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Arts & Letters

Life in the Wider Household of Being: An Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin

“Readers, after all, are making the world with you..." U.K. Le Guin

By Erika Milo for West By

Posted on Nov 21, 2003

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"Ursula K. Le Guin" photo by Marion Wood Kolisch at the Ursula K. Le Guin web site

Some of Le Guin’s recent credits include:
New books and translations:
Changing Planes, a collection of short stories (Harcourt, 2003)
Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Le Guin (University of New Mexico Press, 2003). Mistral was the first Latin American, and the only Latin American woman, to receive the Nobel Prize.
Kalpa Imperial, by Argentinean writer Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2003). Sample chapter on the web
"The Birthday of the World," a collection of short stories (HarperCollins, 2002)

SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) 2003 Grand Master: Le Guin was the 20th recipient and only the second woman recipient (the first was Andre Norton in 1983) in the award’s 27 years.

Novelette “The Wild Girls” won the Locus Magazine award for best novelette and the Asimov’s Readers Award, and has been nominated for a Hugo award (given by the World Science Fiction Society).

2002 Pen/Malamud award for “excellence in a body of short fiction.”

2002 Endeavor Award for Tales from Earthsea (given for a distinguished science fiction or fantasy book by a Pacific Northwest author)


In January of 2003, author Ursula K. Le Guin helped inaugurate Eugene’s beautiful new public library with a reading of her recent work. It was a wonderful evening of words and ideas, set in a building where stories and storytellers can at last find room to breathe. Soon after, West By Northwest editor M.G. Hudson asked me to interview Le Guin for the magazine. This seemed particularly fitting, since Le Guin’s story anthology The Compass Rose inspired the name and logo of West By

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my great heroes of the imagination. Writers of my generation were fortunate to grow up with her books as ready exemplars of mindful, strong-minded science fiction and fantasy. It is a debt I was not even fully aware of until I embarked on this project, and realized how much of the landscape we now inhabit was terraformed by Le Guin.

Though Le Guin may be best known for her landmark novels The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and the Earthsea series, her literary accomplishments are myriad and multifarious. In addition to her many novels, novellas, and short stories, Le Guin writes children’s books, poetry, criticism, translations (ranging from South American poetry to the Tao Te Ching), and reviews; she is a frequent teacher and lecturer, and has edited several fiction collections (such as The Norton Book of Science Fiction and Nebula Award Stories XI), made audio recordings of her work, and collaborated on several music and dance productions.

Le Guin is a spinner of imagined worlds who is nonetheless deeply rooted in real places, real politics, real communities; as the West Coast is woven into the fabric of her work, so she is woven into the fabric of the West Coast. That unmistakable terrain infuses her stories, both directly (the near-future, dream-metamorphosed Portland of Lathe of Heaven, the far-future California of Always Coming Home) and in the shape of other planets, other realms.

Le Guin also remains committed to political activism in the here and now. “They don’t need guns if they own our minds,” says a character in Four Ways to Forgiveness, and Le Guin has shown equal courage in speaking out in defense of civil and artistic liberties. Her work resounds with the theme of freedom: political, social, creative, or intellectual; the freedom from our own roles and assumptions; the discovery and loss and recovery of freedom.

To that end, Le Guin uses speculative fiction as “a way of talking about the world right now, right here . . . an infinitely variable metaphor” (1) in which “thought and intuition can move freely” (2) to probe fundamental issues of gender, mind, and humanity. Rejecting critics’ efforts to pigeonhole her, Le Guin steadily produces work that leaps, merges, shifts, blurs, or flouts categories altogether. “I simply disallow the combat between mainstream and science fiction,” she says. “Writers have a right to write what they want to the way they want to, and readers will read what they want to.” (3)

The reader is vital to Le Guin, who sees writing as a collaborative act: “Readers, after all, are making the world with you. You give them the materials, but it’s the readers who build that world in their own minds.” In that spirit, she shows great faith in her creative partners. “People love strange things,” (4) she says, and a song in Always Coming Home echoes, “Please bring strange things. / Please come bringing new things.” (5) This is the alchemy at which Le Guin excels: “First to create difference—to establish strangeness—then to let the fiery arc of human emotion leap and close the gap.” (6)

Eschewing what is safe, but not devaluing what is known, Le Guin captures the familiar and the unfamiliar in their exact moment of reversal. She also displays a remarkable ability to look at her own worlds in new and unfamiliar ways—unlike many established artists who grow too comfortable tending their familiar old patch of ground. “It has to be strange country,” she says. “If I’ve been there before I don’t want to go back.” (7)

