a huge respect for him. I don’t know how much it meant to him. He was busy with what was going on inside his head.

INTERVIEWER

On the subject of being a woman writer in a man’s world, you’ve mentioned A Room of One’s Own as a touchstone.

LE GUIN

My mother gave it to me. It is an important book for a mother to give a daughter. She gave me A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas when I was a teenager. So she corrupted me thoroughly, bless her heart. Though you know, in the 1950s, A Room of One’s Own was kind of tough going. Writing was something that men set the rules for, and I had never questioned that. The women who questioned those rules were too revolutionary for me even to know about them. So I fit myself into the man’s world of writing and wrote like a man, presenting only the male point of view. My early books are all set in a man’s world.

INTERVIEWER

And featuring male protagonists.

LE GUIN

Absolutely. Then came literary feminism, which was a tremendous problem and gift to me. I had to . . . handle it. And I wasn’t sure I could, because I’m not much good on theory. Go away, just let me write. But the fact is, I was getting stuck in my writing. I couldn’t keep pretending I was a man. And so feminism came along at just the right moment for me.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that the women’s movement compelled you to change?

LE GUIN

It said to me, Hey, guess what? You’re a woman. You can write like a woman. I saw that women don’t have to write about what men write about, or write what men think they want to read. I saw that women have whole areas of experience men don’t have—and that they’re worth writing and reading about.

So then I went back and really read Virginia Woolf, and then I read all the books that the feminists were offering to us, books that other women had been writing for centuries. I saw that women can write like women, that they can write about different things than men—why not? Duh! It took me years, really, to climb on board.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think it took you a while to adapt?

LE GUIN

These ideas may seem commonplace now. They weren’t forty years ago. They were radical. A few people accepted them quickly—many were slow, like me. In fact, many readers, writers, and critics still haven’t accepted them.

INTERVIEWER

Which book of yours reflects this change most clearly?

LE GUIN

The breakthrough was unconscious. It’s a short book, published in 1978, called The Eye of the Heron. It’s about two colonies on another planet—one of them is a bunch of pacifists, Gandhian types. The other one is a criminal colony sent mostly from South America. The two places are side by side. My hero was from the Gandhian society, a nice young man. And then there was a girl, the daughter of the boss of the criminal society. And the nice young hero insisted on getting himself shot, about halfway through the book. And I said, Hey, you can’t do that! You’re my protagonist! My own unconscious mind was forcing me to realize that the weight of the story was in the girl’s consciousness, not the boy’s.

INTERVIEWER

What led you to set The Left Hand of Darkness in a world where gender is fluid?

LE GUIN

That was my ignorant approach to feminism. I knew just enough to realize that gender itself was coming into question. We didn’t have the language yet to say that gender is a social construction, which is how we shorthand it now. But gender—what is gender? Does it need to be male, does it need to be female? Gender had been thrown into the arena where science fiction goes in search of interesting subjects to revisit and re-question. I thought, Well, gee, nobody’s done that. Actually, what I didn’t know is that, slightly before me, Theodore Sturgeon had written a book called Venus Plus X. It’s worth checking out, a rare thing, an early male approach to considering gender as—at least partly—socially constructed. Sturgeon was a talented, warm-hearted writer, so it’s also interesting in itself. Stylistically, he was not a great writer, but he was a very good storyteller and a very good mind. But I, of course, went off in a different direction. You could say I was asking myself, What does it mean to be a woman, or a man, male or female? And what if you weren’t?

INTERVIEWER

Or, in the novel, what if you sometimes were one gender, sometimes the other, and most often neither?

LE GUIN

Well, you had to be sometimes, because that’s sexuality. I thought people would hate the book, particularly men. And it was the men who loved it!

INTERVIEWER

Why do you suppose that was?

LE GUIN

I have never understood that. The women, many of whom were a little further along in their thinking than I was, said, But she calls them all “he”! And they’re quite right, I did call them all “he,” and defended doing so for some while, until I realized that wouldn’t wash, either.

INTERVIEWER

Since you’re a Virginia Woolf fan, I have to ask about the significance of Orlando to Left Hand of Darkness.

LE GUIN

I read when I was a freshman in college. I just got drunk on it. I adored it—the language and the picture of Elizabethan England. That was when I first fell in love with Woolf. And of course, I saw the strangeness and brilliance of what she did there, of that sex shift. So you could say that she gave me permission, the way a great writer does.

