Sunday, October 13, 2013

Ursula K. Le Guin and the Comfy Chair

So, as long as I'm wrapping up some belated posting re. the Puyallup book fair of three weeks ago, I'd be remiss not to mention Ursula K. Le Guin's presentation on Saturday Sept. 24th, the day after Susan Cooper's speech.

The first thing that impressed me is that, rather than having her stand at the traditional podium, they v. sensibly gave her a comfy chair on a small raised platform, so she could sit in comfort and see (and be seen by) the audience at the same time. A nice bit of planning on somebody's part.

I had suspected that, Le Guin having introduced Cooper on Friday night, Cooper wd return the favor by introducing Le Guin on Saturday, but such proved not to be the case (though Cooper was present for Le Guin's event -- Janice spotted her sitting two rows ahead of us.

Unlike Cooper, who gave a talk, Le Guin's was a reading -- primarily of poetry, but ending with some prose as well, followed by a question and answer session.

I'm not as eager a reader of poetry as of prose, though I have been to some wonderful poetry readings in my time (most memorably one by Merwin years ago at Fayetteville). This one was a bit unusual in that I enjoyed the introductions she did framing each individual poem and explaining the circumstances which led to its being written more than I did the poems themselves.* Many, she said, were written in response to challenges posed by a local writing group she's part of, which meets monthly. Most such challenges involve writing in a specific verse form, such as a palindrome (poem #1), sapphics (poem #5), or a villanelle (poem #6), et al.  I assume all six poems she read are in the new Selected/Collected Poems volume they had on sale outside the event (from local bookstore King Books, wh. I'll have to get to one of these days). She ended by reading the first section from one of the TALES FROM EARTHSEA (the first, I think): "Dragonfly" -- which was good, but really didn't grab me. Though it did make me wish Le Guin would record more of her work: she does a really good job of reading it aloud, and the only published examples I know of it are the old Caedmon record vinyl album with "Gwilan's Harp" and "Intracom" on it. It'd be nice, too, to have some of her incisive essays available in her own voice.**

A v. interesting question and answer session following, in which Le Guin several times was asked specific details about the early Earthsea books or THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and rather surprised her audience, I think, by explaining that those were all written a long time ago and the details of the writing process were now hazy decades later. It was honest and unexpected, since so many authors have little stories they like to tell about how they did this or where that came from.*** Le Guin, by contrast, is v. much in the present, focused on the work she's doing now. She's proud of the earlier work, I think (she certainly shd be), but seems content to let it speak for itself.

A few snippets I did jot down (since I devoted less than a page to notes on the reading and three pages to the Q-and-A that followed):

--asked about THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS in the most vague and general of terms ("can you discuss that book?"), she replied "I wrote it a long time ago" and wistfully noted that "everybody always wants to talk about the old stuff". In contrast to the gender issues, which seem v. modern, she noted that the political situation, which owed a lot to the cold war, must seem v. foreign to today's readers, a generation after the Berlin Wall came down.

--asked about film adaptations of her work, she praised the 1980 LATHE for having got things right despite its "incredibly low budget". "Since then, it's been down hill all the way". She did praise a stage play version of LEFT HAND staged in Portland this spring but on the whole had to say "I've been bitten a little bit too often".

--how many books has she written so far? "I honestly don't know", but she does know she's written twenty-two novels. "A lot of stuff".

--someone who wants to be a writer but has trouble getting up in the morning got the advice "write at night". LeGuin herself was kindly to this questioner, whom some authors might have scoffed at, and ended with talking about how much she loves what she does: "I'm happier writing [than] anything else"

--do you know the story before you write it? "A good and big question. With a short story, yes. you have to know what you're doing, what's going on. With a novel . . . "  her advice: "Find your own way: they're all right."

--re having once been remarkable that she, along with Silverberg, were unique in winning both the Hugo and the Nebula: "we were a small, dogged band"

--"I do hear what I write. The sound of it is v. important to me. The cadence and the rhythm."

