Ursula K. Le Guin Interview courtesy of HIKA
In our Episode 14 featuring The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin, we mentioned an interview that Ms. Le Guin gave at Kenyon College in 1986. Thanks to the kind editors at HIKA, we reprint that interview in its entirety here.
If there was one author living or dead that we wish we could have a beer with, it’s Ursula! But this interview and others, in which we hear the literary master in her own words, is probably as close as we’ll get.
So Cheers to you Ursula! Thank you for paving new roads for so many writers, and for leaving us endlessly fascinating stories to discover.
A Conversation with Ursula K. LeGuin
by Jim Kerr
Note: The following conversation took place in the Crozier Center for Women at Kenyon College on the morning of April 4, 1986.
Jim Kerr (JK): First a general question. Why do you write? Is it for yourself, for the money, for what?
Ursula K. LeGuin (UKL): No, it’s not for the money. That would be stupid. There are much easier ways of earning a much larger living. People who say that, like Hemingway, seem kind of defensive. They have this macho shame about being an artist, so they say, “I’ll do it for the money.” That is bullshit. Any artist does their art because that’s what they do best. It’s the way you live best. You live fully and most completely when you’re doing your thing.
JK: Sort of like Larry Niven who said, “writing is easier than not writing?”
UKL: Yeah…No. I don’t agree with that. Easy isn’t a question. Easy and hard it’s really a question because writing is hard. Niven apparently doesn’t find it hard; it sort of pours out of him. Maybe for him that’s true, but not for me because it’s hard work. But I like hard work.
JK: When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
UKL: From the start. When I learned how to write.
JK: When did you start writing fiction?
UKL: About age eight. Poetry first, then fiction.
JK: Did your parents give you a lot of support?
UKL: Yes, but they didn’t make a fuss about me though. There wasn't all this praise—”Oh, look what Ursula’s written”—and all that stuff, no way. It was just “Fine, that what you want to do. Do it.” They took it seriously, but they didn’t make a fuss.
JK: Did you read a lot when you were little?
UKL: Oh yeah, and ever since.
JK: Which authors did you read?
UKL: Everything. You name it, I’ve read it.
JK: All the classics…
UKL: Sure, whatever you call classics, and…
JK: Anything you could get your hands on.
UKL: Anything I could get my hands on. Aspirin labels if there wasn’t anything else. (laughter) From Tolstoy to aspirin labels. I think a lot of writers do read a lot. It’s part of the business.
JK: Do you think these writers influenced you at all?
UKL: Well sure, everything influences me. After all, you can’t not work in a tradition. Everybody, every artist, works in some sort of tradition. You can’t make life up from the start.
JK: But science fiction writers try.
UKL: No, they’re working in a science fiction tradition, which goes back to the earlier fantasy tradition, which goes back to the whole story-telling tradition. So we are all one part of one ongoing thing, which is nice. It doesn’t bother me.
JK: What do you think is Ursula K. LeGuin’s place in the literary world today?
UKL: That’s a trick question. (laughter) I wonder if my answer’s going to sound dumb? (laughter) I don’t know; that’s for other people to make up their minds about. That sort of thing doesn’t really bother or interest me. I want to get my work done, and of course I want to get it published. It’s great when I know people are reading, but beyond that, that’s not my area of concern.
JK: What do you think your strengths are as a writer?
UKL: Again, you’re asking me almost to criticize my own work, which is not quite the artist’s job. Some artists are perfectly ready and willing to do it, and of course you do it when you’re writing, but to kind of summarize it that way…I don’t know. I know I could tell you my weaknesses more easily than my strengths: there are things I simply don’t write about because I’m not interested in them and aren’t any good at them: big violent stuff, description of high-tech stuff. I like technology very much, but I’m not interested in state-of-the-art high-tech like so many science fiction writers. I like other forms of technology.
JK: Not like gadgets?
UKL: The big futuristic gimmicks, yes. On the other hand, in my new book, Always Coming Home, I’m really interested in describing how their train works. They have a train which is the appropriate technology for them. It is the right technology; it’s just what they need. I got really interested in working out how the train works, how they fuel it, how they use the tracks, what the tracks are made of, stuff like that.
