“The blogger is expected to read people’s comments in order to reply to them and carry on a limitless conversation with strangers. I am much too introverted to want to do that at all. I am happy with strangers only if I can write a story or a poem and hide from them behind it, letting it speak for me.” — Ursula Le Guin, Blog Zero.
The first time I spoke to Ursula Le Guin was in a signing queue in New York. I didn’t say much. I remember feeling very proud of that. I had intended to tell her how much her writing meant to me, because I was 28 and I’d been reading her since I was 8, and I hadn’t had much practice then at meeting my heroes. Maybe we’d have a moment, and she’d remember me at the end of the day — that nice young man from New Zealand, so well spoken and sincere. One glance at the signing queue was enough to educate me in the realities of the situation. I decided to let the other 17,000 fans line up and tell her how much her writing meant to them, and get their three and a half million copies of every book she’d ever published signed, and I would just stand quietly off to one side and listen to what she said to other people. Far more mature and in no way like a creepy stalker. It’s possible that I was the person she remembered at the end of that day.
Eventually the queue dwindled and I nipped in and got her to sign my old paperback of Orsinian Tales, which unfortunately involved learning that she disliked its cover art. (I can see now that the artist had zeroed in on one of the few moments of violent drama in the entire book, the better to sell it to readers who wanted a different kind of book. Cover art is a vexed subject. But my parents had given me that book when I was maybe 13, and I loved it.) Her voice had a taut, sinewy quality I hadn’t anticipated. I had no reason to have anticipated anything, except that her voice had been in my head for 20 years and it hadn’t sounded like this.
I spoke with her twice more, decades later, for two of the three interviews I was commissioned by various editors to do with her. The third was a little over a year before she died, and we did that one by email. By this point I was well used to talking to eminent people (writers mostly, that being my beat), and I’d learned that professional courtesy from an interviewer consists in part of not trying to become your subject’s new best friend. I had also learned, quite early on, never to agree to interview anyone I didn’t admire — the time involved requires deep personal satisfaction for the pay to seem adequate — so in many cases I would have liked nothing more than to become my subject’s new best friend. But talking to writers about their work often involves asking quite probing questions, and confusing a willingness to put up with this for evidence of a deep personal connection is not a good way to reward someone’s honesty. The deal is that you prepare thoroughly, ask the questions you think might go somewhere interesting, and then you get off the phone. Unless the person you’re offered for interview is Ursula Le Guin, in which case you go all fan-boy. I remember sitting down to collate every thought I had on her work and see which questions lined up most usefully behind them, and boggling for a while, and saying to myself, No, this is impossible, the rule of professional clarity is not something you’re going to keep to this time. I decided I would just chat with her and see what happened.
Another thing about journalism I learned quite early on is never to apologise for the defects in your work. Acting as though you’d have managed something better if only this or that had been different is a perverse form of self-indulgence; the work you manage to write within the constraints of time, word length and editorial relationships is the fair measure of how good you are, and apologising for having limits only draws attention to them. I am breaking this rule here as well — the previous paragraph is by way of explaining that I apologise for the disorganisation of much of what follows. I’d like to have been a sharper interviewer, but Ursula was my hero, the greatest writer and one of the most impressive people I have ever personally encountered, and my favourite living writer for most of my life. My tastes and perceptions have changed as much as most people’s do over five decades, I suppose. She changed faster. I did not find that I could speak with her and keep my sense of perspective.
I am posting below the transcript of our conversations, plus emails. They’re lengthy but incomplete; I transcribed everything I thought I’d want to remember later, and I no longer have the tapes. (Well I do, actually, because I am a pack-rat, but they’re in a box in a storage unit full of many other boxes & finding them would not be a simple matter.) The first interview occurred in 2008, in the lead-up to the New Zealand publication of Lavinia. The second was in 2014, in relation to her retrospective two volume story collection, The Unreal and the Real. The third was around the time her essay collection Words Are My Matter appeared, as well as the first volume in The Library of America‘s Le Guin edition, and the one-volume version of The Unreal and the Real, and the collection of her novellas, The Found and the Lost.
A few other caveats and warnings. These are pretty close to raw transcripts. I’ve omitted most of the ums and pauses, and used punctuation to give as much shape to the longer paragraphs as I can manage, but conversational speech is not prose. I’ve included a few explanatory notes, but parts of the conversation will be opaque unless you’ve read the relevant books and stories. If you haven’t read them, be aware that spoilers abound, especially for Lavinia — and for its source material, the Aeneid, if we want to stipulate that it’s possible to spoil the Aeneid — and for all of Earthsea, especially The Other Wind.
CONVERSATION ONE: 2008
David Larsen: How do you cope with questions from lifelong admirers, like me? Do you have to do it often?
Ursula Le Guin: Yes, I do have to do it fairly often. Well, it depends on the questions.
Do the same questions keep coming round?
Yes, they do. And so of course the trouble with that is one tends to develop stock answers, which is, you know… a pity. If any stock questions come up I’ll try to… I’ll lie. [laughs]
Then let’s start with Lavinia, which is newer… can I ask you first, do you read Latin? I take it that you do.
Well, I learned some in high school and some in graduate school. And it was in the process of trying to really learn Latin, so that I could read Virgil, that the book began to develop, because finally – you know, I just worked with my old grammars until I could plow my way through Virgil 8 or 10 lines a day, and became absolutely fascinated and completely absorbed by the Aeneid. So that’s what Lavina grew out of.
When did you do that?
Well, I guess I started, I sort of went back to my Latin, about 4 years ago… I was 75 or so, and I decided if I didn’t do it now, when would I? [laughs]
Oh, that’s so encouraging. I’m trying to teach myself Latin in my 40s…
Well good! That’s really much wiser than what I did.
So Lavinia developed out of reading Virgil?
Can you tell me a little bit more about how that happened?
Well, I got – generally sort of what we think of when we think of the Aeneid at all would be the first six books, the Dido and Aeneas part; and the last six books where he actually finally gets to Italy – and of course he goes to the underworld, but then when he comes out from the underworld and gets to Latium, where he was destined to go, and become the king of, and marry the princess of…. I think we all have a very much vaguer memory of the story there. And plowing through it at this very slow, plodding rate, I had to read it with great care. Couldn’t skip the battles. And one thing I began wondering – why did Virgil write these battles? Which he obviously doesn’t enjoy the way Homer enjoys his battles. Was he just imitating Homer, or did he have a purpose? Well obviously he had a purpose. And I think one of his purposes was to talk about war and this simply, this just caught me, I have to say. I mean perhaps I’m reading it all into the poem, but I don’t think so. Here’s my country in the middle of a pointless, endless war, that is much on my mind, and here is Virgil writing this quite terrible war story, a story that in a sense his hero – in a sense comes to grief in the war, because his hero, Aeneas, commits a murder that he really doesn’t have to, at the very end of the book.
Yeah, your reading of that is extremely subtle. Is that a common reading, that reading of Aeneas essentially defeating himself by — ?
I don’t think it’s entirely original, but because I’m so ignorant of the scholarship — because I really only know this poem, and haven’t read much about it — the only person I know that agrees with me about it is my brother Carl, who is an English professor in New York, who of course has taught the Aeneid and so on, and – I developed my ideas partly I think in correspondence with Carl.
When you have Virgil say that he hopes Augustus will understand the poem in this way, but he doesn’t expect him to, what exactly do you mean?
I was reading the last part of the poem in a sense as a story about the cost of war and empire. Which of course Virgil’s generation knew very very well, I mean having lived through the civil wars and so on. I don’t know, of course, I’m putting ideas into the head of a man dead 2000 years. But it seemed to me that it can be read as, look Augustus, this is what it’s going to cost you. Sort of. That that’s what he’s saying. No matter how honorable and brave and heroic you are, this is the cost of empire.
When was he writing?
He died in 19 BC I believe, so this is all just pre- what we call the year 1.
So Augustus had pretty much carried out his atrocities at that point, hadn’t he? He was Augustus, he was no longer Octavian.
Right. But what that meant was completely opaque, obviously. Virgil celebrates it very beautifully and with tremendous passion in the Eclogues, which were written much earlier, he was a very young man when he wrote those, and celebrates Augustus quite wholeheartedly at that point. As a victorious hero, you know… he was an older man when he wrote the Aeneid, and I think could have begun to see — “oh my goodness, maybe this wasn’t quite such a good thing after all”. Who knows!
I’ve been seeing the traces of Iraq in your last four books… I don’t know to what extent I’m reading them in. The three Western Shore books [Gifts, Voices, Powers] seem very much concerned with the abuse of power and the fallacy of empire.
They are all about – particularly the second two – the uses and misuses of power, yes. The Iraq war is – it keeps going on. My only action about it is, I put the number of the American dead up in my window, facing the street every morning. We don’t know the number of the Iraqi dead, so there’s no way – within thousands and thousands, so there’s no way to put that up. But yes, it’s on my mind.
