An Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin

Ramola D | October/November 2003

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin

Born in 1929 in Berkeley, California, daughter of writer Theodora Kroeber and anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin lives in Portland, Oregon. She is married to historian Charles A. Le Guin. She graduated with a BA from Radcliffe College in 1951, and an MA in French and Italian Renaissance Literature from Columbia University in 1952.

Recently awarded the 2002 PEN/Malamud prize for Short Fiction along with Junot Diaz, Ursula K. Le Guin's prolific writing across genres, including realism, science fiction, fantasy, and poetry, has long sparked critical acclaim and awards. Ursula K. Le Guin has published 17 novels, over one hundred short stories collected in eight volumes reprinted from periodicals including the New Yorker, Omni, Redbook, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Playboy, Tri-Quarterly, and Kenyon Review, 13 books for children, six collections of poetry reprinted from periodicals including Calyx, Milkweed, Kenyon Review, and Mr Cogito, two collections of essays, and a third forthcoming in 2004, and two books of translation. Her literary criticism has appeared in the Yale Review, Antaeus, SF Studies, Critical Inquiry, and Parabola. She has written screenplays, made audio recordings of her work, and collaborated with musicians and composers to set her work to music. She has also taught fiction and writing courses and workshops at various venues including the Bennington College Writing Program and Stanford University.

Among the honors Ursula K. Le Guin's writing has received are a National Book Award, five Hugo Awards, five Nebula Awards, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Howard Vursell Award of the American Academy of Art and Letters, and citations by the American Library Association. Two of her novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed won both Hugo and Nebula awards for the year in 1969 and 1972. Searoad, a collection of short stories, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer in 1992. Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences won the Hugo Award as well as The International Fantasy Award in 1988. Stories from Tales from Earthsea and The Birthday of the World won the 2001 and 2002 Locus Readers' Awards. Ursula K. Le Guin has also been awarded Lifetime Achievement awards by the Los Angeles Times, the Willamette Writers, and The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Her recent work includes a version of the Tao Te Ching, a translation of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral's poetry, a collection of essays on writing titled Steering the Craft, Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, and a collection of short stories, The Birthday of the World.

Ramola D: Given the wide range of your writing interests—across fantasy, speculative fiction, literary and experimental fiction—and forms—the novel, poetry, novellas, and short fiction, it's not often touched on that you have published over a hundred short stories and continue to experiment and work in the genre of short fiction. How do you fit short fiction into the lexicon of your interests—what draws you most to this form? Do you think you'll keep writing short stories?

Ursula K. Le Guin: I certainly hope so. The short story is an ancient and inevitable form of fiction, endlessly offering new possibilities. And I am increasingly fond of its longer form, the novella; you can do in a novella almost as much as you can do in a novel, but you aren't several years older when you finish it.

Ramola D: Does writing in other forms—the novel or poetry—influence how you approach the short story? In what ways does the short story, the tightness of the form, make its own demands?

Le Guin: Well, the first problem often, as you set out to write a story, is to find out what the right length for this particular story is—is it in fact a novel, a novella, a short story? You don't want to end up with a teacupful of story in a big fancy bathtub... but we've all read novels like that... And if the story's really too big to be a short story, it'll get shortchanged.

I don't feel the short story is a tight form. It can be made so; tight plotters and gimmick-ending writers like it so. But in itself it is potentially immense. To have read Chekhov is to know that as a certainty. It's like the sonnet. Fourteen lines and a demanding rhyme scheme seems to be a tight, closed form, but Wordsworth got all of London and all the sunrise into it.

Ramola D: You've also written novellas and what you call story suites—The Four Ways to Forgiveness, for instance. Each of the novellas in this suite is self-contained, and the characters each experience separate transformations—but each story echoes and interconnects with the others. Is writing something like this closer to writing a novel or do you approach the writing more as a short story? How did you approach the writing/conceiving here?

Le Guin: The idea of the story suite is important to me. (I searched for the name for a long time, and found it listening to the Bach cello suites.) I was writing books that consisted of connected stories (Searoad, Four Ways to Forgiveness) and knew of many others (beginning with Gaskell's Cranford, perhaps, and Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs). The stories in a suite can stand alone, but they are interconnected by locality and recurring characters and also, deeply, by theme or tone. It is a lovely fictional form, unpretentious and flexible; it doesn't gather the great momentum of a novel, but it moves with freedom, approaching people from various directions, letting the reader make the connections and perceive the overall direction.

