MM - Could you please give our Russian readers some detail
about your private and public life, your hobbies, your family, your writing
schedule, your superstitions...
ULG - I live very much in private and don't like
playing a public figure. I think what I have to give people is my writing.
The rest of my life is dull and quiet, which is how I like it.
I was born in 1929 in Berkeley, California, and have lived
most of my life on the West Coast of the United States. My father was a
professor of anthropology; my three brothers all became professors, and
I married a professor of history, so my whole life has been lived near
a university. I studied French and Italian literature in college, and went
to France as a Fulbright student; my husband and I met on the ship going
to France, and got married in Paris. We have three children, four grandchildren,
one cat, and many dear friends. Now that we are old, my husband and I no
longer like to travel. He has made us a very beautiful garden. We
usually read aloud to each other before dinner for a while, and often play
music or watch a video in the evening. We have a little house in a small
town on the Pacific coast, near the beach; and once a year we go out to
the high desert country of south-east Oregon, a lonely and beautiful land.
I began writing poetry when I was seven or eight, and
stories a little later; I never stopped. I always saw writing as my life-work.
(To earn a living, I could teach French.) I work at my desk several hours
every day, writing, or translating, or answering letters and email. I belong
to a small group of poets; we meet once a month to read and discuss our
poems and decide what form or subject we should work on next.
I don't have any superstitions, unless this is one: while
I am writing a novel, I am always afraid I'm going to die before I finish
it. This has not happened twenty-one times, but eventually, of course,
it is almost certain to happen, so... is it a superstition?
MM - Could you please tell us about your books: which
one you love the most, which one you consider the best, what do you do
if something in your writing does not work out as you planned and seems
dull or awkward, how do you catch that rhythm about which Virginia Woolf
wrote and about which you often write in your essays (in one I recently
read, you use the metaphor of “riding a dragon”)?
ULG - Most writers, if they are honest, will tell
you that the book they love the best is the one they are writing – or one
they are going to write. As I'm not writing one at the moment and don't
know what I will write next, I will tell you about the one I just finished,
which won't be printed for nearly two years. The story was given to me
by the Roman poet Virgil, in his epic The Aeneid.
It is the story of the Italian girl whom Aeneas marries.
We know all about poor Queen Dido, but there is very little about young
Lavinia in Virgil's poem – only a few words. I began wondering what
it was like for a girl to know it was her destiny to meet and marry a great
My Latin is not good (I was learning Latin by reading
Virgil's poetry, really) – so I could not dream of translating Virgil,
and in fact he is quite untranslatable, his poetry is so much like music.
But I loved him and his poem: and writing this story was a way for me to
"translate" something of that love and fascination into a form that might
have meaning for other people.
But to write it meant not only thinking about The Aeneid
and war and heroism and so on, but also finding out about the part of Italy
where the story takes place, southwest of Rome. And also I needed to find
out how people were living there during the Bronze Age.
Although the poem takes place in the imaginary period
of ancient epic, a novel cannot have that freedom – a novel is tied to
a particular place and time and way of living, a geography, a technology,
a culture. Fiction gains much of its freedom through factual accuracy.
So I had to read a great deal about the very early period
of Roman history – although little is known about it – and to study early
Roman religion, and so on. I enjoyed all this very much, and very much
enjoyed writing about Aeneas and Lavinia, and now that the book is finished,
I miss them!
I don't think I can answer your question about catching
the rhythm which Virginia Woolf felt was the essence of writing: I put
all that in my essays about it, and cannot say it better than I did.
But one thing that might be of interest to your readers is the influence
Russian novelists had on me. I began reading Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev,
Chekhov, when I was thirteen or fourteen, and they became my beloved masters.
Later I found Bulgakov and Zamyatin and "Oblomov"; and then came "Doctor
Zhivago." As I grew older, I could no longer read Dostoyevsky with much
pleasure, but the rest of these writers have been with me all my life --
Tolstoy as the summit of fiction; Turgenev as the dearest friend.
MM - When I read your essay to which you attached,
in the end, the performance piece “Loud Cows,” I thought it was so brilliant
and hilarious at the same time. I read the whole book of essays in four
hours (I’m talking about “The Wave in the Mind”). They touched on such
a variety of themes. What are those writings for you? Do they simply take
time away from science fiction and are written in the so called waiting
periods (you wrote that a large part of writing is waiting), or do they
somehow give you a different kind of fulfillment? Are they written out
of fear that your fiction does not express everything you want to say?
