from 2001 Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin
by Philip Martin
[Ursula K. Le Guin was major influence in my own path to reading fantasy, primarily her brilliant Earthsea books, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea, a story of a school for young magicians long predating the Harry Potter series. I always saw her, with some native pride, as eminently American, a voice (along with Peter Beagle) for the writing of literary fantasy that could withstand the test of time, whose work could measure up to the British masters J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others.
In this interview, we discussed some aspects of her writing process, including her strong sense of place, a subject dear to my heart.
Le Guin, who passed away Jan. 22, 2018, was also an insightful writer on the topic of narrative, story, and meaning in literature. I’ve quoted her often in my teaching of the writing process, where she especially influenced my perspective that great writing is more story than plot. As Ursula K. Le Guin noted in her book of advice for writers, Steering the Craft, plot is not the same as story. “Plot is merely one way of telling a story, by connecting the happenings tightly, usually through causal chains. Plot is a marvelous device. But it’s not superior to story, and not even necessary to it.” She also wrote:
“Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.”
Her passing is sad, but she left such a lovely, thoughtful, groundbreaking canon of books. It proves the value of literature, that such writing can be shared over great distances, and even beyond the life of a writer, to influence us, one by one, as we read.
On to the interview, which I conducted by phone:]
Martin: I wanted to talk to you especially about writing Earthsea. My first question is what drew you back to that world, years after writing Tehanu, which you called at the time the “last” book of Earthsea?
Le Guin: Well, when I finished Tehanu, I really thought I’d probably come to the end of the story. And I had in many ways. I got them together and so on. But, I did leave a big unanswered question at the end of the book: who is the child Tehanu, who or what is she? The dragon [Kalessin] has called her “daughter.” What does that mean? So there were a lot of questions hanging. At the time I thought, well, that’s alright, you don’t have to answer all the questions at the end of a book.
But as time went on through the ’90s, I kept thinking about Earthsea, and I found myself going back in its history to find out some questions that puzzled me about the way things are in that place.
For instance, like why aren’t women allowed to be mages; why can they only be witches, and despised for it? Things like that. So I questioned why was it the way it was—and what was going to happen next?
And I began getting answers. In other words, I began getting stories.
So those became the collection, Tales from Earthsea. And the last one of them, “Dragonfly,” leads right into the new novel, The Other Wind. It’s answering that series of questions.
You know, it’s like exploring a country. You’ve been over this mountain range, but there’s another one. You want to go see what that one looks like. And to discover the country in between. And—well, of course, nobody really can do but me. That’s another thing—to have this feeling of, well, it’s up to me.
Martin: A feeling of obligation?
Le Guin: I think responsibility might be the word. Of course, I have gotten a good deal of feedback on the Earthsea books. People really did want to know what happened after Tehanu. In fantasy, the readers—both children and adults—want to know things. And they are not shy about asking what they want to know.
Martin: How you go about it? Things start in your imagination somehow, and then they become some kind of story, and then you start to link these together…..
Le Guin: A lot of the linkage takes place subconsciously. Well, some of it, you have to sit and figure out. It’s a hard question to answer, because I never understood the processes of making a story. But, you sort of see where the story’s going in a general way. Once again I’ll use the landscape metaphor—it’s like you’re standing on a hill and you can see some of the country ahead. You don’t know exactly how you’re going to get where you’re going. And you might not be all that sure of exactly where you’re going. But you have a some sort of general map in mind.
So what I’ve done with these later stories is—well, with all of them really—is just plunge in and find out what is going on.
Of course, soon the characters begin to lead you. You have to find out what they say and what they do, and let them do it. You can’t push them around. You can’t be in total control—or else you’ll lose that input from your own unconscious, which comes through the characters.
Martin: Jane Yolen says she writes stories to find out what happens.
Le Guin: Tolkien said he wrote the whole Lord of the Rings because nobody else would. It’s a wonderful reason. You write a book that you want to read.
Martin: I was reading your story, “The Bones of the Earth,” and in it, the mage talks about standing on the island of Gont and imagining the deep, physical roots of the island, and he realizes that all the islands of Earthsea are connected, far under the water. Which is a very striking image for the writing of Earthsea, because you’ve got a series of stories and books with a lot of deep connections.
