Ursula K. Le Guin died aged 88 on 22nd January 2018 at her home in Portland, Oregon, USA. Here’s a conversation I had with her on Thursday 24 April 2008.
Ramona Koval: Ursula K Le Guin is one of the best and most prolific writers of science fiction and fantasy in the world. She’s published 20 novels and written several short story collections, children’s books and poetry. She’s an imaginer of other worlds, sometimes with wizards and dragons, sometimes with spaceships and telepathy. Her new book is Lavinia, partly a conversation with the poet Virgil and starring one of the minor characters of his Aeneid, written in the 1st century BC and telling the story of Aeneas the Trojan who travelled to Italy and became the ancestor of the Romans. In Virgil’s story we meet Lavinia only fleetingly as the second wife of Aeneas, the epic’s hero.
Her mother wants her to marry her cousin Turnus, who reigns over the neighbouring kingdom, but Lavinia seems to have her doubts. The day before Aeneas arrives by ship, in an omen, Lavinia’s hair swirls in a ghostly fire. This apparently augurs war, and that’s what happens. But Ursula Le Guin retells the last six books of the 12-book poem from the point of view of Lavinia herself, a confident and outspoken young woman with a sense of strategy and a respect for the power of spirits, especially the spirit of Virgil who she meets at a holy place between imagined worlds and those that are to come.
Ursula K Le Guin joins us from a studio in Portland, Oregon, and to begin, let’s hear a passage from your book Lavinia.
Ursula K Le Guin: [reading from I became aware that a figure was standing within the enclosure… to …though he used words I did not know.]
Ramona Koval: Ursula Le Guin, thank you so much for that reading from Lavinia, and welcome to The Book Show.
Ursula K Le Guin: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Ramona Koval: When did you first read an English version of the Aeneid?
Ursula K Le Guin: Golly…probably in my 20s, but you know I really don’t remember.
Ramona Koval: Do you remember having thoughts about it when you read it?
Ursula K Le Guin: No, I wasn’t ready for it and it didn’t make any particular impression on me.
Ramona Koval: So when did you really read it closely and when were you ready for it to make an impression?
Ursula K Le Guin: It took quite a while. I’m slow to grow up. In my 70s I decided it really was time that I really learned Latin, which I’d partly learned and forgotten twice, in high school and then again in graduate school. And I had never got enough Latin into my head to read Virgil, and by then I realised that to read Virgil you kind of have to read him in Latin, he’s one of those untranslatable fellas. So I just started my Latin all over again and relearned it and ploughed along and ploughed along and finally got to where I could start…I started with Virgil’s Eclogues which are a little simpler, and then I finally started in the Aeneid.
Reading maybe ten lines a day, one reads very closely. I’m a fast, careless reader in my own language, and in Latin I’m a very slow, careful reader, and the book simply had an overwhelming effect on me. So by the time I was…at about book nine of the 12 books of the Aeneid I was beginning to think about this book Lavinia, about somehow telling Lavinia’s story, which Virgil literally didn’t have time to tell. He was doing something else in the last books.
Ramona Koval: Lavinia describes Virgil singing to her and she says, ‘It wasn’t singing like the shepherds’ songs or rowers’ choruses or the hymns, there was no tune to it. Its words were all the music of it, its words were its drum beat, clack of the loom, tread of feet, or stroke, heartbeat, waves breaking on the beach at Troy away across the world.’ So is that how you heard it when you read it in the original?
Ursula K Le Guin: Yes, I was trying to describe the effect of that word music that Virgil is maybe the greatest master of ever. It is incredible. No wonder they called him a magician in the Middle Ages.
Ramona Koval: So Lavinia though…there was this girl…what does Virgil say about her? Very little really. I think we probably heard a lot of it just then when you were doing the reading. She was a girl of marriageable age.
