Ursula K. Le Guin is the author of innumerable SF and fantasy classics, such as The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Dispossessed, and A Wizard of Earthsea (and the others in the Earthsea Cycle). She has been named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and is the winner of five Hugos, six Nebulas, two World Fantasy Awards, and twenty Locus Awards. She’s also a winner of the Newbery Medal, The National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, and was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
It’s been reported that some of the protestors at Occupy Oakland have been carrying shields in the image of books, including your novel The Dispossessed. How do you feel about that?
Terrific. I am proud and happy that a book—and actually a book printed quite a long time ago now—is still making some waves and being of some use to people thinking about this stuff.
Did you write any of those books intending to inspire action, or was it purely artistic?
I do try to separate my personal activism—showing up at a demonstration or something—from what I write. I don’t write tracts, I write novels. I’m not a preacher, I’m a fiction writer. I get a lot of moral guidance from reading novels, so I guess I expect my novels to offer some moral guidance, but they’re not blueprints for action, ever.
In 2008 you wrote an article in Harper’s called “Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading” in which you lamented corporate control of publishing. Have things changed at all—for better or worse—since you wrote that article?
I think they’ve gone downhill. I mean, I think corporate control has just increased as publishing goes into terminal panic about how to handle e-publishing. Maybe this is the dark part of the tunnel and we are going to figure out how to do it, and how to pay writers some kind of decent return for their writing, but at the moment—I don’t teach writing classes anymore, and I’m really glad I don’t, because I would feel very strange about telling people, “Go out there and be a writer, and make a living from it.” I mean, ha. The writers and the editors are very, very low on the totem pole in the world of corporate publishing, and I don’t think it’s very good for books, and I know it isn’t very good for what writers have to buy their peanut butter.
A few years ago, you resigned from the Authors Guild over their settlement with Google. Could you talk about that?
That was over the Google settlement, which appeared to be in many ways a wrong-headed and unjust settlement with Google, who was doing—and is continuing to do—a tremendous rip-off job of printing copyrighted material without asking or obtaining permission, and the Authors Guild seemed to be settling, saying, “Well, all right. You’re so big, and we’re so little. I don’t know.” So I was indignant, and I withdrew, and it made a much bigger stink than I expected it to. The Authors Guild had never really noticed me for about 35 years, but they noticed when I dropped out, and a lot of other people did too, and so I found myself helping along an anti-Google protest movement by writers—and readers—but mostly by professional writers—people who make their living from writing. And I was pretty well out of my depth in many ways, because it’s a terrifically complicated issue, but there were many very smart people and lawyers and such helping. And so we did get a protest movement going, and we were able to write Judge Chin, who was arbitrating the case, and I think make some points which persuaded him to judge as he did. So I found myself an activist where I never expected to be one.
You’ve expressed disappointment with some of the film and TV adaptations of your work. When it comes to adaptations, do you have any advice that you’d pass along to other writers?
Don’t believe what the people in Hollywood say! [laughs] Do not believe these people, these people do not speak truly. They tell you that they admire your work so much, and you’re going to have all the input over it and so on. Forget it. You don’t have artistic control. Nobody but Rowling ever got artistic control over a film made from their work, and she got it because she’s so wealthy. You’re not going to get it. Therefore you have to think: Do you mind if they make a travesty out of your work? Is the money worth it to you? If it is, go for it. Take the money and run, as whoever it was said. If it’s not worth it to you, just run away.
So, in retrospect, would you say it wasn’t worth it to you? Like, do you wish you hadn’t allowed the SyFy Channel adaptation of Earthsea?
Oh yeah, I very much wish I’d trusted my instincts, which said, “Don’t trust these guys. They have no respect for the work or for you, and they’re just going to make a mess out of it,”—which they did, turning everybody white, dipping them in the bleach, and so on. The one movie that I’m really glad I made that I’m still kind of proud of is the 1980 film of The Lathe of Heaven, in which I did play as much part as I wanted to—I couldn’t actually very much at the time, but that’s a good movie still, it still holds up. There was a pointless, meaningless remake of it that died almost instantly. One of the weirdest things about movie people is that they always want to remake everything. It must be easier somehow. But they keep coming with requests over and over—they talk about Earthsea and they talk about The Lathe of Heaven, as if I hadn’t written anything else. Maybe they don’t read. Maybe they just look at other people’s movies and think, “Oh, I could do that.”
Are there any other recent or upcoming adaptations of your work?
We’ve got a lot of requests on hand. Some of them do look rather promising and serious, but I can’t talk about them.
Wasn’t there a recent theatrical production of The Lathe of Heaven?
