When did Ursula Le Guin last cross your radar screen? It could have been her memorable broadside at the 2014 National Book Awards ceremony, against Amazon and “commodity profiteers” who “sell us like deodorant.” My favorite line: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”1
If you have memories of Le Guin from before that day, they probably include Tenar in the tombs of Atuan and Ged, a goatherd-turned-wizard. Do you also recall a little boat called Lookfar, the wizards’ school on Roke, and dragons who can’t lie because they speak only the True Speech? Join the club, comrade: you’re remembering Earthsea, realest land that never was.
Over six decades, the 85-year-old writer has won a Newberry, five Nebulas, five Hugos, and a raft of other awards for adult and children’s science fiction, fantasy, poetry, and essays. It was between 1968 and 1974, though, that Le Guin vaulted into the hearts of kids everywhere by publishing her first trilogy of Earthsea books: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs of Atuan (1970), and The Farthest Shore (1972). A second, equally compelling trilogy followed many years later: Tehanu (1990), Tales from Earthsea (2001), and The Other Wind (2001). It was also between 1968 and 1974—the Nixon administration had to be good for something—that Le Guin turned out a further three science-fiction masterpieces, in three distinct molds. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is a chilly quest in a world where gender is intermittent and mutable; The Dispossessed (1974), a thoughtful anarchist utopia/dystopia; and The Lathe of Heaven (1971) centers on a reluctant dreamer whose dreams can change the world, for better or worse.
This March I climbed toward Portland’s West Hills to interview Le Guin. It was one of those days that begins foggy and rainy, then turns unexpectedly sunny by mid-morning. I crossed a bridge over one of those mossy green gorges no doubt designed to remind us outsiders about Portland’s effortless superiority to, say, frozen gray Boston. Built along a steep hillside, virtually all the houses in Le Guin’s knobby neighborhood look back down across the flats to the gleaming Willamette River. It’s the sort of place where you see an American flag with the 50 stars replaced by a giant peace sign, and a local carpenter’s hand-lettered placard reads: “By hammer and hand all things do stand.” Her house and the crescent-shaped porch out back radiate permanence and comfort. Inside: Morris chairs and light-drenched rooms, blood-red Bukhara rugs, a cat who played intermittently with a ping-pong ball.
Over the course of a morning, our conversation ranged widely. Le Guin proposed that fantasy’s power to free the reader’s imagination paradoxically increases when its descriptions are most painstakingly exact; she described her friendship with science fiction great Philip K. Dick and how differently the two of them felt about the I Ching. She was eloquent on what she likes and what she distrusts in modern fiction, and she offered a fascinating way to think about the inescapable barrier between the actual and the fantasy realm. She also spoke movingly about what her work owes to anthropology, to science, and to her socialist and anarchist ideals. Le Guin once ended a speech by asking, “Now that we’re free, where are we going?” That’s a question she knows each of her readers will have to answer alone. Still, I left feeling she had laid down a few cairns for us, the hint of a trail to trace.
I | Names Come First with Me: Fantasy’s Exactitude & the Power of Maps
John Plotz (JP): When a writer creates an imaginary world, are readers traveling into the writer’s imagination? Or is it more that the book activates the reader’s own imagination?
Ursula Le Guin (UL): Both things happen, particularly with kids, which is why I think it’s important that kids get imaginative literature. As a writer I feel I’m taking the reader with me into this world that I see and discover, but of course I discovered that the readers make that world their own, and it’s sometimes quite, quite different from what I imagine. This comes out very clearly when I work with illustrators, and try to say, “No, no, that’s not what a dragon looks like!” You know, not my dragon. There always has to be a compromise.
JP: So the imaginary is a very definite place to you, with its own set of rules.
UL: I’m very strong on accuracy and exactitude. You can’t describe everything—that would be very boring. With an invented world, though, you have to describe more than a realist does. Of course, you have to leave out an enormous amount, too, and the leaving-out is half the art. There the reader is free to supply whatever they want to supply, to fill in all those white spaces that you leave.
I think sometimes in science fiction, more than in fantasy, the author wants you to see it just exactly the way the author sees it. Some people like to be coerced when they read, but I’d rather be given latitude. Tolkien is really such a master there. You know where you are, you know what the weather is, from what direction the wind’s blowing. He tells you what he can about it—but the rest of it’s up to you.
