Alibi V.13 No.28 • July 8-14, 2004 

Author Interview

Many Worlds

An interview with Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin is an extremely difficult writer to categorize, but that hasn't stopped people from trying. She usually gets thrown into the science fiction or fantasy camps, but neither of those labels does true justice to the body of work she's built up over the years.

Yes, every geeky preadolescent from Mars to Venus has read her classic Earthsea fantasy trilogy at one time or another. Yes, Le Guin helped rescue the genre of science fiction from the bubbling pulp pit by producing inventive books with serious themes like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. But Le Guin has also penned well-received short story collections, books of literary criticism, children's stories and poetry volumes, and she's a talented and meticulous translator. (She labored on her translation of the Tao Te Ching for 40 years.)

One of her most recent books is a translation of poems by the great under-appreciated Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. Another is her new short story collection, Changing Planes.

Le Guin will appear in UNM's Woodward Hall this coming Tuesday, July 13, at 6:30 p.m. as the final presenter in the Second Annual Voices of the Southwest Lecture Series. Her lecture will be followed by a question and answer period. KUNM 89.9 FM will broadcast the event live. For details, call 277-4854. On Thursday, July 15, at 7 p.m., Le Guin will also make an appearance at Bookworks. 344-8139.

The Alibi recently had an opportunity to interview Le Guin about Gabriela Mistral, growing up in Berkeley, Calif., her current work habits and Harry Potter. Here's what she had to say.

This might be a galling question but given your own literary tanglings with wizards I have to ask: Have you read the Harry Potter books, and if so what do you think of them?

I read the first Harry Potter book. I thought it was a pleasant and lively mixture of two familiar formats, the "gifted/lovable child of nasty/stupid/cruel parents," and the British "boarding school story." The conventionality of these subjects left me puzzled, though, as to why the book was praised for its originality. I was also rather unhappy to find that ordinary people are dismissed as inferior, almost less than human, while the wonderful wizardly folks use their gifts only in more or less violent competition with one another. This plays into the childish craving to belong to a special in-group with special powers, but it's morally unimaginative at best.

Your parents were distinguished anthropologists. Tell me how they influenced your writing.

My father was the anthropologist, my mother was a writer. They set me good examples of reading and writing and enjoying both very much.

My dad also told me that if I wanted to be a literary writer I ought to be able to make an honest living at something else, or anyhow marry somebody who did—excellent advice, which I give to all beginning writers.

You were born in Berkeley in 1929. (I'm an East Bay boy myself.) Did Berkeley's radical political traditions influence the themes of your fiction? If so, how?

Berkeley in the '30s and '40s was a quiet little university town, everybody knew everybody, a lovely place to grow up. Liberal rather than radical. A lot of refugees from Hitler and Mussolini came there (intellectuals, whom U.C. Berkeley had the wits to make welcome). Some of them were probably radicals; mainly what they were was anti-Fascist. Anyhow, they were cool. My best friend as a kid was the youngest son of a German-Jewish refugee family.

But I left town long before the '60s, which I imagine is the tradition you had in mind. By then I was living in Portland, Ore. which has the reputation of being a quiet peaceable city—though we have had so many and such large protest demos here that Bush I referred to us as Little Beirut, and Bush II comes here only with his guys in the Darth Vader uniforms.

Tell me about Gabriela Mistral. How did you become interested in her? Did translating Mistral's poems present any unexpected challenges?

My friend Diana Bellessi, an Argentinean poet, sent me a little book of Mistral's poems, and I fell in love. Like that. Bang!

So when you are in love with poetry and it's in another language, you want really badly to have it in your language too—at least I do—so I have been translating all my life.

As my Spanish was definitely home-made, you might say that I learned Spanish and Gabriela together. (Actually, I started with prose: Kalpa Imperial, by Angelica Gorodischer, a wonderful book of stories; my translation was published by Small Beer Press.) I can read Spanish fairly well by now but still can't speak it worth a centavo.

Mistral is not an easy poet, she can be even gnarlier than Neruda. Sometimes I did have to give up on a poem when it just wouldn't make any music at all in English. But it was a work of love for years, and gave me great joy. I hope it brings Gabriela to people who might not have known of her.

How is Changing Planes being received?

Well unfortunately I can't tell you about the award I just got for it because it won't be announced until September, but anyhow, it's doing fine, and I am pleased because finally some people have noticed that I have a sense of humor. I think a lot of my stuff is funny ... but a lot of people, as soon as they see "science fiction," they think "grim," and then it doesn't matter what you do; they read you grimly.

How is the experience of writing short stories different for you than writing novels or poems?

First: Short stories take longer to write, and to read, than poems (mostly) and not as long as novels. I'm not being flippant. The size of the work is very important to the power and nature of the work, and the length of time a work occupies in one's life is very important to one's life as a writer.

Second: I mostly write stories and novels all in one go—beginning to end—and then rewrite/revise clear through, as many times as needed. Poems may get written down in a brief time, but the reworking may go on for years—a little a time, a word, a line. So poems fit fairly easily into a life full of other obligations.

Prose is harder to make room for. You just have to have a big chunk of truly clear, free time—a couple of days at least for a story. A novel is going to take months or years, so you almost have to have some guaranteed regular time free for that long work. For example, when my kids were little, I wrote at night. My husband made that possible by being on call during those hours, so that I could go live in the world of my book for those few hours daily.

What do you feel are your greatest strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

I spell a lot better than my spell checker does, and have very few doubts about my grammar, my syntax, or the sound of my writing. I am good at describing. I'm not a great plotter, finding plot often gets in the way of story, and am so bored by "nonstop action" writing that I never do it. Beyond that, I'll leave it to my readers to judge.

Looking back, what do you feel are your best books? Worst?

The best book is always the next one.

The worst one is always the one you've got about to the middle of writing, and you think, "Help! Help! How do I get out of this? What am I doing? What was I thinking of?" Then after a while you see where to go and it gets better again.

What will you be remembered for? What should you be remembered for?

My writing.