In my own experience, I did not plan either book as such: they accreted themselves, as my imagination kept returning to the place and the people, seeing them from a new angle.

Ramola D: It seems like in both your early stories—your science and speculative fiction stories—as well as your later ones, there's always been a current of experimentalism, some kind of play with traditional conceptions of plot, character, perspective, and narrative. In Unlocking the Air, especially, you have all kinds of stories—magical realist, experimental, multicentric, and many-layered stories—but these trends show up also in early stories in The Compass Rose, The Wind's Twelve Quarters—would you say you've always been interested in experimental, postmodern fiction, that there's been a tension between writing traditional fiction and wanting to, or letting yourself write experimental fiction? What kind of "permission" do you give yourself when you write? And does a story come with its form, or does that evolve?

Le Guin: Wow. Big questions. Your question of "permission" is probably central. I give myself permission, or as I would put it, I consider myself absolutely free to write a story any way the story wants to be written. Afterwards I may wonder who on earth would want to read it; but that has nothing to do with the conception of the form. If the story is not merciful to me, I am not merciful to the reader. The story is its form, le style c'est l'histoire. It is not a matter of choice but a matter of finding the shape of the rock inside the rubble and getting down to it and revealing it. The story is there. My job is to make its thereness evident to others.

Ramola D: There's a lot of experimenting in the newer stories in Unlocking the Air, which are set in realist settings, not fantasy or science fiction. In "Half-Past Four" for instance, characters and their relationships shift around in separate little cameos, and you get a variety of perspectives and visions, through such an experiment. What inspired this story in particular?

Le Guin: "Half-Past Four," how nice of you to ask about it! It is one of my best short works, I think, but it does puzzle people; that's what I meant about not being merciful to the reader if the story wasn't merciful to me. I was teaching a one-day fiction workshop to some poets, who insisted that they couldn't write stories; they didn't know what stories were; they didn't have any stories to tell. So I gave them four names, two male and two female, and told them briefly the social status of each relative to the others, and said, now, put these four people in a room together and let them talk, and you will have a story. Two of them did so, and sent me the results (it worked). I went home and started obeying my own orders. Only I did it eight times over, resulting in eight different small stories about thirty-two different people (none of the people are the same as the ones with the same name in the other stories—this is what readers stubbornly refuse to believe—but it is true. What's in a name? Great power, evidently!) Because the status relationships are parallel in every story, the whole thing hangs together, as a kind of miniature story suite, or like a theme and variations.

Ramola D: Do you think you'll keep exploring these nontraditionalist forms of writing—and are you especially inspired by any particular writer in this—Donald Barthelme for instance, or Garcia Marquez, or Borges? Do you read other experimental writers—Janet Kaufmann, for instance, Carole Maso, Lydia Davis?

Le Guin: I have loved and admired Borges and Italo Calvino (especially Invisible Cities) ever since I first read them; now there is Jose Saramago (it doesn't matter that he only writes novels).

Ramola D: In stories like "Daddy's Big Girl," where Jewel Ann grows first very tall then very transparent, and disappears, there's a hint of Garcia Marquez. Would you say the magical realists and surrealists—Garcia Marquez, Borges—and other South American writers have influenced your work?

Le Guin: It seems to me a writer would have to be extremely impenetrable not to have been influenced, and awed, and delighted, by the great South American writers.

Ramola D: Generally, where does your interest in experimenting with narrative come from? Is it a function of playing with language or playing with story? Or is it from a more pervasive social sensibility—that move outward in society, at least among progressives, inspired by new learning—from ethnocentrism to multi-centric and multicultural thinking, and deep ecology? Where would you place it?

Le Guin: I don't feel that I am experimenting. The word has noble scientific connotations. I just futz around looking for stories to tell, and some of the stories are rather strange and therefore need to be told in their own strange fashion. Finding the appropriate mode of narration again isn't exactly experimental—it's just feeling around till I find it.

Ramola D: Does the experiment occur on the page or do you start with a concept?

Le Guin: I never start with a concept.

Ramola D: What is the tension between the traditional and the experimental in such a story?

Le Guin: That's up to the reader or critic to decide. I have no idea.

Ramola D: When do you know a story is complete?

