Writing Nameless Things: An Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin

You know what Gutenberg’s second book was, after the Bible? That’s my problem, I do nameless things. It’s another honor, a significant one. NOVEMBER 17, 2017

GREAT HONORS ARE flowing to Ursula K. It’s too bad. You once clarified your political stance by saying, “I am not a progressive. I love reading at Powell’s Books. And then, right after the election, you came up with a new model of resistance that elevates not the warrior but water: “The flow of a river is a model for me of courage that can keep me going — carry me through the bad places, the bad times. I enjoy writing and I enjoyed the kids. And then, when we get these biographers where they are sort of making it up as they go along, I don’t want to read that. My kids went to bed much earlier than most kids do now. That makes such a difference. There’s this joke I heard. It’s so embarrassing. In your 2014 acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation medal, you said, “Hard times are coming.”
I certainly didn’t foresee Donald Trump. Is that fair? I’m not remotely ashamed of their origins, but I am not captivated by them either the way some people are. I almost wasn’t. When I discovered I was pregnant the third time, I went through a bad patch. Her job is to make money. Rats are more intelligent and more adaptable than koala bears, and those two superiorities will keep rats going while the koalas die out. I would go up to the attic, and work 9:00 to midnight. LE GUIN: Okay. Surely in the great sweep of time, there has been progress on social issues because people have an idea or even an ideal of it. And if she insists upon flouting convention and writing SF and fantasy and indescribable stuff, it’s even harder. It’s one of my works that is neither fantasy nor science fiction. But I was kind of gung-ho to do it. It’s not alternative history because it’s fully connected to real European history. Creatures live longer if they can do things in different ways. You’re encouraged to follow the “truth” instead of the facts. But the tone of my voice might have changed. What I did not realize is that being published in the Library of America is a real and enduring honor. It was called “The Complete Orsinia,” and had some of your less famous work. My actual time to work on my writing was going to be limited to what was left after the needs of my kids. I was thinking about the idea of evolution as an ascending staircase with amoebas at the bottom and Man at the top or near the top, maybe with some angels above him. What I was trying to say is that now we have two ways of publishing, and we’re going to use them both. I was of a generation when women were expected to have kids. ¤
David Streitfeld is a reporter for The New York Times, where he covers new technologies. But much of it is derivative; you can a mash lot of orcs and unicorns and intergalactic wars together without actually imagining anything. I like to hide it in fiction when I can. Le Guin lives quietly in Portland, Oregon, with her husband of many decades, Charles. I grew up with a set of Mark Twain in the house. The first book of yours in the Library of America came out last year. I think I’ve been fairly consistent on that. I was talking about longer-term hard times than that. The work of that period isn’t all my significant work. You were on fire, writing The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) practically back to back. They weren’t respectable. To paraphrase Mary Godwin’s line about the vindication of the rights of women, it’s a vindication of the rights of science fiction. Well, sometimes they do, but it’s a killer. And I was thinking of the idea of history as ascending infallibly to the better — which, it seems to me, is how the 19th and 20th centuries tended to use the word “progress.” We leave behind us the Dark Ages of ignorance, the primitive ages without steam engines, without airplanes/nuclear power/computers/whatever is next. You were also raising three young children. I was going against a trendy notion. He goes very deep in me, back to my teenage years. George, the hero, is kind of watery. You can’t tell a story unless you’ve listened to a lot of stories and then learned how to do it. Like in my novel The Lathe of Heaven (1971). But then I suddenly went and wrote a little story called “Calx” for Catamaran, and then in September a long story called “Pity and Shame.” I should have remembered what all good SF writers know: prediction is not our game. Progress discards the old, leads ever to the new, the better, the faster, the bigger, et cetera. But there’s an indifference toward factuality that is encouraged in a lot of nonfiction. Last year, the Library of America began a publishing program devoted to her work, a rare achievement for a living writer. If I was tired, it was a little tough. Is this a notion that comes out of an earlier work? It was clearly a time of great fecundity in all sorts of ways. The second and third volumes, containing much of her classic early SF, are now out. They waited and waited and waited and finally got in touch with my agent, who immediately got in touch with me. Le Guin. It’s exciting, something I’m really happy doing. There was all this vitality in the house. Their audiences are great. Her collected shorter fiction has been published in two volumes by Saga Press. When I started writing about ebooks and print books, a lot of people were shouting, “The book is dead, the book is dead, it’s all going to be electronic.” I got tired of it. URSULA K. I had a child under age five for seven or eight years. I think I’ve earned them. We kept old-fashioned hours — 8:00 p.m., 9:00 p.m. There is no name for it. Does being in the Library of America make you feel you’ve joined the immortals? For 30 years I’ve been saying, we are making the world uninhabitable, for God’s sake. On the other hand, if there were nothing around to eat but eucalyptus, the rats would be gone in no time and the koalas would thrive. I like to write. When did you write? I was thinking more as a Darwinist than in terms of social issues. Malafrena (1979), the novel that is the volume’s centerpiece, takes place during a failed revolution in the early 19th century in an imaginary European country somewhere near Hungary. How can that be bad? You are direct. Pregnancy can be pretty devouring. [Laughs.] One slows down increasingly in one’s upper 80s, believe me. There’s a kind of insolence, a kind of colonialization of that person by the author. How did you pace yourself? You’re now up there with all the greats — Twain, Poe, Wharton. It was a book about how the book was dead. I feel fine as far as literature is concerned. I didn’t say progress was harmful, I said the idea of progress was generally harmful. Collections of authors’ work were not such a big deal. How’s your mood? Is that right? Especially while you’re still alive. It’s been a long journey for some of these books. Fifty years ago, science fiction and fantasy were marginal genres. I really like facts. I was dubious about publishing that piece about water as a blog entry. I bullied Library of America into doing it first. I left myself what leeway I could in what I did when. What does it mean to you? I’ve dropped most of my public obligations. Hasn’t that changed? A courage that is compliant by choice and uses force only when compelled.”
