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Steering Her Craft: An Interview with Ursula Le Guin
by Faith Justice

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Famed author Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those people "born to write." The daughter of an anthropologist and a writer, she wrote poetry and fiction seemingly from the moment she picked up a pencil. At the tender age of eleven, Le Guin submitted a time travel story to Astounding Stories. It was rejected. Since then, she's published over a hundred short stories, two collections of essays, eleven books for children, five volumes of poetry, seventeen novels and two volumes of translation.

Such a prolific career did not go unrewarded. Le Guin won five Hugos, five Nebulas, the Kafka Award, and a Pushcart Prize among many others. To fantasy and SF readers, she's best known for the Books of Earthsea and her Hainish novels, including the acclaimed The Left Hand of Darkness and her most recent the telling.

Talking to Le Guin, you get the feeling she approaches writing as a mystical experience, saying such things as "I have no idea what book I might write next and I have no wish to know." This "waiting for the muse to strike" refers to the inspiration for her stories. There's nothing magical about the way she approaches her art. Her lyric prose and distinctive style are rooted in a love of the language and meticulous attention to the writing craft. In her advice book Steering the Craft, she covers such basics as punctuation, sentence structure, voice, and point of view in her own unique way. She provides commentary, gives examples, and suggests exercises such as writing without adverbs or adjectives (titled "Chastity") and cutting an earlier piece in half ("A Terrible Thing to Do").

Anyone who's read Ms. Le Guin's work will appreciate the way she veers from the traditional view of story as a result of conflict. She asserts that change is just as likely a result of, "relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting." Her stories reflect that emotionally based sentiment.

Ms. Le Guin talked to me about writing science fiction, her advice to new writers, and the influences on her own work from her home in Portland, Oregon.

You've said that science fiction as literature allows us to think through alternatives. How do you do that in your writing?

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. I fool around with gender roles in The Left Hand of Darkness and Sutty has a lesbian relationship in the telling. There is a sort of attitude "we don't have to do it this way!" It opens some doors that have been shut.

I have to admit to a certain amount of calculation here. If you look at my books, you'll find that most of my central characters are people of color. You don't notice it particularly and you don't see it on the cover. They refuse to put people of color on book jackets because they don't sell. But I've always done that deliberately because most of the people of the world aren't white. Why in the future would we assume they are? 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.

Some authors emphasize the "science" in science fiction or write about aliens, but you use human experience and emotion as the basis of your stories.

All I know how to write about are people and animals. There are a lot of animals in my works - and trees. Still, nothing alien. I'm using the other worlds and the other races as metaphors. For example, I discovered something very shocking to me. In China they've been practicing something like Taoism - a very popular religion - for two or three thousand years and apparently it had been nearly wiped out in only twenty years under Mao. This whole thing haunted my imagination and I thought "I've got to write something about this, but I don't know anything about China." I had to put it in metaphorical terms. I had to invent a world where there had been an old popular religion and suddenly a new political regime comes in and sees this as a big enemy to progress and tries to stamp it out. And in this I drop Sutty, an observer from another kind of world where religion is dominant to the point of being stifling. It was a difficult book to write. I was involved with it in complicated ways and the subject troubled me.

Do you map out your writing projects ahead of time?

No, I have lots of good intentions, but no control over my writing. When I got started on the telling, I thought it would be a novella, but it wanted to be a novel. It wouldn't go right until I got Sutty right. I didn't know who she was for a long time. When Sutty suddenly came to me and found her voice, then I could tell the story. I had to see it through her eyes. I'm working on another Earthsea book now and I thought I had come to the end of that story. That's what I mean by no control.

I've had a number of people tell me how much your stories have influenced their lives. Does that knowledge affect your writing?

Actually nothing affects me when I'm writing. I am just trying to do the story. Teenagers have told me that I got them through a bad year. Boy, it makes you feel fairly humble and a little scared when you realize you influence people when you tell a story. You have to take seriously the fact that you may change a life. And there are ethical questions when you're writing for kids. You really have to stand back from the work and say "Look, could this scare an eight-year-old? Could it do any harm?"

What advice do you have for new writers?

To read and to write. Some writers have to be told to write. They think their job is to meet agents and have experiences and they can just be rich and famous. Their job is to write. Some really don't realize that. And you can't write unless you read.

Who do recommend they read?

In science fiction? Oh, my, there are so many kinds! Just read around and find the people you like. Some people want to write cyberpunk, others are more literary.

Who are the writers who've influenced you the most?

Oh God! Practically everybody that ever wrote a novel that I read and a lot of poets, too. When I'm cornered, I say one of the long-term major influences on my work is Virginia Woolf. She just has a lot of stuff that's incredibly fruitful for me. What I like is a good book. It doesn't matter whether it's fantasy or science fiction or War and Peace; things move, things change, you're changed at the end of it as a reader. You've been taken somewhere and shown something.

Copyright © 2000 Faith Justice
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Faith Justice has published numerous science fiction and fantasy short stories, poems, and reviews. She's a founding member of a New York writer's group CITH and recently completed a historical novel. She lives in New York with her husband and daughter. Find out more at her website: http://faithljustice.com/.


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