JP: I was reading a funny Tolkien letter recently. He was worried that the moon phases were working differently for characters in different parts of Middle-earth: Bilbo had a full moon the same night that Aragorn saw a crescent.
UL: That would be very distressing to me, too. Jane Austen apparently mapped out the rooms, and the Brontës always wanted to know distances. My kind of novelist thinks that way.
JP: There’s a map at the front of the Earthsea books: you can find the Dragon’s Run near Selidor, and Atuan far off in the East. Did that map come to you before you wrote the books themselves?
UL: I wrote a couple of short stories that took place on islands that had wizards. Then I was asked by a publisher to write—we didn’t even have the word “young adult” then—to write a fantasy for older children. I thought, “Oh no, I can’t do that. I’ve never written for children. I don’t know how to do that.” Still, I went home and thought about it; how does a wizard become a wizard? He goes to wizard school? Wouldn’t that be fun? So there I went, and then I thought, “OK, where? Oh, it’s those islands where those other stories are.” But I needed to know more about them. So I did literally sit down and draw a big map with lots of islands, about which I knew nothing at that point. I named them, happily. For the rest of the six books I could just travel around and find out what they were like.
JP: I have such strong associations with the island’s names: Roke, where the wizards’ school is; Havnor, at the heart of the kingdom; Gont; Vemish … I could go on! Were all the names there to begin with?
UL: Names come first with me. I can’t write about a character if he or she doesn’t have a name. The right name. So I had to name all of the islands right away. Isn’t that weird? I have no understanding what the process there is.
II | Blundering Toward a Transition: SF vs. Fantasy, Gender vs. Sex
JP: I think you once said, more or less, that fantasy is the inward life, and science fiction the outward life.
UL: That’s kind of crude, a bit judgmental, maybe, but I know what I meant. Fantasy tends to arise from somewhat unexplored sources within. Science fiction depends on what Chip [the science fiction writer Samuel R.] Delany called “what is known to be known.” Meaning science, technology, various kinds of knowledge. It uses those imaginatively. So in that sense it is more outward.
JP: And has it always been clear to you which category your books fall into?
UL: Oh no. When I started it was all mushed up together! My first three novels are kind of science fantasy. Rocannon’s World (1966) is full of Norse myth barely disguised. But I began to realize there was a real difference between these two ways of using the imagination. So I wrote Earthsea and Left Hand of Darkness. From then on I was following two paths.
In Left Hand of Darkness I was using science fiction to come at a problem that I realized was very deep in me and everybody else: what is gender? What gender am I? A question we just hadn’t been asking. Look at all the answers that are coming out now. We have really deconstructed it. We really didn’t even have the word “gender” back then. Just, “What sex are you?” So in some respects we really have come a long way, and in a good direction, I think.
JP: You described feminism then as waking up from a very long nap. I guess it’s really woken up now.
UL: Yeah, and there are a lot of people trying to put us back to sleep.
JP: I think you once wrote that while writing Left Hand of Darkness you would forget what gender your characters were.
UL: Well, I was trying to get inside the Gethenian body and viewpoint, in which gender happens once a month and is an event, and then they just go back to being human.
JP: Do you think that’s true now, that gender is something that only intermittently matters?
UL: No, gender still is the first thing people want to know about the baby.
JP: In writing the later Earthsea books, did you feel that you needed to tell the story of gender in Earthsea in a different way from the earlier trilogy?
UL: I had been writing like a man. I was writing adventure fantasy in a grand old tradition, and it was all about men and what men did. I just needed to write like a woman, write as a woman. I was learning how to write as a woman in Tehanu, and it was very important to me to do so, to me personally, and for moral justice. I had been unjust to women in the books.
JP: And do you include Tombs of Atuan in that? As a kid, as a boy reader, I remember thinking that Tenar, the girl priestess, was a new kind of character for me.
UL: Her appearance of having power and being actually totally powerless is a paradigm of a woman’s position. But I was still operating there in a man’s world, and some of my feminist friends were cross. They say, well, Ged comes and gets her out. And I said, “No! He can’t get out without her and she can’t get out without him.” And I do think that’s true. So I was beginning to blunder towards a transition. But the next book is totally male.