Le Guin: Sometimes it is obviously finished (except for the obsessive word-tinkering which a writer like me has to learn to forbid herself after a certain point)—it is complete. Other times I let a story go as anxiously and uncertainly as one might let go a bird the cat brought in and you're not sure whether it really can fly or not... but it's struggling in your hand and you have to let it go.

Ramola D: Some of your stories have been widely anthologized and have become classics—"The Man who Walked Away from Omelas," for one. Are you ever surprised by the choice of stories that become well-known? Do you have an idea why this story, for instance, specifically captures the larger imagination?

Le Guin: "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is reprinted so often partly because teachers and professors have found it useful in all kinds of classes, not just literature but ethics, social studies, etc. It poses a classic moral problem very clearly, and also, it annoys the kids because it doesn't solve the problem, and they get upset enough to talk about it, which is something teachers look for. Before that, my story "Nine Lives" was obsessively reprinted; then it went out of fashion, as it were. "She Unnames Them" has had a pretty good reprint record. So has a little proto-Earthsea tale, "The Rule of Names." A moral theme presented vividly is what I see as all these stories having in common.

Ramola D: I understand that when you first started sending your work out to publishers, your work was not accepted by the "mainstream" literary world—which led you to publish in the science fiction world.

Le Guin: This is not really the case. I published poetry for years in the "little magazines" and my first short story published was in a literary magazine. The second was in a genre magazine, which paid actual money, which was important at that point; and I found the science fiction and fantasy field wide open to my wildest inventions, while "literary" (i.e. realist) fiction was in a rather stale modernist groove. But the groove was crumbling. My first big-money story sale was to Playboy, in 1975. By the '80s and early '90s, the New Yorker published a good number of my stories, which were pretty far from their usual style.

Ramola D: Do you think the gap between these is closing these days? Do you think the literary publishing world is becoming more open to socially experimental or speculative work?

Le Guin: I think the genres are regenerating and literature is in a big mess, which is a good thing.

Ramola D: Your work has often been considered—not merely fantasy or science fiction—but allegorical in its scope, in its focus on dystopic or utopic societies, on what it says about our lives and societies today...

Le Guin: Like Tolkien, I detest allegories and hope I have not written any. A story is not primarily an intellectual object. It is an object of art. It is an aesthetic act, an aesthetic structure. It must justify itself first on its own terms. The uses readers may make of it may be perfectly legitimate, but they are not what it was written for.

Ramola D: When you start on a short story of this dystopic/utopic kind, do you start with an idea for a character, or do you start with a situation, a whole imagined society-what kind of triggers do such stories build on?

Le Guin: Too many different kinds to discuss usefully. Every story starts in its own way.

Ramola D: You have spoken before of the mystical arrival of ideas-how do you know when an idea arrives that it carries a story in it?

Le Guin: It fills my mind, develops itself, and demands to be written.

Ramola D: For instance, the amazing Orwellian thought-experiments, both satire and speculation on alternative realities—which seem all too believable these days—as in "The New Atlantis" where intellectualism is banned in America, or "SQ," where everyone is tested for their Sanity Quotient, or "The Diary of the Rose," where the mind can be mapped, and intellectuals electroshocked out of their minds—vhow do such stories come to you? What are they inspired by, and how do you make whole stories out of them? What are some of the crucial elements in making such a story?

Le Guin: Those three stories arose out of rage and fear at the institutionalised cruelty and stupidity of national governments-abroad and at home. None of them is more than slightly exaggerated. It is hard for a story to come close to the terrible reality of government-directed punishment of dissent and government-directed torture.

Ramola D: You've written elsewhere about being interested in a more anarchic, Coyote-like or feminine Taoist-yin kind of utopia rather than a masculinist, growth-oriented utopia. I quote from your translation of the Tao Te Ching, "To ignore the constant is to go wrong and end in disorder." And from your essay "A Non-Euclidean View of California": "To attain the constant, to end in order, we must return, go round, go inward, go yinward." Taoist ideas of containment, working with absence seem to run through many of your stories, such as "Darkrose and Diamond," for instance, in Tales from Earthsea. Are there certain themes along these lines you like to keep exploring?

Le Guin: That's the way my mind works.