We are all wandering in strange country from the moment we pick up the page, as from the moment of our birth. But it takes courage to venture deeply and persistently into that territory. As a writer, I wanted to learn more about Le Guin’s writing process, what she calls methodically practicing irrational behavior (8): an “anti-ideological, pragmatic technique . . . not talked about in writers’ manuals.” (9) First, she says, there is composting--appropriate to the moist and fecund Northwest. “You let everything . . . sink down inside yourself and stay in the dark, and then (years later maybe) something entirely new grows up out of that rich darkness. This takes patience.” (10)

Then there is discovery--the journey into that strange country. Le Guin is emphatic on this point: “I don’t pick my books, they pick me.” (11) “I did not plan these worlds or people. I found them, gradually, piecemeal, while writing stories. I’m still finding them.” (12) “The place is there, the person is there. I didn’t invent him, I didn’t make her up: he or she is there. And my business is to get there too.” (13)

In this sense, writing is like archaeology (an analogy Le Guin used in Always Coming Home): the material, the story, is there; it exists. You find it; you mine it out; you carry it up in buckets or in teaspoons, lay it out upon the table, push around the potsherds, ponder where they fit: fragments of gold leaf, bone, corroded flesh, the rim of a cup in buff grey or brilliant green, a knot of hair and faded threads, or one exquisite glass vessel entire. . . . There is a story here, but it is up to the writer to make it whole. “Discovery is a temporal process,” writes Le Guin. “It may take years and years.” (14)

This attitude towards creation is very different from the one which writers are often advised to take if they want a successful career--this attitude of discovering, not controlling; of listening, not forcing. “Some people see art as a matter of control,” Le Guin says in her manual on writing, Steering the Craft. “I see it mostly as a matter of self-control. It’s like this: in me there’s a story that wants to be told. It is my end; I am its means. If I can keep myself, my ego, my opinions, my mental junk, out of the way, and find the focus of the story, and follow the movement of the story, the story tells itself.” (15)

Clearly Le Guin has found ways to make this approach work for her; she has eschewed formula and commercialism, and stayed true to her stories and beliefs, writing the books she wants to write instead of those urged by publishers. It implies that she has learned to deal with uncertainty in the long term--perhaps to make uncertainty her ally? I admire this, and I wanted to learn more. I wanted to hear about the mindset with which she approaches her writing, her relationship to her ideas and the process by which she accesses and makes use of them. I also wanted to learn how inner and outer states affect her writing, and vice versa. With all this in mind, I approached Le Guin, and she generously obliged me.


ELM: I suppose every interviewer must approach you with their particular agenda clutched in hand. So here’s the first question I’d like to ask: is there anything you have wished someone would ask . . . an area you have especially wanted to talk about, a kind of interview you have wanted to have?

UKL: I like to talk about craft. About issues of narrative and genre and how and why you do certain things in telling a story, or a sf story, or a realistic story, and the differences, and all that sort of thing. Explicit things, details. I like to talk about work (and read about work). I'm no good at philosophy or theory.

ELM: You speak of stories as having a life of their own, an independent existence which you tap into but do not necessarily control; thus writing is a process of discovery, as of extant people and places. Are there aspects of that process that you feel you control, or do you aim not to control--is there a certain mindset you must cultivate? What helps you do that? Do you have any particular rituals or reminders?

UKL: I think Keats defined this as "negative capability," and I think it has to do with the Buddhist image of not pushing the river and the Taoist principle of wu wei, doing by not doing.

When you're making something, a casserole or a clay pot or a book, there are aspects of it that you have to be in full control of, and then, once you know your craft through practice, there are aspects of it that it might be better not to control--to let happen. Or let not happen.

How do you know when to follow the recipe exactly and when to wing it and throw in that handful of nasturtium leaves? Luck and Experience, I guess.

The older I get (i.e. the more I have written) the more I "aim not to control," as you said--to let the story tell itself. Because when it does really get going that way, it's better than what I could have planned.

But that's storytelling. Poetry is different. The older I get the more I go back to the old structures, the forms and meters of poetry, trying to understand how they do what they do.

The mindset for writing, for me, is a silence of the mind. An unbusyness. A listening. A bit like sitting on a California hillside in the evening hoping the deer will walk by.

ELM: A lovely analogy . . . that rare, precious trust in serendipity.