I don’t know what one says about that, really. We none of us have any power of action… an American friend of mine gets very frustrated with the way people keep holding her responsible for George Bush’s choices…
Oh I know how she feels. We were in France years and years ago when the McCarthy hearings – did that strange episode in American history…?
The French would keep coming to us and saying, why are you doing this? [laughs]. And we’d say we’re just students in France, we’re not doing it! But you know, you know, [laughing] I tend to hold other countries responsible…
You said in an interview once that the big difference bwetween the first three Earthsea books and the latter three is the first three are mostly from the point of view of people who have power, and the second are mostly from the POV of people who don’t, or who did, or who don’t trust the power that they have.
So I suppose that comes out of that same experience, in a way, of being perceived to be powerful as an American, but to have no effective power over what your country chooses to do.
Who does have effective power over their government, except for presidents and dictators? But I think the question of power – I think a lot of science fiction and fantasy does address the question of power. It’s a very good place to write about it. Because in a sense you can simplify the terms, as you can’t in a realistic book. I don’t mean oversimplify; you can cut to the bone more easily, and without having to get into all the complications of the genuine historical novel, all the details which people may not know. F&SF are very good machines for trying out social experiments.
I enjoy your novellas – little anthropological experiements.
I think novella is a lovely length. I’m sorry it’s so unpublishable.
Where do you sell them. Nobody prints stories any more anyway, except the New Yorker and a very few magazines. And the novella – it fills up a good piece of your ordinary magazine.
Asimovs? [Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, which published many of UKLG’s novellas and longer stories in the 90s]
Yes, that genre of the science fiction magazine continues to publish magazines that are nothing but stories, but who else does?
But I have the idea, and it may be completely false, that at a certain point in a career that stops being an issue. This is not the case?
I would say within the last 20 years I could pretty much send my agent anything. And earlier than that I could send my agent anything because she was so brilliant, she always thought of places to put it. So that gave me a certain fearlessness.
You wouldn’t have had it anyway?
Oh yes, I had it, I was just very very lucky to find an equally fearless agent. Who didn’t believe in being held captive by the market.
You write an extraordinarily broad range of material.
I just write what I see fit to write and then I let them put the labels on it.
So you don’t impose rules on what you write for the sake of publication.
I don’t think at all about publishing or about audience when I write. But the work itself, when it begins to declare itself – sometimes when I’m already in it, but sometimes when I’m planning it – is going to declare itself pretty clearly, this is science fiction or this is fantasy, or this is young adult, although that’s a very – what defines the YA I really do not know, except that it usually has a young protagonist; anyway – or this is obviously realism, or this is something crazy, like a lot of my stuff, this doesn’t fit any nice genre description.
[Here I rambled at some length about the short novel Very Far Away From Anywhere Else, an outlier in Le Guin’s work, being realist contemporary YA, and a very important book to me when I first read it, aged 15. I opted not to transcribe this section back when I still had the tape, but if I tell you that the book is a first person narrative about a lonely teenage intellectual poetry-reading boy who meets a lonely teenage intellectual girl musician, you can perhaps imagine what kind of 15 year old boy would have fallen hard for it. It was very good having the chance to thank her.]
I still like that book. It’s a fairly classic YA in being about high school children and their particular problems, and it’s in a realistic setting.
Do you remember how you came to write it?
Owen sort of dictated it to me. It was one of the first books I wrote that I hadn’t come up with pages of notes and ideas, I just sat down and began writing it. This kid was talking in my ear. It was a rather strange experience… I had recently had an adolescent musician in the house, my daughter, so I knew a good deal about that life, but I didn’t at that point have any experience of an adolescent boy. Where Owen came from I don’t know. But there he was. And then he went away too, that was very definite, The book ended and that was that. I had no control over it in that sense. I was a bit startled when the book stopped.
Is it often like that?
Not to that extent. As many novelists say, one becomes at the mercy of one’s characters at a certain point, and they do things you hadn’t planned, and say things you hadn’t imagined.
Did something similar happen at the end of The Other Wind, when Tehanu chooses to be a dragon? Did you know that was going to happen?
Yes and no. I was pretty much – at the end of that book I knew where the book was going, but exactly how it was going to get there was completely discovered sentence by sentence. I had a sense of the trajectory and how the book was going to end in general, but all the details where discovered in writing. So I was in that peculiar almost trance condition, where you do that sort of writing. Which is certainly not automatic writing, but we don’t seem to have any good description of it. You’re writing down what seems to be coming through you rather than – that’s how it feels. And yet I know that can’t be; but that’s how it feels. Getting to this place where that creative portion of the mind can run absolutely free, and you are not consciously in control at all. And that to me in both poetry and prose is the most desirable working condition. But it’s rare, it happens only kind of at the end of something.
That makes sense to me. There must be so much control in giving the thing its shape so that that can then happen.
Exactly. You have given it an armature in which it can happen. Even with poetry I’ve come to realise that metre and rhyme and form in poetry give me an armature I need in order to be free. Writing free verse, which was kind of what my generation was expected to do, really was always very hard for me. I seldom got really free in it. So I’ve gone back to form and metre pretty much, because they free me. It’s very paradoxical.
I haven’t thought hard about your poetry very much. The poem at the start of Earthsea has been in my mind a very long time, and I’ve never really sat down and thught hard about it.
Well that’s as it were a translation also. That would not have form and metre, because it’s from a sacred book that’s in another language, as it were…. I’ve published 5 or 6 books of poetry; I wrote it before I wrote prose, and I’m [still? — this word was inaudible] writing it after.
The Creation of Ea poem [“Only in silence the word,/ Only in dark the light,/ Only in dying life:/ Bright the hawk’s flight/ On the empty sky”] strikes me as standing in some relation to the Tao Te Ching’s “The body comes to its ending/ There is nothing to fear”. I feel as though the latter poem stands in somewhat the same relation to the earlier as the vision of death in the later Earthsea books does to the vision of death in the earlier ones. Does that make any sense?
I’d have to think about it, but it certainly doesn’t seem not to make sense! I wish you’d write it down so I could sit and think about it.
Failing that, can we talk about the transition from death in the early book to death in The Other Wind?
Right… so evidently I was uncomfortable with that sort of – combination of Rilke and the classic underworld. And one thing that made me uncomfortable in the sort of anthropological conscience was – if this was what happened to the people of the archipelago, what happened to the Kargs, who don’t believe in these things? Would they go to the same place? – that would be very unfair! [laughs] I mean it sounds rather ridiculous, but I had to work that out in my mind. Also the fact that I made a dreadful mistake between novels, and I had revived a dead character – one of the great mages is dead at the end of The Farthest Shore, Ged meets him in the dry country, and then in Tehanu he seems to be quite vigorous. It was simply the kind of mistake you make between novels, especially when there’s a 17 year gap… [Here there is a section I marked as “long bit not transcribed” — from memory, this was because she was telling me things I already knew about where she decided to take the metaphysics of Earthsea in the final novel. Briefly, the book contains the revelation that death as Ged and the other mages of Earthsea have perceived it — a dry kingdom containing the empty husks of dead humans, all moving passionlessly through the motions of a life superficially similar to their earthly life, but rendered meaningless — is not true death. The dry kingdom was created by ancient mages, in a failed and ruinous attempt to achieve immortality. The book ends with humanity and dragons coming together to undo this vast mistake, returning to humans the gift of the true death, a simple ending of consciousness and dissolution of self which can be seen — the book seems to see it — as the return of one’s being to the greater life of the natural world]. I set them free from any conscious afterlife.
Is that what you believe yourself, by the way?
It’s not exactly a belief. I just cannot imagine being conscious forever; I wasn’t conscious before I was born. I think I’ll go back into the general pool of being. That’s all I’ve ever been able to imagine as an afterlife. And it’s not – it’s no problem. It really isn’t.
That is such a lovely thing to be able to say. [Brief discription here of one of my children’s recurrent fears around the idea of death].
This is the 11 year old? That’s tough. Particularly if he’s lost someone.
No, he hasn’t yet.
Well, that may make a change when he does, you know.
I enjoyed reading him and his brother your picture books, when they were little… I’m particularly fond of Fish Soup.
That book is thanks to the artist [Patrick Wynne]. I think he’s lovely; I don’t know what’s become of him. Beautiful black and white lines. He said I am so envious of Steve Schindler, who illustrates your Catwings, because I want to draw flying cats. I said, well I’ll write you a book with flying mice, would that be alright? It was entirely thanks to him. Not a very well known one, people don’t know it. I’ve been generally very lucky with illustrators.
You think in quite visual terms yourself I think. I love the drawings in The Wave in The Mind… do you draw much?
Yes, just line drawings, landscapes mostly.
Does it effect the way you write?
