Ursula Kroeber Le Guin continues a successful and varied writing career. The 75 year old writer of novels, children’s books, poetry, non-fiction, translations, and essays has received numerous awards for her writing. The daughter of Alfred L. Kroeber (anthropologist) and Theodora Kroeber (writer) grew up in California, attended Radcliffe and Columbia and settled in Portland, Oregon with her husband Charles A. Le Guin (historian), who she has three children with. This full-time writer shows no signs of slowing down. Ursula took time from her writing schedule to share a bit about her writing life and the art of writing.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you?
Ursula Le Guin: As soon as I learned how to write I began making poems and stories. I thought that was what writing was for.
Moe: When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Ursula Le Guin: Well, at about five, I guess. I wanted to be a biologist, too, a little later, but I had to do triage.
Moe: Were you a good writer as a child? Teenager? Etc.
Ursula Le Guin: No. Are there any “good” child writers? “Good” adolescent writers? There are promising ones. Maybe some teenage poets are good. I wasn’t one. I wrote a whole lot of bad writing – poetry and prose.
In general I’d say that to write fiction, you need to start doing it as soon as possible, but not hope for it to be any good (I don’t mean promising, I mean good) until you’ve done it badly but stubbornly for five or ten years. At least.
Moe: What inspires you?
Ursula Le Guin: Breathing in.
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Ursula Le Guin: Get up, do some yoga, eat breakfast, pet cat, write till lunch, eat lunch, read, doze, pet cat, answer letters and handle business, or rewrite, till late afternoon, have drink, have dinner, read, pet cat, sleep.
That is not a typical writing day, there is no such thing — that is an ideal writing day.
And I am 75 years old. When I was 35 and had three kids at home, things were, to put it mildly, a bit different. But I wrote. Only I did it for a couple of hours after 9 pm. which was the only available time.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read?
Ursula Le Guin: Sometimes two months, sometimes two years.
Moe: Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Ursula Le Guin: Both. But I never skip ahead. I write page 1, then page 2, then page 3 – you get the idea — My mother wrote the other way – page 125, then page 6, then page 44 – I never understood how she did it. And vice versa.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you’ll have?
Ursula Le Guin: Well, if it’s a kids’ book, one has to decide (roughly) what age kid. Otherwise, no. I figure out what the thing is once it exists – the way we used to do with babies– only now they tell you ahead of time and it’s no fun guessing.
Moe: When it comes to plot, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Ursula Le Guin: I plan nothing. But I need to have a quite strong and clear though undetailed idea of the general movement of the story – the “trajectory,” Jill Paton Walsh calls it – Where it starts, where it ends, the places (events) it must or might go in between. I have to see this.
Parts of this may appear as vivid scenes and include detail; other parts are vague and sketchy. I need to know the trajectory will carry me into and through them all, that I will be able to discover, or figure out, the details as I approach the scenes. When I know that, I can start. After that I follow the story.
It is not a plot. I have never been able to make plots, and don’t much enjoy them when I read fiction. What I write, what I want to read, is a story.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Ursula Le Guin: It’s kind of hard to get to most of the places I write about, except maybe Oregon.
The research I do involves thinking a lot about what things are like there. If this is thus, then how is that? If the people there have gender only once a month for a few days, how do they behave? Not only when they have gender, but when they don’t? Etc. etc. etc. You can’t do it at the library, but it’s research, I guess. It certainly takes some thinking.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Ursula Le Guin: My realistic fictions are based closely on my own experience, of course; they’re about places I know. But I have a strong temperamental and moral reluctance to “use” people I know in my fiction.
I feel that it’s OK to borrow tiny bits of real people. A quirk, a turn of the head. But not so that they could know it. I write fiction, not journalism or memoir; my business isn’t reporting, it’s inventing.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Ursula Le Guin: I have written a good deal about this, in my recent book The Wave in the Mind, and elsewhere. What I like to do best in the world is write, when I’m not writing, when I can’t make up a story, I fret and mope. When it goes on for months and months I fret and mope horribly and become morbid and neurotic and really, really boring. But all the time, deep in my heart, I know all that’s going on is I’m waiting for the well to refill, for the spring to rise up from the depths and run. And I know the waiting is part of the art – a very important, an essential, part of the art.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Ursula Le Guin: Joy… I really like it when it makes them cry, too.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Ursula Le Guin:
1. Get a good agent.
2. Listen to what the editor says.
3. Don’t pay any attention to what the editor says when you know better.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Ursula Le Guin: I try to answer all letters at least with an acknowledgment. As I feel my readers are my collaborators, my accomplices, the least I can do when they write me is write back. But volume of mail and lack of time (if I want to do anything else) mostly prevents me from entering into real exchanges – which is a pity, as people write me treasurable and fascinating letters. Kids under eleven or so write the most amazing ones (usually about my Catwings books.) They have very strong, direct emotional and moral responses and no inhibitions about telling me where I went wrong and what the next book ought to be about.
Moe: What’s your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Ursula Le Guin: It is about a boy who grows up in slavery but doesn’t realise anything’s wrong about slavery, since he is treated almost as a member of the family — until something goes very wrong indeed.
The idea of absolute human power over human beings, what it does both to the slave and the slave-owner, has been on my mind for years. My science-fiction book Four Ways to Forgiveness is about a slave-based society. This one, Powers, is a fantasy, following after Gifts and Voices. The fantasy element in all three books involves only certain gifts or powers some of the characters possess.
To put it simplistically, people having total power over other people – slavery – is a dire but fundamental form of human relationship; and novels are about human relationships.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Ursula Le Guin: Stories: whether fictional or scientific. (So I like geology and biology and astronomy and anthropology. I don’t get the stories in math; and lately the stories in physics are just too weird for my pedestrian imagination to follow. )
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Ursula Le Guin: Read, fiddle around, watch the volcano out my north window, try to learn another language, pet the cat.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Ursula Le Guin: Read all the time and write all the time and try to get published all the time. So? You thought it was going to be tangos and martinis and the Pulitzer?
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Ursula Le Guin: Dead.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Ursula Le Guin: Please excuse me while I go look in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Moe: Thank you for taking the time to share yourself with our readers.
Ursula Le Guin: Thank you, readers, for sharing yourselves with my books.
Originally published 9/15/2005 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.