UKL: It is related to trusting the I Ching: Things are related; there is a fullness of time, and what I need will come within my reach--but we cannot understand how they are related, and so waiting and being ready are of the greatest value. An alert patience.

ELM: Can you comment more specifically on which aspects you do and don’t try to control . . . or does it just depend on the project? If so, perhaps you could give examples from a specific project? (I’m not asking for a formula, just trying to better understand how this process unfolds for you.)

UKL: Well, I was thinking about the Princess Seserakh in The Other Wind. She started out as a sort of plot necessity and not much else, and I really did not think about her or plan her very much. She appeared, unseen and silent inside her red veil, and then stayed offstage, till towards the middle of the book I sent Tenar off to visit her--and Tenar and I were both very much surprised. She nearly knocks Tenar over rushing to greet her. She definitely knocked me over. From then on all I had to do was let her be who she so definitely and energetically was. And she was “right”--I mean, she had to be a person who could knock King Lebannen over too--she had to be really strong, she had to have powerful, direct emotions to get through all his defenses and reticences--and maybe she needed to be funny, too, because the book verges so near so much grief, and she needed to be beautifully young and vital, because there is so much death in the book--but it's not like I thought that out, planned it. I just grabbed it when it came by. She knocked me over, I grabbed her. One feels very grateful to a character like that.

As for letting it not happen . . . I guess an example would be The Eye of the Heron. I thought Lev was going to be a hero of nonviolent resistance. That is not what happened. He got himself dead, and Luz had to carry the book on her shoulders from there on. I had to let what I had planned to happen not happen. From then on, in fact, I had to let the book happen.

(I'm sorry to refer to these characters as if I expected the reader to know them, I don’t--but it would take pages to explain who they are, and perhaps it makes sense without knowing exactly?)

ELM: Those are fascinating examples of how the writer’s process of discovery sometimes parallels the reader’s process of discovery.

Similarly, in Always Coming Home, the character Pandora seems to articulate the anxieties that writers often feel while working on a book, but usually keep separate from the book itself. At what point did you decide to incorporate Pandora’s voice, and why?

UKL: At the point where she first speaks in her own voice. Why? I had to.

ELM: I thought it was interesting that you (or rather she?) allowed the reader to share that surprise and that journey to acceptance, rather than retroactively covering up your authorial tracks.

I’m curious about the balance or interface between this aspect of letting go, letting ideas come to you, and the discipline that is required to put an idea into concrete form and bring it to completion. Is there a point for you where discipline takes over, once the trajectory of the story is clear, or is it always an act of balancing between them?

UKL: It's a balancing act right through the story, I think, for me.

ELM: The recipe analogy is interesting, and leads me to extend the metaphor . . . The ability to improvise in cooking tends to arise from first following a lot of recipes, then going through a lot of experimentation (and, in the process, making a lot of really dreadful mistakes, as well as stumbling upon serendipity). The cook gains confidence, experience, and a sense of the underlying structure; she learns how to select her materials or work with what’s available, when to bend or break the rules, and how to express her own style within the form. Would you say that this holds true for writing?

UKL: Absolutely.

It's also the difference between the show-off cook, who has this famous recipe for something that takes five days and three bottles of capers and a pound of caviar and he serves it with a lot of fanfare and everybody says oh wow! what a chef! isn't he marvelous! but that is all he knows how to do . . . and what the Brits call "a good plain cook," meaning a cook who can take what she's given and make a good dinner of it and make good use of the left-overs next day, too, and she does it 365 days a year. I notice I have gendered these types, how insidious of me.

The genders might hold pretty commonly for cooking; not for writing, I think.

In writing, it's the difference between the formula best-seller, written to recipe, and the real novel.

ELM: ‘A cook who can take what she’s given:’ this reminds me of painter Paul Klee saying, “You adapt yourself to the contents of the paint-box.” The ability to adapt oneself to the materials is not as showy a skill, but in many ways a more impressive one, to those who know its challenges. Certainly it is very different from the mode of imposing one's will upon a piece, or assembling it to order, as if from interchangeable parts. And I suppose the story that results from adapting oneself to the materials would much resemble the sort of cooking where one starts with a recipe but lacks most of the main ingredients, and so substitutes from what's on hand, and ends up with something unexpectedly delicious which is slightly but not directly related to the recipe and probably can never be exactly duplicated! Perhaps there is always this aspect about writing that is not entirely explicable, the result that is related to but not directly derived from the inciting ideas and the materials at hand.