Le Guin: Yes. And the sea is what connects the islands—and the sea is what separates them. Both.
Martin: And it’s still very mysterious to people. The connections aren’t always as obvious as with some writers—as linear, that is. Some writers just map everything out from the beginning and lay it out and there it is.
Le Guin: No, a lot of the connections in all my work remain mysterious to me. Sometimes I see them explained by an intelligent, sensitive critic, and I say, “Oh, wow, is that what I was doing?’ I really think that’s a very common experience for writers.
Our business really is not that. We aren’t critics. We’re storytellers. So our business is just to get the story right. And in a sense, the intellectual connections are such that we don’t have to make them if we’ve made the emotional ones.
And if the place is coherent. That sort of a touchstone word in fantasy, isn’t it? The fantasy world, no matter how large or how small, has to be internally coherent. It can’t contradict itself. It can contradict the real world, happily! But it has to follow its own rules. Be consistent.
Martin: I hear you mention the word ‘true’ in the sense of stories being true. Do you mean true to their own fantasy—or do you mean true in a larger sense?
Le Guin: Yes, partly, “true” in the senses of being consistent and coherent—true to themselves. And if you start a moral question or an emotional problem—following it through. Not just slapping an easy answer on to it. But to follow through. In other words, that they are morally and emotionally true or valid. True to human experience. Even if the stories are extremely fantastic.
Martin: Where does Earthsea come from? From inside you or is it something that’s out there beyond you … ?
Le Guin: To me, Earthsea is something that when I look wherever it is you look when you’re writing a story, that’s one of the landscapes I see. So it must be partly a map of me. But it seems—I feel more as if I just went there, rather than it was me. It’s more like I was a traveler in that country, finding out things and observing.
Martin: So when you write, how do you put yourself then in that frame of mind that you see or find Earthsea?
Le Guin: Well, one thing that many people can relate to, including a lot of kids, is this:
One of the first things I did when I wrote the very first story about Earthsea which was published long ago—let’s see, is that “The Rule of Names” or “The Word of Unbinding”? Whichever one came first. Anyway, there were two small stories that came long before the Earthsea books.
And when I was writing one of those stories, I drew a map of this place with all these islands. And that was the beginning. And you know an awful lot of kids draw maps of imaginary places. And some grownups go right on doing it.
Martin: We might have to use the term “so-called” grownups.
Le Guin: [laughs] Well, that’s alright. But look at Tolkien, he was pretty grownup. And he drew very careful maps all his life, right? And made up languages too.
Sometimes when I’m lecturing, I ask “How many people here drew maps of imaginary countries when they were little?” and sometimes more than half of the people put their hands up. This is a way of somehow exploring a part of yourself, I guess.
Martin: I wanted to talk a little bit more about “The Bones of the Earth.” A wonderful story—I really enjoyed how you mixed the everyday, the mundane chores, with the huge, cataclysmic, big event of the earthquake. That story is as much about gathering eggs as about earthquakes.
Le Guin: Well, it seems to be important to me to keep my wizards and witches grounded in ordinary life—just the kind of really gritty, plain things that people have to do to make a living in most places, most times. I don’t know why that is. I couldn’t give you a simple answer why that’s important to me, but it has been right from the start.
Ged starts out as a goat herd, you know, in a really poor little village. So the whole wizardry—and all the magic and the beauty and glory of the magic they can do—grows out of this very gritty, ordinary ground. It just makes it real to me, I guess.
Martin: That story is literally about mud.
Le Guin: There’s a lot about mud in that story. He has to walk right into the mud and then he has to go right into the ground. Yes, so that one takes you back down to the ground.
Martin: It has a beautiful image at the end where the mage Ogion lies down on the ground and weeps. And he makes little more mud.
Le Guin: Yes, yes. Now you see, he just did that, I didn’t think that up. I swear I didn’t. He just did it.
Martin: So that all just happens?
Le Guin: When the story’s carrying you, like then, yes, it’s like riding a horse or a ship or something. It takes you where you need to go. And that is such a wonderful feeling.
Martin: It’s like athletes who train, or musicians—after a while their bodies know just what to do without thinking about it consciously. I play the fiddle, and I can play a tune not thinking about it—my fingers seem to know what to do. I can watch them in amazement.