III | A Rule of the Imagination: Moving the Boundary with Elfland
JP: Is The Beginning Place [a 1980 novel about two teenagers who cross back and forth between reality and a fantasy world] meant to be set in Portland?
UL: No. Actually, I had more like a middle-sized Midwestern city in mind. Cincinnati, possibly, I don’t know.
JP: That book seems to have a lot of real-world problems in it: drugs, urban infrastructure. Very 1970s, American cities in trouble. I’m not saying that it sounds like a John Updike novel, but …
UL: Since then there’s this whole genre of urban fantasy, as they call it, which has gone all sorts of different directions. One of the first ones I read was Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons. It’s a Seattle novel, a terrific urban fantasy, with street people. As I recall, the wizard is a guy who was damaged in Vietnam and is living on the street, as so many people were and still are.
In Beginning Place I was kind of trying to see if you could move the boundary between the real world and Elfland, as it were. And I couldn’t. They could go down to the Beginning Place by the little stream, and go through, but the doorway is always there.
JP: You once said, “We have inhabited both the actual and the imaginary realms for a long time.” But you’re saying that the two have to be unmistakably separated? Like an atomic rule?
UL: Yeah, it’s a rule of the imagination. I think you could possibly say, “If you break the rule, if you transgress, you are playing with insanity.” You are allowing the unreal into the real in a dangerous way.
JP: Lathe of Heaven is a dangerous book in that way, isn’t it?
UL: Oh yeah, there’s dreams coming true. I’m totally with George, the protagonist of the novel, who fears his reality-altering dreams. I don’t want it to happen.
IV | Madness Is a Kind of Irresponsibility: Philip K. Dick
JP: Were you thinking about Philip K. Dick while writing Lathe of Heaven?
UL: Oh yeah. It’s sort of an homage to him.
JP: Was it something you shared with him and discussed with him?
UL: We wrote letters back and forth some. We never met. I was rather scared of Phil. He was very heavily into drugs, and drugs do scare me. I had three kids at home, and was not enthusiastic about having a real—not a pothead but a heavy drug user around. Phil went off the rails periodically, and so I was not really looking to meet him. But we did correspond, very friendly, for some while. We seemed to respect each other’s writing, were interested in what each other was trying to do.
JP: I read you had gone to high school together. That’s not true?
UL: That is so weird. Yes, we were complete contemporaries at Berkeley High School, but he’s not in the yearbook. His name is in the yearbook, but there is no photograph. I think Phil dropped out before graduation.
I don’t know many people anymore that were at Berkeley High with me. When there were more of us alive we tried to find out anything about him. Nobody remembers him. Not one person in this group remembered him physically. He worked at a store where I bought records when I had the money, so I might have met him there. But what he looked like then, as a teenager? [Shrugs.] He is absolutely the invisible man at Berkeley High.
JP: He clearly thought about you a lot.
UL: Yeah, apparently I shook him about women particularly. He realized his women were kind of odd creatures.
JP: He also invokes you when he’s worried about his mental health.
UL: I didn’t know that he ever admitted that.
JP: He thought of you as a person who worried that he might be mentally ill.
UL: Well, he wrote to me while he was having his visions and so on. Once he wrote to me very touchingly, because he was so happy. Was it a phone call? We did talk on the phone sometimes. He had been conversing with St. Paul in Greek, although he didn’t know Greek, and he was just so happy about all this information he was getting from St. Paul. I think I just played along with it, but I suppose a certain amount of withdrawal or horror or something on my mind he might have felt. Because, yeah, I am afraid of madness. It’s scary.
JP: I think that’s something that comes through in Lathe of Heaven … On the one hand, there’s this immense power, imagination’s power to reshape the world. But on the other hand, who wants
that? That’s terrifying.
UL: Right. And the thing is, with power comes responsibility, in my world. Just, they’ve got to go together, and once you separate them bad things are going to happen. And that’s the trouble: to me, madness is a kind of irresponsibility. It may not be desired or wanted at all, but all the same. A mad person is irresponsible, and is usually treated as such. So if he’s got power, well, look at Stalin.