UKL: Exactly!

ELM: You have talked about dry times in writing, and how sometimes one must wait for the writing tank to fill. How do you deal with such fluctuations in your writing life? Have you noticed consistent cycles? What helps you get through the dry times and refill your writer’s tank?

UKL: You sit and wait and wait and wait and wait. And fret. And consult the I Ching, which tells you to wait. So you wait and wait . . .

Traveling is bad for fiction but good for poetry. That's the only cycle I have noticed.

Work always leads to work, so it's good in a dry time to have some interest to pursue, something I want to learn about (because I'm a head-worker). Like the Revolution of 1830, say. I read about it for years. Just because I liked it. I was very interested for years in sleep and dream research. In other years I read a lot of utopias, and about utopias, and about Gandhi, and about Anarchism. All those learnings, which I pursued purely because I was interested in the subject, turned into novels in the end. Learning Spanish turned into the utterly unexpected joy of translating Gabriela Mistral. The less practical reason you have to learn something the more it's likely to find its own surprising use!

ELM: I think that’s true for many artists, but it can be hard to trust it--to keep faith in intangibles--in the face of the traditional Puritan work ethic with its insistence on results. Did it take time to cultivate an acceptance that you were in fact ‘working’ during these periods, even when not demonstrably engaged in writing?

UKL: Oh, Lord, yes!

I was more fortunate than many writers in having an example of respect for the work of writing clearly set for me as a child. My father, a scholar [anthropologist Alfred Kroeber], wrote every day on one article or book or another, but it wasn't referred to as writing, it was "he's in his study." Don't bother him right now, honey, he's in his study. In an hour or so he'd be out weeding the dahlias, and fully available. The study was sacred space. What went on there was important. What he did there was mysterious, as seen through the study window. Sometimes he might be writing and sometimes he might be staring into his pipe bowl, but it was evidently all the same thing. Oh, the importance of the Room of One's Own! Even if it is a corner of the living room couch in a small college dormitory with a couple necking on the other end of the couch, as it was for me during my sophomore year. What you need is the conviction that what you are doing is of real importance, and really worth doing, and you have to do it; and that conviction creates the sacred space around you.

ELM: The writing brain does seem to annex most any available space, be it ever so bizarre . . .

In general, what feeds writing for you? Do you find you need new experiences or stimuli (such as travel or reading) in order to produce new work? Does writing crowd out other aspects of life for you . . . or open them up?

UKL: Everything feeds writing, and everything impedes it. Take children, for example. . .

Reading is always a stimulus--in the long run--to writing. I read even more than I write, and much more regularly, and more hours a day. I am a word addict.

ELM: How does the act of teaching writing affect your own writing?

UKL: Teaching [is also] often a stimulus. All the teaching I have done for a long time is writing workshops, where people write and read and critique like crazy for a week, and I get high on the collaborative energy, and often carry it away with me (as I hope the other members of the workshop do too).

ELM: Regarding the odd sorts of research writers end up needing for stories, there’s a wonderful excerpt from J. R. R. Tolkien’s diary: “Gave a poor lecture, saw the Lewises and CW for 1/2 hour; mowed 3 lawns, and wrote letter to John, and struggled with recalcitrant passage in ‘The Ring.’ At this point I require to know how much later the moon gets up each night when nearing full, and how to stew a rabbit!” What are some details that recent work required you to know? (Or does it more often go as you described above--the research leading to the story, not vice versa?)

UKL: You see? The Tolkiens' cook knew how to stew a rabbit!

Oh, there are always factlets that have to be looked up; not necessarily matters from the “real” world, either. If you have two non-existent, totally invented islands in a story and people are going to travel between them, you'd better find out or decide how far apart they are, even if they don't exist, so you know how long it will take to go from one to the other. Things like that.

And real facts. Writing Malafrena, I spent a good deal of time trying to find out how many miles a day a coach and four (on bad roads in a Central European country) would be likely to go, and how many passengers they carried, and how often they changed horses, and so on. Difficult information to come on, these days.

But these things are always fascinating, and it's a real, solid pleasure to get them right. And it's so painful when people don't bother. I have a peeve with fantasy novels and historical novels where people gallop their horse all day at top speed, and never give a thought to water, or a good feed of oats, or even taking off the saddle and bridle let alone rubbing the poor steaming wheezing creature down . . .