Ramola D: In stories like "A Man of the People"—from Four Ways to Forgiveness—there's a focus on concepts such as being in balance, the soul as a separate creature, the god inside the self, and human music as a means of connecting with the soul—the Staying Chant. There seems to be a strong influence of native American ideas, and some Hindu/Buddhist ideas, in these stories. Would you say those were native American or Asian ideas you were exploring?

Le Guin: Having been raised, as I have said elsewhere, as irreligious as a jackrabbit, I learn from spiritual and religious ideas and practices and borrow them for my fictions shamelessly. I have no deep knowledge of or abiding interest in any spiritual discipline except some aspects of Taoism and the simplest secular form of awareness meditation.

Ramola D: In "Man of the People," Havzhiva talks about changing the soul, not the world, in order to live rightly in the world. Reviewers note a strain of Taoism in a lot of your work. What attracts you to Taoism, and is it conscious, your bringing it into your writing? How does it translate or enter your work?

Le Guin: Really this is too huge a question. I can only refer you to the introduction and notes to my translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching.

Ramola D: I'd like to ask a little about language. I understand you recently translated the poetry of Gabriela Mistral from Spanish. You have also translated the poetry of the Argentinian poet Diana Bellessi, and the Tao Te Ching from transliterated Chinese...

Le Guin: And a big story suite by the Argentinian novelist Angelica Gorodischer—Kalpa Imperial, at the moment called in English, The Greatest Empire that Never Was. It will come out in August 2003.

Ramola D: How does translation affect your work in English—and what has been your experience of the inherent capabilities and limitations of language—any one, or speaking from one to the other?

Le Guin: I don't know what translating does to my English work. I like learning languages. My college work was in French and Italian lit. (I didn't want some English professor telling me what to read and not read in English) so I have always had other languages in my head. I think the more languages a writer knows the more language she knows. And language is the medium of my art.

Ramola D: In "The Author of the Acacia Seeds," you have this wonderful speculative exploration of language—the "seawriting" of dolphins or penguins, the ant-language, and the "lyrics of lichen and the poetry of rocks." There's a different kind of linguistic, conceptual engagement in stories like "The Pathways of Desire." What intrigues you about this subject—that interface between language and society, language and politics, the language that animals use, or plants, or trees or forests?

Le Guin: Well, it just does; you said it very nicely! Again: Language is my medium, language is to me what paint is to the painter, stone to the sculptor, her body to the dancer.

Ramola D: And of course your own writing shows a real immersion, both a playful and a poetic use of language-that sense of listening both to the rhythms and the sense of language. Some of that writing, as in "The New Atlantis" or some of the stories in Unlocking the Air, reads like stream of consciousness—there's a sense of Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, Whitman—all of those cadences. While reading those passages of what's sane or insane, real or dreamed, in "SQ" and "New Atlantis" and "Small Change," I also wondered if you'd read or been drawn to Janet Frame, or Clarice Lispector. Have these writers ever inspired your work?

Le Guin: Have read both, admire but am not deeply fond of either.

Ramola D: There's a sense too that your writing is influenced by poetry, though it seems you always wield a fine control between writing narrative in straightforward prose and interspersing poetry or experimental writing—how do you make decisions about that balance, when do you choose to write experimentally, and when more linearly?

Le Guin: Poetry and prose are two different arts to me. I have always written both (since childhood). What you call experimental prose is not, to me, poetic prose. I don't really think there is such a thing. There is good prose, and there is clunky prose. Good prose follows its subject, changes according to what it's saying—again, le style c'est l'histoire. Prose is an infinitely flexible medium. Poetry has regularities forbidden to prose; by narrowing its possibilities, it intensifies them. I know how to write prose, I think, though there is always more to learn (the next story will teach it to me, if I listen). I am still a beginner in poetry. I intend to keep beginning as long as I can.

Ramola D: Are there individual poets you are drawn to, currently?

Le Guin: Lucille Clifton and Naomi Replansky, currently. I have been rereading Roethke, Jeffers, and Herbert.

Ramola D: What do you make of contemporary language poetry?

Le Guin: Not much.

Ramola D: The absurdism, the playfulness, the real sort of comic elements of humor, and the explicit satire that run through so much of your writing, both at the level of story and language-whether it's a story set in space like "Intracom," or on earth in an alternate reality as in "The New Atlantis"—where does the humor come from? Do Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut inspire some of that tending toward absurdism?