--re. names: "Ursula" is Latin, for "little bear woman"

--any beloved author, who . . . author and books? "Too many to name!" did single out when she was 26 or 27 "when I heard about this guy Tolkien". Beautiful books. Checked out Volume I. Was back when the library opened in the morning for Volume II. "I don't suppose any book had so much effect on me -- how cd you ever get away from Tolkien?"

--did she know Ishii? No: Ishii died in 1913 and she was born in 1929. Her father felt great sadness about how Ishii's life had turned out and never talked about him. She only learned that amazing story years afterwards by reading her mother's book on it. She did know other native american friends of her father's.

--asked about "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons" from THE LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT, she protested that this was written decades ago and she "can't really reconstruct the argument" but still agreed with its basic premise. "a writer like Tolkien is for kids? give me a break!" strongly believes in the "absolute necessity to the human race" of imagination

--she does worry a bit about [video] games, where people seem to be "getting it, not doing it", whereas with reading "you do the book". "reading is an exercise of the imagintion" in a way that playing games isn't. "THE LORD OF THE RINGS your mind does. It's enlarging."

--she "always wanted to be a writer. Told and read to and sung to from the cradle on."

This was followed by the book-signing session. I've already mentioned Le Guin's new poetry collection: she also has out a new, two-volume collection of short stories (wh. shd be pretty good, given that she's a master of the science fiction/fantasy short story -- my two favorite EarthSea pieces are the short tales "The Word of Unbinding" and "The Rule of Names"). The night before, for Cooper, you had to buy the book before you could get it signed (or at least buy A book; I think you cd get up to two signed). For Le Guin they relaxed that restriction, fortunately, perhaps because the bookstore's table was more or less sold out by the time the signing started. So the only rules here were to stand politely in line, to have no more than two books signed, and to write out the name of whoever you wanted them signed to on a sticky note so she wdn't have to stop and ask how names were spelled.

Two other people from Mithlond had made it to the reading, Jason Fisher and Gyda, and we had an enjoyable conversation (about Alan Garner, among other things) that made the standing in line time pass quickly. When it came my turn, I'd brought two books to ask her to sign. Years before in Madison at WisCon 1996 I'd gotten her to sign THE LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT, which I consider her masterpiece, as well as a little handmade book of hers that I think's my favorite: THE ART OF BUNDJITSU. This time I brought a copy of the individual printing of "From Elfland to Pooghkeepsie" I got a few years back (she commented that she didn't see that one often) and asked her to sign THE ART OF BUNDJITSU again, except this time to Rigby, Hastur, and Feanor. She noted the names, guessed correctly that these were my cats, and took pains to spell all three names correctly. She even asked, of Rigby, "as in Eleanor Rigby" and I said yes.

So there it is: how neat is it that Ursula Le Guin signed a book to my cat? I wasn't the only one who thought it was neat and was glad we came: Janice opted out of the line and just waited for me near the end, not too far from Le Guin's signing table. She told me afterwards that Le Guin is the opposite of Jimmy Carter. Carter, when we saw him at the Univ. bookstore a few years back, is a signing machine, who's worked out a system in which he signs books as quickly as possible, with as little contact with the signee as possible.**** Le Guin, by contrast, Janice said took the time to talk at least briefly with everybody who came through the line. That's a memory a lot of us will keep with us for a long time to come.

As for the rest of the second day of the big Puyallup book fair event, we made a brief visit to the 'mini-Comicon' on the other side o the building, where we chatted with friend Stan (Steve Brown) and bought a pair of HEREVILLE graphic novels by Barry Deutsch ("Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl"); he drew a quick sketch inside of the heroine in the first book, HOW MIRKA GOT HER SWORD, for Janice, and of the troll (wearing my hat), in the second book, HOW MIRKA MET A METEORITE, for me. Here's the link to his website for those who want to find out more about, and perhaps support, a local artist:

Finally, there's The Revels, whom we got to hear more of while waiting for Le Guin's reading to start. I decided the best way to describe their music was not madrigals -- what's too early and fa-la-lally in style -- nor barber shop quartets (that's too modern a style). Ballad is not right either (esp. given the multiple-singer approach they favor). There's a slight resemblance to chantys, but not much, and hymns are quite different. Instead, what they do is very like secular caroling. That is, they use the voices and effects you often find in Christmas carols, except that these songs have nothing to do with Christmas.

