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Author Talk: September 2006

September 2006

Ursula K. Le Guin's impressive body of work consists of six volumes of poetry, twenty novels, over a hundred short stories, four collections of essays, eleven books for children and four volumes of translation. Her latest young adult novel, VOICES, is a coming-of-age tale set in a time and place of extreme oppression, when reading and writing are considered acts punishable by death.

In this interview, Le Guin discusses some of the ideas presented in the book, such as the power of words and storytelling, describes her own origins as a storyteller and shares her thoughts on the task of day-to-day writing.

Question: Memer claims that stories --- not history --- have given her all the truths she "needed and wanted: about courage, friendship, loyalty." Some people view story and history as the same, with history being the collection of individual stories. Where do you see the line between history and story, at least in Memer's mind?

Ursula K. Le Guin: I don't feel that Memer is making any deep distinctions between history and story; she just loves reading all that stuff. A lot of the poems and stories Memer reads are history, a lot are myth, and some are both --- which is true for most history.

Q: Memer comes to believe that when words get misused and twisted, those words lose their meanings, and that it is poets who "must struggle to give them back their truth." In your opinion, do poets and novelists offer readers different truths or merely different ways to approach the same truths?

UKL: Poetry and fiction use words in somewhat different ways, but they are both attempting to say various things that probably cannot be said at all. Or you could put it this way: Art doesn't tell "the truth," it makes truth.

People certainly can learn --- or relearn --- "their truth" from poetry or story, but the meaning will always be the truth they seek whether it is freedom from twisted meanings, half-truths, lies, or advertising.

Q: An important theme in VOICES is the idea that it is better to invite thought rather than to give clear-cut answers. What particular thoughts are you inviting readers of the book to mull over?

UKL: VOICES has a lot of themes, though not all of them are out in plain sight. Frankly, I'd rather not drag them out and dissect them. Teachers and students are much better at analyzing themes than I am; I'll leave the interpretations to them.

One theme that is in fairly plain sight is the debate about violence. When is the use of force necessary? When is acting violently under the impulse of powerful, righteous emotion the correct course of action? When is it a better option to restrain righteous emotion in the hope of restraining violence? How do you know when it's right to explode into rebellion? How do you convince yourself that violence or rebellion may be stupid, cruel, and useless --- even when right is very clearly on your side? What do you do in that situation? These are questions most adolescents have to face in one way or another, both in their private and in their public lives.

Q: The power of storytelling --- whether recited aloud to a crowd or read in private in an ancient text --- is a key concept in VOICES, as well as in other novels you've written. When did you first realize that you are a storyteller by nature? What books in your childhood inspired or furthered your desire to weave tales?

UKL: When I was a child, I told stories to myself in bed at night, like a billion other kids. I guess I needed the stories more than most and kept on with them as a way of trying to make sense out of things. Going into the fictional world helped me to find my way through the so-called real world. All the storybooks I have ever read were inspiration, encouragement, and models for these explorations --- and they still are.

Q: You are quite prolific. In addition to novels, you have also written poetry, short stories, and picture books. Do you work on more than one project at a time? Do you have any advice to share with us about staying focused on the day-to-day task of writing?

UKL: I am so prolific, sometimes I feel like a salmon spawning eggs! I am not only prolific but superstitious and have never counted how many books I've published.

If I'm writing a novel, that's generally all the fiction I'll be writing for the length of time --- a few months, a year, or longer --- that it takes to complete that project; although, I can write poetry and nonfiction while working on a fiction project. Short fiction pretty much has to be done fast in a big, consuming burst of energy, very much like Jo March's "vortex" [in LITTLE WOMEN]. For a person with limited time, short stories may seem the most practical writing genre to attempt, but at the same time it can also be the most difficult. A huge burst of energy cannot be broken into bits. A novel goes steadily forward under its own momentum and can be written in quite short sessions; you stop when you have to and can pick it up the next day.

I have never heard a dancer asking for advice about how to stay focused on her footwork, or a painter complaining about the dull day-to-day task of painting. What task worth doing isn't worth daily effort? Do you think Michelangelo was having fun the whole time he was on his back painting the Sistine Chapel's ceiling?

What is it with writers, anyhow? If you've done it long enough to have some skill, the making of any art or craft gives you continuous satisfaction. But the satisfaction is seldom a thrilling or instant reward. There is rarely a moment of "Ooh wow, look, I just created a masterpiece!"

I am going to be rather hard-nosed and say that if you have to find devices to coax yourself to stay focused on writing, perhaps you should not be writing what you're writing. And, if this lack of motivation is a constant problem, perhaps writing is not your forte. I mean, what is the problem? If writing bores you, that is pretty fatal. If that is not the case, but you find that it is hard going and it just doesn't flow, well, what did you expect? It is work; art is work. Nobody ever said it was easy. What they said is: "Life is short, art is long."

Q: You are known as the creator of the six books of the Earthsea Cycle. How do you go about envisioning and developing a new series of related tales? While working on a novel, do you plan the events that will occur in your characters' futures?

UKL: I wish I could say yes, but no. The tales spin themselves, and as they do, the relationships among them gradually become apparent to me. But, when I say "spin themselves" I do not mean stories and their interconnections just appear as I write --- although sometimes they do. I mean that my subconscious mind is busy with them day and night. My writing self is working away on who does what next and why, all the time; but it isn't "planning," it isn't "developing" --- the process is not as rational and under control as that. It's groping and discovering, going wrong, thinking back, seeing connections, imagining where the story might go, saying "Oh no," saying "Aha!" If this subliminal work is going well, then sometimes as I sit at the keyboard the story comes very easily, it "spins itself." Other times I start, and stop, and stall; when that happens, I write ten lines in two hours and then hit the delete button.

Q: Orrec and Gry, two main characters from GIFTS, reappear in VOICES and have a profound impact on the townspeople of Ansul, including Memer. Will we hear more from Memer in POWERS, the next installment of the Annals of the Western Shore sequence?

UKL: Oh yes, we will. Memer will appear, late in the book. Orrec and Gry will appear, too, as will the halflion. I was very happy to get them all back together!

Copyright © 2006 by Ursula K. Le Guin. All rights reserved.