THERE may be no contemporary writer who’s shaped me, and many of the authors of my generation, more than Ursula Le Guin, who died Monday. Even though she was nearing 90, Le Guin is the kind of person who seemed like she would live forever: When I flew up to meet her in Portland a decade ago, she seemed so physically solid and intellectually sharp, she came across like some kind of otherworldly creature, maybe crossed with a 19th-century Oregon homesteader.
In the grammar-school years, before I read much fiction, my school-teacher mother brought home a book her librarian had recommended, A Wizard of Earthsea. I dove into it; it helped that I was an enthusiastic small-boat sailor as a kid, and I spent the ensuing years, as I got into the later books in the cycle, imagining having magical adventures on enchanted, vaguely Jungian adventures as I sailed down Maryland’s waterways.
As a teenager I would dive hard into The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and decades later would read the Earthsea books to my young son. When I go back to her work now, I’m struck — as I am with the Beatles — by how well these childhood memories stand up the an adult’s eye and ear.
Here are a few things I remember from my visit and subsequent conversations:
Despite her reputation as prickly and stubborn, she was easy to get along with, and we spent an hour or so after the heart of my interview was done drinking a local ale on her porch, talking about writers and musicians we liked
Le Guin, then Ursula Kroeber, studied French and Italian literature at Radcliffe because, as she put it, she did not want anyone telling her what to read “in my own language”
She spoke fondly of the generation of authors who saw her as a godmother figure — Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, David Mitchell, Kelly Link
Le Guin, a native of Berkeley who spent most of her adult life in Portland, was very conscious of being a West Coast writer who the New York literary establishment did not quite get
She recalled getting a letter from Berkeley High School classmate Philip K. Dick, who she had, oddly, never met, asking if he could visit her, sometime in the ’70s. She admired his work a great deal, but he was so deep into what she called “the drug culture” that she dodged the invitation
Le Guin came from an entirely different part of the century than most people I know: She was born a week before the stock market crash the kicked off the Great Depression. She mentioned, when me met, that she could never forgive Einsenhower waiting until his farewell address to offer his famous warning about the military-industrial complex. She saw it as a failure of nerve
Weirdly, she and I once got into a fight of sorts when she thought (long story) that I was a Scientologist. “This conversation is over,” she told me. (She totally hated L. Ron Hubbard.) We quickly sorted it out
Among the very few writers she liked as much as Tolkien and Woolf was Lord Dunsany and Patrick “Master and Commander” O’Brian
Le Guin learned Latin, in her late 70s, to write her book set in pre-imperial Rome, Lavinia (which is a great novel)
She was always witty, and had a great sense of humor about herself and this vexing world
I’ve written about her, if memory serves, three times
Here is my LA Times profile from 2009
Here is Guardian essay where I link her to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and other Gen-X novelists
And here is my Salon interview with her about her slim, practical book on writing
For what it’s worth, I am working on a book project about artistry I wanted to speak to her about, and damn am I mad I did not think to reach out sooner
To have her disappear like this is heartbreaking. Rest in Peace !