Over the course of her extraordinary career, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote dozens of books that explored the essential issues of our time, including gender, race, and the degradation of the environment. David Naimon is the host of the radio show and podcast, Between the Covers, which features exceptional interviews with some of the most important writers of our time. When Naimon and Le Guin met for his show, it’s no surprise that their discussions were insightful and unforgettable, and they’ve now been collected into a new book, Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, published by Tin House Books. I previously interviewed Naimon for Burning House Press, and he was kind enough to speak with me again about his bond with Le Guin, how she impacted his life, and how their new book carries on her radical legacy.
–Caitlin, Nonfiction Editor for Burning House Press
Burning House Press: It’s impossible not to mention the circumstances under which this book is coming out, with Le Guin passing away shortly before its publication. You write a heartfelt and moving “In Memoriam” at the beginning of the book. How are you holding up as you—and the literary world at large—continue to grieve? How has it been to launch this book without her?
David Naimon: This is such a hard question to answer Caitlin. It was just a matter of days after Ursula had handed over her final edits of the manuscript when she passed away. It happened so suddenly that at first I was just stunned, paralyzed. But then, quite quickly, because Tin House pushed up the publication date from July to April I was swept up in the whirlwind of an accelerated publication schedule. I had no idea just how much work there would be between then and now, the In Memoriam that they needed on short notice at a time when I felt like I had no words for what was happening, and then several essays about Ursula that I was asked to write, to be published in concert with the launch of the book. On the upside, I’ve been steeped in a deep engagement with what Ursula meant to me and to the world. But I haven’t had a moment to be with my feelings, to experience them fully. The public memorial for Ursula is not until June. The city and state, which she has influenced in so many ways, has not had the chance to mourn her as a community yet. I could’ve used something like that, something public, communal, back in January. Now, with the book out, there are no launch events planned. It felt strange to do that without her. I didn’t want to be the focal point of a launch party. But, on the other hand, perhaps a launch event could’ve been a first moment of public remembrance.
Burning House Press: Personally, I see the book as something that we can turn to in our grief. The conversations demonstrate her immense and ferocious intellect. Unfortunately, we’ve lost her when we need her most in these troubling times, but her words live on and offer hope, guidance, and new ways of seeing the world. As you struggle to come to terms with the end of your journey with Ursula, I wonder if I can take you back to the beginning. How and why did you start interviewing her?
David Naimon: Over the decades Ursula has done many interviews with KBOO community radio. I suspect this is partly due to the station’s mission statement, to represent the underrepresented, to give voice to the voiceless, an ideal that manifests in the programming which includes shows like Rose City Native Radio, Black Book Talk and Transpositive PDX. And I also think this is part of her bioregional ethos. Even though she could have published most if not all of her books with one of the big five publishers in New York she often chooses small presses, often west coast presses, and often presses with a radical or progressive politic. I would guess she repeatedly said yes to interviews at KBOO, a station with a much smaller reach than the Portland NPR affiliate, because of this too. My first interview with her was just after the release of the expanded version of Steering the Craft. Given that she is mainly known for her novels, and is mainly asked questions about them, I thought that it would be interesting to do an interview that was about something else entirely, questions around the craft of writing itself. What is so great about Ursula, is that even when you dial down the conversation to the sentence level, to grammar, you still end up unearthing the biggest of questions about gender, race, class and the environment and you still end up talking about science fiction, fantasy and the imagination.