Ursula K Le Guin: Yes, and she’s blonde, which is the one place where I contradict Virgil. I just could not see a little south Italian girl being a binky blonde, it was impossible, so my Lavinia is dark. And in Virgil she blushes but she never says anything. She is the perfect, modest, marriageable maiden, and as such of course she has a real function in the poem but it does not make her an interesting character the way Dido is an interesting character. It’s not that Virgil was scornful of women, he’s not particularly. For a man of his time and age, he’s not at all. So in writing this I was not trying to set a wrong right or give voice to a woman who was unjustly deprived of her voice, it’s just that she was my way into Virgil’s world, in a way. As a woman I could think, well, what did Lavinia feel about all this? How did she see it? What was her life like? She was sort of my key to open the door.
Ramona Koval: And you say that given that it’s a time when women were not set apart as chattels, you say your imagination could be at home in this place where it couldn’t be in an Ancient Greek place.
Ursula K Le Guin: The Romans were pretty hard on their women but they weren’t as hard as the Greeks. A Roman woman did have certain real independence; she could divorce and so on. A lot of them did not have any independence at all, they were simply handed by their father to their husband. If you look at the Aeneid, that is essentially all that happens to Lavinia; her father is going to hand her over to her husband and that’s her fate, and she will help the husband found Rome. But all the same there’s a girl there. She was probably more nearly 14 or 15 than 18. But I wasn’t sure about that because we’re talking Bronze Age, 8th century BC, and apparently girls matured rather late, they weren’t eating well enough to mature early. So 18 seemed a pretty good guess. So what did our 18-year-old think about all this? That gave me my novel.
Ramona Koval: It’s also a love letter almost to Virgil himself, isn’t it?
Ursula K Le Guin: A bit. I can’t translate the poem. I’ve translated a good bit, I love translating, and one longs to translate something as beautiful as some of the Virgil lines, but they don’t come across very well. So this is my way of translating. I translated part of his epic poem into a novel, I translated the form. And of course I took enormous liberties, but all translators do, don’t they?
Ramona Koval: They do. And I suppose in a sense you’ve got him in your book discovering Lavinia and saying ‘I didn’t do you justice’ and being entranced by this world to which he can retreat, even as he’s dying. It’s a place he can be, his imagined world, in a sense.
Ursula K Le Guin: He gets to go into his own poem, as it were, which a poet might do. Everybody who’s written a story knows how you live in your story while you’re writing it, and I’m sure he did.
Ramona Koval: You certainly make it clear to the reader that it’s possible to live in your own story, and to be delighted by what you find there, and to be surprised. because that is something that people often don’t understand, that it’s not necessarily a matter for everybody, of having an idea and working out where you want to go with it and what’s going to happen and who the characters are, like some kind of machine you’re making. But the way you write about it, it’s much more like being transported to another world.
Ursula K Le Guin: Yes. I have never been able to plan a book really closely in any way. I just sort of had an idea of where it was going and how it might get there. Then I had to get into the book and find out how to go. I learned by going where I have to go, as Roethke says, and that’s the process of writing for me, is a process of discovery. So that is what makes it…that’s why I like to do it so much because it is…I love to be writing a story.
Ramona Koval: Have your imagined worlds served the same purpose for you over the years that Virgil’s imagined world serves for him, a place that he can go, a place that he can be, a place he can discover things?
Ursula K Le Guin: Apparently, yes. It’s not as if the real world isn’t enough, but the more the merrier. And of course an imaginary world, as every kid knows who draws a map of their island or their city or something like that, that’s where you can make things happen the way you want them to happen. Within limits, of course. If you’re writing your story honestly, pretty soon things happen the way they have to happen in that story and you’re not quite as much the boss as you thought you were, but we love to be masters of something, to be controlling something. Most of us love to be in control, and an author is in control, to some extent at least, of the world they invent.
Ramona Koval: I have the feeling that Rome has been on your mind for quite a long time. The world of Powers, for example, one of the trilogies, supposedly for young people, that you wrote, there was sort of sense of slaves and senators in that. It evoked Rome for me too, that book.