Le Guin: Yes, I have a daughter who’s a cellist. And I often use that analogy with young writers, who say “Well, what do I do to be a writer?’ And I say, well, you write.
And before you write, you learn your language, the way a musician learns the notes and the chords and so on. You learn grammar and syntax and the rules of your language. And some of them kind of look real crestfallen [laughs]—“Oh, we thought you became famous instantly.”
But practice of an art means mostly practice, doesn’t it?
Martin: For a story like “The Bones…,” do you contemplate specific themes or images—like mud, for instance—before you start?
Le Guin: No, those themes and motifs just begin to show up in the story. Often they are the part that comes without my even noticing them. Until somewhere along in the story, I’m looking ahead, or I’m casting back and revising a little and I say, “hey, look at that—look at that mud. That belongs here!” Then I might be a little bit more conscious about it. It’s mostly in revision, I think, that those repeated motifs, in the musical sense, get heightened and brought out a little.
Martin: That really became a story about friendship. It’s almost like the earthquake is, well, not really incidental, but it happens and is over in a few paragraphs.
Le Guin: Yeah, well, I’m not very much of an action writer. I’m a relationship writer. So it’s the relationship between the mage Dolce and his student Ogion. And also, the almost untold relationship between Dulce and his teacher, who was a woman, curiously.
So there’s a relationship and a shadow of the relationship. And then, of course, those who know the first book of Earthsea know that Ogion is Ged’s teacher. So there’s a shadow going forward as well. So I’ve got three relationships there.
Martin: I also think of your stories being very much about a sense of place. What can you tell me about that?
Le Guin: Yes, it’s very strong in my stories. A lot of my stories really start with the discovery of a place—and who lives there. That’s how the The Tombs of Atuan began. I took a three-day trip, my first trip, into the Oregon high desert. I’d never seen country like that or anything remotely like it in my life. And I came back knowing that I had to write a book about it. And the place then sort of gave me the people. How that happens though, I don’t know what to say.
Martin: I think then it must be, well, it’s what starts you.
Le Guin: Yes. I respond intensely to place and the mood of a place and the atmosphere of places and so on. After all, place has something to do with community often and therefore with people really understanding each other. But there is a magic of place that I think many, many people feel. That’s why so many people really want to go see Stonehenge or whatever. Because there is something about the place.
Martin: At the same time, at least in non-native culture, place is often undervalued in America. I think people don’t realize how much place has created them, and their character.
Le Guin: No. Of course, we were sort of a people born on the run. We’re getting away from here, and we’re going to keep moving west. It may not be entirely accidental that I am a child of California and Oregon. You can’t go any farther west. But it was a pretty good place to settle. I feel very deeply and very strongly connected to California and Oregon. I’m really rooted here. And that has increased during my life rather than lessened.
Martin: Growing up in your family, with your parents’ interest in traditions and native ways, was that as strong an influence as it seems to be in your work?
Le Guin: Oh, it must have been. It was a good childhood for a writer. There were books all over the house, and people talking about books, and people telling stories orally. And my father talking to Indian friends who were telling him stories, so they could be preserved—this whole atmosphere of respect for story, for the word—my life was full of it. It was a good start for me—seeing this commitment to bearing witness, in a way, to the native cultures of the region. These people lived, and this is how they lived, and the only way we have to save that, really, has been words.
Martin: And in the case of Ishi, that eventually was all that was left.
Le Guin: That’s right. It is all that is left now of a great many Californian people who my father knew. He knew many members of people who now, literally—they’re all gone. When he got here in 1900, he saw that happening.
But, too often people today are content to think, oh, the old poor Indians, they’re all gone. Well, they’re not. Some peoples are, but the Indians are here and they are more here than ever. And anyone who laments the passing of the Indians—nonsense. They’re a very powerful, vital part of American society.
But their languages are in great peril. Most languages with less than millions of speakers are in peril. We’re losing languages is just as bad as we are losing species.
Martin: Yes, exactly. Speaking of small languages—did you read Tolkien at an early age?
Le Guin: Well, I was born in 1929, and he hadn’t been published yet. I didn’t read him until the ’50s, so I was well in my thirties. And I was just—oh, man! I was bowled over. But I was glad that I hadn’t read him as a child because he probably would have had such an overwhelming influence on me. I had already begun finding my own voice, you know, so that he didn’t just blow me out of the water the way he might have done.
