The other day I took a subway to the Upper East Side where I met Ursula K. Le Guin in the lobby of a Courtyard Marriott. We agreed that it was one of the most depressing hotel lobbies we had ever seen, but she was in town to speak at the 92nd St. Y, and her regular hotel was under construction, so there we were.
Which is quite amazing. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels profoundly altered my early (and also later) reading life; a lot of people I know were similarly de- and re-railed by her Hainish Cycle – - The Left Hand of Darkness et al. This is a writer who – in the 1960’s, decades before Harry Potter and all that – simply seized the patriarchal-Christian fantasy tradition laid down by Lewis and Tolkien by the scruff of its neck and reimagined it from a feminist, post-Judaeo-Christian point of view.
Le Guin – now in her 70s, with a steel-grey bob that wouldn’t look out of place on a Vulcan — and I chatted for an hour in the hotel bar, while it slowly filled with water from a leak somewhere in the kitchen. That evening the iPhone I recorded the interview on got stolen. (This surpasses the time I deleted an interview with Gerard Butler as my greatest interviewing cock-up ever.) But I had transcribed the first half of the interview, and Le Guin very graciously suggested that we recreate the rest via e-mail.
We started by talking about her most recent novel Lavinia, which retells the story of Vergil’s Aeneid, but from the point of view of the woman who gets married off to Aeneas …
What attracted you to Lavinia as a subject for a novel?
Just reading the Aeneid, and getting fascinated with the whole poem, but then finding this character that has no voice, and kind of wondering a little bit why Virgil, who’s good with women – look at Dido, and so on – why he didn’t do anything with her. And kind of realizing, it just wouldn’t fit in the structure of his poem. He couldn’t. He had to do the battles.
But there she is, there’s a person who could be a character, obviously, and could be a strong one. She’s the mother of Rome. So I got thinking, what did she think about all this? They’re both of them being pushed around by oracles, and destiny, and we know what Aeneas thinks about it, but we don’t know what she thought.
So she became a character in my mind, and then she started talking to me, the way characters do, that have a story to tell. From then on it was just listening.
This just begs the question, why were you reading The Aeneid in the first place?
Well, I learned a little Latin in high school, junior high, and then I quit. And I kind of learned it again for grad school, because I needed it for my doctorate. But I never got to read the poets. And I always wanted to, particularly Vergil, and I thought, I’m in my 70s, it’s now or never. So I went back and taught myself Latin all over and managed to start reading Vergil in Latin. Because it’s the only way to really read a poet, is in his own language.
I’m pretty impressed. I’m 39 and I already feel like my brain is no longer sufficiently plastic to learn a new language.
I’ve got some gift for languages. You follow your gift. But Latin’s not easy.
Would you say Lavinia is denied a voice in the Aeneid? Was her voice suppressed by Vergil?
No, I don’t feel that. Because I trust Vergil. I don’t see why he would suppress any voice, woman or man. He’s different than most of the classic writers, in whom women’s voices are suppressed. He simply doesn’t seem to have much of that prejudice against women. This is not like Atwood’s thing with Penelope [The Penelopiad], where she’s kind of telling Homer off: ‘you didn’t really let Penelope tell her side of the story!’ That’s not what I was doing.
It’s quite a romantic story.
Yes, it is. I like romance.
Though you do the battles too.
It’s pretty gross in the Aeneid. It’s ugly. And that too struck me as part of what the book is about. I think Vergil wrote that book partly to tell Augustus, OK, you made it, you won, you’re on top. This is the cost of winning, of getting on top. Enough is enough. I see it as kind of an anti-war story. Vergil doesn’t enjoy battles the way Homer does. Homer does all of this boy scout stuff, they just smite each other’s heads off. Whoopee! And Achilles, who is a real brute, is the hero. With Aeneas you get the feeling that he doesn’t really want to go to war, he’s not a war hero in that sense. He knows how to do it, and he does it, but there’s no joy in it.
I’m interested in your feelings about endings — I have a sense that you don’t quite trust their finality. You extended Lavinia’s story past what Vergil wrote, you went back to Ged’s story after 28 years, after most readers thought it was over … you see what I’m getting at.
I think it was E.M. Forster who defined the novel as “an extended prose narrative with an unsatisfactory ending?” After all, why should a novel seek for a tidy closure? Novels are inherently rather messy. They use time very differently from drama. Beginning-middle-end isn’t obligatory. They can wander through a whole lifetime, or follow a great circle like Lord of the Rings, or go right on from what seemed a closure (as happened with Earthsea — my mistake!) I have nothing against endings, but I do write in a form that doesn’t take them too seriously.
As somebody who’s been writing since the 1960′s, and who has written in any number of different genres, I’m curious about your thoughts on the stigma — for lack of a less awful word — that often attaches to science fiction and fantasy in our culture. Where does it come from? Has it gotten any better since you began writing?
Please don’t get me onto that soapbox! I am so tired of talking about the shameless ignorance of people who put down SF and fantasy without having read it or known what they were reading when they did.
In the obit for J.G.Ballard in April, his American editor said that calling Ballard’s work science fiction was “like calling Brave New World science fiction, or 1984.” Yes, exactly: it’s like calling Don Quixote a novel, or Utopia a utopia. It’s simply the fact. Brave New World, 1984, and most of Ballard’s best work is science fiction. So? Does that mean it isn’t literature? Why? How can an editor keep up this mindless prejudice now — has he looked at what people are writing and reading, what literature in the late 20th and 21st century is?
This reminds me of the time I interviewed Philip Roth about his counter-history novel The Plot Against America. I asked him if he’d read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, figuring I was throwing him a softball. But he’d never heard of it. I got the strong impression that he believes he founded the whole genre of counter-history.
Anyway. I’m sure everybody always asks you whether you’ve read Harry Potter, and what your thoughts were about Rowling’s work — as the creator, 30 or so years before Rowling, of a School for Wizards?
I read the first Rowling book — more or less had to, given the superficial similarities to my work that people kept telling me about. I thought it was a nice fantasy for kids, very lively, though perhaps on rather shaky moral ground. It’s great that so many people have enjoyed her fantasies and thereby rediscovered the genre. I could wish she’d been a little more generous about admitting influences, but so what. A lot of borrowing always goes on in an active, vital art form, not plagiarism, just learning from each other. No harm in saying so.
Who are you reading now who’s exciting?
Exciting? Margaret Atwood’s Payback – about debt, financial, moral, literary debt — wonderful stuff, why hasn’t it been talked about? It came out in ’07 and predicts what’s been going on in Capitalism ever since. Our Canadian Cassandra. But unlike Cassandra, she’s funny.
I brought Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt to read travelling. A fine alternate history: the Black Plague wipes out Europe not partially but totally, so the world is left to the Muslims, the Chinese, the Native Americans … and what do they do with it? It’s a fascinating book, very rich and warm.
Lastly, a point on which I wanted to satisfy my own personal, selfish curiosity. The map of Earthsea, and its geography in general, are so different from those of other fantasy countries. What made you decide to make Earthsea an archipelago — to smash it, as it were, into little islands, rather than make it a single monolithic continent like Narnia and Middle Earth and Oz?
It wasn’t a decision. The only way I can describe my process of invention is to call it discovery. That’s what I discovered in my imagination, what I found: a lot of islands, each different (hence offering a lot of stories … and landscapes … and peoples … )
Jung has something about islands signifying emergent consciousness. You have to be careful about using Jung, though he certainly understood art better than Freud did. I don’t know about emergent consciousness, but I do know having all these different islands to travel to and discover was like having a treasure chest, no end to the riches.