Readers have been wandering the shores of Ursula K. Le Guin's vividly imagined landscapes for more than four decades, and they continue to be inspired by the way LeGuin melds fantasy and science fiction to explore the human condition.
Le Guin, who has lived in Portland for the last 50 years, will read from her new book, Lavinia, in Corvallis at 7 p.m. Sept. 19 at the Corvallis-Benton County Library. The event is sold-out. Le Guin has limited most of her appearances to the West Coast, and her work is so popular that free tickets to her Corvallis event quickly disappeared.
An award-winning author, Le Guin also is a mother and a teacher, as well as a champion for young writers. The following is an interview with Le Guin conducted via e-mail in anticipation of her Corvallis visit. To learn more about her work, see www.ursulakleguin.com
Gazette-Times: Many young people dream of becoming writers, but very often those dreams derail by the time they're out of high school and are forced into making "practical" choices that leave them little time or energy for creative work. What advice would you give to someone just starting out, to help them protect or nurture those dreams?
Le Guin: The choice to train to be an artist of any kind is a risky one. Art's a vocation, and often pays little for years and years - or never. Kids who want to be dancers, musicians, painters, writers, need more than dreams. They need a serious commitment to learning how to do what they want to do, and working at it through failure and discouragement. Dreams are lovely, but passion is what an artist needs - a passion for the work. That's all that can carry you through the hard times. So I guess my advice to the young writer is a warning, and a wish: You've chosen a really, really hard job that probably won't pay you beans - so get yourself some kind of salable skill to live on! And may you find the reward of your work in the work itself. - may it bring you joy.
G-T: As a long-time Portlander, how has the landscape of the Pacific Northwest influenced your work? Do you think that your characters or settings sometimes reflect your experiences as an Oregonian?
Le Guin: I grew up in Northern California and have lived in Oregon for 50 years, and those sceneries are all through my stories and poems. The novel "The Tombs of Atuan" grew from my very first trip out to eastern Oregon . . . and "The Lathe of Heaven" is a kind of inside-out love song to Portland, and "Searoad" is another one to the Oregon beach towns . . . The West Coast is my place and its people are my people.
G-T: As the American economy takes a nose dive, and as we're embroiled in international conflicts, do you think that fantasy and fiction writing become even more important as a way to either escape the current reality, or address political and social problems by working through them in fantastical settings?
Le Guin: I think you're right on both counts. The world is so weird that (as the Magical Realists showed us) the only way to describe it is by accepting its weirdness - we begin to understand it by accepting the fact that we can't understand it. … And fantasy and sf are good tools, the best tools, for getting perspective on the big social and political stuff (think of Orwell's "Animal Farm"), and for figuring out what might be changed in our society - for better or worse - and what change might involve (think of "The Handmaid's Tale").
G-T: There are some hard core fans in our newsroom who are wondering if you're going to revisit your Earthsea landscape again.
Le Guin: I never know where I'm going next. Didn't I call the fourth Earthsea book, "Tehanu," "the last book of Earthsea"? And then didn't I write two more books of Earthsea? Don't listen to me!
G-T: As a writer, do you find greater satisfaction in writing for children or for adults? You seem to have had equally strong success in both areas. Does working on a children's novel impact you in a different way than weaving a tale for an adult audience? Or do you not consider the audience as much as the story itself?
Le Guin: That's it, really. The story will find its audience.
Of course if I'm writing for young kids (like the "Catwings" books) that's different. Writing a book for young children is really more like writing poetry, in many ways. But my novels - they're for anybody, any age, who wants to read them.
Labeling books "For Age 9-12" or "Young Adult," etc., is a very short-sighted marketing device. It makes it easy for the publisher and the chain bookstores to market the book, but in the long run all they're doing is keeping potential readers away, and saying, "This isn't literature, it's kiddilit." And yet fantasies (like Tolkien), and stories about young people (like Romeo and Juliet, or Tom and Huck) cut right through the artificial age-limits, and speak to all readers.
G-T: I understand you are now retired from teaching, but while working as an educator, did that work alter your writing? Did you have difficulty in balancing the two disciplines?
Le Guin: No, they worked together very well. I always got my own batteries recharged by the student writers in the workshops I did. I'd go home high from a good workshop, and write.
But I never taught as a fulltime, year-after-year job. Teaching makes such a huge demand on a person, it's very hard to do while writing, which makes many of the same demands. My fulltime job was bringing up three kids and keeping house. Balancing that with my writing was a bit tricky for some years, I'll admit, but it worked out fine.
G-T: What is your writing schedule like these days? Is working very structured for you, or do you work as inspiration strikes? Describe, if possible, an "average" day as far as your writing is concerned.
Le Guin: I never had any real schedule, I'm too sloppy, and I can't force my work. If I have a novel going I write two or three hours in the morning, and maybe do some revising in the afternoon, and all the rest of the time the novel is going on somewhere in my head. If I don't have anything particular going, as is the case right now, I wander around in my head listening for a story or a poem. I spend a lot of time doing mail and other stuff, but all the time I am listening for the story, or the poem, or whatever it is that might come.
G-T: It seems that science fiction and fantasy writing were long considered a male-dominated field. Did you ever experience difficulties as a woman writer in the genre?
Le Guin: I had some gender-related problems, sure, but they were pretty unimportant - I was lucky. Anecdote: I was the second woman ever published by Playboy. My agent (a woman) submitted the story as by "U.K. Le Guin," and when the editors found out that I was Ursula, not Ulysses, they asked to keep the initials, "because our readership is frightened by women writers." I said, "There, there, boys, now don't be frightened, it's O.K., I'm U.K."
And then they asked me for an autobiographical note! So I wrote: "The stories of U.K. Le Guin are not written by U.K. Le Guin, but by another person of the same name." I figured that might puzzle their readers, but not frighten them.
G-T: Do you think that an author's gender plays a part in how a story is told, or how a reader might relate to the piece?
Le Guin: Oh, yes, I do! For a long time I wrote pretty much as a man, and men were at the center of most of my stories. Learning how to write as a woman was the most important thing I did in the middle of my life. I know that if I hadn't learned that, I'd have stopped writing, or stopped writing well.
I'm afraid that the effect gender has on how a reader reads is often negative, in a quite specific sense: men often make assumptions about how women write, slightly negative or patronising assumptions, which are clearly visible in reviews, and also in awards, which tend to go to male writers.
G-T: As a writer, as a human, what gives you hope about the future?
Le Guin: The age, and the vastness, and the vast complexity of the earth and all its creatures. No matter how we try to cut it down to our size, we'll fail; and in our failure lies our hope.