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Breaking into the Spell


February 5, 2008

leguin350.jpg It’s fair to say Ursula K. Le Guin has become, to her readers, something of a mythic oracular figure, like those that appear with some frequency in her novels, stories, essays and poems. But in a one-on-one exchange, she reveals herself to be more like the quietly sensible ones also present in her work: impatient with cant or slow-mindedness, funny and a little sly about herself. Not so very lost in her visions as all that. “Thank you for your questions,” she wrote in one exchange. “It has been very interesting trying to answer them without lying!”

I was interested in finding the Le Guin whose insistence on a career as a woman of letters, in the broadest sense, has led her to become something of American literature’s pirate queen, living on the edge of the Pacific in a house with a view from her desk of Mt. St. Helen. Her first novel, Rocannon’s World, was an ACE paperback, half of the book was printed one side up, and the other half was printed the other side up and began from the reverse cover. She has gone on from this to publish 58 more volumes.

I knew her from the award-winning Earthseanovels— A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968, The Tombs of Atuan, 1971, The Farthest Shore, 1972 (Winner of the National Book Award), Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, 1990 (Winner of the Nebula Award), and The Other Wind, 2001— and then also The Left Hand of Darkness,The Dispossessed,The Lathe of Heaven,the stories in The Compass Rose,her newest novels, Voices,Gifts,and Powers,and her essays, in The Wave in the Mind.She has so many books, though, that it’s easy to imagine other readers with their own, entirely different sense of her work, like we’ve been in the same archipelago but visited different islands.

Meanwhile, Le Guin remains vigorous at her work, having recently contributed, for example, to a translation of Kalpa Imperial, by Argentine fabulist Angelica Gorodischer, and published by Kelly Link’s Small Beer Press. Forthcoming from Harcourt is a new novel, Lavinia,hailed by early reviewers as her newest masterpiece. Named after Aeneas’s wife, from Vergil’s The Aeneid, Le Guin’s novel, Kirkus Reviews has said, “may be the crowning magnum opus of her storied career…”.

In an interview with Kirkus, Le Guin says, “In the Aeneid, Lavinia is a mere convention, the blonde maiden, a background figure barely sketched… Inevitably this is also an interpretation of the hero’s story, in which I think Vergil shows the price of public triumph as personal tragedy. The first time I really read the Aeneid was in my seventies, when I got enough Latin into my head at last to read it in Latin. Vergil is truly untranslatable; his poetry is the music of his language, and it gets lost in any other. Reading it at last, hearing that incredible voice, was a tremendous joy. And Lavinia’s voice and her story came to me out of that joy.”

On the eve of the novel’s release, Ursula K. Le Guin answers some questions about war, witches, realism and teaching herself to write as a woman.

—Alexander Chee for Guernica

Guernica: In Voices (Harcourt, 2006), one of your newest novels, you feature a secret and protected library, the home to an oracle in a culture which has decided all of its literature is dangerous and must be destroyed. It reminded me of Poland, before the end of the Cold War, and how they copied books that had been smuggled into the country by typewriter in church basements, to be able to spread them—that was their printing press, the typists. An underground railroad of the book.

I have become very critical of the book award system, but I do know what an award can mean to a writer early in her career.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Like samizdat in the USSR. I was told they often used mimeograph to copy illegal books—do people now even know what mimeograph was? You got purple fingers doing it, which could be a giveaway.

Guernica: It seems to me that the book’s events have echoes of our current war in Iraq—the destruction, for example, of a culture’s literature and a culture where literature is dangerous—this puts me in mind of Donald Rumsfeld’s comment in the first months of the war about ‘what’s a few less pots?’, specifically, when scholars were alarmed that treasures from the beginning of civilization would be lost. He’s the product of a culture that doesn’t value what’s in a book.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Well, you and I are products of that same culture, no?

I gather that a lot of the “pots” in the great museum in Baghdad, which we allowed to be looted and then gutted, are now for sale to the highest bidder on the art and archeology black market. This is good capitalism, I guess, while a museum, being a public trust and accessible to all, is anticapitalist, pretty damn near socialist in fact.

I expect Mr. Rumsfeld values what’s in a book so long as he can express it in terms of money.

Guernica: I’m wondering, as a writer myself surrounded (like all of us) by this war’s effects on us at home, were there any inspirations for these new novels, the Annals of the Western Shore series—Powers, Gifts, Voices—and their concerns, in the war as it affects our country, and the world, or is it more inspired by living inside the culture that produced the war and the broken pots?

Ursula K. Le Guin: Probably the latter. I don’t see much direct influence of the war on those books, but don’t trust my perceptions! I generally avoid analyzing such matters, preferring to leave influences and inspirations down in the ground, where they might continue to sprout, rather than bringing them up into the light where they won’t.