That's when I had a mini-epiphany. Al of the sudden it hit me: this is what Tom Bombadil is supposed to sound like. Not the village idiot but Fr. Xmas. If you substitute a mental image (or, more accurately, imagine a sound), Tom Bomb. fits much better with someone humming carols to himself than to the kind of singing tried out in previous (audio) adaptations. I'll have to play with this idea some more, but I think I may be on to something. We'll see.

So, short version: If you get a chance to go see Susan Cooper and/or Ursula K. Le Guin, do so. Likewise, Puyallup is nince.

--John R.

current reading: THE HIGH KING by Lloyd Alexander [1968]

*a good example is "The Clydesdale Mare", where the phrase "here in the empty pasture" is good, but more memorable was her mentioning what led her to write the piece: how she and a number of other people who drove by enjoyed seeing a small herd of Clydesdales, somewhere just west of Portland I think she said it was, and then recounting their sadness at the herd's being broken up when its owner died, focusing it through the now-solitary mare left behind when her colts were sold off and entire family scattered.  By contrast, I've heard recordings of Larkin in which the intros and the poems beautifully complement each other, and used to have a tape by Frost in which the intros disastrously undercut the poetry.

**given that some essays were given as lectures, there might well be recordings of these out there I'm just not aware of.

***like someone on a 'classic rock' tour telling stories about how he or she came to write or record this or that famous song

****to be fair, Carter wasn't like that at all when signing books at the Harry Schwartz in the Iron Block Building in Milwaukee back in the early nineties, where he was gracious enough to chat briefly with each person getting a book signed. I suppose he's streamlined his process in the years since. Though even now he does still make a minimum of contact: looking up and locking eyes with the person whose book he's signing.


N.E. Brigand said...

I've seen comments now and again that liken the Rivendell elves' songs from The Hobbit to Christmas carols.

David Bratman said...

Thanks so much for this report; that's what I wanted to read about it.

I have, or had at one point, an audio book of A Wizard of Earthsea in which the beginning is read by Le Guin, and then she hands over to Harlan Ellison, who rattles it off at speed and really is more dutiful than good.

Le Guin has said, on some occasions, that she's uncomfortable focusing on older work because on many issues she's changed her mind and would do it differently today. Still, she dislikes revising work (on a couple of occasions she's added footnotes); she'd prefer to leave it alone and, as you note, let it speak for itself.

"Little Bear Woman", by the way, is the name of a character in Always Coming Home who writes some of the poetry, and who may therefore, along with the viewpoint character Pandora, be seen as the author's voice.

Regarding Ishi: UKL's mother didn't know her either; he died l(1916, actually) ong before she and her father were married. Her father was a salvage anthropologist, concerned to preserve what could be recorded from vanishing cultures, and the Native informants he worked with, of whom Ishi was just one of a long line, were eager for him to help them do it. Many became close family friends of the Kroebers, and those around during Le Guin's own childhood she knew well. Ishi's uniqueness is only that he was a last survivor of his people and had never lived in Western culture before, plus his sad death (of diseases he'd never met in the wild).

John D. Rateliff said...

NEB: thanks; I'll keep an eye out for that

DB: I'm glad it was along the right lines. Thanks for the information about the audio; I'll have to look for that one. I wasn't aware that Kroeber hadn't met Ishii either.
And I understand Le Guin's wish (which I assume Cooper shares) for folks to realize she's had a long and productive career, rather than focusing exclusively on the early works that made their name. There's a v. good song by the group Bare Naked Ladies called "Boxed Set" that makes this point wittily but also wistfully. -- JDR

Rob Heinsoo said...

Thanks for taking the time to write about the event.