What do you think they do for your image as a writer?
ULG - I don't like writing essays very much, and you are
correct: most of my nonfiction is written when I haven't got a story or
a poem to write, and I am waiting for one.
They do give a different kind of fulfillment, yes, but
never real satisfaction – not like a story or a poem that comes out right.
The question, what do I think they do for my image as
a writer, is an interesting one. I don't know how to answer it, except
in this incomplete fashion: because much of what I write is published with
the labels "science fiction," "fantasy," or "children's literature," the
conventional literary critics, book-reviewers, and professors of literature
are likely to ignore my books.
Whatever is not conventional realistic fiction, they call
it "genre" writing and ignore it – and, in fact, they remain ignorant and
uninformed about all these fields of literature. This is a ridiculous situation.
During my entire writing career, realistic fiction has more and more clearly
become merely one way of writing fiction among many others. In defense
of my work, and so much other writing I like and admire, I have been forced
to argue over and over against the snobbery and prejudice of the critics,
and to try to explain to the academics that they were missing about 90
percent of what fiction-writers have been doing for the last fifty years.
So I have in a way been defending my image as a writer, my "respectability,"
and that of other serious writers of science fiction and fantasy and children's
literature, as I attack the ignorance of those who dismiss us as beneath
MM - In an interview quoted in the book “Understanding
Ursula K. Le Guin”, you talk about your parents’ influence on you:
“A willingness to get outside of your own culture and
also a sensitivity to how culture affects personality. My father felt very
strongly that you can never actually get outside your own culture. All
you can do is trying. I think that feeling sometimes comes out in my writing”.
Would it be correct to say that in your novels you attempt
to get outside of the American culture?
ULG - Oh, yes! And outside European culture, too,
and even outside human civilization as we know it. Why do we have imagination
if we do not use it to imagine alternatives, different ways to be?
MM - And that somehow your fantasy world, the sci-fi
world is alien to the American modern culture?
ULG - Oh, yes! But of course, it also reflects our modern
world, and makes comments on it. That is one of the things science fiction
delights in doing.
MM - Also, in your novels, do you treat these different
worlds created by you the same way an anthropologist would approach them,
as an outsider who respectfully listens to what natives tells him, but
never becomes a part of them, because if he joins their community, he would
lose his objectivity...? Are you part of the worlds you create, or do you
prefer to stay an observant?
ULG - A novel written as if by a pure observer, a non-participant,
would be a cold book, a dull book. After all, a novel does not just describe
what people do: it describes what they feel.
An anthropologist describes the people she observes, but
should not say what they feel – the reader must guess that from the description
of what they do. A novelist describes but also enters into the people she
invents; she embodies herself with the characters of the book; she must
make the reader feel the passions of the characters.
MM - Is there something in modern culture you loathe?
Do these things that you despise in life ever enter your writings?
UKL - I think if you look at my fiction you will find
that I despise hypocrisy, self-righteousness, greed, and violence. We certainly
have plenty of all those things in modern life!
MM - Did you do a lot of research for “Earthsea” and
ULG - No. I made them up, invented them. They exist in
my mind. Where would I do research? I draw a map of my imagined place
– then I explore it. I am an explorer, like Magellan, like Columbus.
MM - Did you scrupulously study primitive cultures and
tried to apply what you learned about them to those worlds you create?
ULG - No, I read anthropological studies for pleasure,
and learn from them without really being conscious of what I am learning.
MM - James W. Bittner, who wrote quite a lot about your
writing, discusses the influence of the anthropologist Malinowski on your
ideas about magic. What is magic for you?
ULG - I am very grateful to James Bittner for his intelligent,
perceptive reading of my works, but he was mistaken about Malinowki – I
never read Malinowski and was not influenced by him. The “magic” in the
“Earthsea” books is of the kind described by the earlier scholar James
Frazier, a description generally accepted, as “naming” magic. That is:
To know the name is to have power over the thing named.