My landscapes are very ploddingly… I’m trying to reproduce what I see. There is no imagination in them at all. If I’m out in the desert I want to draw a picture that I can take home and remember. It makes me look at what I’m looking at very intensely, as I draw it. There’s a common wish for accuracy, I would say, in the drawing and in the writing — even if I’m inventing a scene, I want it to be accurate. For things to hang together and be right. I’m more aware of sound, because I do as it were hear what I write. I’m more aware of aural elements than visual ones.
In Lavinia you slip into poetry, basically, or anyway a very patterned kind of prose – like Tom Bombadill’s speech – at least once or twice, when Virgil is speaking –
Oh, well of course some of the things that Virgil says are straight out of the Aeneid. He’s quoting himself.
So that long horrible recitation of all the deaths that are about to fall on Lavinia’s head –
That’s an encapsulation of more than one battle scene. I just ran it all together. I wanted it to be absolutely awful.
Your language is very patterned in general; one can read it aloud.
That is what is important to me. That you can read them. That’s what’s so lovely in Tolkien’s own prose. It’s incredibly readable, you can read it out loud. I admire that very much. It speaks to something that I want in prose. Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf are incredibly readable out loud. They’re musical, in their own subtle ways. You fall into the music of that prose and it carries you. It’s not a showy quality, it’s not something you actually notice.
Do you think that’s one of the tests of good writing?
It is for me. Writing that does not read aloud, that comes to pieces when you try to speak it, for me there is something wrong. What it’s saying may all the same make it worthwhile, but the writers I admire the most are the ones who handle English in that way that you can hear it while you read it. Dickens is another one. A lot of 19th century writers actually.
Ellipsis. Those little three dots. You use them very effectively.
I love punctuation. I don’t know how you get on without dots and dashes in dialogue, I really don’t. If you’re trying to catch anything of the rhythm of the spoken word. Which I often am… I love punctuation. I do, I adore punctuation. The more I learn about it the more I admire it. It’s the one thing I hold against Jose Saramago, he doesn’t understand the virtues of punctuation.
Would you have ended up revisioning someone else’s story with Lavinia if you hadn’t been doing the translations you’ve done over the past 10 years or so? – or perhaps longer, I haven’t been keeping track.
I think the relationship there is almost metaphorical. I cannot translate Virgil, I do think Virgil is essentially non-translatable. Like apparently Pushkin. It just doesn’t come through, too much of it is music. So the only way I could translate Virgil was into a different form. Make a piece of his epic into a novel rather than trying to translate the poetry. There is an effort of translation going on there, but it’s so remote from the original in so many ways. It’s metaphorically a translation I guess.
Is it fair to read Lavinia as a rebuke of Virgil?
Well people certainly were expecting that, I think partly because of Margaret Atwood’s Penelope book – where she really is taking Homer to task. There’s been a lot of revisioning of that particular feminist sort. I’ve done some, with fairy tales and so on. So I think people expected it, and that’s one reason Lavinia at one point says “I may not be the voice you expected”. Because that was not my intention at all. I don’t see that Virgil needs any scolding. Any man who could invent – it’s such a complicated thing, but I don’t have any quarrel with Virgil. I think he was an extremely sweet person, it comes through in the poetry.
I think some people do read the Aeneid as valorising war. For them, it and Lavinia would be somewhat at loggerheads.
I think they’re completely justified in doing so. I think it’s a completely justifiable reading of the book. I think just propagandistically speaking it had to be readable that way, or Augustus probably wouldn’t have liked it. If Virgil was putting in a message such as I am ascribing to him, it would have to be pretty subtle. Because he was Augustus’s official poet – when he died he was replaced by Horace – but he had as it were a government position. So that means you make your points with a light hand if they’re not directly suited to the manners of your emperor. It’s probably arguable all ways, but – many many people who were fed the Latin classics were kind of fed this idea that Virgil was just as gung-ho as Homer is about battle. And Homer really is, he obviously enjoys them as much as any 12 year old boy with a comic book. And they’re good, they bore me but they don’t make me morally uneasy. The battles in the Aeneid do make me queasy. They’re not as boring, but they’re much more upsetting, Which means to me that this is a much more modern consciousness, Virgil’s, much more like us than Homer is. Homer’s marvelous, but he’s very different.
Here we ran out of time. Subsequently the New Zealand release of Lavinia was delayed, and my editor held the interview back until the book came out. When I came to write it up, a year later, I discovered that I’d done a terrible job of asking focused questions about the book. So I asked Ursula if I could email a few follow-up questions through, and she said, sure. I’ve intercut my email with Ursula’s replies on a question-by-question basis.
EMAIL FOLLOW-UP: 2009
this was going to happen a week ago… I forgot that June is when the New Zealand Film Festival leaps out of the bushes and mugs me. (Not complaining; apologising. I love the festival. But I forgot to plan for it). Spent this morning watching Unmistaken Child, a very beautiful, very disturbing documentary about a Nepalese monk’s search for the reincarnation of the Konchog Lama. Made me think of the search for Arha in Tombs of Atuan; the monk was very humble & quite sweet with the boy he eventually found, but the parents had no real chance of standing up to him when he asked to take their son to the monastery. Humility can be thoroughly arrogant when it’s serving a supposed ideal…
In any case: I’ve been back over our interview from a year ago, and I’m in the middle of re-reading Lavinia. Things I didn’t think to ask you that seem worth talking about:
At one point, I asked: Is it fair to read Lavinia as a rebuke of Virgil? You replied:
I don’t see that Virgil needs any scolding. Any man who could invent – it’s such a complicated thing, but I don’t have any quarrel with Virgil. I think he was an extremely sweet person, it comes through in the poetry.
Several questions… how does Virgil’s sweetness come through, specifically? I haven’t the Latin to read the Aeneid properly. (My sons and I tried a little of book 6 recently, which I knew enough to translate haltingly 25 years ago… no longer. I’m teaching them Latin and relearning it myself as we go, so in a year or two, perhaps…) But I know that feeling, of getting so familiar with the way someone’s mind moves on the page that you can say quite confidently that you know them to some some degree, never having met them. Tell me about getting to that point with Virgil, and who your Virgil is.
Ursula: Something seems to be missing there after “invent,” did I mean to say Dido, perhaps?
Of course we don’t know much about Virgil, but the little his friends said gives the impression of a tall, rather fragile, quiet, serious man with a country accent, who didn’t play the Great Poet, despite his amazing and immediate success. His friends loved him. And there is certainly something in his poetry people find lovable. Trying to describe these things is hard, but the impression I get is of intense sensitivity, a kind of vulnerability; he is unjudgemental, has no meanness, and when he talks about injustice or hatred or violence he acknowledges it but doesn’t share it or revel in it, rather he shares in the pain of it. Right in the beginning of the Aeneid he says of Juno’s vengeful pursuit of the Trojans, tantaene animis caelestibus irae? almost incredulously . . . [Can such anger dwell in heavenly minds?]
All this makes what I’d call a sweet-natured man. I’d never dare say I “know” Vergil, but I’d say that.
Of course sweetness is only one element of him – I’m rereading Book VI too – dropjawed all over again at the power, the strength of it – how does he leave out so much, skipping over all sorts of stuff that seems necessary, so that what he leaves in is the absolute essence – how did he do it? How did he know??
I just sit there gawping at the book sometimes. It’s like Shakespeare. It beats all.
Also: has it ever seemed an undesirable thing to you, that people should be able to look into your own books and see something of who you are? There’s so much self-exposure in real writing — I get self-conscious enough over the highly limited extent to which I reveal myself through journalism.
No, I’ve never worried about revealing myself in my writing, about self-exposure, I guess because most of what I’ve published is fiction, and most of that is imaginative fiction — not the autobiographical or confessional sort, nor the sort that uses the author’s friends and family as grist. (When they find I’m a writer people sometimes say coyly Oh I hope I won’t be in your next novel, and I want to reply, don’t worry, luv, you won’t.) I don’t use people, I compost them. I guess I naively assume that I also compost myself. In any case, since I often scarcely recognize myself in my novels, it doesn’t occur to me that other people will. And if they do, well, all right. I don’t think my self-revelations are going to cause much excitement. My novels are really far more interesting than I am.
How & why did you decide to make Virgil a character in the book? It produces the most lovely complexities, as well as dealing very effectively with the business of recounting Aeneas’s backstory; I’m glad you did it, but it’s a very unexpected move. Can you remember how/why you thought of it & decided to try it?
Very early on. The first thing I wrote was the passage beginning “I know who I was…” on page 3. In that Lavinia is already perfectly aware of her contingency, her dependence on “the poet.” Exactly when the poet decided to take part in the novel, I don’t recall. The process was one of revelation by writing, of discovery by going forward. So at some point it was: Oh, I see, she’ll meet Virgil at Albunea – of course.
The complexities were somewhat alarming to me, but, as you say, lovely — irresistibly so.