V | Make the Work Good Enough: Politics, The Dispossessed, & the Scholars
JP: The Dispossessed works through its political ideas very openly.
UL: It’s my political book: anarchy, socialist anarchy, pacifist anarchism. The ideal is people can work freely together, can choose to work together. That’s the anarchist ideal, such a lovely ideal. I know William Morris had it. Make the work good enough and people will want to do it and do it together.
JP: Were you tempted to write other books like that?
UL: That book took a long time to prepare for and get ready to write, and it was hard to write. I asked help on it from Darko Suvin [leading theorist and critic of science fiction as a genre, and first editor of the journal Science Fiction Studies]. It is very rare for me to ask for any help. We were in moderately close epistolary touch at that point. And I rather nervously sent it to him, because … Darko can be very drastic.
JP: I was going to ask about him.
UL: Darko has a very, very warm heart and a very good mind. And he’s a Marxist, and an anarchist needs a Marxist to remind them of certain truths. And vice versa. So Darko read the book in manuscript, and he said two things I remember. He said, “You’ve given it a closed ending. You can’t do that, you can’t close your circle. You’re an anarchist!” And he said, “It has 12 chapters. It has to have 13.”
JP: When I read Suvin or Fredric Jameson praising your science fiction, especially The Dispossessed, I feel them mobilizing you for a political cause.
UL: I would agree that I felt that a little and pulled away. And Darko would love to turn me into a Marxist, but there’s no hope, and he knows it.
JP: Why is there no hope?
UL: Marxist? I’m a socialist, maybe, but … no, Marxism was tried and failed rather grandly, decisively.
JP: State power, is that what failed?
UL: The Soviet Union was a major experiment, and it went wrong from the start.
JP: What did you hope The Dispossessed would do: change minds? Make anarchists?
UL: It’s pretty much a thought experiment. “What if we did it this way?” What if we tried anarchism, and what if there was a place it could be tried? Which is not going to be on Earth because there’s always a neighboring state.
JP: There’d be someone you’d need to dispossess?
UL: Or someone would come and invade you. They did try anarchism in Spain: kind of misguidedly, perhaps.
Otherwise, I don’t think any of my other books are particularly political, because the next big book I wrote after Dispossessed is probably Always Coming Home. It’s a utopia of sorts too, but not a political one. It’s a social one.
JP: Do you see The Left Hand of Darkness as a political book, because of what it does with gender?
UL: Yeah, well, you know, that was the old feminist slogan: the personal is the political. But only in that sense. The people [who are androgynous 27 days of the month, and then briefly assume either male or female characteristics before returning to androgyny] are physiologically enormously different from us.
VI | Story vs. Plot, the Perils of the Present Tense, & Fantasy’s Pitfalls
JP: You once wrote, “Actually I’m terrible at plotting, so all I do is sort of put people in motion and they go around in circles and they generally end up where they started out. That’s a Le Guin plot. I admire real plotting, but I seem not able to achieve it.”
UL: To me, the thing is the story. Story just starts here and goes there. The story is something that moves. Or maybe it starts here and ends up here. It has a shape, a trajectory.
And a plot is, to me, basically sort of complicating the trajectory. It’s complications and additions and backtracks and all that. It is wonderful. You know, a good Dickens plot: We’re reading Bleak House aloud, and watching him get that enormous plot into motion, wow! You know, I’m awed. But I can’t do that. And all the same, it really isn’t the plot of Bleak House, it’s the story that is important to me. So OK, I’m not a plotter, and I cannot even follow a really complex plot, like some mysteries. I just get lost—who cares? But the story’s where I go. So I just accept that. And people who want to read for plot are not going to read me.
JP: Not only does Bleak House have all of that plotting and backtracking, but it’s also narrated half by an omniscient storyteller and half by the heroine, Esther.
UL: He’s taking a real risk in doing that. Reading it aloud is very interesting, shifting those voices. Every now and then you can hear Dickens coming through Esther. But the other voice, the one that’s always in the present tense—probably the first three times I read the book, I didn’t even notice that.
That’s very unusual in 19th-century writing. But it’s become such a habit now. I’m sick of books in the present tense, which is a very restrictive tense. It’s not as flexible as the past tense.