I don’t typically get nervous about interviews anymore. I’ve had enough conversations with writers who have loomed intimidatingly large in my imagination–George Saunders, Claudia Rankine, Mary Gaitskill, William Gibson–that I usually don’t have much anticipatory anxiety about the interviews themselves at this point. But Ursula asked if I wouldn’t mind picking her up at her house and bringing her to the station. Of course, I didn’t mind. But given that we hadn’t met yet, I worried, not about our rapport once we were ensconced in the studio talking about her work, but how it would flow–or not flow–making small talk in the car, my beat-up 30-year-old Volvo whose glove compartment often burst open into the lap of the passenger at the slightest bump or jostle. I describe in the book a bit of vacation misfortune I had prior to this interview that turned into something fortunate in the end. My wife and I had rented a cabin in the North Cascades National Park to do a long weekend of hiking but right before our trip the park was shut down due to the wildfires. As part of my research for my interview with Ursula I discovered how deeply connected to the far southeastern corner of Oregon she was, a region called Steens Mountain. She went there yearly and it had informed the landscape of some of her science fiction, and a considerable amount of her poetry. At a loss how to salvage our vacation I called Ursula up and asked her for advice about the Steens. She told us exactly where to go, gave us the name of her favorite hotel and told me to say “Charles and Ursula sent us.” After a good six or seven hour drive we were in one of the most remote regions in the Pacific Northwest, a place that still had wild horses, that had a sky that was nearly unadulterated by human light pollution, a place with very very few humans. We spent our time there as the guests of people who had known Ursula for decades, and they knew her not primarily as a writer or public figure. These people had been in the region for five generations (very rare in the west) much like Ursula’s ancestors who also briefly homesteaded there before moving elsewhere. They considered her one of their own. Thus, when we returned from this trip and I picked up Ursula for the interview, with a bundle of high desert sage from the Steens placed on my dashboard for her, we had plenty to talk about from the get-go.
Burning House Press: I’m sure you did have plenty to talk about. She speaks highly of you in the book, writing that you understood that she liked to “talk shop,” and so that’s basically what the two of you did in the conversations. What were some of her favorite topics to talk about? What themes or subjects do you think came up again and again throughout your conversations?
David Naimon: One of the things we often returned to was the erasure of women, whether on the sentence level or from the literary canon. She questioned why, of Chile’s two Nobel Prize winning writers, everyone talks about Pablo Neruda and not Gabriela Mistral. And she is very conscious of tropes in grammar (whether pronoun use or sentence length) that either erase women or reinforce what she might consider a more masculinist approach to language. There is a great piece at the Tin House blog called Ursula’s Canon: A Vindication of Literary Women that looks at some of the women we talk about in the book whose legacies Ursula was intent upon defending.
Burning House Press: I loved her commentary on various women writers. I’ve read Gabriela Mistral and Virginia Woolf, but the other women she mentioned were new to me. I’m sure they were new to other people, too. How did this book come about? When was the decision made that you should collect these illuminating audio conversations into something that could be read?
David Naimon: The answer to this question is almost magically simple. The first two interviews we did at the radio station but the last one we did at her house, in a quiet upstairs study. And by that time our rapport had really deepened and there was a lot of laughter and warmth that comes with the familiarity we had with each other by this point. At the end of the interview I said to her, how great it was that we were able to have three deep conversations, one in each genre–fiction, poetry, nonfiction–and how I couldn’t think of another writer I could’ve done that with. (And even now it is difficult to think of another living writer who has such a sustained engagement–and as a result, so many books– in all three genres).
“We should make a book!” was Ursula’s response. And the path from that comment to the manifestation of this physical object in the world, while it involved a lot of work from both of us, was a remarkably straightforward one. She had joked about how her agent was probably not happy that she was publishing so many of her latest books with small presses, an anarchist press in San Francisco, a feminist sci-fi press in Seattle, etc. In response I suggested Tin House Books, thinking of it as a possible win-win solution, one that would please her agent because, while also a small press, it was a bigger small press, but also one that would please Ursula for any number of reasons. For one, she had published stories with their magazine before and had a good connection with the magazine editor. And the tin house (yes, Tin House is housed in a tin house) was also literally down the street from her home and thus would appeal to her bioregional ethos, her sense of place. And there is this organization called VIDA: Women in Literary Arts that does an annual accounting called the “VIDA Count” where they look at the major magazines and literary journals and tally the balance between men and women that appear in their magazine, and the gender balance or imbalance regarding the work that gets reviewed as well. And I mentioned to her that Tin House had won their inaugural award for excellence in this department (not to mention that they offer scholarships to their summer workshop for the recently incarcerated and for undocumented writers).
