An Interview With Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is the grand dame of science fiction. Since 1968, she has published twenty-one novels, eleven short story collections, three books of essays, twelve children’s books, and six collections of poetry. She has also edited volumes such as The Norton Book of Science Fiction (1993) and Edges: Thirteen New Tales From The Borderlands Of The Imagination (1980).  She has won five Hugos, six Nebulas, two World Fantasy Awards, three Tiptree Awards, among others.  Le Guin has also been honored with the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award, the SFWA Grand Master Award, and the Science Fiction Research Association Pilgrim Award for her lifetime contributions to SF and fantasy; she is also a Science Fiction Hall of Fame Living Inductee.

Lucy A. Snyder: What is your process for preparing to write? Do you have any routines such as a cup of tea before you start, or do you dive right in? And what tools do you use?

Ursula K. Le Guin: I sit down at the computer or with the notebook and reread what I wrote yesterday, and probably start editing it and rewriting, and then (hopefully) slide on into composing.

I write with a Pilot P-500 pen (getting harder to find) in bound or spiral-bound notebooks when I’m traveling, or when I want to sit outside while writing, which I love to do. My computer is always a Mac, currently a MacBook Pro. I compose on it, and the stuff from the notebooks gets fed into it pretty promptly.

LAS:  How have your writing habits changed over the course of your career?

UKLG: Really not at all, except that when my kids were young I could only write after they went to bed—nine to midnight. I was happy to get back to morning writing when they finally were all off to school. I am not methodical, and I don’t make myself write if I have no story in mind; but if I do, I try to make room in the day for it, preferably the morning.

About being unmethodical: I make sure I can be unmethodical—I write on spec. I don’t promise work. I don’t sell my work, in fact nobody sees it, until it’s finished. This leaves me freedom. The price is risk. Writing on spec, you can spend months on a piece that never gets published. I spent years submitting and not selling. But to me, promising unwritten work is locking myself up in a little cell and dropping the key through the food slot. To work, I have to have room. “A room of my own”—not owned by an editor or a publisher. My place.

LAS: Is there one book that you think all aspiring science fiction writers should read without fail?

UKLG:  Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. (Maybe memorize it?)

LAS: Elsewhere, you’ve said that you’ve learned a lot from reading Virginia Woolf. Can you elaborate on some of the writing craft lessons her work has taught you?

UKLG: I learned that shifting point of view/shifting voice(s) can be an endlessly demanding and fascinating way to tell a story. That plot does not matter to the kind of fiction I like best, but story growing out of relationships is what matters. That if you can’t read it out loud with pleasure it isn’t really worth reading.

LAS: What do you find satisfying about writing short stories as opposed to writing novels, and vice versa?

UKLG: You can do a short story in a day or two—in fact, often you have to, or you lose it. That passion of writing is good. A novel demands a great part of your body, mind, and soul for months. That long-term commitment is good. One of my favorite forms is the novella, which combines the compression of the short story with the spaciousness of the novel. You have room to describe things and to move your characters around in in time and space, but still, the whole thing has got to be moving pretty much in one direction all the time. It’s a beautiful size for a story.

LAS: You’ve edited several anthologies — was editing a positive experience for you? Did you learn anything from the experience that you brought to bear on your own writing?

UKLG: I love reading, so I like putting together stories that I particularly liked for other people to discover. I don’t think I learned anything about my own writing by anthologising. Learning how to critique, from teaching workshops and being in writing groups—from that, I am still learning a lot.

LAS: What has writing poetry done for your own fiction, and vice versa?

UKLG: I have no idea how my poetry and my fiction interrelate. They don’t visibly overlap much. They are very different arts, and I’m lucky to be able to work with both of them.

LAS: You work very hard and consciously at your craft. Are there any writing forms/styles you’d still like to try that you haven’t, or ones that you’ve tried and feel you have yet to master?

UKLG: I wish I could write a play! but I haven’t the faintest notion of how it’s done—I stand in awe—playwriting is a mystery to me and always will be.

LAS: You’ve said elsewhere that to you science fiction is a form of realist literature because it’s about futures that could happen, but just haven’t yet. What’s your favorite modern advance that would have seemed science fictional in 1966? Conversely, what event or development has disappointed you by not having happened yet?

UKLG: Well, it’s not exactly a favorite thing; it’s more like a giant embarrassment thing: in 1966, who in science fiction (or out of it) foresaw the huge transformation of society by the personal computer and the Internet?

And the biggest disappointment is not something that didn’t happen, but something that has just gone on and on happening. When I wrote The Lathe of Heaven in 1971, I honestly thought that by 2002 we wouldn’t be driving private automobiles—we wouldn’t be so idiotic as to keep relying on fossil oil and fouling the world for another thirty years. Of course not.

LAS: You’ve won many literary and genre awards. Which one has meant the most to you, and why?

UKLG: The first Nebula and Hugo, for The Left Hand of Darkness, were milestones to me—validation. They meant readers understood what I was trying to do and liked it. The first story my agent sold to The New Yorker was not an award, but it was a comparable reward—an exhilarating breakthrough. Yeah! Green light!