Ursula K. Le Guin on Racism, Anarchy & Writing

Euan Monaghan (LitHub) talks to the American writer, in an interview originally published in Structo Magazine
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Ursula K. Le Guin, by taros
It’s not hard to see why Ursula K. Le Guin is best known for her early novels. In the space of six years came A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Lathe of Heaven (1971) and The Dispossessed (1974). These books and many others—including Lavinia (2008), an astonishing take on Virgil’s Aeneid—have been a steady influence on authors of the imagination, notably Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, David Mitchell, Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, who said that “Le Guin writes as well as any non-‘genre’ writer alive.” We talked at Le Guin’s home in Portland, Oregon.


Euan Monaghan: Lavinia was your most recent novel. It’s an interesting book to come at this point in your career. I’m interested to know how it came about.

Ursula Le Guin: I’m not sure how it came about. Okay: I’m reading the Aeneid in Latin very, very, very slowly, with my high school Latin revived as best as I could; sort of chewing my way through. On about the third page of [Lavinia], Lavinia begins talking—“I don’t know who I am. I know who I was,” you know? That paragraph just came and I wrote it down. Like Joan of Arc, I’m hearing voices! I knew who it was, but not quite what was going on—she just went on telling me things, so, okay, I know I’m getting one of these dictated books. It has happened before, but not quite in this way. I was deeply engaged with Virgil, and, of course, Virgil himself is a character in the book. It was a very odd experience. I wasn’t choosing the way as an author, I was taking dictation, as it were—finding the story as it happened. More and more I realize that in my writing I just find out what happens next. It’s an exploration. I’m not following a mapped road; I’m following a road but I don’t always know where it goes. Except that, of course, I tried not to deny anything that Virgil says—except the color of her hair. I just couldn’t see a southern Italian girl being a blue eyed blonde. It just wouldn’t wash!

EM: You said it’s happened before.

UG: The first book I felt had been dictated was Very Far Away from Anywhere Else. Owen just began to talk in my ear. And of course it’s first-person. It’s a voice narrating to me in a speaking tone. And again, I found out what was going on in that book as it went on. [Pause] I don’t want to seem totally irresponsible. [Laughs] I do exert some control, and there’s re-writing and so on, but still. I feel that one either accepts a gift like this or not, and I accepted it, and I was very grateful for it, because I really didn’t–it was the first time in my life that I felt that there wasn’t another novel pending. And since Lavinia I do not feel like there is another novel pending, and I know that I don’t have the energy, the stamina, to write a novel now. I wish I did, but I don’t.

EM: Does there have to be a routine when it’s a novel? An expenditure of energy over a given time?

UG: It’s a huge expenditure of energy, and it has to be more or less regular. Pretty much go up every morning and write some. Or you’re thinking about it all the time… all the time, subliminally. If you look, it’s up there going round and round. [Laughs] And it takes physical stamina to write a novel. A short story you can wear yourself out in a few hours and sometimes you can get it down, but a novel is a commitment of weeks and months of hard work. I love doing it, it’s the best work in the world, but you’ve gotta have the stuff, and in my mid-80s I don’t.

EM: I know people in their 20s who say the same.

UG: It’s kind of scary to undertake.

EM: I read Very Far Away from Anywhere Else again on the train over. I hadn’t read it in years, but it still felt very… true, I suppose. It was nice to read it again.

UG: That book is nearly 40 years old, so it might seem terribly old fashioned to kids now, but it seems to just wear along.

EM: I didn’t know, when I first read it, when it had been written. I don’t think there’s anything in the book that tells you.

UG: I tried not to do models of cars and things like that.

EM: Right. I think the car cost three thousand dollars or something like that.

UG: [Laughs] That’s it. What!?

EM: And that was the only thing that made me think–

UG: And there are no electronics. So many teenagers cannot imagine life without.

EM: That might be more of a problem now for writers trying to set something in an “any time.” The lack of electronics. [Read More]

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