JK: It sort of blends into culture.
UKL: Yes, the reason I’m saying that is people say, “You aren’t interested in technology,” and I just stare at them because I love it. But it’s not what people think of in the “Star Wars” type stuff.
JK: The big space ships battling with huge laster guns…
UKL: Star Wars in both the Spielberg sense and the Ronald Reagan sense, whichever you like.
JK: Speaking of Star Wars, wasn’t there a rather large split in the Science Fiction Writers of America over the Star Wars thing?
UKL: I can’t tell you that for sure. Way back during the Vietnam war there were two famous letters, one against, one for the war. It was really interesting to watch how people lined up. I think were was something similar to that, but for a while I wasn’t a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America. I dropped out over a political issue. They kicked Stanislauw Lem out because they thought he was a communist; they might’ve looked a little farther. I dropped out. I just couldn’t take it. I rejoined last year because all that’s ancient history now. But I don’t know; I can’t tell you. I heard rumors.
JK: Do you think it’s too political an organization?
UKL: No, no. This is inevitable. Science fiction gets very politicized. All writing does if they would admit it, and we admit it. Some writers go, “oh no, no, no I never touch politics.” That’s baloney. Poo. (laughter) The feelings run pretty high, and there are these very, very conservative, reactionary people in science fiction who are looked upon as futurists because they writer about high-tech in the future, but their politics are very reactionary. Then there’s a smaller but fairly solid group of, I don’t know if there’s any real radicals, but there’s a liberal side. There’s a pretty strong clash there. That’s good; that’s healthy.
JK: When did you start writing science fiction, or maybe I should start, how do you define science fiction?
UKL: I don’t. Who said, “when you point to it and say it’s science fiction, that’s what it is.” (laughter)
JK: Or what the publisher slaps on the cover.
UKL: Yeah, it’s a publisher’s, bookseller’s label. And it’s useful, within limits. I started writing it around 1960 because it was the first thing I was able to sell for money. I’d been published, but I hadn’t made any professional sale. And the first story I sold was to Amazing Stories, and Cele Lalli was the editor. She was a really keen editor. She started a whole lot of us, or she was the person that first bought our stuff.
JK: Would she be a precursor to the new wave?
UKL: No, she was really sharp about picking up young writers. I don’t think she had any particular style of her own. She liked a good story. There were a whole bunch of us that were publishing with her. She edited Amazing and Fantastic, and a lot of us started in there. And then we went to Ace Books, because Don Woddheim was editor of Ace then, and he’s always been interested in young writers. Then Terry Carr came in and started the Ace specials. It was a really lively time; there was a lot of good stuff going on, a lot of good editors and stuff. That’s just the time when I happened to sort of blunder into science fiction through the back door. Here was all this good stuff going on, good writers, good editors, and it was wonderful. Then the SFWA started. Damon Knight founded it, and here was this little organization and I could meet the other writers. It was a very nice time to start. I was really lucky that way.
JK: Do you find your books more as “hard” science fiction or “soft” science fiction, or a synthesis of both?
UKL: I spit upon both those words. (laughter) What do they mean? Usually, people that use them mean that “hard” is good and “soft” is somehow kind of sleazy. Hard always mean (in deep voice) good, manly, right, masculine. Bah! My science fiction, you could say, is social science fiction as opposed to “wiring diagram” science fiction. (laughter)
JK: Do you think the quality of science fiction has improved over the last twenty years?
UKL: No. But it’s changed. It keeps changing, but no, I would not say that there has been an improvement in the last twenty years. If you said over the last forty years, it’s definitely improved. It’s just better written now. The standards are higher, and the readers are a lot more sophisticated. Back in the thirties and forties, there was some very interesting stuff being written, but the general mass of it was pulp.
JK: Like Sturgeon’s Law.
UKL: Yeah, the trouble with Sturgeon’s law is that it’s true of everything.
UKL: Yeah. Name any other form of literature and ninety-nine percent of it is also drek.
JK: What would Ursula K. LeGuin’s law of science fiction be?