Writing in the past tense you have total freedom to move forward and back. I’ve thought about this a lot. Trying to think why the present tense, which never bothered me until it became a sort of habit of the modern novel, why it now bothers me so much.
My metaphor is it’s a flashlight. It illuminates only a moment, and it moves with the moment, the present tense does. And the past tense is like sunlight, you can see everything all at once. And I think it’s the focus that a lot of modern novelists love in the present tense: this tight focus, like a camera eye. But like a narrow-focus camera eye. I think this phenomenon of writing in the present tense is very strange, actually, a little unnerving.
JP: Does it connect to that weird phenomenon of writing in the second person? “You do this,” “you merge onto the freeway.” You’re covering your face with your hands. That’s bad, right?
UL: I’ve tried and tried to read second-person narrative and it is so self-conscious. There was also—we’re coming out of it now—there was quite a long time when poets used “you” when they meant “I,” but didn’t want to say so. “You walk down the street and you feel …” No, I don’t! Talk about yourself! Don’t dump it onto me.
JP: And how about modern fantasy? I gather that you distrust stories with angelic heroes and easy-to-spot bad guys?
UL: This whole battle of good and evil thing … oh, man have they driven that into the ground! And all these Tolkien-derivative imitation things with the orcs against the elves. It’s so simplistic and it’s so childlike—childish, rather.
JP: Kazuo Ishiguro recently remarked that fantasy is mainly about dragons and pixies. Your response was that you are on the side of the dragons but not really on the side of the pixies.
UL: There haven’t been pixies, except maybe in Disney, for quite a while now, so what is he actually talking about? I don’t go for pixies. They’re sort of detestable.
JP: Because they’re cute.
UL: They’re cute, sentimental, yeah. Whereas dragons are kind of amazing because so many different cultures have some version of the dragon. And, you know, you have to take them seriously. I wrote that piece called “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?,” and they still are.
JP: Does that mean that you think that sweetness or sentimentality doesn’t belong in fantasy?
UL: Well, sweetness and sentimentality are two entirely different things. Sentimentality to me simply means a false emotion, whatever it is. It’s just sort of the sweet side of cynicism. But it’s false, detached. But sure, it’s the cute, sentimental, and trite thing that fantasy falls into so easily. That’s not where I want to go. But I do want to go where the dragons are. And I’m not sure Mr. Ishiguro really does. [In his recent novel The Buried Giant,] his dragon never even woke up, the poor thing. It got its head cut off while it’s asleep, which is kind of humiliating.
VII | You Look for It Where You Find It: Growing Up amid Anthropologists
JP: Your parents were the eminent anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and Theodora Kroeber, who wrote Ishi: Last of His Tribe.Can you talk about the influence of anthropology on your work?
UL: Well, it was sort of osmosis. I didn’t read my father’s kind of anthropology—what’s often dismissed as “cultural relativism”—until I had been writing for some while. In Berkeley during the ’30s and ’40s, though, I grew up in a household with refugees from Europe: intellectuals, anthropologists coming from exotic places to visit, and more Indians than most little white middle-class girls would have seen in their life. It made a difference.
I also think I inherited some of my father’s proclivities, as he might say. Some of his temperament. We’re just interested. An interest in the way people do things. And if they’re different from the way we do them, that’s fine. It shocked me to realize that a lot of people don’t want to know how other people do things, because it’s wrong. “We do it right, and they don’t.” I just didn’t get that as a kid.
JP: Isn’t there tension between that kind of cultural relativism and your idea about the “true name of things” in the Earthsea books—the idea of an underlying order in the universe?
UL: Yes, there’s a lot of tension. If you’re completely culturally relativistic, what do you do with morality? Well, you do with it what you can. And you look for it where you find it. That’s where I feel that I was given a genuine freedom of the intellect: I don’t have to look in any particular place for what I want. I can look anywhere, and hope to find what I want.
I became a Taoist in my teens because Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching was in my father’s bookcase. I saw him reading it—a beautiful little book. And I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “Chinese stuff.” I read everything—at 13, 14, or 15—so I read it, and thought, “Oh, this is wonderful!” From then on, I went back to that book, and all the different translations of it, which vary so much—eventually I made my own.2
JP: Is that book something you and Philip K. Dick talked about?