INTERVIEWER

It’s also distinctive within her body of work.

LE GUIN

All her books are different from one another. Have you read Flush? It’s about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog and is from the dog’s point of view. It’s very short, very light, and unforgettable.

INTERVIEWER

Your mother also wrote.

LE GUIN

My mother had always wanted to write. She told me this only after she’d started writing. She waited until she got the kids out of the house, until she was free of responsibility for anybody except her husband. Very typical of her generation. She was in her fifties when she started writing—for kids, which is how women often start. It’s not threatening to anybody, including themselves. And she published a couple of lovely little kids’ books.

She wanted to write novels, and she did write a couple, but they never found a publisher. But what happened was that she got asked to write the biography of Ishi. Of course they asked my father and he said, No way, I cannot handle that story. He’d lived that story and didn’t want to write it. He wasn’t a reminiscer. He said, I think you might ask my wife, she’s a good writer. And they did, and she did it. So her first published adult book was a best seller, which was wonderful for her! She was in her sixties then. I would get letters from people who said, I read your mother’s book and it made me cry! That pleased her enormously. She would say, That’s what it was supposed to do.

It was also interesting because my mother and I were almost working together trying to get published.

INTERVIEWER

What an unusual beginning, for both of you.

LE GUIN

She beat me to it! Which is cool. Because I was late and slow. A slow learner. But not as late as her. I love to tell her story because people—particularly women—need to hear that you can start late. She figured she could put it off, which shocked the strong feminists of twenty or thirty years ago. I don’t know if anybody gets shocked anymore. But a lot of people don’t realize how strong the social pressure was on women.

INTERVIEWER

Maybe they’ve forgotten, or never knew.

LE GUIN

The young ones never knew. They can’t imagine what was expected of their grandmothers, their great-grandmothers. There’s been a huge change in my lifetime.

INTERVIEWER

And yet the debate seems to persist—this tendency to view things in a binary way, either family or work.

LE GUIN

It never goes away. The fact is, there is a problem there. My personal solution to it involves the man I married. Our solution was that one person cannot really do two full-time jobs—that is to say, bring up a family and be a novelist, or bring up a family and be a full-time professor, like Charles—but two people can do three full-time jobs! And they can—we did.

I was just incredibly lucky in that sense. I married this guy who was willing to work that way. And I took it for granted! Neither of us knew what we were getting into. So I lived off him for at least twenty years, because I wasn’t making anything. Then I began to be the breadwinner, the real moneymaker. Great! It’s all one balance, one bank account.

INTERVIEWER

I want to ask about a sentence from your book of essays The Wave in the Mind— “Narrative fiction has for years been going slowly and vaguely and massively in one direction, rejoining the ocean of story: fantasy.” Remember writing that?

LE GUIN

No! I wonder when I wrote that. But what I must have meant is that we could no longer believe that realism was the only literary form for fiction.

INTERVIEWER

It seems as though the trend in literature in recent years may have borne you out.

LE GUIN

At the time I was probably thinking of writers like Calvino or Borges, whereas genre writers deliberately cultivated an attempt to be styleless, to write a very flat, journalistic prose.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think that was?

LE GUIN

I rather suspect it had to do with the temperaments of the men writing it. And also the fact that they would probably admire the ostentatiously clear, flat style of someone like Hemingway as quintessentially masculine.

INTERVIEWER

Many readers with a snobbish attitude toward sci-fi use the question of style to justify their snobbery.

LE GUIN

And in some ways they’re right. Or they were. Particularly in the thirties and forties, science fiction could be embarrassingly badly written. Shamelessly badly written.

INTERVIEWER

Because the books were vessels for ideas.

LE GUIN

That’s it. And when I came into the field, some of the older men still prided themselves on writing that way. They were idea writers and they weren’t going to fiddle with the feminine frippery of style. To me the style is the book, to a large extent. Take Borges. When he experiments with ideas, he is experimenting with form, too. He was as much a poet as he was a prose writer.

INTERVIEWER

Has Borges been important for you?

LE GUIN

I feel like I’ve learned from the old guy all my life. It was Borges and Calvino who made me think, Hey, look at what they’re doing! Can I do that? They’re the door-openers among my contemporaries. They sent me away from the United States.