Ursula K Le Guin: Yes, or the classic world in general. That could easily be also Greece. I’ve always…really you’re supposed to like Greece but I’ve always sort of preferred Rome. There’s something about the Roman character that appeals to me very much.
Ramona Koval: What’s the difference between the classical Greece and classic Rome and the characters?
Ursula K Le Guin: Well, as the Romans said, the Greeks are slippery. Of course they’re wonderfully slippery. And the Greek tragedians, the old Greek plays, you can’t beat them. But I don’t know, there’s something…well, the Romans are a lot closer to us than the ancient Greeks. I think it’s easier to imagine how a Roman thought. They’re not quite as far away. I don’t know, I’m talking from America, my goodness, it’s all far away, isn’t it, from the new world.
Ramona Koval: In a sense you’ve written…it’s like a Greek tragedy in that it’s the underside of heroism that you’re writing.
Ursula K Le Guin: Yes, one thing that fascinated me about the Aeneid was this second half, which I barely remembered. Everybody remembers the Dido and Aeneas story, right, the great love story? So what is this second half with all these battles and these betrayals, and they think they’ve made a peace and then somebody throws a lance and it’s broken again? What was he writing about, and why did he want to write all that? It hit me very hard because of course all this happened…I really started reading him, I suppose, in 2002 or 2003 when America got itself into this war that we’re just as deep in as ever, if not more so, and the fact that he was talking about war and what’s right, how a war gets started, what’s wrong with war, how people justify it…
I think Virgil was sending a message to Augustus, his patron and his emperor; ‘okay, have you thought about the price of empire, because here it is’. And he shows it. The Aeneid is a very bloody book. It’s much harder to take than Homer’s battles, it’s crueller, I think because it was written by a man who didn’t really enjoy the battles but was horrified by them. That’s the power of it. I have to say it got into me very hard, and a good deal of this book really is talking about that, not about Lavinia herself.
Ramona Koval: Yet you decide to take the story of Lavinia to the end of her life and not just stop with the battle between her intended and her preferred husband. How did it feel to take the story further? Did you feel as if you had Virgil’s blessing to do that?
Ursula K Le Guin: I just hoped I did, and it was very scary. I really felt orphaned. I felt that up until then I had followed the book very closely and tried to not contradict anything he said, sometimes interpret it a little differently than he might have done, but then after that I had just some legends and the prophesies within the book to work with and I had to wing it. I felt very bereft without…as Dante knew, Virgil is a very good guide, you can follow him, trust him, and when I didn’t have my guide any longer…gee, what am I doing here? I’ve got to make this up. But it sort of had to work itself out the way it did, I think. So it wasn’t quite as scary as I thought it would be.
Ramona Koval: You say that you’re glad to have set the book in Virgil’s times, the semi-mythological, non-historical landscape defined by the poet and not by what you call the patient uncertainties of archaeologists. What do the patient archaeologists have to tell us about this time?
Ursula K Le Guin: About the 8th century BC?
Ramona Koval: Yes.
Ursula K Le Guin: Part of the trouble with Rome and all around Rome, it’s been inhabited so intensely and built on so, that of course in Rome you cannot go into a sewer without immediately making an archaeological discovery and everything has to stop and you can’t go on with the sewer because you’ve found another temple, but there’s temple on temple on temple over these centuries. The Romans themselves kept…they became good historians rather abruptly around Virgil’s time, but before that they didn’t have a history, they had these mostly ceremonial records.
We don’t know very much about the Bronze Age in Italy. What we know is pretty much like what we know about the Bronze Age all over Europe, they weren’t very different. But for details of daily life and so on…for instance, did they have olive oil? Had they learned how to cultivate olives? That’s kind of a big question. Can you imagine Italy without olive oil? I certainly couldn’t. Did they have wine or just some kind of beer? Their grains were pretty crude, wheat and millet and that kind of thing. Trying to figure out what they lived on, we can make a lot of very good guesses and we have some knowledge. So it was kind of nice to actually be…when it really came down to it I was really not in the Bronze Age, I was in the age with the myth and the legends. The Homeric age.