You’ve written stories based on pre-existing stories — “The Poacher” comes to mind — and I suppose there must have been an element of working within the constraints of someone else’s storytelling when you went back to Earthsea after such a long pause. But to build a whole novel on a foundation someone else had constructed for you — did it feel fundamentally different from building it yourself from the ground up?
Yes and no. . . At first it did scare me: how dare I make a novel out of this poem that has been a landmark in literature for two thousand years? Like setting up housekeeping in a corner of the Parthenon.
But it all went along quite comfortably, since after all Virgil was my guide, which made me feel rather Dante- like. I followed him faithfully, in almost every detail, through the story.
But then I began to approach the end of the Aeneid, and thought — how can I go on without him? And that began to seem the profanation– to “finish” what Vergil had left (in my opinion) exactly where he meant to leave it and where it should stop, with the death of Turnus. What impudence.
But of course I wasn’t telling Aeneas’s story, but Lavinia’s, and hers had to have an entirely different shape and go on to an entirely different end. And it wasn’t as hard to write without my benevolent guide as I had feared. It continued to reveal itself as I went forward. When that happens, it really is a mistake to question it (until later, of course, after composition is finished, when everything may be put into question)
A couple of questions I couldn’t ask a year ago: how is Lavinia doing? – and how can you tell? Book sales are presumably being hit by the recession; I don’t know if that complicates your ability to guage Lavinia‘s reception, or to what degree you go by sales or by reader responses… or whether a year is soon enough to have a good idea of its reception, even. Really I have no idea how much information gets back to writers, or how quickly!
Depends on the writer. I am too superstitious to check sales at Amazon or such places that purport to report them, or even to ask my editor how we’re doing. I gather we’re doing fine. The reviews have been good to terrific, both in the U.S. and so far in England. But if anyone was hoping for a Le Guin bestseller, that just doesn’t seem to happen. What my books do is sell pretty well . . . and go on selling pretty well for years and years and years — as long as the publisher will keep them in print, and some of my books have never been out of print for three or four decades. That mounts up. Unfortunately the corporations that now run most publishers have no comprehension of this kind of publishing; “success” has to arrive instantly with vast quantities of money. Next year? What’s that?
Cheek By Jowl [an essay collection, and in 2009, her most recent book] isn’t directly available in this country, so I can’t do much with it in the article (silly constraint, given how easy it is to order from Amazon — that being how I got my copy — but those are the rules…) — but I wanted to ask about one comment you make in it: “Realism in fiction is a recent literary invention, not much older than the steam engine, and probably related to it”. Can you expand on that? (Specifically, on the “probably related to it”).
Well, when I say things like that I’m liable to throw centuries about rather freely, but isn’t the realistic novel pretty much an 18th century invention, and actual Realism a 19th century one, and are these not the centuries of the rise to empire of the Industrial Revolution? As for the connection, it would take volumes to explore.
Also, you say somewhere — didn’t note the page reference — that you’re now tempted to find out what happens later to Gavir, and Memer, and Melle. YES PLEASE… are you going to?
That article was written just as Gifts came out, and referred only to Gifts. Memer and Gavir, and Orrec and Gry aging, are “what happened later.” I’m sorry!
I should report, humbly, that your critique of Watership Down is devastating, and I have surrendered to it. I knew the power/gender relationships in that book were all wrong, but I didn’t want to think about it. Now I have to figure out a way to ask my sons to think about the subject. Will be good for us all, if I can do it gently… anyway, it’s a grand essay, the animals one. Thank you.
Thank you for saying so, and also for bearing with my very harsh words about W.Down. I am unforgiving because I feel cheated. I read the book the first time with considerable pleasure, though increasingly worried by the weird rabbit-machismo. It wasn’t till I’d read his sources that I had any idea how he had misused them. I’m no scientist and no scholar but have a passionate respect for real science and scholarship, and he was violating both.
Now I’m going to watch something called Theatre of War. No idea what it’s about… they toss me these things and say “watch it, review it if it’s any good”. Like being 5 years old and plunging your hand into a lucky dip.
Thank you so much for doing this, it’s a lot of fun for me.
I enjoy it too, it makes me think about things afresh. I hope your Lucky Dip came up satisfactory!
All the best,
[I no longer have any memory of Theatre of War, but for the curious, I described it briefly to Ursula in a subsequent email: “Theatre of War turns out to be a discursive study of a New York public theatre production of Mother Courage, going into the history of the play & letting the Iraq resonances ring very loud & clear. Very intelligent, very interesting. At one point they sit down with Brecht’s daughter & watch footage of him testifying before the unAmerican activities commission, doing a wonderful impression of der good German mit not too much of der English… “That old fake!” his daughter says.”]
CONVERSATION TWO: 2014
I read an interview recently where you mentioned you were revising Steering The Craft for a new edition.
It does not at this time exist as a new edition — I have completely revised the original edition, but there are hindrances to publishing it. I invited people to write me if they did the exercises and tell me were they useful, were they maddening and so on. Quite a number of people did.
[For some reason I didn’t transcribe whatever I said next, but from context I think it was some version of this:] Do you ever consider revising your fiction?
Reading some of my earlier novels – I’m thinking in particular of The Lathe of Heaven — if I were to rewrite that book, I’d cut dialogue a good bit I think. People talk too much. I think that’s a tendency in my earlier books. People do longer speeches than they should. A British editor of one of my first three Earthsea books — I don’t remember which book, I don’t remember which editor — said Ged is talking too much. And she was right. He was sort of orating and prating. I was probably explaining to myself what — Ged was explaining to me what I didn’t know. But it didn’t need to be said in the book. I got in the habit of letting him talk, because what he said was interesting to me. Was it Emily Dickinson who said tell it slant? As a general rule she seems to have been right… if it’s a big thing you’re saying, it seems best to not come at it directly, because it will come out as a platitude if you do.
Are there things you can’t say at all?
I think that there probably are. Quite a good many. But we must never give up, because we do learn to say things that we didn’t use to know how to say.
How has your writing changed over the course of your life? What have you lost and gained?
Well what I’ve lost in the last five or six years is very clear. It’s energy. I don’t think I could possibly write a novel now. I wonder how Jose Saramago did it. I envy him. I just don’t have the physical or psychic energy to undertake a big work. I don’t get – short stories don’t come to me very often any more. It’s a lessening, a slackening. I’m very old [laughing] – it’s hardly a surprise. It seems natural. But I still do envy Saramago, for writing a very good novel when he was 87!
But I think you just said two things there — that you don’t have the energy, and that stories don’t come to you very often.
Yes. But it feels to me like the same thing. A lessening of the flow of the vitality that makes the stories.
Your unconscious cuts its coat according to its cloth, then? — you don’t get ideas that you’re not capable of using?
I think there’s some truth to that, although I have had a couple of vague notions — you know, a big story — and then thought [laughing] I can’t do that, I’m sorry! I can’t undertake that, I won’t be able to see it through.
Does that feel sad to you?
Yeah. Yeah it does.
I noticed in the 90s how much more economical you’d become – your novellas in particular do all the work of a novel, and sometimes more.
Well I love that form. I love that length of story. I think the only reason there aren’t more of them is that publishers don’t know what to do with them. I think more authors would write them if there was a market, I really do. Because it’s a lovely form.
Four Ways to Forgiveness seems the perfect solution to that problem.
To connect them a bit.
Yes. I like your term “story suite” very much.
[laughs] It took a lot of hunting, I’ll tell you, to find that phrase! And then of course there’s a fifth Way to Forgiveness, which isn’t in the book, which grieves me. because it came later, I didn’t know it was going to come. It’s sort of frustrating — I wish I could republish Four Ways To Forgiveness with the fifth wheel.
The freedom to have new things turn up is wonderful though — and I suppose it’s no more untidy than having “The Day Before The Revolution” hanging round separate from The Dispossessed.
Yes, but that’s a — prequel, they call it. To the novel
Also “Old Music” is such a harsh story. It would change the book a great deal.
Yes, it’s pretty dark. On the general subject of change — one thing I noticed as I got into my mid-70s was that the stories were tending to be dark. And so Lavinia was such a gift. It got me completely away from all that — I just went somewhere entirely new.
Lavinia is a gorgeous book. Though not without its darkness.
I don’t think it’s dark…. well it’s sort of — well I mean anything that deals with the end of the Aenied is not going to be entirely cheerful, but —
But it’s a lovely book to read. When you contrast it with “The Wild Girls”, for example.
Yeah. That’s a hard one.
There’s a lot of slavery — and sexual slavery — in a tranche of your writing I guess from the 1990s through to the mid-2000s. Why was that so much on your mind then? Were there any immediate causes?
