Ursula K. Le Guin passed away on January 22, 2018 at the age of 88. In May 2001, Writer's Digest had the honor of speaking with Le Guin about her process, her inspiration and her impressive body of work. Read the story here.
Ursula Le Guin at home in Portland, Origon, California December 15 2005. (Photo by Dan Tuffs/Getty Images)
By Faith L. Justice
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, author of more than 100 short stories, five volumes of poetry and 17 novels, claims there is no secret to her success—just a talent for writing, developed through hard work and practice.
Her early novels The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) established her as a science fiction author of the first rank. Her four Books of Earths introduced countless kids to the angst of teenage wizards long before the advent of Harry Potter. Le Guin’s current title, Tales from Earthsea (Harcourt), is a collection of five stories that will lead to a new Earths novel, The Other Wind (Harcourt, Fall 2001).
Le Guin’s work has been honored with five Hugos, five Nebulas, the National Book Award, the Kafka Award, the Pushcart Prize and Writer’s Digest’s 100 Best Writers of the 20th Century, among others.
Born in Berkeley, Calif., in 1929 to an anthropologist father and psychologist mother, Le Guin grew up in a home filled with stories. As a child, she wrote stories and poetry. At age 11, she submitted her first story to Astounding—it was rejected, as were all of her short stories and novels for the next 22 years.
She describes her earliest work as being “just a bit off,” containing some oddity or fantasy element that prevented editors from labeling her work—putting it in a literary or genre box.
WD: You’ve said science fiction as literature allows one to think through alternatives. How have you done that?
There are different ways of thinking, being and doing things. Both science fiction and fantasy offer more options. They let you think through an alternative without actually having to do it. Which, I think, is really one of the functions of all fiction—to let you live other lives and see what they’re like. It widens the soul. … You’ll find that most of my central characters are people of color. … This is the great thing about fiction. You can get inside somebody else’s skin and, if it’s a different-colored skin, that’s just more exciting.
Le Guin still maintains a dispute with critics and academics who insist that only realistic fiction can be literary fiction. “That attitude knocks out about nine-tenths of all American literature. Once we had the South American magical realists, you couldn’t say only realism is literary.”
Le Guin hit her stride when she turned to science fiction and fantasy, where she made her mark and earned the notice of the mainstream critical community.
Le Guin approaches her writing as an art form. “There are dance artists, painting artists and writing artists. Authors are writing artists. You can practice art in whatever medium you choose, and words are mine.”
As with most artists, there’s a pragmatic side to how she approaches her work. Her lyrical prose and distinctive style are rooted in a love of language and meticulous attention to the writing craft. She has particularly strong views on the use of conflict. “Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting and changing.”
Le Guin finds the actual act of creation mysterious. “I have no control over my writing. I have lots of good intentions, but no control. There’s a story that wants to be told. When I started the telling (Harcourt), I thought it would be a novella, but it wanted to be a novel. It wouldn’t go right until I got the central character right—Sutty. … When Sutty found her voice, then I could tell the story. That’s the kind of thing I just don’t understand. What does it mean when you find the character’s voice?”
Outside of the creative act, Le Guin offers more practical advice. “Write. Some writers have to be told that. They don’t know that you can’t be a writer without writing. They think you can just be rich and famous. They think their job is to meet agents and have experiences. Their job is to write.”
This pragmatic “just do it” attitude is reflected in Le Guin’s own practices. As a young mother, struggling with constant literary rejection, she wrote when her children went to sleep. When they were older, she wrote while they were in school. Now that her children have children, Le Guin prefers to write in the mornings.
Her “perfect day” starts at 5:30 a.m. with thinking in bed, followed by a big breakfast at 6:15 and five hours of “writing, writing, writing.” After lunch she takes care of daily chores.
"Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words. I’ve had a long career as a writer, and a good one, in good company. Here at the end of it, I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom."
- Le Guin's speech at the 2014 National Book Awards
Le Guin also believes, “You can’t write unless you read.” As a child, Le Guin read everything she could get her hands on—books from her parent’s extensive library, Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, and the pulp science fiction magazines of the ’30s and ’40s. As an adult she just wants “a good book.”
When pressed, she’ll admit one of the major influences on her own work is Virginia Woolf. “She just has a lot of stuff that’s incredibly fruitful for me.”
For a woman with such an extraordinary career, Le Guin proudly wears the trappings of ordinariness. She strolls to the local Minutemen Press in Portland, Ore., to send and receive faxes, and writes on her computer, but she refuses to get connected to the internet.
“I love my computer, but I don’t know how deep I want to get into the web. … As you get older you realize you have less energy and the days don’t seem to have quite as many hours, and I want to go no writing.”