Ramona Koval: Myths and legends is a very comfortable place for you to be, I imagine.
Ursula K Le Guin: I’ve been there a good bit, yes.
Ramona Koval: Ursula Le Guin, you must be pretty pleased about the reviews you’re getting for this book. Jay Parini, for example, who I’ve had on recently talking about Tolstoy, said, ‘Everywhere Le Guin catches the rhythms of the great epic, echoes them, riffs. In a way this is a jazzy book, playing in odd syncopation with a massive canonical work.’ You’d be pretty pleased with that, wouldn’t you?
Ursula K Le Guin: I was pleased to death. That review of Jay Parini’s was kind of a dream review. Oh my word, he got it! And it’s funny because riffing on Virgil is exactly how I thought of it myself. He picked that up out of my head.
Ramona Koval: I was thinking about the work you’ve done over the years, the look at different cultures and different places that you’ve made up, and thinking about anthropology and the influence of your father’s work and your mother’s work too, and I read an essay of yours which said that you were looking at the difference between western time and Native American Indian time at one point. You say that perhaps that was composting the soil from which the cultural relativism of your fictions would grow and flourish. Could you talk a little bit about that realisation about time differences?
Ursula K Le Guin: I’m not sure what I had in mind, to tell you the truth, when I wrote that. I’m trying to think…
Ramona Koval: I think you were talking about a Native American Indian that was a part of your family or in part to do with your father’s department that he founded in…
Ursula K Le Guin: The Indians themselves…it’s an Indian joke, ‘Indian time’. If you make an appointment with a Native American…time is handled differently in the two cultures. White Americans get very cross with the Indians because they don’t show up at 9:15 on Monday. They might show up at 11:15 on Tuesday, possibly. To the Indian…I’m not going to say what this means to the Indian or why an Indian does it because I’m not Indian and I don’t belong to that culture, but there is obviously a genuine cultural difference here about…we keep saying that Indians are breaking their word or not meeting their appointment and the Indians don’t see it that way, it’s simply that the exact time was not the important thing, the important thing was that we meet. And so right there you’ve turned the world inside out, and people have trouble talking to each other across these barriers of different understanding of what a word means and so on. I didn’t learn that much anthropology, but apparently there’s some temperamental affinity, some similarity to my father, that I am fascinated by these cultural differences between people, more sometimes than by the psychological differences that the realistic novel tends to follow up closely, if that makes sense.
Ramona Koval: And with different cultures comes different assumptions, I suppose, about what each culture is about. And you also say you find reversing stereotypes a simple but inexhaustible pleasure.
Ursula K Le Guin: Yes, well, that was spoken largely as a feminist, of course, because part of the job of feminism still is just to take a stereotype and turn it inside out. The first time I deliberately reversed a stereotype consciously in my fiction was when I started A Wizard of Earthsea and decided that all the main characters were brown, were coloured people, and the marginal and somewhat villainous types were white. Because in fantasy up until then I think it is true that…in England language fantasy, that the good guys were always white, and quite often if there were bad guys they were referred to as the ‘black’ or they were actually coloured people. All this is because it’s basically a Nordic thing and so on, but whatever the reasons for it I was sick to death of it, and I’m sure that…well, I know for a fact that many, many coloured kids in the US didn’t read fantasy, still don’t read fantasy because it’s all about white people, and the white people were all the good guys. Why do I want to read that? Why would they want to read that, indeed?
Ramona Koval: So what happened when your Earthsea novels got made into a television series?
Ursula K Le Guin: Oh lord, we don’t want to talk about that.
Ramona Koval: Well, we might just have to say what happened.
