Ursula Le Guin: You never stop learning

By David Larsen

Ursula Le Guin’s long career has traversed many worlds, within which she is still uncovering more, writes David Larsen.

Ursula Le Guin says moving into poetry has taught her to write better. Photo / Marian Wood Kolisch
Ursula Le Guin says moving into poetry has taught her to write better. Photo / Marian Wood Kolisch

"The same questions do tend to keep coming around," says Ursula Le Guin. She sounds genuinely apologetic, though also amused. "The trouble is that one tends to develop stock answers."

She's 84. I am not the first lifelong fan to interview her. I am not the first lifelong fan to ask how often lifelong fans have interviewed her. "If any stock questions come up I'll try to ... hmmm. I'll lie."

When I was a child, I read Le Guin's classic Earthsea fantasy trilogy. As a teenager I read her early science-fiction novels and her story collection Orsinian Tales, set in an imaginary European country and loosely reminiscent of Tolstoy. Tehanu, the first of three books re-examining Earthsea with a more sophisticated adult eye, came out when I was older.

As a new parent, I discovered the picture books Le Guin had written for her grandchildren.

Catwings, about a family of flying kittens, was my children's favourite; I fell in love with Fish Soup, a beautiful fable about parents and children, which featured, as a tiny throw-away detail in one illustration, a group of kiwi.

("That was the artist's idea, I think.
Patrick Wynne. He's lovely. I've been generally very lucky with illustrators.")

Meanwhile, short stories and novellas - "I love that length of story; I think the only reason there aren't more of them is that publishers don't know what to do with them" - were streaming out into the world, with new collections published every few years. Realist fiction, science fiction, fantasy, satire, things harder to classify. (She has written trenchantly on the inadequacy of our critical vocabulary). Several essay collections appeared.

She began publishing poetry. She wrote a collection of exercises, Steering The Craft, for writers wanting to extend their skills. ("I have a revised edition I'm hoping to publish soon, maybe as an e-book.") She wrote a verse translation of the Tao Te Ching.

In her 70s she taught herself Latin so she could fulfil her long-time goal of reading Virgil's Aeneid; deciding that Virgil's poetry simply could not be translated into English, she instead wrote a major novel, Lavinia, around one of his minor characters. She began a blog.

All of which - and this is a very incomplete list - will give you some idea of why I'm more nervous talking to Le Guin than to anyone I've ever interviewed. She has been there, never repeating herself, always pushing into new territory, my entire life.

"There probably are things outside the reach of language. Quite a good many. But we must never give up, because we do learn to say things that we once didn't know how to say. I like this idea that you really don't stop learning. There's always more to learn, in the practice of an art, and you can always learn it. And that's lovely, to know that."

A two-volume retrospective collection of Le Guin's short fiction, The Unreal And The Real, was published in America a couple of years ago; the New Zealand edition of volume one, Where On Earth, has just come out. She chose all the stories herself.

"Golly, that was a very odd experience. I know writers who hate to reread their own work ... I don't know whether I'm just insensitive or what, but I generally enjoy reading my old stuff. So my pile of stories I liked enough to want to include was far too large."

Many of Le Guin's earlier stories are set either in Europe or in Earthsea, or on other planets. Later stories are more likely to use American settings, particularly ones close to her Pacific northwest home in Oregon. Many of these later stories are also concerned with questions of power and powerlessness, particularly those around race and gender - issues very close to the bone in contemporary America. There's a sense in which her work has come closer to home over time.

"It took me a long time to become fully aware of the fact that my country has never finished the Civil War. I married a Southerner, I lived in the South when it was segregated.

It just took a long time to percolate through to me, I think. And then of course there's the women's movement, of which I was very much a part. Another simple way to look at that change or progress over time that you've noticed is that I've become less dependent on previous writing. The first three books of Earthsea are very clearly based on the heroic fantasy tradition. You know, the hero overcoming obstacles. The hero's journey is a grand story. But it's not the only story. I began to find my own ground, and I didn't have to do it the way other writers have done it. It took me a long time."

One other change which has occurred over the past five or six years is a loss of energy. "I don't think I could possibly write a novel now. I wonder how Jose Saramago managed to write a very good novel at 87 - I envy him. I just don't have the physical or psychic energy to undertake a big work now.

"Stories don't come to me as often any more. I have had a couple of notions for a big story, and then thought, I can't do that, I won't be able to see it through." She laughs.

"I'm very old, it's hardly a surprise. But I still do envy Saramago."

Poetry is mostly what she's writing now. "The one thing I can say definitely about my life is that I know I learned - very slowly - to write better. I'm writing better poetry now than I did 15 years ago.

I belong to a little group of poets, we've been working together for a long time now. We meet once a month, and one person gives an assignment for next month's assignment.

Specific limitations, specific goals, small engineering problems. It's surprising how often that brings on the poem - something we just didn't know we had to write. A beat or a combination of words with a certain rhythm come into the mind, and they have an authority that you must obey, you must listen to. Something is at work. It's very odd. It's truly mysterious."

The Unreal and the Real - Vol 1: Where on Earth (Gollancz $49.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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