UKL: I never make laws; I’m an anarchist, remember? (laughter)
JK: Who are the science fiction writers today that you think are doing good stuff or that you respect?
UKL: Oh, there are so many. I really hate to make these lists because I always leave somebody off. I’m sorry because I won’t be able to name them all, but start with Gene Wolfe, and Vonda Macintyre, Octavia Butler, and Joanna [Russ]. I like Joanna’s criticism and her other writing better than her novels, but she’s such an interesting writer. (pause) I’m trying to think of the people that when they write a book I’ll go buy it.
JK: What about some of the older writers that are still writing today?
UKL: Well, Norman Spinrad; there’s someone who just keeps getting better, more complicated, more interesting. I hated his earlier books. (pause) I’m trying to think if there’s anyone over in fantasy that I like. At the moment there isn’t anyone that I’m really excited about. there’s a lot of interesting work going on, but there’s not too many names right now that are as important to me right now as they were a while back. I think really what science fiction is probably doing right now, is regrouping. There was a big push ahead in the sixties an the seventies, but I think at the moment some of us are just kind of doing the same things over, and some of us are groping out for new directions. So at the moment, except for Gene Wolfe, I don’t see any really big, solid, major work. I have to include mine; I think Always Coming Home—it’s partly science fiction, and certainly is a big effort hat I made. I don’t know what science fiction people will think. They may deny that it’s science fiction.
JK: Have you seen the reviews yet?
UKL: Oh, yeah, there have been a lot of review, but not very many within science fiction. As a matter of fact, my impression is that they haven’t been reviewing it, and when they have—there was a review in Locus—and the review was very nice, but it sort of said, “Well, gee whiz, go read the book.” Well, that’s kind of strange, like she didn’t want to handle it, like she didn’t know what I was trying to do or something. I don’t know. I seem to have floored people a little bit. And, as a matter of fact, that happened a bit to The Book of the New Sun [by Gene Wolfe]. Some people gave it really good reviews; some people said, “well, gee, I don’t think I understand this,” and left it at that. I think it’s just an amazing book, and I think a lot of people just kind of haven’t quite caught up with it yet. He does so many unexpected things. It’s not an easy book, but I’ve read the whole thing twice now, and the second time was a lot better than the first time. (laughter) It’s pretty amazing, but again, people don’t quite know what to do with it.
JK: Your newest book comes with an audio cassette and pictures. Did you find the medium of writing too restrictive, or were you experimenting with new…medium?
UKL: Well, I wouldn’t say I found it too restrictive, because you can do anything with words. But I wanted to add this other dimension, the way illustrations can add another dimension to a book, as can music. It fit in this book so well because I drop you into this world where these people live, and I do a sort of Sensaround. (laughter) The music was obviously the more direct [approach]. Music comes more directly to people than anything else, more directly than words or pictures. I thought it would be so great and add to it—and make it more fun. We can hear what the songs sound like instead of just trying to guess. I think the music is really pretty; most people like it. Some people say it’s kind of weird (laughter). I’ve heard it a lot because when I do signings in bookstores they play it over and over. So I’ve sat and listened to that music for three hours, and I never got tired of it. It must be pretty good stuff.
JK: Well, there’s a rock musician, Pete Townshend, who wrote songs for the Who in the sixties. He wrote a novel—not a novel, but I think it was longer than a short story, and he packaged it with a videocassette of an hourlong movie, and it was released with an album, and he put it all together in a multimedia presentation.
UKL: When did he do that?
JK: That was last year; it’s called White City: A Novel. Taken by parts you get a vague sense of what it is, but altogether is where you get the complete sense. It’s been really critically acclaimed.
UKL: I wish I’d known about it because my publisher was so nervous about this, and so kind of “well, nobody’s ever done this.” I said, “Well if they hadn’t done it, they’re going to be doing it pretty soon.” I bet we do all sorts of crossbreeding like this. Why not? It’s natural now that we have cassette tapes and video.
JK: I think it’s interesting—he’s coming from the music point of view and going into writing, and you did the opposite.