Which is why I keep dodging such questions when I do interviews…. sorry!

The situation in Voices—a city occupied by a people who not only don’t value books, but whose religion directs them to actively fear and hate books—obviously can be compared to the situation in Baghdad, but very, very generally, not point to point. In Iraq, we have two monotheisms at war; both parties are highly belligerent; the rich attacked the poor; and the war is about oil. In my novel, the conflict is between a monotheism and a polytheism, between a belligerent expansive society and a settled society of traders; the poor attacked the rich, and there’s no underlying motivation such as oil reserves, unless the mere prosperity of Ansul can be compared to that. It looks to me as if the Iraq war was certainly on my mind, but didn’t shape the book in any specific way, except perhaps hinting at the difference between a “people of the Book” and people who read books.

All three of the Western Shore novels are about reading, writing, reciting, literacy, books; it seems to be the drumbeat they walk to.

Guernica: You were about 16 when World War II ended, in your early twenties at the outbreak of the Korean War, and your first books appeared during the darkest years of Vietnam. How much do you think all of these wars have affected you as a writer? Are there moments that stand out?

Ursula K. Le Guin: Growing up during World War II certainly affected my whole view of life, but I hardly know how, it goes so deep. What’s hard to explain now is that, though we were never invaded, and bombed only once and ineffectively on the coast of Oregon, everybody in the country was in that war. Everything we did was influenced by it—eating, traveling, dressing, thinking—everything in daily life. Berkeley was under full blackout. Consider what that means: every window completely covered so that no light can shine out or in. Your house becomes a cave. For all the wars we’ve been in since, there has been nothing remotely like that. Nobody has had to give up anything or even suffer any inconvenience—except the soldiers, of course. I know that nobody who hasn’t been in battle or under attack can know what war is. But even in terms of being safe at home, it’s also true that many Americans who think they know what being at war is, don’t. Including, of course, Bush and his people. They don’t have a clue.

So anyhow, I have that darkness deep and early in my life.

My science fiction novel The Word for World is Forest is clearly a Vietnam War book. Although my preference and tendency is always not to write allegorically and not to use material directly, the year I wrote that book I was in London, unable to protest my country’s increasing involvement by direct nonviolent action as I had been doing here. My frustrated anger and shame went pretty directly into the book.

Guernica: You mention in your interview with FEMIN that you had to learn to write as a woman—this was very interesting to me, and I would appreciate anything you could add to that. It describes an amazing gap between what one is and what one must be to live—a gap created by the culture into which one is born, and created by what that culture feels are its necessities, which, I think, is one of your themes. What was the moment when you first became aware that you would need to learn this, and how did you go about it once you knew it was what you must do?

Ursula K. Le Guin: I like your metaphor of the gap. So many people live in such a gap! And they have to decide whether they want to pretend it isn’t there, or find out how to live in it, or try to close it. Or—mostly—life decides that for them. To have a choice at all is to be privileged.

There wasn’t any aha! moment about feminism for me. I just kept reading stuff and thinking. My mind works slowly and obscurely, and I mostly find out what I’m doing by looking at what I’m doing or have done. Mostly I don’t even do that. But when what I do isn’t getting done very well, when it seems to be stuck or going wrong, that induces me to look at it. ‘What am I doing? Why isn’t it behaving?’ This happened in the middle of The Eye of the Heron, when Lev insisted on getting himself killed in the middle of the story, leaving my book without a hero, and me wondering what the hell? It took a good deal of backing up and pondering over what I had written to realize that Luz had been the hero all along, that Luz was the one who would lead her people into the wilderness. I can identify that as the moment when I consciously shifted from a male protagonist to a female protagonist, when the male was marginalized and the woman became the center.

I always figured, if this book was good, the next would be better. That much arrogance is necessary equipment for an artist, I think.

But of course that was long after Left Hand of Darkness, where the rather naïve male narrator is a deliberate authorial outreach to male readers who (or so I thought at the time) would reject an androgynous central character, particularly in a book by a woman. Estraven’s narrative voice comes in late, and quietly. But, of course, Estraven was the center of the story from the start.

In The Tombs of Atuan you can see me centering on a female character, but enabling her to act only in collaboration with a male.

It was a gradual process. It still is.

Guernica: You produced an enviable group of novels early in your career that are still read widely, like The Left Hand of Darkness, A Wizard of Earthsea, books that continue to win you readers and fame. It seems to me there’s a moment in between a writer’s first and second book, when you take in what has happened, and weigh it against what you want to happen. I wonder about who the young woman was who set out on this amazing journey of yours, if she had any sense of what was to come, both in terms of the challenges you’ve faced and the successes you’ve had. Can you describe that moment for us, who you were, after your first book was published, but before the second, and where you were, and what your thinking was? How did you cross that gap?