Yeah, in New York. Edward Einhorn did it. It was at a venue in the Village, I think. I’ve seen a little handheld video of it, and it looks really interesting. He did it with just four actors and really no set, but using projection slides, which is a lovely way to do fantasy on stage. And there was an opera this spring of my “Paradises Lost,” which is a novella, and it was made into a very beautiful opera, which they produced at the University of Illinois, and which I hope gets picked up by other opera companies, because it is really kind of cool. I think I do better on stage maybe than on film—on average—so far.
There’s been a large amount of academic criticism devoted to your work. Do you ever read any of that, and is there any that you think is particularly noteworthy?
Well, I read some of it. A lot of it’s kind of written for other academics, you know? But there are certain writers, like Brian Attebery or Jim Bittner, who I think really understand my work, and sometimes can explain it to me. “Oh, is that what I was doing? Hmm, never thought of that,” you know.
In the book reviews you write in The Guardian, you sometimes chide authors for saying that their work isn’t science fiction when it clearly is. For example, you wrote a review of Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods, and you said, “I’m bothered by the curious ingratitude of authors who exploit a common fund of imagery while pretending to have nothing to do with the fellow authors who created it and left it open for all who want to use it.” Do you ever get responses to comments like that from the authors or their supporters?
Well, not that I know of. To tell you the truth, I’ve never checked it out. I am old enough that I grew up before there was an internet, and I just am not in the habit of using the internet to see what people think of me.
Speaking of authors who say they don’t write science fiction, Margaret Atwood has kind of become a lightning rod among some fans—
[laughs] I’ve been needling Maggie for years now. “Come on, Maggie, you do. You know you write science fiction.” She’s in a difficult position, obviously, with her publisher. She herself has sort of redefined science fiction to be “what Margaret Atwood doesn’t write.” That’s okay, because Margaret Atwood really can do no wrong in my book. But I do keep arguing with her, because it doesn’t really hold water, her definition. Science fiction is not about the impossible, the nonexistent—that’s fantasy. And she says that she only writes about what is possible, and so on. Well, a lot of science fiction does exactly that.
I think the whole argument is just withering away, because people don’t care that much anymore—a lot of people—whether you call it “sci-fi” or “science fiction” or “mainstream” or “realism” or whatever. It’s all getting mixed up together. It’s all literature, and that’s the way it ought to be, I think.
So are you optimistic that someday you might get her to concede that, “OK, Oryx and Crake was a little bit science fiction, you got me there”?
[laughs] I wouldn’t predict anything about Margaret Atwood, no.
Okay, so we had a couple questions from listeners. One of them says, “Growing up, my favorite book was The Tombs of Atuan, and it always struck me as being beautifully strange for not having the series protagonist show up until three-quarters of the way through.” And he’d like you to talk about why you made that choice, and it seems like maybe publishers would be wary of something like that?
Well, that’s kind of funny. It isn’t three-quarters of the way through. It’s—I would say—maybe a third of the way into the book, that Ged shows up. That book was written before series were invented in fantasy. Tolkien had written what was called a “trilogy”—although he didn’t call it a trilogy. I think trilogies were just beginning perhaps to be fashionable, but fantasies didn’t fall into these categories as they do now. Ged was not a “series hero,” he was the hero of a novel called A Wizard of Earthsea. This was a sequel. That’s all there was to it. In other words, fantasy was not controlled by the advertising department and what’s going to sell. Fantasy was controlled by the author to a larger extent than it is now. The book has two protagonists—a young woman and a slightly older man—and it’s their interaction that makes the book happen. That’s not an unfamiliar situation in novels. It’s just that, I think, this listener is used to conventional, mass-produced fantasy, where you have a series hero and certain things are done in certain ways, and so on.
Did you ever experience any pressure from publishers to make your work more conventional in any way?
Within the last few years only, on my three fantasy novels Gifts, Voices, and Powers. I had, as always, good editors to work with at Harcourt, where they were published, but there was an increasing pressure to make them more like Harry Potter—there’s just no getting around it. And since I write a very, very different type of fantasy and different type of literature from the Harry Potter series, there was no way I could go along with that. I just had to resist it. But, you see, that’s very late, and it’s happened as publishing was beginning to lose its sense of direction and its purpose, and get very confused by corporate pressures on all sides.
I’m a big fan of Philip K. Dick, and when I attended the Clarion writers workshop, Tim Powers and Karen Joy Fowler assigned each of us a book to read that they thought would resonate with us, and the book that they assigned me was The Lathe of Heaven, which they described as an homage to Philip K. Dick, and I’ve always wondered if that’s true?
Oh yeah, definitely. You know, I couldn’t write a Phil Dick book, but I could steal some of his tricks, in a way. Pulling reality out from under the reader all the time, changing reality on them, the way he does. Well, I did it through dreams. Phil would have done it another way. But yeah, homage to Phil Dick is right.
Did you know him at all?
