At 81, Ursula K. Le Guin has published over 80 pieces of literature including books, poetry, essays and one translation from classical Chinese. She is most noted for her groundbreaking work in science fiction and has been awarded the Hugo and Nebula Awards multiple times, and the Locus Award 18 times — more than any other writer in the universe. Her presence in a room could bend steel — she reads, walks and talks with a sly exuberance that seems to set an electric hum in the air.
We’re honored to have had a chance to speak with Ursula in anticipation of her appearance at Wordstock in Portland this weekend. We promised her a couple of thin little questions, and even the much more complex ones we posited to her were a fraction of what we would like to know about her mind. Find her gracious answers below, and see her speak this Sunday.
You’ve been working and living in Portland since 1958. How have you seen the local literary culture and community change over the years? Do you think Wordstock has shifted the literary culture here at all, or that it serves the community in some special way?
Hey, I thought you said this interview would be short and simple. The literary history of Portland since 1958 is short and simple? The literary scene here was never simple. Maybe the biggest change in it is that women count for more than they used to. Due partly to a major societal shift, but also, specifically, to people like Judith Barrington and Ruth Gundle and many, many other activists working to get women writers out of the margins and into the middle of the page.
During the first few years after Brian Booth energized us to get Oregon Literary Arts going, the literary community, writers and readers, came together at the Oregon Book Awards for real celebrations. They were great. But it’s hard to keep that much pizzazz going. The current Literary Arts does a terrific job of outreach to all of Oregon.
The old book fair at ArtQuake in the Park Blocks was a hoot. Talk about keeping Portland weird! Wordstock is ever so much more respectable and outward-looking and success-oriented, bringing best selling authors from the East Coast and all. That’s probably a fair reflection of what people want.
Tell me about how your “source” — internal, creative or otherwordly — for writing finds its expression in such varied iterations as children’s books, poetry, essays and stories. Do you work on one project at a time or many at once, and do they feed each other in any way?
I can’t tell you anything much about my internal, creative, or otherworldly sources, or how they work. I just sit around and wait for them to tell me what I’m supposed to be writing next, and then I write it, if I can. Good work if you can get it.
I’m sure you’ve answered more questions about being gender and writing than you can stand — but, here’s one more. You have been publishing books for over forty years. Tell me about your experience of gender — personally and professionally, as well as how creating science fiction expresses, changes or anticipates social evolution around gender.
I made out better in some ways than most women writers of my generation, because I wasn’t competing for the big time awards and glittering prizes (still reserved for male writers at a fairly standard rate of from ten to one to four to one.) My work got shunted off into the slums of genre, where I won lots of awards, and made friends, too. The poor are always more generous than the rich.
Now that genre seems to be eating mainstream, and men seem to be less afraid of being eaten by women, things could get even better. If only they can figure out how to make writing e-books pay writers, before stupid Amazon and the stupid pirates destroy the system, and all the writers starve, and THEN what’ll you read? Huh? Aspirin labels?
Imaginative fiction is a great place for people who feel society could use a few changes. Science fiction is particularly good at showing what a different society would actually be like to live in, whether it’s the macho utopias of space opera, or the mean streets of cyberpunk, or the stuff writers like me come up with, like re-inventing gender, or giving Portland a subway out to Reed.
Low is a band in its own genre — a three piece that includes a married couple, Mimi Parker and husband Alan Sparhawk — with a dedicated following and the ability to snare new devotees with nary one or two measures of their haunting, impossibly attentive sound. As they embark on an international tour with their new album, C’mon, drummer and vocalist Mimi took time to talk about their nearly 20 years of playing together, and what goes into creating the meditative, connective energy in their music — not to mention making lunch, dressing like a corpse and sharing airspace with a Scandinavian hardcore band.
To celebrate their tour, we’re giving away tickets to this evening’s show at Neumos in Seattle, and Saturday’s show in Portland at Aladdin Theater. Enter here and we’ll let you know by this afternoon if you’ve won.
So, I have been a huge fan of Low since I was a teenager and am still spreading the gospel.
Wow, thanks a lot.
And I remember the first time I actually saw you live, I’d already been listening to you for four or five years and it was such a different experience watching you and Alan sing together on stage — pretty amazing. I was with a friend that had never heard you before and when we left she asked, Are they married? They way they sing just makes them sound like they know each other better than anyone. What it’s like singing with Alan and making music together?
Yeah, I think, you know, there’s something to that kind of intimate relationship of a marriage. I guess I don’t sing with a lot of other people, but when I have, it almost feels like I’m doing something wrong, you know what I mean? Like I’m cheating on Alan in a weird way. So, it just adds weight to that relationship of — I guess it is what it is. You know, we have such a connection. I’m not thinking that [while performing], but I’ve been curious whether anything comes across at all, because it seems like we’ve been doing this a long time and there might be something that maybe somebody could hear.
Part of it is that with that kind of harmony, I think you have to pay so much attention to someone and it’s similar as a listener, as a fan, because the music is so quiet and that makes you kind of, like, turn yourself down and listen.
And, you know, it kind of demands a special audience and a special space. I remember reading about a show you had a really long time ago at South by Southwest, and there was a Scandinavian hardcore band booked at the same time one floor below you in the same building.
Right, that was our first South by Southwest experience.
And it kind of overpowered your performance.
Yeah, it definitely drowned us out.
So, do you tend to try to find spaces that are really quiet?
I don’t know. I think when we first started, we didn’t know the spaces we were playing and that just happened to be just really ridiculous and, you know, we didn’t know that that was going to happen. And we were young and probably didn’t think to check into those things. Now, we’ve been doing it long enough that a lot of the promoters just kind of automatically put us in really nice spaces. You know, we still play the occasional festival, and we still do kind of run into that situation every once in a while, where we’ll hear, like, beats pounding from another stage and we just laugh about it at this stage, because it’s kind of humorous and, you know — what can you do about it? It doesn’t do any good to complain or stop — you know, stop, throw your instruments down and walk off stage. But, we’ve been really lucky. We’ve been able to play in a lot of amazing spaces, a lot of cathedrals over in Europe and actually a few over here.
So, I mean, it’s not that we are super precious about our sets. It is great when that happens, but if it doesn’t, we can barrel through it and we might just change the set a little bit and do more of, like, a festival type set, where we tend to stay away from the really quiet songs, because you can’t really have that delicate dynamic going on — it kind of gets lost.
The 2 Bears play this weekend at MoMA PS1’s penultimate Warm Up show of the summer. Four hours remain to win two tickets to see them, along with Midnight Magic, Justin Miller and Horsemeat Disco — a Vogueing and Ballroom revivalist collective party from the UK.