MM - In the U.S., I first heard about you from the feminist
perspective. There’s a scholar in San Francisco who wrote a book "Politics,
Persuasion, and Pragmatism: A Rhetoric of Feminist Utopian Fiction" where
she extensively talks about you and Doris Lessing. There are many scholarly
articles on feminism and even ecofeminism in your work, also on anarchism,
Did you try to put into your novels all those feminist
ideas that people in academia find in your work, or did it just come through
ULG - I began writing before there was a feminist movement
in the United States at all, long before there was any feminist scholarship,
long before “ecofeminist” was a word. I do not try to put ideas into my
books. I have ideas, and my books express them.
MM - I also read in one of your essays that there
is an equal number of men and women in the U.S. who write, but that the
ratio of literary prizes is 7:1 in favor of men. In Russia it’s so different;
it’s very backwards, unfortunately. There are maybe two or three women
writers for every seven men, because nobody wants to publish them (“ladies’
writings”, as they call them). Men have no problem saying in print or in
public that a woman’s role is only to give birth and that women can’t produce
anything worthy. What would you say to Russian women writers?
ULG - I would say to Russian women writers: have courage,
and patience, and support one another. Write for one another, read one
another’s books! I would say: remember that the two greatest Russian poets
of the twentieth century were women. I would say: you have sisters in your
country, and all over the world. Write for them, not for the cowardly men
of your own country who are afraid of you.
MM: What is your world outlook, your philosophy? I read
so much about all these influences in your life, as Carl Jung for example.
There is something Jungian, I guess, in George Orr from “The Lathe of Heaven”,
whose dreams predict and influence reality.
There are also Taoist influences. I read about the book
“Tao Te Ching” which you borrowed from your father when you were fourteen.
There are anarchist theories in “The Dispossessed” (I
was amused to find out that this title was an allusion to Dostoevsky’s
How do all these things blend in one person?
ULG - This is much too big a question to answer.
I will just say: I am not a Jungian. My books are full of Taoist
ideas, and I translated Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching”, but I am not a Taoist.
I wrote an Anarchist Utopia called “The Dispossessed”, but I am not an
Anarchist. I do not like being labeled – I do not like having tags
stuck on me saying She is This, She is That. Labels don’t stick,
tags fall off me.
MM: There are so many new worlds you created, and there
are those that you didn’t have to create, because they were just there,
like Kishamish, your family summer home in Napa Valley. I’m talking about
the world where there is your childhood, where there is you, nine or ten
years-old girl, writing, growing up, exploring, meeting people from different
cultures. Where, do you think, this world from the past is now? How can
you access it again and again? Is there a parallel with worlds you created?
Where all these worlds exist nowadays?
ULG - Those worlds I knew exist in my memory, for a little
while longer. In so far as I have been able to take them into my
fiction and recreate them there, they will exist there as long as my books
are read. Heraclites said: You cannot step twice into the same river.
MM - Another quote from Bittner. He writes: “Le Guin is
deeply convinced of the mysterious intrinsic power of certain words.” Do
you use those words in your writing? Do you ever use them in everyday life
to achieve a certain purpose, perhaps?
ULG: I don’t know what those “certain words” are. Words
are my medium, as paint is the painter’s medium or musical tones the composer’s
medium. All words, used rightly, have mysterious power. The right
use of words is the mystery – the art – of the poet and story-teller.
MM: I read that there are many articles written about
you from the perspective of ecocriticism. This was quite a new angle for
me of your work. Critics also point out that you write about reciprocal
relationships, and that “whatever you touch touches you”.
From this point of view, there is indeed an ecological
catastrophe awaiting us. I read about polar bears, for example, who
die because of the global warming, because they cannot reach the icepack,
as it’s melting, and I heard that bureaucrats and politicians prohibited
American scientists who study polar bears to go to international conferences
and talk about the problem.
Do you think that academicians who study your work are
right? Is it indeed an important aspect of your work to focus on the ecological
problems our society has to solve?
ULG - Yes, I think you would find that this great subject
of what human beings have been doing to our world, and to each other, runs
as a theme through all my work.
It is not a happy subject. All my lifetime, catastrophe
– perhaps through cataclysmic war, certainly through overpopulation and
waste and misuse of the world’s resources, -- has been approaching, and
we have denied it. Now it is upon us. Now we, and our children,
and their children for generations to come, must live through it. I hope
we will have courage, patience, generosity. We will need them.