Le Guin: Thank you for noticing that some of my stories are funny. A great many critics never have. Humor comes from very deep down inside and its sources are as inexplicable and mysterious as those of art itself. Satire comes from fear and anger, from Swift's "fierce indignation." I like Wilde and Vonnegut, but Mark Twain I have loved since childhood. Absurdity comes naturally to me. Possibly Mark Twain showed me certain Western American ways of being absurd—which are quite different from, for instance, Central European ways of being absurd. It is an interesting question.

Ramola D: I'd like to ask a little about the subjects that recur in your work. In "Sur," which you read at the Folger in November, a group of South American women reach the South Pole a few years before Amundsen. You do something very interesting with these women characters, sort of laying bare how these women work, very interconnectively, and very protective for the egos of men. What inspired that story?

Le Guin: A lifelong desire to go to the South Pole. In good company.

Ramola D: You have spoken and written on being a feminist and urged women to speak out of their female experience, the "mother tongue" rather than the father tongue. You portray feminist men, such as Havzhiva in "A Woman's Liberation," and a real diversity of women in your stories. Has your understanding of the feminist/feminine changed over the years, and what interests you currently about this subject?

Le Guin: Of course my understanding of feminism and of women and of gender has changed vastly in 70-odd years! How can I answer? I will answer by saying that the feminism of the '60s and '70s and feminist reading, feminist criticism, came along in the middle of my life and lifted me on a great wave, away from the ever dryer desert of male-centered fiction and male-directed reading that I was getting lost in. I, and my writing, have been borne up by that wave ever since.

Ramola D: In the title story in The Birthday of the World, God is a married brother-and-sister couple but cannot exist without the female half—this story of course echoes the Pharaohs and seems to be about extreme power and religion and in its prophecy of the alien Gods, about Otherness, masks, echoes of colonialism—but it's also about a female God. The whole story seems very mysterious. There are just so many ways to enter it. What were some of the things you were seeking most to explore in this story?

Le Guin: It began simply with a very strong urge to retell the terrible story of the Conquest of Peru, the fall of the Inca empire, from within. Since I cannot pretend to think like an Inca, I made up some people somewhat like the Inca, whose minds I could enter. I sent among them an invader as weak and improbable as Cortez, but not as greedy and cruel, and then, as it were, let the story play itself. Alas it still did not end happily.

Ramola D: You've played a great deal with ideas of gender, in Left Hand of Darkness, among the Hainish, and in many short stories. But in some of the fantasy or speculative social fiction stories, you set up bases that are more familiar, and then you go on to explore ideas and exceptions that are challenging of the traditional, more subversive. In "Forgiveness Day" and in "A Woman's Liberation," for instance, even though these stories are set in imagined worlds, there's a traditional conception of gender-women being suppressed or used—that you set up as a base against which women like Solly or Yeron or Radosse are striving to fight. Family structures too are similar to more traditional notions of family—man, woman, child—even diplomatic postings, the Ekumen Envoy, and hierarchies/power structures. Now why do you choose to do that, instead of setting up a base itself that's non-traditional?

Le Guin: It may be because the "traditional" gender structure is so extremely widespread, so nearly the norm of known human societies, that to reconstruct it entirely requires a different humanity—different physiologically, as in The Left Hand of Darkness—or different psychologically, as in Always Coming Home. Remaking the species is rather a big job for fiction (or anything else but natural selection; let's see how good our clever geneticists are at it.) Fiction that profoundly subverts the rules the reader knows isn't easy either to write or to read. To work subversively within a more familiar set of rules is less daring, less demanding, but often more immediately comprehensible—and it offers a real possibility of change.

Ramola D: You've also said elsewhere that when writing fantasy or creating alternate worlds it's important to keep the emotional realities the same—sort of the Emotional Laws of the universe, like the laws of physics—immutable across universes. Why is this important?

Le Guin: Well, human beings are the only ones that I can realistically expect to read my stories, and they, naturally, expect to find feelings, responses, actions, that seem real to them: that they recognise. Ah, yes, that's me. Look, that's just like Uncle George. Ow, that hurts. O that's lovely. I'm sorry if these are not approved terms of literary theory. I do think they are the terms on which fiction functions. The language must carry sensation and emotion, in some fashion, from the story to the reader, whose sense of recognition allows also the sense of discovery.

