Ursula K. Le Guin's first novels—set on alien planets and published as trashy head-to-toe double paperbacks by Ace Books—were first unleashed almost half a century ago, in 1966. She was 36. Two years later she published A Wizard of Earthsea, the defining and enduring classic of the genre of wizards going to wizard school. The Left Hand of Darkness, the book that forced writers everywhere to examine how they wrote gender, was first published the very next year and became one of the most acclaimed books of the last century.
She published a dozen books in that first decade, a pile of words built up largely during her thirties that, once released, changed the American conversation about fiction. She is the reigning queen of writing about "the nature of human nature," as Margaret Atwood once described it, in regards to Le Guin's "Ekumen" series. Le Guin is one of the rare authors to have twice taken the Hugo and the Nebula awards in the same year. She published three stories in the New Yorker in 1982 alone.
The Terrence Malick-style hiatus of 18 years between her third and fourth Earthsea novels is often referred to by authors of a beloved book when pressured for a follow-up. "The story got stuck," Le Guin wrote in her afterword to Tehanu, when it finally did appear, in 1990. "I couldn't go on. It took years of living my own ordinary life and a great deal of learning how to think about such things, mostly from other women." And yet she also published seven novels, four story collections, three chapbooks and three collections of poetry, two books of criticism, and five children's books in that interval.
Le Guin will be 86 this October, and is frequently referred to as "the best of" for all manner of things—like best fantasy writer, best science fiction writer, best female writer—all of which is silly, as she both defies and accepts all categorization. Her influence on generations of readers and writers, from George R.R. Martin to Jennifer Egan to David Mitchell, is as evident as it is impossible to overstate. Admired for her quiet daring, her structures, and her inventions, most of all she is revered for her sentences. In 1998, she published Steering the Craft, a trim, little book with the subtitle Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. It was intended to teach writers how to be better writers. Finding that first edition lacking for the ever more modern age, she has now rewritten it from "stem to stern" with the new subtitle, "A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story."
Le Guin and her husband of more than 60 years, Charles, live in Portland, Oregon, with a cat, now about 4 years old, named Pard.
CHOIRE SICHA: Can anyone be a writer? I used to have strong opinions about this, and I feel like I've lost them along the way.
URSULA K. LE GUIN: You want strong opinions? Anybody can write. You know, one of my daughters teaches writing at a community college. She teaches kids how to put sentences together, and then make the sentences hang together so that they can express themselves in writing as well as they do in speaking. Anybody with a normal IQ can manage that. But saying anybody can be a writer is kind of like saying anybody can compose a sonata. Oh, forget it! In any art, there is an initial gift that had to be there. I don't know how big it has to be, but it's got to be there.
SICHA: You can't labor your way into being a poet, can you?
LE GUIN: No. You just can't. But that's not to say that being a poet doesn't take a hell of a lot of work.
SICHA: It really doesn't seem that rewarding. Is that a terrible thing to say?
LE GUIN: I think there are writers who don't enjoy writing, and I feel sorry for them. I love it. I don't care how hard the work is. I would rather be writing than not writing, that's all there is to it.
SICHA: Poets are a special class. You're like the wild ponies of the writing world.
LE GUIN: For one thing, the world of poetry that poets have to live in, of who reads them, is so small in the United States. It's not true elsewhere. But here, it's not a very big territory, and so they run around spraying the corners and defending their part of it. Poets get very territorial, and that's too bad; that's a waste of time.
SICHA: They should be enjoying themselves, and it's hard to, I bet.
LE GUIN: And you can't live off it. It's hard to live off of any kind of artistic writing—fiction or poetry. And then you do have to wonder how many people are really reading your stuff, so the reward has to be in the work. But it is. There's nothing more rewarding than looking at a poem you wrote and thinking, "Well, at least I think I did it right."
SICHA: The triumph is private.
LE GUIN: But it's real. It's quite real.
SICHA: There's a sort of growing professional class of writers that may not have had access to being a professional. Before the internet, you would go to your terrible job and then you would write at night. I actually found that system really rewarding, separating out the money and the work.
LE GUIN: On the other hand, if it was a nine-to-five job, and if you had any family obligations and commitments, it's terribly hard. It worked very much against women, because they were likely to have the nine-to-five job and really be responsible for the household. Doing two jobs is hard enough, but doing three is just impossible. And that's essentially what an awful lot of women who wanted to write were being asked to do: support themselves, keep the family and household going, and write.