UKL: Yeah, but I’ll just bet you that this thing that was such a big deal for Harper and Row to figure out how to package—and another thing I said—they kept saying, “no one’s ever done this.” I said, “You do it yourself with kid’s books all the time.” “Oh, that’s the children’s department,” and I said, “Well, that doesn’t mean I’m a child because I want to do it.” But they have the technology. Of course, we then discovered that children’s books are packaged sleazily, sort of shrink wrap stuff. They wanted a classy package, which I think they did. It’s a very classy book.
JK: Do you think the price will get in the way of the sales?
UKL: I think it has gotten in the way already. I think that’s one reason I’m not hearing too much from my science fiction friends. A lot of them can’t afford a twenty-five dollar book, and I’m really sorry about that. I don’t like to have expensive books, but I wanted the package. I did want that music with it. It will be out in a year or two in a mass market paperback without the tape. You can order the tape separately if you want.
JK: Do you think that would detract from the overall unity of the book?
UKL: Yes. I was just bound and determined that it would come out right the first time. The whole thing—with the beautiful cover—the Harper and Row book is just beautiful. Have you seen it?
JK: Yes I have. It’s fantastic.
UKL: The whole package is so beautifully done. The printing is so good, the book is so well designed. I wanted it right once. After that, I’ll get realistic and the price will go way down.
JK: Was it released in hardback?
UKL: Yes, there’s a fifty dollar hardback edition. It’s surprising how people buy it. I guess collectors don’t mind paying for it. I wouldn’t pay fifty bucks for a book. (laughter)
JK: How’s the Left Hand of Darkness movie progressing?
UKL: It’s as its most critical stage right now because we’re trying to raise the money. Everything is fine except we need more money than we have.
JK: The script is written?
UKL: The script is written and has been approved by American Class Theater, who’s one of our participants. Now we have to more very cautiously to ty to find money—well, one way to do it would be to find either a director or an actor who is interested in doing it and who would bring us something of a big name. That would help a lot, and is a possibility. Or just find someone with a few million dollars (laughter). That the state where it’s at.
JK: Are you concerned about creative control?
UKL: Not with these people. I know I’ve got it. These are the same people I made Lathe of Heaven with. David Lockston simply works well. It’s a collaborative enterprise.
JK: Nothing connected with Hollywood at this point?
UKL: We may have to get the money from Hollywood. In that case, things will be different. If we got a big name director, he’s not going to let me push him around. But you work along. Anyway, it’s not one of those things were I have sold my thing to Hollywood. I just wouldn’t do that. There’s nothing in it for me. I don’t need the money. Who needs that kind of money? I wouldn’t know what to do with it. So, it’s nice. I have this feeling that nobody can push me around because I don’t need what they can give me. I don’t even want what they can give me.
JK: What is your definition of art?
UKL: I don’t know. I don’t define art.
JK: Then art is subjective?
UKL: I don’t know because the words subjective and objective have become very suspect to me altogether. So I’m not using them except in certain limited feminist senses…
JK: I’m curious. You talked about art, and being honest in works of art…
UKL: It’s what I do. You see; I’m talking about it from the inside. A working definition of it is really of no interest or use to me. That’s something you would do from the outside. If you want to call that objectivity, you can. But the words are getting full of quicksand, both of them are. It’s all rule of thumb, and I’m perfectly content to go on with rule of thumb, and say generalizations like, “artistically that’s crap” or “artistically that’s wonderful” and not define my terms. I simply define it in regard to whatever we’re talking about, whichever work of art we’re talking about. I realize that’s very intellectually disrespectable.
JK: You say that you’ve been liberated by feminism…
UKL: To some [extent]. My work has been liberated. I was lucky enough not to need as much liberation as many women do in my private life. I have to make a distinction there.
JK: What do you mean “your work has been liberated by feminism”?
UKL: I feel it’s free. There were things that I couldn’t write about, such as the lives of women. You look at my early fiction, it’s all men. It’s all men doing kind of “men” things. The women are very secondary. They’re marginal, for example, in The Wizard of Earthsea. Even worse, in The Farthest Shore, there really are no women. They’re very marginal characters. Now that’s kind of odd. In the first place, why a world without women in it? Well, of course, it was very commonplace in science fiction, and other fiction. But it’s kind of odd when you think about it because the world we live in is about half and half. It’s even odder that a woman would be writing an all male world. You see there’s something very strange at work there, which was out of my control. I knew it was kind of strange, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. What feminism and feminist literary theory and criticism has done is given me a kind of understanding and control, therefore freedom. Now I feel like I can do what I want to do. I’m not being pushed around so much by something that’s built into my head. I’ve been deprogrammed (laughter).
