No. 10 - 11


Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin  
By Margarita Meklina  

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 hero. 

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 notice.

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 “Orsinia”?

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, too.
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 naturally? 

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 “Possessed”).

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.

April, 2007 



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