We talked on the telephone, and we corresponded some, but we never actually met. Except, we must have met in high school, because we were at Berkeley High School at the same time, but nobody I know remembers him. He is the unknown man from my class at Berkeley High.
Well, that’s sort of funny, because in a lot of his stories . . . one that comes to mind is Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said—it’s about a guy who suddenly nobody knows who he is anymore. I wonder if that was autobiographical in any way?
Oh, must be. [laughs] I don’t know.
I’m rather proud of the fact that I was defending Phil Dick’s work early on, when he was not being paid much attention to and never kept in print. And I kept saying, “This guy is really good. This guy is writing completely original stuff. You know, it isn’t conventional, it isn’t run-of-the-mill. It’s different, but it’s really interesting.” And of course Phil picked up on that, and you always like it when another writer likes your stuff, you want to know that writer, so he may have written me or me him, and we talked some. I got a little bit bossy and told him that the women in his novels were kind of predictable. I didn’t think he’d really pay any attention, but he did. Apparently he really tried to think about the way he’d been handling women in his fiction. That touches me. You know, he didn’t have to pay any mind to anything I said.
Do you remember what year that was, that people would look for that sort of change in his fiction?
I think the novel where he tried to write women differently was V.A.L.I.S. So it’s kind of late. We’re getting into the novels after he had that sort of revelation thing he had, and began writing a rather different kind of book.
So years ago I read your two books on writing, Steering the Craft and The Language of the Night, and one thing that really struck me from those were your comments about how wrong-headed many of our so-called “rules” of grammar are. Are there any particular grammar rules that you’d like to see go away?
I was probably talking about the fact that the grammarians kept telling us that we can’t use “they” as a singular—like, “If anybody needs an abortion, he should have to tell his mother and father.” Would you only use “he,” because “he” is the generic pronoun? I mean, this is nonsense in English. And English has always used “they”—it’s in Shakespeare. You know, “Anybody needs an abortion, they should not have to tell their parents.” It’s one of these arbitrary bans that every now and then grammarians get away with, and that kind of thing—where there’s a moral influence from it—you have to talk about that. The thing with grammar is to just accept the rules and use them as you see fit. But you have to know them before you can break them. That’s the only rule I accept.
There’s a recent book called 80: Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin. How did that come about?
Oh, it’s what they call a “festschrift.” They get people together to celebrate somebody who’s having a birthday or something, and I had my 80th birthday, and so a lot of very nice people put a little book together, with some stories about me and some stories and stuff. It’s a nice present for a birthday.
There’s also a documentary in the works called Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
Arwen Curry is making it, and she and I have been working together on and off for a couple years now. I can’t tell you about the documentary itself because I haven’t seen it. I don’t really know where it’s at, just that she’s been coming here and filming on and off for the last couple years. We talk together, and we go places that are important in my life so she can film me there—like the ranch in the Napa Valley where I spent all my summers as a kid, and still go every summer. Or next month she’s going to meet me out in southeast Oregon at a farmhouse where we spend a week every year under Steens Mountain, which is country that I’ve come to love very much. So she’s going to put this all together and I don’t know what it’s going to be like, but I trust Arwen Curry to do it well.
We mentioned that for the second half of our show today, we’ll be talking about Ray Bradbury. Do you have any memories relating to Bradbury that you’d like to share?
I only met Ray two or three times, always down in L.A., because he was not a traveler, as you know. He was always very genial, and a little bit overbearing [laughs] . . . kind of a great big football player of a guy. He was very nice. You had this sense of his warmth, of the personality that comes through in his books too. You know, I don’t know anybody who has anything against Ray Bradbury. Maybe there are people, but he seemed not to have made enemies, which is pretty good going for a writer that successful, and living in Los Angeles.
Are any of his books particular favorites of yours?
Oh, The Martian Chronicles. You know, it came out a long time ago. I was in my twenties at most, I guess. I just loved it. He was making science fiction romantic. Science fiction often gets kind of hard-edged and dry and a little over-intellectual. And I just thought, “Oh, wow, look what he’s doing. He’s making it beautiful and romantic, with this warmth of human feeling in it.” And that was important then.
Are there any new or upcoming projects that you’d like to mention?
This fall, all six books in the Earthsea series will finally be published in a uniform edition in the United States, which is a real joy to me. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is putting out the hardcover, and Simon & Schuster is doing the paperback. I don’t have a publication date yet, but I guess September, probably. And also I have a new and selected poems [volume], which means that it’s a kind of retrospective selected from my six poetry books, and a whole set of new poems, and that’s coming out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this fall too, and I’m very pleased about that. It’s called Finding My Elegy. And I’ve got a story coming out in Tin House called “Elementals.” Kind of a fantasy, along the lines of Borges, I guess, a little.