Not that I know of…. that’s an interesting — I think you’re right, as I think about it. I was sort of semi-aware of it. All I can think of David is that I — it took me a long long time to become fully aware of the fact that my country has never finished the civil war. You know. I lived all through the sixties and the black civil rights movement. I was not — I did not participate in any way, I was pretty busy having kids and if I demonstrated it was against nuclear bombs and things like that. But I — and I married a southerner, I lived in the south when it was segregated. It just took a long time to percolate through to me. That this is so deep in America. This is something every American has got to handle somehow, I think. Not directly, but as smoething very formative to the American conscience. And then of course there’s the whole women’s movement — of which I was very much a part, and the realisation that in a sense we have to keep struggling from not being literally enslaved, but being second rate. Not the privileged.
Your stories do this movement of location over time, from Europe, Orsinia, to other worlds, to where you live. There’s also a movement towards dealing with subject matter — feminism, slavery — where the issues at stake seem to address your own social circumstances more head-on. It’s as though you’re paying some sort of debt in the later stories that you’re not alive to in the earlier ones.
I think that’s a good way to put it. We all – all of us who live a life of privilege are in debt. One very simple way also to look at that progress or change that you’ve noticed is that – I’ve become less and less dependent on previous writing. The first three books of Earthsea are very clearly based on the heroic fantasy tradition. Of a hero overcoming obstacles. The heroes journey is a grand story. But despite what Joseph Campbell thinks it’s not the only story. I began I think to find my own ground, and I didn’t have to do it the way other writers have done it. And it took me a long time!
I like your distinction between story and plot.
Good! [laughs] A lot of people don’t. They resist it.
Well it’s thorny. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it.
I think it may not be theoretically very sound, but I think it is useful. Because people are told too much about plot. Too much is made of plot. If you look at plot as a kind of a certain type of elaboration on story, then you’re freed from this – oh my god I’ve got to sit down and write the plot first.
You say that “kind of”, “sort of”, “just”, “very” are the things you have to eliminate from your drafts.
[chuckles] Yes. The bloodsuckers.
You’ve done a good job. I can’t find them except in dialogue.
Right. But listen to me speak, and you will hear them. We got a heightened consciousness of that in the feminist movement in the 70s when we realised that women are constantly qualifying what they’re saying. Even in writing. So we all felt we mustn’t do that any more.
[Here I set off on a long spiel on the relationship between mode and language in the story “May’s Lion”, in which the same story is told first as a work of realism, and second as a myth or legend, with the language of complexity and qualification — phrases like “sort of”, “just”, “very” — present only in the realist portion. Maybe among other things you were demonstrating the proper uses of your bloodsuckers, I suggested.]
[Laughing kindly] That’s a nice thought! It’s not how the story came about! The first part is an attempt to recount truely this narrative that I was told, essentially by old May, with improvements by her nephew and so on… and too, because the story was told me in the valley in which Always Coming Home is set, I wanted to tell the story as if it happened then, as well as when it really happened. Because Always Coming Home was an attempt to imagine my beautiful valley being lived in rightly. Instead of wrongly, as it’s been lived in so much now. It was an act of consolation to myself, in a way. To give the valley people who deserved it better than we do. There’s some sort of personal consolation or reparation there that I can’t really describe… but I think that’s pretty clearly there with “May’s Lion”. To take this story which was a grievous story, because May felt bad about that lion, but she didn’t know what else to do… and I could make it come out better. Which is one reason we tell stories, I guess.
[I thankfully have no memory of what I said next, but what I wrote when I did the transcript was this: long rambly question about binaries and whether the existence of two possible stories, as with “May’s Lion”, opens the door to acceptance of more complex/less unitary/less inflexible thinking.]
I think if you called them alternatives — which after all does mean, usually, two — the phrase would come easier to me. Because — I have said many times that one reason I think imaginative fiction is important is that it can offer alternatives. Which is why it’s so important so often to young people. Who know that we don’t have to do things the way we’re doing them, but no alternative is offered. This is the way we do it! And so — a fiction that offers them an alternative way of living or looking at politics or whatever — that’s what they want. And then as you say you can go on from one alternative to many.
So these story collections. Why did you choose “May’s Lion” to include, do you remember?
Golly. Choosing those stories was a very odd experience. I kept thinking that some editor was going to come in and either do it for me or help me and correct me and suggest things, and that never happened.
Gavin [Grant, publisher of Small Beer Press], was very clear when I asked him about this that he was not going to do that.
Right, but he didn’t tell me that! So I kept waiting for him and Kelly to sort of do something! But of course round then was not a good time for them. Two years they were living in a hospital. My memory of the process of choosing is sort of haphazard. I just got all the stories out and tossed out quite a good many to start with, you know — I don’t know whether I put in “May’s Lion” because I wanted something from always coming home, something that related to that aspect of my work, or not. I put in stories because I liked them.
But you have so many stories you like — you say that in the introduction. It’s a problem, how to eliminate stories when so many of them you like.
It is! I do know writers who hate to reread their own work and are really unhappy — both writers and painters. [laughs] I don’t know whether I’m insensitive or what, but I generally enjoy reading my old stuff.
Does it feel like your old stuff?
Yes and no. It’s a mix of — my goodness, why did I say that? My goodness, look at me being so clever.
Do you have a favourite story?
Do you have a small group of favourite stories?
No, not really. I realised that making that anthology, that I imagine that The Unreal and The Real — which is after all a pretty big pair of books — contain most of the ones I would call my favourites, but after all there are no novellas in that at all. And I think some of my stories that I’m fondest of are probably the longer ones. Which — I do hope to make a collection of those too. And it looks like I might be able to do that.
That would be a big book.
It would be a huge book, one of these 1000 page things, which I think is rather awful, but –
No, you should do that. There are 1000 page fantasy behemoths coming out all the time. Why not a 1000 page collection of good stories?
Because you can’t lie down to your back to read it! There are e-books of course, if you can do those. I don’t read any of those giant anthologies, because I always read lying down, and your stomach won’t support it.
Why did you include “The Wild Girls”? It’s such a harsh story.
Well partly because of course Gavin was hoping for something recent — if not something brand new, at least something most people hadn’t seen. And that qualified very nicely. And also I rewrote it very slightly — it gave me the chance to rewrite it just a bit, as I had realised I wanted to do. It was a very demanding opening for the reader to try to figure out what was going on, and I cut some stuff and simplified it a bit.
How would you characterise the difference in feel between the two volumes?
I really don’t know. because I had to reread the stories and then of course proof read them, I’m too close to those volumes to read them again. I’m too close, I’ve got no perspective.
I noticed reading through them that not one of those stories is set in a city.
“Winter’s King”. Is that not included?
No, it’s not.
Of course, one of my arbitrary exclusions was not to have stories directly related to a novel. Though there were exceptions, because Gavin and Kelly wanted an Earthsea story and I wanted “May’s Lion”. Yeah, that’s interesting. That’s funny because I’m a city dweller. There are lots of villages in my work.
Small communities where everybody knows everybody but it’s possible to be alone — those seem to be quite important in your work.
And in my own experience quite imaginary, because the smallest town I ever lived in was Moscow, Idaho, a university town, not a village. We were not very happy there – we got away to the city just as quick as we could. But of course I had those summers in the valley as a child and those obviously did something profoundly to shape my whole being. In the country, with neighbours who were not important in daily life.
[At this point she asked me if I knew her friend and correspondent, the great New Zealand writer Margaret Mahy — I did, very slightly. I had to break the news to her that Margaret, who was roughly her contemporary, had died in 2012.]
I knew she was well on, but — she was just such a darling. Being in correspondence with her was wonderful. She was a wonderful, wonderful critic. Very keen. She ought to be a much larger figure than she is, here and in England. But so it goes.
[We talked about Margaret a little. A lot of this was me trotting out my Margaret stories. A lot of New Zealand book people my age have Margaret stories.] Do you find that blogging is very different from essay writing?
It is for me, but I’m not sure that it really is. I just have somehow always sort of hated writing essays. I could [laughing] just pretend that blogs weren’t essays, and so I could enjoy batting one out and then sort of polishing it, you know. Because the form is supposed to be short — I think I tend to approach an essay as if it ought to be 20 pages. I make too much of essays, before I write them. And talks. And so the blog — and you know, with Saramago — it was reading his blogs and thinking if he can do that, I wonder if I can? And just sort of write about what was on his mind. But thoughtfully. So — of course they are essays, aren’t they.
But they do have that feeling of spontaneity, you’re right. They feel more like you just sat down and decided to write. They can be about anything.
I think that’s what Charles Lamb intended. And his read – of course they’re very polished, but they’re also informal. Chatty.
I wanted to ask – what’s Pard doing today?
He’s right here, keeping my feet warm. He’s sound asleep, as usual. He weighs about 12 pounds, but when asleep – there’s this curious gravity thing that happens to cats when they sleep, they weigh more and more and more… if they’re in the middle of the bed you cannot possibly dislodge them.
Pard is a full justification for your blog’s existence.
I think he’s what most people enjoy the most, yes.
[By this point in the transcript I was getting pretty sick of the sound of my own voice and any time I said anything very long I skipped over it. But from memory I next asked her about the decision not to leave her blog open for comments.]