JK: What’s your definition of feminism?
UKL: The movement of the last twenty years, and then also way back to the late eighteenth century. The movement of women to free themselves, and children, and men, from the patriarchy.
JK: The constraints of sexist society…
UKL: The constraints of sexism, misogyny in the first place, and then society as built as a rigid structure, which essentially excludes all women from power unless they become men in a sense.
JK: The I guess it’s pointless to ask you if you’re a feminist writer (laughter).
UKL: I’m a feminist. And a writer. To say I’m a feminist writer has a slightly different implication. Joanna Russ is, first and foremost, a feminist writer, and therefore is royally hated by a lot of the more misogynous readers who don’t like uppity women. I’m in trouble, the stronger I come out speaking in solidarity with feminism. I know I’ve lost some readers and made some enemies because a lot of people feel very threatened by feminism, and think it’s some sort of attack on men, which it isn’t. It may be a resistance, but it’s not an attack.
JK: What do you think of science fiction fans and fandom?
UKL: I love them. They’re great. Except the ones who don’t read—you know what I mean? There are fans who don’t read anything. They’re just fans. Some of them dress up, and they’re sort of playing science fiction. I don’t care too much for them, but I like their costumes (laughter). But the people who read science fiction and love it and want to talk about it and stuff—of course. Gosh, a writer loves readers.
JK: You don’t consider them “terminal acne cases”?
UKL: No. Well, there are some terminal acne cases, but you meet them anywhere (laughter). No, I think it’s great. It can wear you out, of course. But this closeness between the writers and the readers in science fiction can be really neat. You’re really getting an exchange.
JK: I’ve read that science fiction fandom is an escape for all “the ninety-eight pound weaklings who had sand kicked in their face.”
UKL: (laughing) There’s a lot of big, heavy ones too (laughter). No, it’s a strange little sub society. Basically, I think it’s great, because people come together. It’s something that they like. How can you fault that?
JK: Do you think the fanzines are a good step to professional writing?
UKL: Oh sure, it’s awfully nice to have an amateur publishing circle, and then a semi-pro publishing circle, that’s great. Outside science fiction it hardly exists. It’s really hard to get started. No, I don’t see the fanzines, and people used to send them to me. They don’t much anymore. I don’t know why. So I can’t tell you very much about the present ones. I think in general, to answer your question, I think it’s a good thing. The only other field of literature that has anything like that is poetry. When you start as a poet, you publish first off in amateur poetry magazines, then you publish in these semi-pro ones which don’t pay you, but which have a pretty good circulation, then maybe you publish professionally and get paid for it. It’s the same thing as in fanzines. Some of the fanzines are kind of…
JK: Closed circle?
UKL: Closed circle, yes.
JK: Do you think it’s dangerous that some writers might get caught up in…Let me put it this way, would you take it for granted that the writing in fanzines is lower than professional standards?
UKL: Well, it’s usually by younger, less experienced writers. Yeah, the quality may be lower, but that’s where Harlan started, and there’s no more professional writer than Harlan Ellison.
JK: Do you think it’s dangerous that someone might be trapped writing for a fanzine?
UKL: No, because if they have the drive and ambition, they’ll move on up. For one thing, they’ll want money. It’s nice to get paid. In our society is validates you as a writer. You get bored not getting paid (laughter). You may not want big bucks, but you want that professional authentication. So nobody’s going to get trapped that doesn’t want to, that isn’t happy just writing for the circle. That’s fine too - why not?
JK: What’s next for Ursula K. LeGuin?
UKL: She doesn’t know. She never knows.
Interview originally appeared in HIKA, an Undergraduate Journal of Arts & Letters, Kenyon College, Volume XLVII, Number 1, Fall, 1986. Reprinted with permission.