“...American Novelist...” by Julie Phillips
(Frequently Asked Questions)
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People write me nice letters asking what order they ought to read my science fiction books in — the ones that are called the Hainish or Ekumen cycle or saga or something. The thing is, they aren't a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones. And some great discontinuities (like, what happened to "mindspeech" after Left Hand of Darkness? Who knows? Ask God, and she may tell you she didn't believe in it any more.)
Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions: where they fit in the "Hainish cycle" is anybody's guess, but I'd read them first because they were written first. In them there is a "League of Worlds," but the Ekumen does not yet exist.
Then you could read The Word for World is Forest, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, in any order. In Dispossessed, the ansible gets invented; but they're using it in Left Hand, which was written fifteen years earlier. Please do not try to explain this to me. I will not understand.
Then in the collection of stories A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, the three last stories are Ekumenical, and we even finally find out a little about Hain, where it all began. The story suite Four Ways to Forgiveness is part of that universe, and so is the novel The Telling. But I have to warn you that the planet Werel in Four Ways is not the planet Werel in Planet of Exile. In between novels, I forget planets. Sorry.
The Eye of the Heron may or may not be set in the Hainish universe; it really doesn't matter. As for The Lathe of Heaven and Always Coming Home, my Terran science fiction novels, they definitely don't exist in the same universe as the Hainish or Ekumenical books.
While we're at it, Earthsea really does go in order, because it is all one story: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other Wind. (My British publisher insisted on doing the two last in the wrong order, and I'm very sorry about that, since "Dragonfly" in the Tales makes the bridge between Tehanu and The Other Wind.)
Catwings goes: Catwings, Catwings Return, Wonderful Alexander, and Jane On Her Own. (Since the publisher, Scholastic, seems to have some deep metaphysical objection to ever letting anybody sell the four books in the same place at the same time, go for the four-volume set — if you can find it.)
How do you pronounce the names and words in your books?
I think the reader has the right to pronounce a made-up name or word just the way she or he wants to. But lots of readers would like to know how I, the maker-up, pronounce it. And since it does have an effect on the sound and rhythm of a sentence, and since names are magic in Earthsea, I am glad to say how I hear them. The two most often asked about are:
Genly Ai — hard "g" as in get — Ai pronounced like I or eye or Aiieee!
I feel rather strongly about that one, as "Jed" sounds like a
Mountain Man from Kaintucky more than a wizard from Gont.
Anyhow, if you have questions about pronunciations, please write me and I will either write you back
or post the answer here on this site.
What is your policy on fan fiction set in your worlds and using your characters?
It’s all right with me — it’s really none of my business — if people want to write stories for themselves & their friends using names and places from my work, but these days, thanks to the Web, “stuff for friends” gets sent out all over the place and put where it doesn’t belong and mistaken for the genuine article, and can cause both confusion and real, legal trouble.
As for anybody publishing any story “derived from” my stuff, I am absolutely opposed to it & have never given anyone permission to do so. It is lovely to “share worlds” if your imagination works that way, but mine doesn’t; to me, it’s not sharing but an invasion, literally — strangers coming in and taking over the country I live in, my heartland.
This applies, of course, to fiction only. I have given permission to all sorts of script writers, playwrights, musicians, dancers, etc. to use my stuff for performance pieces, and collaborated happily with many of them. That’s different. That’s a gas! Collaboration is one thing, co-optation is another.
What were your childhood & youth like — was it happy — were there any significant influences on you?
My childhood was what is called "happy." My parents were loving, kind, and intelligent; I had an extra mother in my great-aunt; I had three big brothers to tag around after (and to have fights with the youngest of them); and everybody in the family was glad I was a girl, which made me able to be glad to be a woman, eventually.
My father was a university professor and we were well off, even during the Depression of the 1930’s. We lived in a beautiful redwood house in Berkeley, and summers on an old ranch in the hills of the Napa Valley. I went to public schools, where I got a good education (although I was shy and malingered a good deal in grade school, and high school was three years of social torture.)
There were lots of visitors, lots of talk and argument and discussion about everything, lots of books around, lots of music and story-telling. The life of the mind can be a very lively one. I was brought up to think and to question and to enjoy.
During the second World War my brothers all went into service and the summers in the Valley became lonely ones, just me and my parents in the old house. There was no TV then; we turned on the radio once a day to get the war news. Those summers of solitude and silence, a teenager wandering the hills on my own, no company, "nothing to do," were very important to me. I think I started making my soul then.
What inspired you to be a writer?
Who helped/hindered you in your early career?
My parents never encouraged me in the sense of making a fuss about what I wrote or praising my determination to write. They encouraged me greatly in the sense that they believed that if you have a talent, you ought to work hard at it.
When I was getting near college age, my father talked with me about getting a 'salable skill' — learning a trade that I could live on. Because most writers don't earn enough from writing to buy catfood, this was wise advice. I loved languages, so I went into French and Italian literature in college, and went on for higher degrees that would qualify me to teach.
Then when I got married, my husband never questioned my right to write. This is fairly rare, especially in husbands. My advice to young writers is, if you can't marry money, at least don’t marry envy.
When I was young, the few older writers I knew were encouraging; and the writers who are my friends now are generous people with a strong sense of community. I keep away from writers who think art is a competition for fame, money, prizes, etc. What matters is the work.
How do you feel about your life now? What would you change or wish had been different?
I love living almost as well as I love writing.
It was tough trying to keep writing while bringing up three kids, but my husband was totally in it with me, and so it worked out fine. Le Guins’ Rule: One person cannot do two fulltime jobs, but two persons can do three fulltime jobs — if they honestly share the work.
What themes and ideas recur in your writing?
This is a question for critics not for the author. Two obvious things often pointed out by critics: Taoist thought runs quite deep in the structure of many of my fictions. And many of them put the viewpoint characters into a different society and culture, where they have to figure out what's going on, how things work. (Since all of us as children are in this situation, it is a reliably interesting and relevant one.)
Do you have a writing philosophy?
I guess it is: Write. Revise. If possible, publish.
Do you weave events from your real life into stories or rely on imagination?
Of course everything one writes about comes from experience. Where else could it come from? But the imagination recombines, remakes.... makes a new world, makes the world new.
I seldom exploit experience directly. I do what the poet Gary Snyder calls "composting" — You let everything you do/learn/think/read/feel sink down inside yourself and stay in the dark, and then (years later maybe) something entirely new grows up out of that rich darkness. This takes patience.
One of my favorite things the poet Shelley said is, "The great instrument of moral good is the imagination."
Do you do research, visit places, when you are writing your books?
Stories and books have grown directly out of places that I happened to visit (my first trip to the Eastern Oregon desert led straight to The Tombs of Atuan.) If there is science in a science-fiction story I'm writing and I need to check my facts, I do. But most of my research is into the geography of my own imagination, where Earthsea, and Gethen, and Orsinia, and all my other subworlds are.
Do you keep a journal or diary?
Do you revise many times?
As many times as necessary. With one story or novel, this may be five false starts and six or eight or ten full rewrites, beginning to end. With the next, it may mean just going back through it and over it fiddling details until I think it's as good as I can get it.
Rewriting is as hard as composition is — that is, very hard work. But revising — fiddling and polishing — that's gravy — I love it. I could do it forever. And the computer has made it such a breeze. (Once I learned how to keep the computer itself from "correcting" my grammar, that is. Hey, butt out, Bill Gates, this is MY syntax.)
Are there any events in your life you would not want included in a biography?
Copyright © 2007 by Ursula K. Le Guin