Ursula K. Le Guin: Well, that wasn’t really a gap for me. More like a chute.

My first book was an Ace Double, a pulp-paper paperback, a short science fiction novel. Then you turned the book over and there was another novel, usually by a different author, upside down. (As my brother remarked when I sent him Rocannon’s World in that original edition, it was a fine story until the middle of the book, but after that he couldn’t make head or tail of it.) Anyhow, I was getting some stories published by then, but I had been sending fiction out for ten years before that without getting any of it into print. So once I’d found a publisher for novels, I was charged, ready to go, on a roll. The next two books followed very quickly on Rocannon’s World. No gap, no cold feet. And when they were published, I had the impetus and the confidence to tackle a big hard story; that was Left Hand of Darkness.

I guess the purest moment of triumph I’ve had was the night a long distance phone call came through to our cabin in the Coast Range, via the neighbor up the hill shouting down through the darkness, since we didn’t have a phone there. “Somebody in New York wants you!” It was my agent telling me, through a lot of static, that Left Hand had won the Hugo Award, on top of the Nebula earlier that summer. That did make me think ‘Hey! I really am on the way!’ After the kids were in bed, I went and sat on a boulder over the noisy creek in the dark by myself, and thought about the years to come—what I might go on to write, making all sort of naive promises to myself to do it as well as I could. That was a good hour by the creek, under the stars.

But you understand that my triumph was not on a scale to daunt me, only to encourage me. The Hugo and Nebula aren’t exactly the Nobel Prize, after all. I have become very critical of the whole book award system and could preach on that subject for quite a while, but I do know what an award can mean to a writer early in her career. It can give an essential validation.

It’s probably simply a matter of temperament that I never stopped to wonder if I could “match” what I had done, never choked off my writing by competing with myself, or with anybody else for that matter. My ambition was absolutely centered on the work itself, never on what it would bring me, or “who” it would make me. I never cared about that at all. And I always figured, if this book was good, the next would be better. That much arrogance is necessary equipment for an artist, I think. Not sufficient, but necessary. It carries one across the gaps.

Guernica: As I prepared for this, I flipped open a book of your essays, the one from Shambhala Press, The Wave In The Mind, and found your essay about your story “The Poacher”. In that essay, you talk of the myth of Sleeping Beauty, and how “The Poacher” came to be: imagining a young man who doesn’t know why the wall of thorns has appeared in his yard, or that a hero with a sword is the one fated to come to part it and rescue the sleeping princess, waking the inhabitants of the castle from the curse. Instead, he just cuts at it with a simple blade, and eventually makes his way through.

Ursula K. Le Guin: It is important, to my mind, that he has only a poor peasant’s tools—no sword, no fine machete, no chainsaw. With clumsy tools, he almost has to chew his way through the awful thorn hedge—so slowly that it keeps growing back, so it takes him ages. Just the opposite of the Prince, whose sword whips the way through at a touch. The Prince of course is the “right one,” the Chosen. The peasant boy is a transgressor, the wrong one, the one with no right to succeed. It cannot be easy for him. Only intense passion and obsessive patience can bring him through.

Sort of like the practice of an art, yes. Passion, patience, obsession.

Guernica: I loved the idea in the essay of fairy tales as a kind of literary influence that you can’t really know, for how you’re exposed to them so young, and they shape you before you know you’re being shaped. Also, though, the idea of “breaking into the spell,” instead of breaking the spell.

I’d been out drinking with Shakespearean actors and scholars, the week previous, and one of them said, Witches make for good literature. I thought of your career, and how realism, as a literary mode, is very young, and yet for Americans, it has been insisted on as the only literary mode. Of late, I’ve found myself suspicious of this American realism, for how it demands the reader accept that this is what reality is, and how in that there’s forced order and compliance.

When Margaret Atwood writes a serious review of one of my books for the NY Times, it is printed under the title “The Queen of Quinkdom,” to make sure nobody takes it seriously.

Ursula K. Le Guin: I like that statement very, very much.

Guernica: There’s a truculent, bullish feeling to the way it’s enforced.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Truculent and bullish is right on target.

Guernica: I had the vague idea that this idea of breaking into the spell possibly describes your body of work as a whole, an act you repeat—that you are a bit like the Poacher, the farmer scraping against the wall he found and didn’t build, knowing there was something he wanted on the other side. The image of you in those blacked out rooms, the relationship to writing as a woman you described, your relationship to literary realism, science fiction and fantasy. A woman sitting there with a pen and thinking: ‘Why is this wall here?’ And then just cutting into it.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Well, no, not just cutting into it. Hacking at it with inadequate tools. Hitting the head against it. Gnawing like a rat. Weeping in frustration. Going back to it. Gnawing at it.