INTERVIEWER

As a reader, you mean?

LE GUIN

As a reader. Because nobody here was doing anything like that—except in genre. One science-fiction writer who’s still only known inside science fiction, as far as I know, is Cordwainer Smith. He had a very big influence on me. He was a conscious literary writer with a nice prose style and a strange imagination. I think he worked for the State Department. Cordwainer Smith is a nom de plume.

INTERVIEWER

Wasn’t he connected to Chiang Kai-shek in some way?

LE GUIN

He did highly secret stuff in China. A very strange man. And one nice thing about science fiction—I think it’s still true, it certainly was when I came into the field—was that we could steal from one another quite freely, not in the plagiarizing sense, but in the ideas and how-to-do-something sense. What I always compare it to is baroque composers, who used to pass their ideas around all the time, even pass tunes around. It’s a kind of inter-inspiration. You’re all working at the same thing.

INTERVIEWER

Who formed that sort of network for you?

LE GUIN

They were mostly the writers of my generation. A lot of them are younger than me, actually, but we came into the field at the same time. Some of them I really didn’t have very much in common with as a writer, like Harlan Ellison. But he had that kind of inventive spark I was looking for. And then there were women coming in—like Vonda McIntyre, considerably younger than I am—who were pushing the boundaries of the field and breaking the walls down and writing stuff that was much more interesting to me than the so-called golden age of science fiction.

INTERVIEWER

Was there a sense, among your contemporaries, of being in it together? Did you regard yourselves as fellow travelers?

LE GUIN

I was glad to find the small native community of science-fiction and fantasy authors generally welcoming, though intensely argumentative and liable to furious divisions and explosions over aesthetics, government policy, and gender politics. I made dear friends there, but took small part in the meetings and conventions, not networking at all in the modern sense.

There was one person who greatly and directly benefited my career—my agent Virginia Kidd. From 1968 to the late nineties she represented all my work, in every field except poetry. I could send her an utterly indescribable story, and she’d sell it to Playboy or the Harvard Law Review or Weird Tales or The New Yorker—she knew where to take it. She never told me what to write or not write, she never told me, That won’t sell, and she never meddled with my prose.

INTERVIEWER

Whatever resistance there may have been to genre, you’ve had a lot of fans among “literary” writers. John Updike praised your work, for example.

LE GUIN

Updike did a beautiful review of a young-adult novel of mine, The Beginning Place, in The New Yorker. He was always a generous reviewer. And Harold Bloom—he’s put in a really good word for me. It’s funny, The Anxiety of Influence came out at just the time that women were discovering other women writers and saying, Hey, we have influences! We never did before! Here were all the men worrying about the anxiety of being influenced and the women were going, Whoopee!

INTERVIEWER

In your essay “Telling Is Listening,” you write that a genre novel fulfills certain generic obligations—it’s going to take the reader in a certain direction, it will likely have a certain story arc, it will touch on certain things that she or he has come to expect.

LE GUIN

That’s right, it will fulfill certain expectations, certain definite expectations. That’s what makes it generic.

INTERVIEWER

In the essay you’re talking about the appeal of genre for readers. What is the appeal of genre for a writer?

LE GUIN

Somewhat the same. It’s like working in any form—in poetry, for example. When you work in form, be it a sonnet or villanelle or whatever, the form is there and you have to fill it. And you have to find how to make that form say what you want to say. But what you find, always—I think any poet who’s worked in form will agree with me—is that the form leads you to what you want to say. It is wonderful and mysterious. I think something similar happens in fiction. A genre is a form, in a sense, and that can lead you to ideas that you would not have just thought up if you were working in an undefined field. It must have something to do with the way our minds are constructed.

INTERVIEWER

In Steering the Craft, you say—and you seem to be speaking as both a reader and a writer—“I want to recognize something I never saw before.”

LE GUIN

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 twentieth-century— and twenty-first-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.

This is what a lot of mystical disciplines are after—simply seeing, really seeing, really being aware. Which means you’re recognizing the things around you more deeply, but they also seem new. So the seeing-as-new and recognition are really the same thing.

INTERVIEWER

Could you elaborate on this idea just a little?

LE GUIN

Not adequately! I can only muddle at it. A very good book tells me news, tells me things I didn’t know, or didn’t know I knew, yet I recognize them— yes, I see, yes, this is how the world is. Fiction—and poetry and drama— cleanse the doors of perception.