ELM: I share that peeve, having grown up around animals--particularly since the horses I was riding were mostly crotchety old mares who could barely be coerced to gallop for a minute, let alone all day! (And in retrospect, I don’t blame them!) I think good fiction should definitely maintain an awareness that someone has to do such tasks, even if the hero doesn’t--indeed, that someone may have sacrificed other aspects of their life (autonomy, fame) in order to do them. For instance, in Tehanu, I loved Tenar’s vexation that men fail to consider that someone must watch the children . . .

Likewise, in Rite of Passage, Alexei Panshin's protagonist wonders who takes care of all the details so the hero of a story can go be heroic: “Who buys the food and cooks it, washes the dishes, minds the baby, rubs down the horses, swabs out the guns, buries the bodies, mends the clothes, ties the rope in place so the hero can conveniently find it there to swing from, blows fanfares, polishes medals, and dies beautifully, all so that the hero can be a hero? Who finances him?”

UKL: Actually, I find this so generalised as to be a bit unfair to heroes. Check out Homer and Vergil and the Greek tragedies. Those other people doing the shitwork are there! And the heroes themselves are not Arnold Schwarzenegger louting about; they work hard at real work--and they die, beautifully or not. I think Panshin was mixing up crappy fake heroics with the real thing. There is a real thing. (And it is not necessarily gendered male.)

ELM: Still, to ask such questions surely leads to fictional worlds of greater depth and richness. Tolkien certainly addressed this aspect, by sending Sam along with Frodo to carry the rope and cook the rabbits! As Frodo himself acknowledges, he wouldn't have got far without Sam.

UKL: Nor Sam without Frodo, I think? Fair's fair, as the hobbits say.

ELM: Do you work on several different projects concurrently (as your body of work seems to indicate)? How do you pick what you’re going to work on in a given day?

UKL: No, no. I cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. I write This and then I write That, usually with a long painful interval in between.

Poems are different, they happen at their own rhythm, like dogs running alongside the big clunky prose wagon creaking along.

ELM: On a purely practical level, how do you store material and ideas for future use? (I’m interested in the actual physical tools or method--jottings on napkins? index cards? notebooks? software?)

UKL: Little bits of paper and small notebooks, occasionally larger notebooks, which become filled with little bits of paper and pages taken out of small notebooks. I love notebooks, bound ones especially. The bluegrey kind with numbered pages, I think they are for some kind of college science course. The spiralbound college-ruled 3-subject yellowish kind. And many other kinds. I hardly ever completely fill one because it is such a pleasure to start a new one, and psychologically good if it is a new project, too.

ELM: At what stages of writing do you find it useful to share your work, and with whom?

UKL: When it is done, as far as I can tell.

With my husband first. Then with my editor.

ELM: Do you find it hard to get honest, useful critiques?

UKL: No, I am just afraid of them.

ELM: What kind of feedback do you get from your editors, and has that changed over time?

UKL: I have been incredibly lucky with my editors. They have been invaluable--collaborative but never wishywashy--constructive but never interfering.

“Is Ged lecturing again?”--“Which kind of mean do you mean?”--“Grey eyes. On p. 88, has blue eyes?”-- Oh, I love my editors! What a thankless job they do! Heroes, by golly. Heroes. Bashed constantly by the dweebs in Accounting, but dauntless.

ELM: You once said, “artists are performers--they want a response.” (16) What is it like to balance that desire for response against being an introvert?

UKL: Well, sort of fun, actually. The Hermit Crab creeps out of her shell and becomes a Ham for an hour. Then returns to shell, happily, and slightly enlarged by human contact.

(N. B. Hermit crabs change to larger shells as they grow.)

ELM: You’ve also said that a story doesn’t wholly or fully exist until someone reads it. (17) When did you first realize this, and what did it change for you?

UKL: Gradually; and it eased my sense of total responsibility. --Hey, it's not all my doing, my fault, it's theirs too!

ELM: Does it matter where or by whom the story is read?

UKL: Not to me. A Reader is a Reader.

ELM: Is there greater satisfaction in a larger audience?

UKL: Well, yes, only how do you know it is a larger audience, unless we're talking a hall with actual living people there to hear you read out loud? There, a large audience is very much more satisfying and reassuring and exciting than a little, sparse one. Oh, yes.

But the “audience” for the book--the unknown, untouchable, elsewhere people who buy or borrow and read the book-- The writer knows them only as sales figures, and as correspondents.