It’s rooted firmly in Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching. In 2014, she received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Much of the work in these two new Library of America volumes was done in a short span of time — a few years during the late 1960s and early ’70s. Humans can do all kinds of stuff bacteria can’t do, but if I had to bet on really long-term global survival, my money would go to the bacteria. That is perfectly understandable and I enjoy his fascination, but my mind doesn’t work that way. You see my problem with it? Still, it took a lot of juggling. I was healthy and the kids were healthy. They were very good-natured about it. That was a period when you also wrote the first Earthsea novels. It was so direct, and sounded like I was trying to be some sort of guru. Apparently I could do it on both fronts. I was very careful in those years not to work to a deadline. To have my career recognized on this level makes it a lot harder for the diehards and holdouts to say, “Genre fiction isn’t literature.”
Do they still say that? He goes with the flow, as they used to say. And my agent was hesitant about the contract, since the pay upfront was less than she’s used to settling for. One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. Philip Roth and I make a peculiar but exclusive club. We had one, now we have two. I could not possibly have done it if Charles had not been a full-time parent. I have a huge respect for them. I didn’t realize I was bullying them, but I was. Most of my real work was fictional, where you don’t express things like that directly. There’s pretty good stuff after. It needs practice. For a year or two, you thought you never would again. You’d be surprised. You build it in. Evolution is a wonderful process of change — of differentiation and diversification and complication, endless and splendid; but I can’t say that any one of its products is “better than” or “superior to” any other in general terms. They are welcome and useful to me because they shore up my self-esteem, which wobbles as you get old and can’t do what you used to do. But I hardly ever write fiction anymore. I find myself asking, what is it, a novel, a biography? Over and over I’ve said it — two people can do three jobs but one person cannot do two. But it all didn’t seem remarkable. So what do you call it? After the kids were put to bed, or left in their bed with a book. But it is just physically impossible. And for a woman, any literary award, honors, notice of any sort has been an uphill climb. I don’t think the rewards have been overdone. They were immediately rewarding. I wrote them and said, “I wasn’t pulling a Dylan.” But they must have wondered. The place where the unbridled imagination worries me is when it becomes part of nonfiction — where you’re allowed to lie in a memoir. I say, “No, thank you,” a lot. It just isn’t true. I am into content. I’m not a curmudgeon, I’m just a scientist’s daughter. I am in the middle of rereading Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Some people are fascinated by the pulps — there’s something remote and glamorous in the whole idea of a 25-cent book. It worries me for instance when writers put living people into a novel, or even rather recently dead people. For 30 years! ¤
DAVID STREITFELD: How’s your health? You’ve been concerned recently about some of the downsides of the imagination. You’re now a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Only in specific ways. Presentation is something that just has to be there. I was appalled to learn my grandchildren were staying up to 11:00. Michael is enthralled by the whole comic book thing. Fifty years ago, they were originally published as SF paperbacks. How do you feel about ebooks these days? Either the letter got lost in the mail or I tossed it thinking it was junk, but in either case I never got the invitation. I am interested in change, which is an entirely different matter.” Why is the idea of progress harmful? That would have driven me up the wall. But it was an easy pregnancy, a great baby, and we were really glad we did. I think the idea of progress an invidious and generally harmful mistake. I don’t want to be pollyannish, but the fact is both jobs were very rewarding. And now? Are you getting weary of being honored and lionized? How does evolution fit in? How are we going to do this whole thing all over again? We seem inundated with fantasy now. Number three came along slightly unexpectedly, about the time number two was beginning to go off to kindergarten. I never promised a book — ever. I’m a ham. She’s a good agent. I worked just as hard before that and just as hard after. This year, once again, she was on the betting list for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Always remember, you’re talking to a woman. I remember you once said that having kids doesn’t make the writing easier but it makes it better. In 1974, you gave a talk entitled “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”
There’s a tendency in American culture to leave the imagination to kids — they’ll grow out of it and grow up to be good businessmen or politicians. Okay. It needs exercise.