It wasn’t long before we had a ‘yes’ from Tin House and began creating the book. Ursula wrote this insightful and very funny introduction to it called “Fear and Loathing in the Interview” where she catalogs all the ways interviews can and have gone wrong and what makes a good one. And I wrote prefaces to each genre, that contextualized the circumstances around each conversation and also looked at what aspect of Ursula comes forward when she is working in one genre versus another. Finally, the area where we worked most collaboratively was around the excerpts. We wanted the book to be interwoven with excerpts of the material we are talking about in our conversations. So when we talk about a poem of Ursula’s you get the poem on the opposite page. Similarly there are examples of Ursula’s translations, excerpts of her speeches, essays and her own fiction, passages by Tolkien and Woolf, even a diagrammed sentence by Orwell.
Burning House Press: I loved those excerpts because they illustrated what you were discussing. That diagrammed sentence reminded me of my 8th grade English class where I diagrammed a sentence for the first time! The book itself is incredibly stimulating. I read it in one sitting and highlighted so many passages that gave me new insight or made me think about something in a different way. For instance, when Le Guin talks about the rhythm that writing needs to have or when she passionately advocates for the literary value of science fiction. How have your conversations with Le Guin impacted you both as a writer and a person? Have you received feedback from other people about how they’ve also been impacted by hearing or reading these interviews?
David Naimon: One of the first interviews I did for the book was with a radio host who is a trans person of color. They spoke about how The Left Hand of Darkness was and continues to be so transformative for them, the first time they had seen themselves reflected back in a work of literature. All the more remarkable to them, that the writer was white and cis and writing this enduring narrative a half century ago. As far as my own writing and my own activism are concerned, observing the way Ursula moved from the sentence to the world and back to the sentence, imbuing each gesture, large or small with the same ethical concerns, it definitely has made me more attentive to the things we tend to overlook, both in the language we choose and our actions out in the world. People pay attention to the grand gestures–the fierce speech she gave (and which went viral) against the likes of Amazon and their effect on book culture and the lives of writers–but her smaller quieter gestures, her listening, her attending to language, her contemplative poetry, her engagement with small presses and community radio, the things she does outside of the spotlight, I think these things give those grander gestures their enduring power.
Burning House Press: Le Guin has made an impact on so many people. As I read the book, it occurred to me that the book is not just for those who love Le Guin already, it’s also for anyone who cherishes language and likes conversations about what language can do. The book centers around questions of craft and, as we mentioned earlier, provides examples of the techniques that Le Guin talks about. What do you think these conversations contribute about the craft of writing? What do you think (or hope) writers take away as they read this book?
David Naimon: What I love about Ursula’s take on the “how to” of writing is that she has seen so many styles come and go over a long life as a writer, and has seen so many must-do writing trends end up as yesterday’s fads. She has also witnessed the progressive corporatization of the publishing industry and the ways commercial pressures, instead of artistic ones, can shape a writing project into a certain form solely based on a pre-conceived notion of salability. So she comes to these questions of craft with a long view, drawing from a deep well of lived wisdom. Qualities that are rare these days from a writing teacher.
In terms of what I think writers (or readers) will take away from this book, I can only speak of things that have stayed with me. For one, particularly in an era where language is being debased, where we are seeing Orwell’s doublespeak come to fruition, where the powerful are decoupling words from their meanings, creating ‘alternate’ facts, rather than grappling with the actual ones, I can’t think of a better way to ground oneself in the power and responsibility of words than to listen to Ursula speak about them, and how they are tools and gestures toward a future world, for better or worse, depending upon how we use them.
David Naimon is a writer and host of the radio show and podcast Between The Covers in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Tin House, AGNI, Fourth Genre, Boulevard, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. His writing has been reprinted in The Best Small Fictions 2016 and cited in the 2016 Pushcart Prize volume, The Best American Essays 2015, and The Best American Travel Writing 2015. He is also the co-author of Ursula K Le Guin: Conversations on Writing (Tin House Books). His podcast and writing can be found at: http://www.davidnaimon.com.
Caitlin is Nonfiction Editor for Burning House Press. She’s passionate about art house cinema and literature. You can follow her on twitter at @ekphora and on tumblr. She also has a film podcast called Her Head in Films.