Audience considered as sales figures: the satisfaction is the kind of satisfaction offered by capitalism: Money, and a Name, in the first place; in the long run, Financial Security or even Wealth, and Fame.

Such material rewards are irresistible, but (I think) definitely also dangerous to the spirit.

Audience considered as correspondents, people who write fan letters or talk to you at signings etc.: here the “audience” becomes real, personal, and really touches your mind and often your emotions. This is at the same time draining (because you must respond) and heartening (when they are responding from their heart to what you wrote). Exhausting as it may be, and conducive to some foolish vanity, I do not think such response is dangerous to the spirit. Because it is not a reward, but a gift. Not paid, but given.

ELM: I was thinking about the difference between publishing with a small press, and publishing with a major international publisher: the literary press might target a more specific, perhaps more relevant audience, while the big publisher would have wider distribution, plus just plain more copies, thus giving the work the potential to reach more different kinds of people (depending on how it’s marketed, of course, but at least it would be physically out there). So I wondered if you’ve ever felt much preference for one or the other for that reason, when considering the best venue for a given work . . . since, while it’s good to be well paid for one’s work, there are, as you say, also other forms of reward.

UKL: Much of my previous answer about audience applies to this choice. I don’t know that publishing with a small press actually puts the writer more in touch with the readers. The mechanism, after all, is the same, whether it’s a huge machine or a little one: the publisher is both the go-between that links writer & reader, and the thing that comes between them separating them. They meet, after all, only in the machine’s product, the printed book.

What’s nice for the writer with a good small press is working closely with the editor and having a voice in production, style, etc., which one is likely not to have with a big commercial press. But some small presses are quite standoffish and don’t want to deal with the author, while at a big house, IF your editor is cooperative and has some clout, you can have some real choice about the production, design, art, and marketing of your book.

ELM: Some of your recent writing has appeared on-line, on websites or as e-books. (18) What do you think of the internet as a venue for fiction? Have these formats worked well for you?

UKL: So far so good. It is all very new and tentative and unsettled.

ELM: Do you think the Internet is a good way for new writers to promulgate their work?

UKL: Promulgate, maybe. To whom, though? Just posting something, is that much good?

The whole struggle--since the 1820's--that gradually made it possible for writers to earn a living from their writing (including copyright, the royalty system, literary agents) and to find regular ways of getting their writing to the readers who want it (libraries, bookstores, distributors, etc.)--all that system, so laboriously worked out and so hard-earned, may be invalidated by the new technology.

That's fine. . . . so long as it's replaced by an equally sturdy system that a) allows writers to earn by writing while having freedom to write what they want to write, b) allows readers to find what they want to read when they want it.

At the moment, there's very little recompense for the writers in electronic publishing, and pretty much total chaos for the readers. I hope it works itself out into a real system soon.

ELM: Here's a genre question: at present, editors and publishers often stress that fantasy writers should use a system of magic in which there are rules, consequences, consistent cause-and-effect relationships. Contrarily, young adult fantasy writer Garth Nix writes that “Explained magic becomes technology, like a light switch, and it's not interesting anymore.” (19) The insistence on systematic magic seems to blur the distinction between fantasy and science fiction somewhat. In fantasy, practitioners of magic may use cause-and-effect relationships without understanding how or why they work; similarly, science fiction routinely uses devices or principles that our present science can't prove or explain, such as telepathy and faster-than-light travel. At what point does fantasy with systematic magic simply become science fiction in which the mechanism is not fully understood (either by the character or the writer)? How might one avoid the ‘light switch syndrome’ yet still create a magic with internal plausibility--a magic that is integral yet not slavishly consistent?

UKL: I may be partly responsible for the stress on consistency in magic. I certainly have written a good deal about the need for an invented world or process of any kind to be consistent with itself, and the danger of changing the rules in the middle of the game, or trying to play a game with no rules but those of wishful thinking. (Like the games you play with very small children, who tell you, “Now, I can move those pieces ANYWHERE but you can't move ANY of them.” Even the kid gets bored pretty soon!)

This inner coherence or consistency really has nothing to do with “explaining” magic. I honestly don't know how one could explain magic. I know the rules for doing magic in Earthsea, but I can’t “explain” them.

As for science fiction, I could easily explain the rules for working a lightswitch, but can I explain electricity? Possibly, in part, if I did a good deal of research. But how many of us actually know how our refrigerator keeps things cold? Science fiction has a whole lot of leeway to play in--we use our technology without any idea of how it works; we all throw around words like “electricity” and “gravity” and “black holes” and “mind,” but have only the vaguest concept of what they are and how they work. So the sf writer can easily and quite legitimately extend the imagination beyond what is (as [sf writer] S. R. Delaney elegantly put it) “known to be known.” That is the novelist’s privilege.