It seems to be – all artists, all performers, any amount of praise is highly acceptable and utterly delightful, but one word of criticism hits harder. You forget the good review except for the little sting in the tail. Why that should be I do not know.
So many people say that. Is that really true of you as well?
Oh yes. Oh absolutely.
Forgive me, but you seem so centered — you seem so sure of the value of what you do. It’s really interesting to me that that happens to you as well.
Yeah, it does. To the point where — if I were afraid of a really bad review I would probably be like Virginia Woolf and not read it, at least not for a long long time. Until whatever was being reviewed was far behind me. I think we’re almost all vulnerable that way.
Has anyone told you things about your work that you didn’t know, and that changed the things you wrote later in a useful way?
I certainly have been told things by interviewers and been told things by critics that – oh, of course that’s what I was doing! Oh my goodness. Revelatory things. To what extent that has influence further writing I don’t know. Because I do sort of keep going on into something else, you know?
Your career clearly breaks down into rough periods — the Orsinia stories predominate for a while and then they ebb and then they stop – –
Well is that true?
I think it’s true?
I think when you spoke earlier about my more European and book-influenced younger writing… but then what the hell, I end up with Lavinia, which could not be more European or book-influinced. It’s directly from a European book! So maybe I just do spirals.
Ha. Spirals, yes. You’re always coming home. But not quite. How have you changed, over your career?
Not quite the same, yeah. I’m not very good at this. I don’t look back a great deal. I always feel stumped with a question like that. I live fairly — pretty much in the present. I don’t look ahead a great deal, and I know I look back much, much less than any of my friends. Even in my old age, where inevitably one begins to think back. I don’t know… I seem not to think in those terms. The one thing I can say definitely is that I know I learned — very slowly! — to write better. And I think I went on learning. I know I’m writing better poetry now than I did 15 years ago. Poetry is mostly what I’m writing now. I like this idea that you really don’t stop learning. There’s always more to learn, and you can always learn it. In the practice of an art. And that’s lovely, to know that.
I want to ask what have you leanred, but I think — tell me if you agree — that you don’t learn big dramatic things, you learn lots and lots of little very specific things.
[laughs] Yes, that’s it. All sorts of little sneaky bits. The engineering of it all is fascinating.
Where do poems come from?
A beat or a certain combination of words with a certain rhythm to them come into the mind, and they have authority that you must obey, you must listen to. Something is at work here. So you try to follow them up. One of the m,addening things about poetry is that you can lose it entirely if you can’t follow it up right then. Sometimes these intimations of a poem bringing itself towards being can be lost because the telephone rings, you know? It’s funny stuff. It’s like dealing with fox-fire. It’s also wonderful. And then of course you can sit around and wait for one of those elusive rhythms or groups of words, but — I belong to a little group of poets, we’ve been working together for a long time now. We meet once a month, and we give each other — one person gives an assignment for next month’s assignment. And we don’t have to do the assignment, but it’s there. And it’s surprising how often an assignment in form particularly — you must write a quatrain, a villanelle, whatever — how often that brings the poem.
Specific limitations, specific goals, a small engineering problem. A villanelle is a major engineering problem. A little specific challenge. Some of the eight of us find an assignment in topic more useful, but two of us find the form one, almost always, the one that brings something we just didn’t know we had to write about. It’s very odd. It’s truely mysterious.
I imagine it like — all the sounds of the world are there, but if someone says only listen to raindrops today —
You can focus then.
You sort of install a filter, yeah.
Do you write any stories now?
Now and then. I just had two — one just came out and another one’s coming out this summer. I’m very tickled, because I write so few now — it pleases me inordinately when they do get published. One of them is in my mind quite a big story. That’ll be out later this summer.
It is to me. I’m not writing much stories. When I was turning them out rather frequently they just swallowed each other up. I was on to the next one.
That must be so odd.
Yeah. It is odd.
CONVERSATION THREE: 2016
Ursula did not feel up to a phone conversation, when I emailed her late in 2016 to ask if we could talk again. She suggested I write a list of questions, and she’d answer them if she could. She inserted her answers into the text of my absurdly long email; I’ve pasted the whole thing below as I received it, except for the questions she didn’t answer. (There would be informational value in showing you the things she opted to leave alone, I suppose, but there’s quite enough of me in this section already.)
Most of these questions are based around the three essays in Words Are My Matter that I loved the most. The questions on the Saramago essay got a little out of hand; or at least, at a certain point they stopped being about the Saramago essay and wandered off towards your blog. At the end of the list are a few about the two big collections that have just appeared.
Teasing Myself Out of Thought
The single sentence in this collection which hit me the hardest is, “No matter how humble the spirit it’s offered in, a sermon is an act of aggression”. (I could rephrase “hit me the hardest” as “spoke to me the most directly”, but the more violent language is what first came to mind, and it seems worth admitting that.) I know the Tao Te Ching almost exclusively from your rendering of it, and I am deeply ambivalent about it: I can never decide whether its many observations and insights add up to a fatalistic renunciation of choice, or a profoundly wise acceptance of the limitations of human power and knowledge. I feel a similar ambivalence about “a sermon is an act of aggression”. It reminds me of a line in Tolkien: “Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, for all courses may run ill”. My father sent me off to find The Lord of the Rings and read the conversation containing that line once — it’s Gildor, speaking to Frodo — after I asked him what to do about a bad choice two of my friends had made. It was a way of telling me to be very cautious about meddling. It was also a fairly dramatic and memorable way of giving me advice.
In the same way, is “a sermon is an act of aggression” not a form of sermon? How do you make your experience and understanding available to other people without in some way asserting your status as someone worth listening to? Is this phrasing really less aggressive than “you should attempt to avoid preaching at people” — does the avoidance of the “you should” remove the intent to instruct? — or is the blunt assertion of that “a sermon is” just a more striking and effective way of preaching?
UKL: You have it right there.
When I argue, I overstate — ask people who know me, I’m always going off like a firecracker. This can be forgiven in conversation, but when it’s written down the effect is different — hectoring -– preachy.
Because priests and preachers are granted moral authority simply by virtue of their position, the sermon is for me the symbol of unearned authority. And I see the exercise of unearned authority as aggressive.
I don’t mind at all being spoken to with authority if I think the authority has been earned — I like to be lectured at by people telling me something they know that I don’t, I like arguing over opinions with people whose opinions carry weight, but who don’t assert a right to dominate.
I can’t find a way to put these questions which avoids sounding as though I’m intending to nail you to some sort of logical cross; truthfully I’m not. I can’t answer the questions myself. I would like to know if you can. It does seem to me that the distinction you draw between preaching, teaching and the complex clarity of the artist is at best a fragile one.
It’s not really a distinction at all, probably. It’s an attempt to negotiate a minefield.
I didn’t use proper caution, and stepped on (my own) mine.
Living In A Work of Art
I love the idea of you recreating the qualities of your childhood house — its aesthetic qualities, its implicit moral stance — in your novels. The essay itself is very beautiful in the way it slowly builds a sense of what the house was to you, what it was like to inhabit; and this is interesting, since the essay is also about the ways in which it’s hard to define beauty, or to say how a complex structure opens up the reaction “I am experiencing beauty”.
I have a few questions around this. First — where did the germ of this essay come from? You say you’d been wanting to write it for a while. I can imagine you thinking backwards from the qualities of your fiction to the qualities of that house, or thinking about your childhood & how it set up some of the preconditions of your fiction. How did the idea of the essay grow in your mind, before you began work on it?
That’s easy. It didn’t.
David Willingham asked me to contribute to an issue of his magazine Paradoxa featuring articles about my work. I had no idea what to write until I thought of how I had wanted to write about the house, but didn’t know how-when-why. Here was a chance to find out. I did not plan the essay at all. I wrote it straight forward to the end.
It occurs to me that you build complex structures in your work in at least two different ways. There are the structural qualities of the work itself — a novel can feel very architectural, if it has anything more complex than a single point-of-view linear story. (Or even then.) The ways in which point of view alternates in The Left Hand of Darkness, or time period and world alternate in The Dispossessed, or the ways in which the history of slavery on Werel and Yeowe slowly emerges from the histories of the many principal characters in Four Ways To Forgiveness — there’s a sense in all of these of spaces opening up inside the work. I find it difficult to talk about though, without becoming either ploddingly specific — criticism as a long list of Things This Book Does — or letting the architecture metaphor dissolve into vague hand-waving. Has the house analogy ever been present in your mind while you were writing (building) a novel?
No, it first occurred to me when I was writing the essay.
The final sentence, in which I suggest that my novels contain an element of rebuilding, or of “always coming home” to that house, came as a discovery to me as I wrote it. “Oh — Is that what I’ve been getting at? All right! Good.”