Ramola D: There's a sense in your stories of everything being alive and intelligent in a human kind of way, as in Neruda's poetry, or the French surrealists' work. In "The Spoons in the Basement" for example, the house is alive—and I thought that was just such a seamless, textual way of writing about ghostly presences—so delicate!—and the penguins in "Sur," even the growing alien glob in "Intracom"-does this happen at the level of concept, what you imagine, or through language, on the page?

Le Guin: It mostly happens on the page. But that is where most of what I think and write happens.

Ramola D: In Four Ways to Forgiveness—your story suite—there's a system of plantation slavery and casteism based on skin color very similar to what we've experienced in human history on this planet—except that you've turned the color around, to be black is to be the powerful colonizer in Werel. What interested you most about this subject, what especially were you seeking to explore?

Le Guin: I suppose I was exploring the irrationality of human customs, the barbarity of human institutions, and how the irrational and barbarous come to be accepted as necessary and righteous.

Ramola D: And on that subject—in "A Woman's Liberation," you write that the Aliens of the Ekumen were the only "different" people who "would not let themselves be conquered or enslaved" by the black owners or colonizers of Werel, although it takes 400 years for the owners to admit that they had equals. The Ekumen are learned, they are observers. Is there an analogy you're drawing there for us, and how would you assess our current state on earth in light of that analogy?

Le Guin: Well, I don't have the text here, but there was never any question of the ruling caste on Werel mastering or enslaving their visitors from other worlds. They are a little too civilised, and a little too daunted by the Ekumen, to try it.

Ramola D: You have a marvellous way of bringing animal presence into your work-whether it's inhabiting the mind of a captive lab creature in "Mazes" or a lioness in "The Wife's Story." There are two questions I wanted to ask about this. One, there's always a commentary there about the interplay between the human and the animal, how we humans regard animals, and treat animals. What interests you about this subject?

Le Guin: I think modern industrial society, with the aid of man-centered religions, has broken the world that most people, in most times and cultures, knew as one mysterious whole, one web of relationships. The nearest relations we humans have are animals. Our separation from them, from the web of life, is dire—is probably fatal.

Ramola D: In "Mazes"—where the captive creature is a human, observed and punished by a giant alien—you let the creature die at the end, without escape, which seemed like a very realistic commentary on animals used in experiments in labs today. What influenced that ending?

Le Guin: As you say, it's the likeliest outcome of that particular situation.

Ramola D: And two, you draw very sympathetic portraits sometimes of life-forms, even to the extent of absurdism as in "Intracom"...

Le Guin: "Intracom": you do realise that that story is a take-off of Star Trek (the old, first series)?

Ramola D: Yes, of course. So much of the satire seems to come from there!—but taken as a whole, you write with a kind of advanced sensibility of animals. Where would you say this sensibility for animals comes from, do you think? And has this changed over the years? You've lived in Oregon for several years and you've identified yourself as a Western writer. Does living in the West have something to do with it?

Le Guin: Yes. On the West Coast, many people are not so cut off from, indifferent to, contemptuous of, "nature," that is, everything besides mankind and what mankind makes, as many people of the Eastern seaboard seem to be. The populations of cities like Las Vegas and much of Los Angeles, coming from farther east, bring with them this insulated mentality, demanding that the land furnish them everything and be given nothing back. Green lawns in the desert... My sense of balance, or of justice, or whatever it is, cries out against this attitude; it scares me and outrages me; so I write from that fear and dismay. And from sorrow, grief, at all the richness and sweetness we waste and despise. I love my native landscape with a grieving passion.

Ramola D: Has living in the West influenced too your writing life, or your process?

Le Guin: Being far from the centers of commercial publishing and the ingroups and the anxieties and influences of East Coast literary circles, where the big question is, Am I with it?—we left-edgers, boondockers, prairie chickens, etc., often have an attitude which is more describable as, Oh, the hell with it. This is healthy. I don't think it's ever really healthy for a writer to be an insider.

Ramola D: Which brings me to another question on environment. Your parents were both interested in story and people and societies. Your father was an anthropologist who worked with Ishi, whom your mother wrote about. Your mother was also a short story writer, who worked on retelling Native Californian folktales and myths. Did your parents' interest in story and people affect your own literary or sociological interests, growing up? What is your own interest in Native American stories or storytelling?

Le Guin: I certainly "inherited"—genetically or culturally, by nature or nurture or both, who knows—an unlimited desire for story: to tell or be told.