ELM: Your work often explores the use or misuse of power and the perils of authoritarian government.

UKL: Right from the start. Malafrena was not my first published novel, but its first drafts are earlier than any of my published work. It is about the Revolution of 1830, an uprising against authoritarian government that took place here and there all over Europe.

ELM: Have recent political events affected themes you are drawn to, made you feel a need to revisit or re-envision certain points?

UKL: The Telling is a response both to Mao Tse-tung's suppression of the Taoist religion in China, and to the incursion of fundamentalist religion into politics all over the world, which of course I know best in its Christian American incarnation.

ELM: You’ve written some powerful poems about the war (and undeclared war) in Iraq. Have you been doing any other writing in response to such events?

UKL: I try. Most of it is no good.

ELM: I’ve read that last December you were part of a writers’ and artists’ anti-war delegation to Oregon congressman David Wu, and in April participated in a protest against the USA Patriot Act. Were there ever any responses to those protests, beyond the initial news coverage?

UKL: The response to such protests, to demonstrations and vigils, is mostly invisible and usually pretty slow-moving. We learned that, all the years demonstrating for civil rights and against atomic bomb tests and against the war in Viet Nam. If you want an immediate response you throw a stone. Civil disobedience may be the only way to address an urgent wrong, but it is likely to backfire and cause dismay and disaffection among the very people you are trying to win over. Walking and standing are awfully, awfully slow. You feel like a fool standing there with your sign saying Bush Lied, and people go by in cars yelling things like "Why do you hate America?" that they learned from Rush Limbaugh. But you go on standing there. It worked before. It will work again.

ELM: What do you see as the relation between art and activism? For you, do the goals or roles of artist and activist sometimes come into conflict?

UKL: Oh Lord, I have been struggling with this question since I was seventeen! I have lived my whole writing life between the long horns of that dilemma.

Art that preaches or teaches overtly is lessened by the sermon and the lecture; art in the service of an ideology is a servant not a free creature; the artist must assert unconditional freedom of choice and follow thought and passion, not obeying any outer control or conforming to other people's standards: but art is a social act, and its social function is to affirm community--the human community, and the wider household of being. Paradox, incompatibility, dilemma. So I live there.

ELM: What are some changes that you have observed in your writing in recent years--what you want to write, and how you write about it? What other themes are on your mind right now? Are there territories, directions you particularly hope to explore next; have you ‘always wanted to write a book in which . . .’?

UKL: I never can look ahead. I always want to write a book in which, but often I can't!

ELM: The Other Windexplores a change in Earthsea’s attitudes towards death. Did this rise from or cause changes in your own attitude towards death?

UKL: Well, probably. As one gets over seventy one tends to feel less that dying is something other people do. But I have (like most writers) always written about death. If there was a change in me, you can see it happening back in The Farthest Shore, where Ged tries to tell Arren what he thinks death is. From what he says there, clearly one can see something wrong or perverse about the sterile, endless afterlife “across the wall.” What it is that went wrong and how, I didn't know till I got to the last two books.

ELM: On your website, you offer some helpful advice to young writers. Is there advice you wish you'd had when you were starting--or not had?

UKL: I wish people hadn't always told me to “write about what you know about.” It is good advice when it means that a kid who has never been out of Fresno probably had better not set her novel in New York City, or a white writer had better be really really careful about writing in the voice of a person of color. Beyond that limited use, Write What You Know About is nonsense. What does “know about” mean? Where does the imagination come into fiction? What did I know about the Revolution of 1830? A good deal, actually, but all through books, of course, how else can you know anything about history? Was I supposed to limit my invention to what I had actually experienced? Had I ever met a dragon?

ELM: Do you have any teaching engagements next year?

UKL: No, I am being extremely lazy.

ELM: Is there any other information you’d like us to post, such as upcoming books or appearances?

UKL: I have spent much of the summer and fall reading for the Arbuthnot Lecture to the American Library Association meeting in Phoenix next spring; it is an annual talk on children’s lit, with an appallingly distinguished list of previous lecturers, which I follow with terror. But I've had a ball reading for it, because I'm talking about critterlit--animals in kiddilit--so I got to reread Bambi and Black Beauty and Smoky and The Wind in the Willows, The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book and Mrs. Frisby and Charlotte's Web. . . . some of them after a lapse of sixty years. . . .