In fact he has no idea what is on the other side of the great hedge. He doesn’t know there is something he wants on the other side because he doesn’t have any idea what might be there. He is simply determined to _get through_. Is this to escape from his hard and hopeless life? Is it to escape from or somehow to realize his hopeless, half-admitted love for his stepmother? I don’t know, but I think he is doing what most of my male and female heroes do: butting his head against a wall, knocking down a barrier, opening a door, enlarging the space available (for life, for thought, for knowledge). Creating freedom. With passion, patience, obsession, transgression.

Guernica: Do you ever feel that the way your work has been cordoned at times as science fiction is a deflection by the mainstream of the very serious critiques these novels contain of our society?

Ursula K. Le Guin: Yes. I do.

Guernica: Or is it sexism?

Ursula K. Le Guin: Yes. It is.

Guernica: Was there a moment when you realized the shift in the way you were being treated, when you became taken more seriously by the literary establishment, and do you remember it precisely? To an outsider, it appears recent.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Actually, I haven’t felt a major shift. I am still mostly referred to (dismissed) as a “sci fi writer.” When Margaret Atwood writes a serious review of one of my books for the New York Times, it is printed under the title “The Queen of Quinkdom,” to make sure nobody takes it seriously. I am shortlisted for major awards, but the awards go to people like De Lillo and MacCarthy who also write science fiction, using the tropes and loci and metaphors of science fiction, but fastidiously keep their literary skirts from being defiled by the name of genre.

I admire Doris Lessing for calling her science-fiction books science fiction; I only wish I liked the books. Atwood herself has walked a very fine and sometimes wavering line trying to keep her science fiction books out of the genre ghetto without trashing the people who live in the ghetto. I can’t wait for people like Michael Chabon to finish chainsawing that damn thorn hedge and knocking down all the genre walls. Now, there’s a man with courage, Chabon. He just joined the Science Fiction Writers Association. He steps over the walls in both directions.

Most recently, my three books of the Annals of the Western Shore have been ignored by both the science fiction community and the literary critics, because they are published as “young adult.” The label YA actually means nothing except that the protagonists, or some of them, are young. Publishers like it because it is a secure marketing niche. But the cost of security is exclusion from literary consideration. The walls of disdain around any book perceived as being “for children” are much higher than they were when I began publishing the Earthsea books, forty years ago. Oh, Joshua, won’t you blow your horn?

I hoped that Searoad might break me out of the genre ghetto, but it was not taken much notice of; though I still think the last piece in it, “Hernes,” particularly deserves notice. I hoped that the stories in Unlocking the Air might be seen as what they are—belonging fully to the literary tradition (well, to several literary traditions — ) No such luck. But no, I take it back: I was given the PEN/Malamud Award for writing short fiction, which would include that book; but nobody knows what the PEN/Malamud is, because it isn’t the PEN/Faulkner.

Sometimes I allow myself to have high hopes of my next book, Lavinia, which I know is as good as anything I have written, and which is quite indescribable as anything but “literature,” or, preferably, “a novel.” But the reviewers have had me stamped and pigeonholed for decades now, and I doubt anything I do can make them actually look at what I do. Only the seal of approval of one of the major literary prizes could do that.

So I expect I must get on without the reviewers and take comfort in the increasing amount of excellent, genuine, hard reading and criticism of my work coming mostly out of universities here and abroad.

Guernica: Why do you think so much new literary fiction takes on fantasy and science fiction, and what sort of thoughts do you have about this? Or popular culture, for that matter? Why do you think we’re reaching for aliens, ghosts and vampires so often these days?

Ursula K. Le Guin: I don’t think we’re doing so, any more than we always did! I think what’s happening is, it’s all—fantasy, science fiction, ghosts, trolls, whatever—finally being called, being admitted to be literature. The way it used to be, before the Realists and the bloody Modernists took over. Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and the walls came atumblin’ down.

Alexander Chee is the author of the novel Edinburgh, and the Visiting Writer at Amherst College.

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You might also like

  • Pocket PoetsPocket Poets The professor and critic turns to technology explosions past—think typewriters, gramophones, and radios—to map the modern intersections of information and art.
  • Houses at NightHouses at Night Rock-star poet John Ashbery on pop art, manifestos, and feeling like a foreigner in America.
  • Never EnoughNever Enough The great eater, writer, and humorist Calvin Trillin remembers when journalism wasn't so respectable.
  • Editors’ Picks: September Recommended ReadingEditors’ Picks: September Recommended Reading Our editors highlight some worthy books to start off the fall.

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