Ursula K Le Guin: I was worried about it and they said, ‘Oh we’re colour blind,’ so…let’s see, one major character was played by a coloured actor, and a girl was played by a half Asian actor, and everybody else in it was white as a sheet.
Ramona Koval: As a sheet…and you were pretty disappointed about that.
Ursula K Le Guin: I’m very bitter about it because there was a good deal of lying and smarming me beforehand, you know, and then they just rushed off and made a silly Hollywood movie about nothing, and it’s such a pity because, you know, there’s a story there that would make a good film. Somebody will do it some day maybe.
Ramona Koval: You said you used to be too respectful to disagree with Tolstoy but after you got into your 60s your faculty of respect atrophied and you began to ask rude questions of Tolstoy. What were they?
Ursula K Le Guin: Why did you say ‘all happy families are alike’? You know, the famous beginning of Anna Karenina. What a ridiculous thing to say. Show me two happy families that are alike. Show me two happy families.
Ramona Koval: That’d be a good start, to find them and compare them!
Ursula K Le Guin: Right, yes. There are families that are happy from time to time, I grew up in one. But the idea of them being ‘a happy family’ or a family that is continuously happy…what are you talking about, Tolstoy? I think he got a good first sentence, it sounded good, he couldn’t let it go.
Ramona Koval: He went on and on and on about it. I’m not sure that his family was that happy, actually.
Ursula K Le Guin: That’s right, and he wrote a great novel about unhappy families, which is what most novels are about, aren’t they? But also he knew a happy family; Dolly’s family is pretty happy in Karenina. She’s a nice mother, she’s got nice kids, and she has a philandering husband but she loves him, so overall I would say that’s a pretty happy family. He knew they existed, he knew how to describe them, and he knew they weren’t all alike. I still do respect him.
Ramona Koval: Yes, I knew that. I was thinking about Lavinia again. This book doesn’t fit into a genre, that terrible word that I think you’ve been bound by and plagued by. It’s just as inspired and bold and intriguing as any of your books that have been called science fiction, fantasy, feminist, young adult, all of the other labels of the ghetto that you’ve found yourself in. I thought to myself, I wonder whether this will be your passport out. But then I thought, I wonder if Ursula Le Guin wants to go anywhere with a passport out of somewhere.
Ursula K Le Guin: No, I really don’t because to people who look upon literature as genre and non-genre, what they’re really saying is there’s realism which is respectable and then there’s everything else. I have written at least two totally realistic books. Searoad is a book about a small town on the Oregon coast and there’s nothing fantastic in any way genre about it, except it’s regional, which is another put-down. But by this time I have lived to see how modernism is kind of falling apart and realism kind of losing its cache.
And we have writers there just waltzing all over the genre boundaries now and writing lovely stuff, like Michael Chabon who’s…he’s got to watch it because at this point he’s just kind of playing with genre and I hope he doesn’t just go on doing that, I hope he goes on violating it the way he did in Kavalier and Clay. But at this point the old walls are kind of crumbling and they’re actually teaching science fiction in the colleges and things like that, which 30 or 40 years ago didn’t happen. The genre walls never meant much to me, I just could not respect them, so I…and I did wonder what people would make of Lavinia because it is a departure from what some people expect of me. But I’m sorry, that’s how it happens.
Ramona Koval: I think you’ve always departed from what people expect of you, Ursula Le Guin.
Ursula K Le Guin: I think they were mistaken to have expectations, yes.
Ramona Koval: It’s been fantastic speaking with you on The Book Show. Ursula Le Guin’s book Lavinia is published by Harcourt. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.
Ursula K Le Guin: Thank you, Ramona, it was a pleasure.
- Ursula K. Le Guin
- Published in the USA April 2008
- The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader and the imagination
- Ursula K. Le Guin
- A Wizard of Earthsea
- Ursula K. Le Guin
- Random House
- ISBN-13 9780 5533 8304 1
- The Earthsea Quartet
- Ursula K. Le Guin
- ISBN-13 9780 1401 5427 6