I would like to mention my translation of Gabriela Mistral's poems, Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, which came out in September from the University of New Mexico press, beautifully produced. This was the result of many years’ work, which is to say joy. I fell in love with Mistral, and the translation is the lovechild. She was a Chilean, who won the Nobel prize long before [Chilean poet Pablo] Neruda did, but has been eclipsed perhaps by his fame, certainly by the conventional critical diminishment of women writers. (Who ISN'T afraid of Virginia Woolf?) Mistral is really strange, and powerful, and wonderful, and there is no other poet like her. If my translation can help get her work known at last here, I will rejoice.


(1) “a way of talking about the world”: interview in At the Field’s End: Interviews with Twenty Northwest Writers, ed. Nicholas O’Connell (Seattle: Madrona Publishers, 1987)

(2) “thought and intuition can move freely”: author’s foreword to The Left Hand of Darkness

(3) “Writers have a right”: Locus Magazine interview, May 1993

(4) “Readers, after all, are making the world” and “People love strange things”: At the Field’s End

(5) “Please bring strange things”: Always Coming Home (Harper & Row 1985), p. 404, “Initiation Song from the Finders Lodge”

(6) “First to create difference”: author’s foreword to The Birthday of the World (HarperCollins 2002)

(7) “It has to be strange country”: At the Field’s End

(8) “methodically practicing”: from “Some Thoughts on Narrative,” p. 40, in Dancing at the Edge of the World (New York: Harper & Row, 1989)

(9) “anti-ideological”: Dreams Must Explain Themselves (New York: ALGOL Press, 1975)

(10) “You let everything sink down”: FAQ on

(11) “I don’t pick my books”: Hour 25 interview September 29, 2000: see

(12) “I did not plan”: author’s foreword to The Birthday of the World

(13) “The place is there”: The Language of the Night (HarperCollins, 1992)

(14) “Discovery”: Dreams Must Explain Themselves

(15) “Some people see art”: Steering the Craft (Eighth Mountain, 1998)

(16) “artists are performers”: At the Field’s End

(17) a story doesn’t wholly or fully exist: Hour 25 interview October 14, 2001; “Where do you get your ideas from?” in Dancing at the Edge of the World, and other places.

(18) Le Guin’s writing online: a list appears at

(19) “Explained magic”: Garth Nix interview, Locus Magazine January 2003

Further reading and links

For those interested in learning more about Le Guin, her work, and her upcoming projects, I highly recommend her website which contains a full bibliography, many wonderful articles by Le Guin and others, and many links to reviews, interviews, books, and related items of interest.

Some other sites with large collections of Le Guin links:

www.hour25online.comhas an incredible audio archive of interviews with various luminaries of science fiction, including three interviews with Le Guin.

Locus Magazine, a periodical dedicated to “news, reviews, resources and perspectives of science fiction, fantasy, and horror,” has done many interviews with Le Guin, as well as reviews of her books. See www.locusmag.comfor more information (including archives).

For more information about the Patriot Act protest and the artists’ and writers’ petition, and to add your name to the petition:



“Science Fiction writers have a special interest in the future and the US policy on Iraq is putting our future at risk.” -Douglas Lain, petition co-writer
“I think we have a responsibility to freedom.” -Ursula K. Le Guin

Two of Le Guin’s poems about the war appear at:

Various non-fiction books have been written about Le Guin and her work (for a more complete list, see her website). They include:

Cummins, Elisabeth: Understanding Ursula K. Le Guin, University of South Carolina Press, 1990, rev. ed. 1993. (includes extensive bibliography of works by and about Le Guin)

Bittner, James: Approaches to the Fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, UMI Research Press, 1984.

Bucknall, B. J.: Ursula K. Le Guin, Ungar, 1981.

Spivack, Charlotte: Ursula K. Le Guin, Twayne, 1984.


Erika Milo is a writer and artist who is fascinated by life’s many linkages. A Eugene native with a deep love of the Northwest, she has also always loved reading, loved words, loved sentences. She sells art supplies, moonlights as a theater costumer and dresser, and studies and teaches historic crafts. She is a proud member of the Tea Drinking Writers of Eugene.

A narrative essay by Erika Milo, “A List of Some Things Collected—Pennies, String, Sealing Wax” can be found on this website in two parts:

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