Native American literature, the oral literatures written down from performance in the 19th and 20th centuries, and contemporary Indian writing, is one of the treasures of North America. English is a European language but we are not a European people, and sometimes our European literary tradition is utterly unfitted to our American landscape and experience. The existence of an indigenous literature reminds us that we don't have to live in a cage of nightingales.

Ramola D: Who do you write for? Do you write for an imagined audience? Is it local? Is it global? Has this changed over the years? Do you think a sense of audience affects the kind of writing you do?

Le Guin: I don't know. I never can answer this question satisfactorily. Of course every genre has its audience, that is to say, possible readers with certain expectations and certain expertise; and writing a realistic story, or a story for children, or a fantasy, I write for those readers. But not only for them. I always hope the story will transcend whatever genre or label has to be stuck onto it so it can sell. I am swimming around with my "audience" in Rushdie's "Ocean of the Streams of Story," and all I hope is that we all meet one another there.

Ramola D: When do you generally know a story is done? How do things have to fall together? Do you have first readers/other writers?

Le Guin: My husband is my first reader for fiction, and mostly has been the only one I pay very much attention to. I have enjoyed and profited from working in peer groups, getting immediate response to stories, suggestions about what works and what doesn't.

Ramola D: You've said before you read constantly. What are you reading currently?

Le Guin: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's autobiography with the wonderful name, Vivir para contarla. I don't envy his translator!

Ramola D: And in an everyday way, what does reading do for your writing? I mean, do you read everyday?

Le Guin: Yes. I am an addict. I read every day, and very quickly, with greed.

Ramola D: And does reading inspire you to pull out your notebook or laptop and write?

Le Guin: Not directly. That would be unwise. But indirectly, of course, everything I read is a source of everything I write. All artists work from the work of other artists; without it they would have to reinvent the art.

Ramola D: Unlike a lot of other writers, you've said you actually enjoy the revising process. What kinds of discoveries do you make in the revising process, and how much do you tend to revise? Do you ever rewrite parts?

Le Guin: I sometimes rewrite the whole thing. But that's nearly as hard as composing it in the first place. The part of revision I enjoy is the tinkering, getting the sentences really right, really in the right place. Getting the rhythm. Getting it so it all seems inevitable.

Ramola D: How has Information Technology—using a laptop, software, the Internet—affected your work recently? Does it affect it?

Le Guin: It makes it much much easier to revise, which makes me happy!

Ramola D: Do you do research, for instance, on the Internet?

Le Guin: No. On the Internet, I am like a toad in Times Square. All I can do is squat. Maybe someday I will learn how to hop.

Ramola D: You've noted elsewhere that it's a good sign the Pulitzer recently went to a work of short fiction—Jhumpa Lahiri's collection. How do you think short fiction is viewed these days in publishing?

Le Guin: Well, despite the solid success of a great many collections and their writers, the publishers untiringly chant the ancient Wisdom of the Temple of the Moneychangers: Short Stuff Don't Sell. They tend to support their notion, quite effectively, by not putting any PR money into anthologies and collections.

Nothing much can be done at any one moment about the stupidities of publishers, but I do hold reviewers and critics at fault for overvaluing the novel and undervaluing the story. Here, for once, academics differ significantly and positively from reviewers and critics: teachers of literature do teach short stories and do give them full artistic credit. Many great stories survive in print purely through their use in teaching anthologies.

Ramola D: Coming back to the great range of your work, the one thing that reviewers marvel at, continuously, is just your amazing imagination, the fascinating worlds you create. Your stories are so often different from the narrower, more suburban kinds of realist fiction in mainstream literary publishing. You remarked once (in the context of science fiction) that (we) writers are the ones responsible for what (we) write, even though publishers/editors might have control over it. What advice might you have for story writers writing today, in the current atmosphere of publishing, especially regarding diversity in imagination, and to speculative/experimental/multicentric story writers?

Le Guin: Get out there and show 'em what's really going on!


Ramola D completed her MFA in 1991 at George Mason University. Her short fiction has appeared in Hyper Age, Literal Latte, and So to Speak, her poetry in Agni, Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Green Mountains Review, Best American Poetry 1994, and other magazines. Her book of poems Invisible Season was published by the Washington Writers' Publishing House in 1998. She has recently completed a novel, set in India, and teaches writing at The Writer's Center, Bethesda.

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