All the arts do this. Music, painting, dance say for us what can’t be said in words. But the mystery of literature is that it does say it in words, often straightforward ones.

INTERVIEWER

You seem, over the past few decades, to have grown more interested in fiction directly informed by history. Lavinia, your most recent novel, is clearly set in a recognizable period of human history—Italy in the era of Virgil. And your novella The Wild Girls has that historical quality as well, though perhaps it’s set in an alternate universe.

LE GUIN

No, The Wild Girls is very strongly based on the Mississippian culture of America. Some of the peoples down there had a caste system that’s very like the one in the story. I took an anthropological study that I’d known about for a long time and thought, That would make an interesting basis for a story. What would it be like to live in a culture like that? Man, I didn’t like it one bit! I was glad to get out.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a brutal story.

LE GUIN

Yes, it’s a kind of hateful story. My late short stories began getting kind of dry and stony and hard that way. I’m not particularly fond of them. But Lavinia is just the opposite. It’s anything but dry and stony and hard. It’s very playful. It came to me while I was working on trying to read Virgil in Latin. It resulted from being very absorbed in that pursuit. Here I am, living in Virgil’s world already, and here comes this kid, this girl, who is going to tell me her story. Actually, a few pages into the novel, Lavinia addresses the reader directly. I wrote that down, and I just thought, Uh oh, I can’t write a novel about Bronze Age Italy! What the hell do I know about Bronze Age Italy? Well, what the hell does anyone know about Bronze Age Italy?

INTERVIEWER

Was it akin to creating a society on another planet?

LE GUIN

Of course. Historical novels and science fiction are very close. You’re either re-creating something or modeling it—it’s very much the same process. And I did do “research,” as people who don’t write novels love to call it. There were some things I really needed to know about Bronze Age Italy, or early, early Rome. I had a lot of fun at the bottom of the stacks of the Portland State library, digging out these books that were tremendous imagination-feeders about early Roman religion and stuff like that. But basically, this book is a bit of an act of ventriloquism. Lavinia’s telling me what to write.

INTERVIEWER

This was a classic example, then, of what you discuss in one of your essays in The Wave in the Mind—a novel beginning with a clear sense of one character.

LE GUIN

With a voice. With a voice in the ear. That first page I wrote, which the novel progressed from, is simply Lavinia speaking to us—including me, apparently.

INTERVIEWER

If there’s one clear development that I can detect in your work, it’s a shift toward economy.

LE GUIN

Well, I’ve had a very long career. What I’m aware of is that I’ve eased up on the formality of the prose. I like using a more colloquial voice to write in these days.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think that is?

LE GUIN

In the sixties and seventies, the language of serious fantasy was still based largely on the styles of writers of earlier generations—Tolkien, of course, but also Dunsany, Eddison, MacDonald, clear back to Malory. As I began to depart from the heroic or adventure tradition of fantasy, I found a less formal vocabulary and a cadence better suited to what I had to say.

As for my writing voice in general, well, you get old and your language gets like your shoes or your kitchen gear—you don’t need fancy stuff any more. You’ve learned how to just say it. Rereading some of my earlier novels, I often think to myself, I didn’t need all that stuff—I didn’t have to say that much. I could cut that whole bit. Cut!

I want the story to have a rhythm that keeps moving forward. Because that’s the whole point of telling a story. You’re on a journey—you’re going from here to there. It’s got to move. Even if the rhythm is very complicated and subtle, that’s what’s going to carry the reader. This all sounds a little mystical, I suppose.

INTERVIEWER

It also sounds musical.

LE GUIN

The whole process of getting old—it could have been better arranged. But you do learn some things just by doing them over and over and by getting old doing them. And one of them is, you really need less. And I’m not talking minimalism, which is a highly self-conscious mannerist style I can’t write and don’t want to. I’m perfectly ready to describe a lot and be flowery and emotive, but you can do that briefly and it works better. My model for this is late Beethoven. He moves so strangely and quite suddenly sometimes from place to place in his music, in the late quartets. He knows where he’s going and he just doesn’t want to waste all that time getting there. But if you listen, if you’re with it, he takes you with him. I think sometimes about old painters—they get so simple in their means. Just so plain and simple. Because they know they haven’t got time. One is aware of this as one gets older. You can’t waste time.