UL: As I think about it, looking back, I don’t think Phil read Lao Tzu the way I did, with passionate interest. Phil was interested in the I Ching. He wrote The Man in the High Castle by throwing the yarrow sticks. And then he turned against it, and suddenly when he started talking to St. Paul, the I Ching
became the Book of Evil. I think he had some sort of bad trip with it.
Well, I use I Ching a lot to make certain decisions. But I just threw the coins. I couldn’t bother with the yarrow sticks.
JP: Six coins?
UL: With coins you need three, but with the yarrow sticks you need 50, and it takes a long time, which of course gives you time to think about what’s your right question. But with three kids I couldn’t do the yarrow sticks. There were time constraints, you know?
JP: So you used the I Ching for writing?
UL: For practical decisions. Someone wants me to go speak somewhere. Should I do it or not? And it always gave me good advice, because I was finding out what I wanted to do.
JP: But you were never tempted to use it in writing, like in a decision about writing?
UL: No, no, that was up to me. Kind of a matter of responsibility.
VIII | The Beauty of Science, Trying Not to Write Angry
JP: I think you have a soft spot in your writing for scholars and scientists.
UL: Oh yeah. I knew them. I grew up amongst them. Yeah, and I love
science as a human undertaking, as much as I love art. Science rightly done is so beautiful. I can’t understand math. I know it’s probably the most beautiful, but … [chuckling]
JP: Yeah, my wife teaches math, so I have that experience a lot.
UL: I believe what they say, but I can’t see it.
JP: I watch her eyes light up, but I’m not sure why they’re lighting up.
UL: Thank you for telling me that. But geology, for instance, oh my Lord, it’s all poetry. It’s amazing. And I lived through that great revolution in geology where we discovered about plate tectonics. And that was so exciting to watch it happening, and the new article would come out, oh my God, look at that! Oh my God! It’s right under Oregon!
JP: In your Earthsea books, the wizard school could become a site of evil—magicians as mad scientists—but it never quite turns out that way.
UL: Okay, but how come no women? How come no sex for the men? What’s wrong? Something has gone wrong here. It ain’t natural.
JP: But you’re gentle on the all-male wizard school, aren’t you?
UL: Well, people make mistakes, for heaven’s sake. You can’t get my age without realizing people make mistakes, and blaming them for it, what good does that do?
JP: Your writing is always willing to point out things that can go wrong, but it doesn’t come across on the page that you’re angry about things very much.
UL: I do get very angry, but I don’t find anger a very … I think you have to get angry and be angry, and not dwell on it, not nurse it. You have to get past it. So yeah, I would say I try not to write angry.
Since we talked about Taoism and anger, I should mention that later and much much later in my life I also have been fairly deeply influenced by certain forms of Buddhism. Buddhist thinking; not the practice, but the religion—by the Buddhist idea that if you deny suffering, you’re denying everything.
IX | Final Thoughts: Energy, Opportunity, & What Worked Out
JP: Are there any books that you could have written at some moment and didn’t write? Or books you regret writing?
UL: No, neither one. I wish could have gone on after Lavinia, but I just didn’t. It’s just a matter of physical energy, really, I think. But I envy José Saramago, who wrote that lovely Elephant’s Journey, like, oh my God, I think he was 85, which is what I am now. Wow. Lucky him.
JP: What is the energy that writing takes?
UL: Oh, physical. Every … physical, mental, spiritual, you name it. It just calls upon one entirely. That’s why I couldn’t write when I was responsible for looking after my children. Because that is also a total commitment. And I just couldn’t do two full-time things at once, so I had to get them to bed. They were really good about that.
JP: That’s Virginia Woolf, isn’t it? The room of one’s own.
UL: Yes, my room of my own was only after nine o’clock, once the kids were in bed either asleep or reading. But it worked out. It does work out.
- For a transcript and a link to video of the speech, see “‘We Will Need Writers Who Can Remember Freedom’: Ursula K. Le Guin at the National Book Awards,” November 19, 2014. ↩
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, translated from the Chinese by Ursula K. Le Guin, with J. P. Seaton (Shambhala, 1997). ↩