Are there specific things about any particular novel that make you think of that house? (I couldn’t help thinking of Ged’s first awareness of the Shadow, lurking by the door in Ogion’s house — terrifying to me as a child, and a foundational image of night fear ever since — when I read about Maybeck’s use of light and shadow, and also about the delayed resilience of redwood, and your first time alone in the house at night!)
To me the frightening aspects of the house are essential as the balance to its beauty and its homeliness (Heimlichkeit). Only in darkness the light.
The other way in which you build complex structures is that you build worlds. In the introduction to The Complete Orsinia, you say, “The last transmission I received from Orsinia was “Unlocking The Air”… I am sorry I have heard nothing from my friends in Krasnoy since then. I hope things are going along all right there.” I like this idea of Orsinia as a place with its own integrity, independent of you. Does the Ekumen feel like that, to you? Does Earthsea? I wondered, reading The Other Wind, how much Earthsea was a place to you — a world, the way Middle Earth is a world — and how much it’s a set of ideas.
Oh, that’s an easy one! Earthsea is absolutely a place and absolutely not a set of ideas.
The first way I got to it was to draw the map and name the islands. Then they were there. I could go to them and find out what they looked like and who lived there. I could explore, discover.
It took a long time, of course. At first I knew only Gont. And it was what, forty years or so, before I ever got to Paln, or found out anything at all about Hur-at-Hur. But all the time I knew they were there — I knew that I could go to them, and explore them, find out what was there.
The Ekumen is quite different from Earthsea, or from any single world of the Ekumen. The Ekumen is just an idea, a notion. An improvement on the “League of Worlds” of my earliest sf novels, itself barely an idea at all, a suggestion of an improvement on the Galactic Empires so common in sf, modeled vaguely on the League of Nations and the United Nations.
But each world of the Ekumen that I have set a novel or a story on was in my mind an independent entity with its particular atmosphere (I mean feeling-tone, not how much oxygen and nitrogen), its peoples and its history and cities and landscapes. Always, writing the story is an process of exploration and discovery. Basic elements of course have to be thought out and solidly in place before beginning to write – physical differences, social differences, over-all geography, a sketch of history – but the details come with the writing; and it’s the details, the concretenesses, that make the imaginary seem actual.
The Other Wind has a problem-solving, resolution-seeking quality — it feels like a rounding off. This is entirely consistent with the idea that Gont, for instance, is a real place in your mind, a place you might live, the way it is in mine. But it’s also possible you don’t think of it like that at all; or perhaps Earthsea might be a hybrid, with individual islands very real and concrete, as independent of you as Orsinia, while the larger world feels closer to being a complex set of embodied metaphors. Not a place bound to history, as a country in Europe has to be, so much as a way of thinking about things that are hard to think about otherwise.
Well, no doubt Earthsea is a metaphorical embodiment of some parts of my mind, unconscious as well as, or more than, conscious. And you could look at it Jungianly – a mental archipelago, the islands of the knowable emerging from the sea of unknowing, etc. But to me it’s just Earthsea, a place I will never fully know but will always love to go.
A parenthetical question about The Complete Orsinia, or rather about the fact that it’s from The Library of America: are they going to bring out further editions of your work? What’s next?
Next is two volumes containing all the “Hainish” novels and stories – the main bulk of my science-fiction writing. It’s being put together (with characteristic LoA care) right now.
One of the things I treasure in the house essay is its accumulation of memoir-flakes — all these little glimpses of your childhood. I have been saving these flakes in my mind ever since I was 12 years old and sitting in my parents’ library, reading your introduction to “Darkness Box”. (“Guess fwat is in this bockus!”: I think this was my introduction to the idea of phonetic spelling, as well as to the idea of you as a person, with children and a life.) Your work is of course the true revelation of who you are and what you care about; but you will be very familiar with the enthusiastic reader who wants to know everything about their beloved writer. (That potentially benign, potentially clutching and invasive use of the possessive.) You seem perfectly willing to open up parts of your personal life in an instrumental way — when it serves some other good purpose, as with the house essay, or as with the relevance of your life in the pre-civil rights South for your blog post on Go Set A Watchman. But not otherwise. Is that right? Where are the limits? — are there things you’ve ever considered writing, but then rejected because it would be too personal, or too invasive for family members? I would devour a full memoir, if you ever wrote one. I expect you never will, simply because it would be a novel-scale endeavour, and you’ve stopped writing novels. But is the absence of a memoir from your publications list an absence of the “Good god NO, save me from memoir, I would never write such a thing” variety, or just of the “life is short, so much else to do” variety?
I don’t write memoir because I either can’t or don’t want to, I don’t know which comes first.
We make such a cult of the artist’s personality and opinions on current events and all. And I do that myself, I’ve read not only all the biographies of Virginia Woolf wrote, but her diaries and letters, and I love and admire the person I find there, and am grateful for her generosity.
But then I look at Shakespeare and think oh, that’s best of all. He gives us himself — and nothing about himself. Despite the hundreds of books about him we hardly know more about him than we do about Homer. What we have of them is the work. And I think that’s what matters in the end. Authors’ travels, their love affairs, their opinions, what they keep on their writing desk (a frequent question from audiences) – it’s interesting and entertaining, but how much does it lead us right away from the thing they did that matters, their art?
A related question: why did you wait until now to publish the Hedgebrook journal?
When it didn’t prove to be useful to the Hedgebrook people, as we had vaguely hoped, I just put it away and forgot it. Came across it years later and thought, this is a pretty honest record of a writer’s week of writing, I wonder if it would interest people?
Also, I’m very curious about Arwen Curry’s film about you. Is that still happening? Will it fill some of the space a memoir or a biography might have filled? (Is anyone writing a biography? Has anyone ever asked?) What has it been like, working with her on it?
U: Arwen’s film will be out next year, the good Lord willin and the crick don’t rise.
I myself asked Julie Phillips if she’d consider doing a biography of me. Some of the biographical stuff published about me had been inaccurate and misguided. Julie had written a biography, The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, (aka James Tiptree Jr) that I admire greatly for its accuracy, its tact, its honesty, and much else. I
had got to know her a bit while she was working on it, since Tiptree and I had a long correspondence. So I asked her about a biography, and we made an informal agreement that “I was hers” — a sort of option on each other. She has done a great deal of reserch for the book over the years since, and since her New Yorker profile of me I guess the option has become a deal. I feel lucky.
Thoughts on Saramago
In your long essay on Saramago, you describe his use of commas in place of periods and his refusal to paragraph as a radical stylistic regression, a deliberate renunciation of a stylistic armature — punctuation — built up over many generations and available to us now as a kind of inherited wealth. You say, “I don’t know the reason for these idiosyncracies. I learned to accept them, but without enthusiasm”.
I read this with some dismay, because I had been counting on this essay to explain to me what Saramago is doing with those page-long sentences. I was sure you’d have a better explanation than I’ve ever managed to come up with. (My best effort: “An assertion of continuity across category boundaries. He wants me to see that the dividing lines we impose with our categories — the conceptual periods of class boundaries, national borders — are a form of lie.” This is the sort of thing I used to write in English papers as a student; it tries to sound clever but it doesn’t relate usefully to the experience of reading those endlessly flowing sentences. I’m not thinking about category breakdown when I read them, I’m trying to remember how the sentence started, and wishing it gave my eye a place to rest.) I have several questions about this.
First: honestly, what do you think he was doing? “I don’t know his reason”, you say, and that’s straightforward & reasonable; but do you have a guess?
No. I really, truly don’t.
You’re deeply immersed in him — so much more than I am, though actually this essay has persuaded me to buy four more of his books — and he’s a great artist who doesn’t do things casually. Those long sentences are the primary reason I haven’t read more of him sooner, and I doubt I’m alone. Why do you think he wrote that way?
“Because he found he had to,” which is no answer in the critical sense, though it makes complete visceral sense to me as a writer.
It certainly has impeded his acceptance by many readers. The unbroken, unparagraphed, almost unpunctuated pages of solid prose are ugly, daunting. And really not always easy to follow. But you get used to it presently (the way a scholar gets used to reading anything written before the late Middle Ages when they began inventing punctuation marks), with the motivation of finding that what the words say is fascinating.
If that happens, then the mannerism begins not to matter at all — even perhaps to do, secretly, mysteriously, whatever it was that led him to use it. By the time The Elephant’s Journey came along, I was actually looking forward to those solid grey pages.
You say of Saramago, “He is more than he was when he was young”. The capacity to do great work in old age — to do the great work of old age, the work your younger self could not have done — seems very rare. He had it; you have it. I realise that his energy sustained him to a greater age than yours has — he found himself able to write a novel at 87, which you’ve said no longer seems possible for you. But energy is the simplest part of this, I think. There’s also seeing what your younger self could not see, and developing the abilities to write in ways your younger self could not write.
I think this is true. And well said.
There’s a bit of a cult of the old composer – “late” Beethoven, etc, but writers mostly haven’t been looked at that way, not even Yeats. Maybe it’s time?