Martin: When I think of The Hobbit, I often think about the subtitle: There and Back Again. I just love that phrase.
Le Guin: That phrase, There and Back Again, does really describe Tolkien’s writing, which is highly rhythmical. It’s there and then back, like a pendulum beat. It’s moving, you’re going forward. It’s a walking beat, that’s what it is. It’s a marvelous phrase about his own work.
And his journeys are always spirals. You do end up back home. But of course home is different from what it was. Yes, you come back, but hopefully it’s not just a closed circle, but sort of a spiral. You’re coming back on a different level—to a somewhat changed place.
In one of my books, somebody says the important thing about life is coming home, as long as you understand that home isn’t a place you ever saw before! It’s a little bit like Heraclites saying you cannot step twice into the same river.
For instance, in The Lord of the Rings, when they get home, things have spiraled down badly in the shire. And it takes a lot of hard, gritty work to restore it to anything like what is was.
Martin: So you have returned yourself, to writing about Earthsea.
Le Guin: Because of unanswered questions. And curiosity about relationships. And about characters. I was curious, before I started writing The Other Wind, about what is happening to the young King. Being king is kind of tough on people. It tends to change their characters. So how’s he doing? It was very interesting to find out.
Martin: How much of this interest comes from your readers?
Le Guin: What’s useful to me, I have to say, is their encouragement. To know that people love the stories—that they read their own lives into the stories in different ways. Whether or not they read the book the way I intended—whether or not it means to them what it means to me—really doesn’t matter so long as they find it nourishing. And when they tell me about it—there’s just no doubt about that feedback from the audience keeps an artist happy and working.
And so many writers get so little feedback. That’s one nice thing about writing science fiction and fantasy is that you have these active, verbal people reading you who are very likely to write you a letter. People responding—telling you what they think about what you said. That’s really cool.
Martin: Why is that?
Le Guin: It’s partly because this is genre fiction—and people aren’t afraid to do it. People are afraid to write the great [“literary”] authors because they seem, you know, they’re big names with much critical applause and stuff like that.
But we who write in genres like fantasy and science fiction, we’re not set apart in peoples’ minds by academic barriers. And there is a real community of people who love fantasy and science fiction. They tend to write each other mostly, but they also write their authors and keep in touch with them.
And particularly for a young writer who doesn’t know whether anybody’s ever going to listen to what they write—to get this kind of feedback can just be incredibly encouraging and decisive.
Unfortunately, science fiction and fantasy mostly just don’t get as much academic attention. In academe, there’s still a lot of English professors who just cannot admit that Tolkien is one of the great writers of the 20th century. They just can’t. They never will. They just haven’t learned how to read him.
Fantasy and science fiction were cut out of respectability long ago, early in the century, in English literature—not in French though. And they haven’t really got back in yet, although there’s now a lot of good people teaching fantasy and science fiction in the colleges.
When I teach workshops in writing, I often do teach only fantasy and science fiction, partly because for a new writer, you can get published. And the other thing is that there is a community that you can enter in these fields which can be very, very useful to a young writer. You meet other writers and you meet your readers. Maybe just electronically or by letter, but maybe also face to face. And I think this is healthy for artists.
Martin: So after The Other Wind, are you thinking about coming projects? Or are you taking a break?
Le Guin: I’m doing what I do between projects—which is worry. You know, I never know what’s going to happen next. And the only way I can arrive at it is to worry my way to it. So, that’s what I’m doing now.
A lot of writers say they hate writing. I love writing. What I hate is not writing. All the time you have to wait between stories and books—and you do. You just can’t do it all the time. Most of us can’t.
So in between—yes, this is when you worry. “Am I going to write something?”
“What’s it going to be?”
“Have I gone dry?”
“Should I do this, should I do that?”
So I worry. Except when I’m writing. Then I know what I’m doing. So then I’m happy.
Philip Martin is an award-winning author and editor of many books for adults and young readers. A past acquisitions editor for The Writer Books, he is also the author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature, The Purpose of Fantasy, and a number of books of advice for authors, including How To Write Your Best Story. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he directs Great Lakes Literary, offering support services for emerging writers.