You have never seemed to stop growing — at least, you’ve never lost the capacity to surprise me, and I’ve been reading you since I could read at all. I am afraid this may be a naive and simplistic question, but how did you keep expanding your capacities like that? So few people do.
I like to learn what I don’t know, and I know very little, so that vein is inexhaustible.
But living to be old, and energy in old age, and keeping your wits, that’s just luck. Genetics, enough money, etc etc. There’s no “how” about it, except not being caught in self-destructive habits, and surely even that involves luck?
I am finding your idea of reading Saramago aloud very useful. As speech, his writing is so much easier to follow; the shape of his thought falls into place on my tongue. Do you do this with other writers? Are there other writers you find you need to do it with? Do you do this with writers it’s easy to read silently, and do you find reading them aloud changes your sense of them?
My husband and I read aloud to each other (before dinner, with a bit of whisky). We’re working through T.S.Eliot — a more uneven poet than I remembered — and just started James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, I think as a kind of antidote to Eliot.
I love reading aloud and being read to. It’s interesting to find which authors read aloud well: there’s a pause when you need to breathe, the sentences pace themselves. . . And which ones don’t read aloud very well: no breath rhythm, klunky syntax, too much dialogue. . . Sometimes reading a “difficult” book aloud is a revelation – Woolf’s The Waves didn’t make sense to me till we read it aloud, then it made both sense and beauty.
I have read you aloud, to my sons — two books of Earthsea, plus “The Finder”, before they took those away from me and read the rest themselves, and The Left Hand of Darkness. My 17 year old and I are thinking we might read Lavinia, once we finish our current book. It seems as though you write to be read aloud — your sentences have rhythms that work naturally, though not simply. Do you read them aloud to yourself as you write them?
I don’t speak as I write but I do hear what I write. In the mind’s ear.
I do sometimes read dialogue out to myself. (It usually results in cutting it severely.)
Kalpa Imperial has its share of notably long, flowing sentences, which I assume is a faithful reflection of the original. (I don’t believe you’ve ever written such sentences elsewhere in a sustained way.) But it also uses the full range of punctuation. Is that also reproduced precisely? — are you just doing what Gorodischer does? — or did you use punctuation to reshape her rhythms slightly?
U: I woudn’t alter a writer’s sentence style or punctuation in translation unless I genuinely had to.
I had very little Spanish, was learning it, when I started translating Kalpa. Had a good deal more when I finished! It’s the only Gorodischer I could conceivably try to translate: it’s all in the voice of “the story teller” – a speaking voice, and the vocabulary plain, classic Spanish, no unfamiliar-to-me modernisms, and, as you say, long sentences that flow along easily. I found it irresistible even reading it with the Spanish-English dictionary in hand. And when a text in another language is irresistible, so is my longing to translate it.
If not a direct response to Saramago, this feels like a book informed by the experience of reading Saramago. It approaches the endlessly flowing sentence effect with every available punctuation tool ready to hand. That may mean no more than that you chose to translate a book that was doing all the things Saramago doesn’t do.
U: Did I even know Saramago’s name yet, when I was translating Kalpa?
I’m also curious as to how and why you decided to translate this book, in particular — not that it’s a decision that needs defending, because it’s a splendid book, but you’ve translated so few things, over the years. It stands out as a departure for you.
U: Hey. I think four volumes of translations (see below) isn’t so few, given that fact that I was also composing my own works?
(From the bibliography on my web site:
Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, U. of New Mexico Press, 2003
Kalpa Imperial, by Angelica Gorodischer, Small Beer Press, 2003
The Twins, The Dream/Las Gemelas, El Sueno, with Diana Bellessi. translation. Arte Publico Press 1997, Ed. Norma 1998
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: Book About The Way and the Power of the Way. translation. Shambhala. 1997, October 2009 )
It was a great pleasure to read your Hedgebrook journal and see you reading Kalpa Imperial while working on what turned out to be “A Man of the People”. I read those two things I suppose 15 years apart. It changes my sense of each — I’m still working out how, and how much — to know you were reading the one while writing the other. Havzhiva is one of my favourite of your characters, and among the many things I love about the story, I particularly love seeing a child grow up on Hain. Did anything in Kalpa feed into your thinking about that society, do you remember?
U: I don’t think it did.
I’m fond of Havzhiva too. I believe he and Old Music (in several of the Ways to Forgiveness stories) are among the few actual Hainish characters in the “Hainish” books.
I think I first got a sense of Saramago as a figure I should pay more attention to when you began blogging, citing his blogs as an example of what the form could be. I was very sorry to read you’ve had to suspend blogging because your health has been poor this year — I hope you’re feeling better. (More concretely, I hope this has been merely one of the terrible blights of old age, those sudden health failures that seem to blot out months or years and be the main feature of life for a while — my mother is 80 and we’ve begun to see this a bit with her — and not that other thing, the blight that never fully clears. It feels impertinent to talk about this from the vantage point of my own middle age, and please don’t feel you need to respond to this, it isn’t a question — I just wanted to say that I hope there is a lot of light for you still, even with these shadows gathering.) So the question that this was meandering towards posing: how do you feel about your blog now? Does it seem as though the form did allow you to do things you couldn’t or wouldn’t have done otherwise? And will the blogs ever be published in book form, as Saramago’s were? I hope they will. It would be a different experience, reading them that way.
U: I’m grateful to my friend Vonda McIntyre, who kept telling me just to try blogging. When I finally got up the courage, the general shapelessness of the genre helped free me from the formal essay style I learned in college and graduate school, which wasn’t appropriate to what I was writing about, but kept getting me into its powerful grip again.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will be publishing a volume of my selected blogs next year, called No Time to Spare. The title comes from my first blog post, about answering an alumnae questionnaire from my college that asked what I did in my spare time and listed several possibilities, among which were Golf, Racquet Sports, Bridge, and “Creative Activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.)”
Questions not actually to do with Saramago (a heading inserted after the fact, when I read these questions over and realised I’d wandered quite a ways from my starting point.)
I would have found your blog on Go Set A Watchman a valuable inclusion in the “Notes on Writers” section of Words Are My Matter. It looks as though you weren’t considering blog posts as eligible? It was the only review of that much-reviewed book which left me wanting to read it. (Though I admit I haven’t got around to doing so yet.)
U: Blog post were mostly omitted because I began planning a blog book.
[page-long questions about Jane Smiley’s 100 Years Trilogy, which I read after reading Ursula’s blog post about it]
[U: These are interesting questions I wish I could discuss with you, but I can’t do all the questions.]
The Found and the Lost, The Unreal and the Real
I have just bought both these big volumes. They make a handsome pair. Does it feel good, or strange, or bad, or all of the above, being at the stage of your career where these retrospectives of your fiction are appearing? (To hold two books like that, full of such good work — that must be something. But I can’t actually imagine the something it must be.)
U: It was interesting putting Unreal/Real together, having to select from so many short stories written over so many years. That process led me easily to writing an introduction.
Why is there no introduction to The Found and the Lost? Was that a cost of your illness this year, or was there no room? The brief quote on the inside jacket — “the way these stories wander around the universe, leaping from hither to yon, is an honest reflection of what my writing has always done” — feels like a compensatory gesture. (I enjoy your introductions. Often they change my sense of the things they introduce.)
The novellas are a collection not a selection, and the editor decided on the order; I’m glad he didn’t ask for an intro, because it would have been rather difficult to write one for such a hodgepodge, even though I am very fond of the novella as a form.
I am very interested in the fact that four of the five Werel and Yeowe stories appear in Four Ways To Forgiveness, and four appear in The Found and the Lost; but not the same four. All five stories are of course available to anyone who looks for them — somewhere in a stack in my garage I have the original magazines in which three of them appeared. But what does it do to the stories to move the grouping brackets — to have one book-enclosed sequence which ends with “A Woman’s Liberation”, and another which goes past it and ends with “Old Music and the Slave Women”?
U: Aha! In the Library of America Hainish Stories, all five of the Ways to Forgiveness
stories & novellas will finally appear together and in order. Better late than never!
I like it when separate narratives lead one to another through setting, characters, events — and making what I call a story suite. Not a novel, yet a narrative entity.
I am very excited to see a story in the one volume The Unreal and the Real which wasn’t in the two volume edition. A new story! I’m saving it. I didn’t think you were still writing stories. Do you have a sense of whether you might write more, or is it impossible to know?
U: The last story I wrote is “The Jar of Water.” If it’s in fact my last story, I’m glad it’s that one.
I miss writing fiction very much. It has been the joy of my life. But we don’t expect athletes in their upper eighties to keep pole-vaulting or running the marathon, however much they loved doing so. Let Byron say it:
For the sword wears out the sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
David, this has been most enjoyable, but it’s getting late and — to quote Luther, and also a plump German lady about halfway up the endless stairase in the bell tower of Cologne Cathedral — “Ich kann nicht mehr!”