Interview with Ursula K. Le Guin

Conducted by Paola Castagno

Q: The first of the Books of the Western Shore, Gifts, has just been released by Editorial Minotauro in Spain, with the title translated as "Los Dones". What is the origin of this saga? What audience is it oriented to?

A: For some reason (perhaps I had been reminded of the Bach family, with its generations of musicians) I began to wonder: what would it be like for a child who is assumed to be gifted in a certain way but is not so gifted - a young Bach who was tone-deaf?

Or the child of a family with supernatural powers, who has not inherited the power... How and when would the child discover this lack? What to do about it? What if the child had some entirely different, unlooked-for gift? Would that be recognised?

So my story began to grow.

As it was a story of growing up, it was published as a "Young Adult" book (that is a specific category here; does it exist in Spain?) But the audience for fantasy is really everybody of any age over ten, except those sad puritans who won't read fantasies... .

Q - In this first book we find clear examples about how misunderstandings sometimes arise between parents and children. Is Canoc really as selfish as Orrec judges him? Or is he only trying to protect his son?

A - Fathers and sons often have a great deal of trouble understanding one another, no? — particularly when the son thinks he is a disappointment to his father. I think Canoc is a kind and upright man, but he has a very terrible power, which controls him, in a way. If he allows himself to become angry he could kill his son without meaning to; but if he must repress his anger, it is hard for him to express his love. A question the reader must decide is whether or not Canoc believes that Orrec has the family's dreadful "gift."

Q - The second of this books, "Voices", has already been published in England and the USA, and you have announced that the third part, "Powers", will be released soon (and we hope that they will be also published in Spanish). Are they a trilogy? Do Orrec and Gry continue their adventures in these books?

A - It isn't a trilogy in the sense of following one story through three books. They are three separate stories, taking place in different parts of the "Western Shore." Orrec and Gry play a major part in the second book, and appear towards the end of the third.

I too hope they will be published in Spanish!

Q - The most popular sagas that you have written are, probably, Earthsea and Ekumen. Ocassionally, some readers think to find some details pointing to think that the Thousand Islands of Earthsea are located in some planet of the Ekumen, but it may be probably only self-suggestion. Have you ever thought about writting a story where both universes collide? Are you planning to continue any of these sagas?

A - The only thing Earthsea and the worlds of the Ekumen have in common, that I know of, is hemmen trees. But on Gethen they are just trees, whereas on Roke Island they are entirely magical. Magic exists in the fantasy series, and does not exist in the science-fiction series: that alone would make it quite nonsensical to try to mix the worlds together. They would merely damage each other.

I am never perfectly certain what might happen next, but it appears to me that Earthsea, which is one single story told through six books, came to its proper ending with The Other Wind. The Ekumen novels have little in common one with another, they form no whole, and so there is no reason why there should not be more of them. But I have been doing something entirely different lately.

Q - From all the worlds you have created, where would you like to live in? Or would you prefer to be a "mobile", visiting all of them?

A - Yes, a mobile, that's what I've always been!

Q - What is the role that women play in modern fantasy literature? Is it hard for a woman to find her place in this world?

A - Well, I think it's easier since I and some of my contemporaries began writing fantasy and science-fiction novels that were not male-centered.

Obviously there is nothing inherently misogynist about fantasy — on the contrary, modern imaginative literature offers the chance to imagine worlds and societies where women have a kind of power and freedom that they lack here. Girls and young women often read fantasy novels just for a glimpse of that power and freedom.

Q - You offered to Mr. Miyazaki a really unique opportunity: To make a film about the (untold) story of Ged, in the years between "The Tombs of Atuan" and "The Farthest Shore". However, his son made the second adaptation of your books, but the final result isn't much related to the original work. Why do you think that film-makers find so hard to be true to the story, pace and spirit of Earthsea?

A - I don't know. It was a bitter disappointment to me.

Possibly, one thing that contributed to this curious disregard for the text is the fact that the author is a woman. Both the Sci Fi Channel and Studio Ghibli are extremely male-centered (Hayao Miyazaki's heroes are mostly girls, but his studio is run entirely by men.) I wonder if the men think: well, this isn't Professor Tolkien, this is just an old lady, and women don't really know what they're doing, so we will rewrite this story (inserting a great deal of hysteria and bloodshed by the way) and make her book into our big macho movie. Such co-optation and misrepresentation of women's writing by men is quite frequent.

Q - When you were contacted to make the first movie about Earthsea, you found it very interesting to have Philippa Boyens writing the script. Do you think that she (together with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh) did a good adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings? Do you think that the liberties (very critizied by some Tolkien fans) they took with the original work, are acceptable in a project like this? Do you think it is harder to bring the world of Earthsea to the big screen than Middle-Earth?

A - I think the script written for the Peter Jackson film was in many ways quite marvelous. And I think a film-maker must absolutely be allowed all kinds of liberties in turning a novel into a film. They are such different forms!

What I found unsatisfactory in the film was its increasing obsession with scenes of war and battle; and most of all, its failure to catch any hint of what I think may be the secret of Tolkien's narrative magic: the constant and powerful alternation of tension and relaxation, war and peace, the public and the domestic, fear and reassurance, light and dark... His book has the pace of a heartbeat; of a person walking; of day and night succeeding each other... That is why people reading it "live in the book" — it has the rhythm of life. — Film, of course, is a kind of drama, and must be more concentrated, faster in its pacing; but the film goes too far that direction. It is all action, little thought; all noise, no stillness; all Yang, no Yin. And therefore, though beautiful and entertaining, it is profoundly untrue to Tolkien's story.

I don't think it would be very hard to do a film of Earthsea, now that dragons are so much easier to film! Many years ago Michael Powell and I wrote a script, combining the first two books, which was brief, lively, and perfectly true to the spirit of the books. But Hollywood wasn't doing fantasy then... I've seen other attempts at scripting an Earthsea film that showed much promise. The secret would be, perhaps, to aim for beauty not grotesqueness; to ground the characters in their daily life and work, which would make the magic seem all the more magical; and to find drama in the power of normal human emotions, rather than in violence, murder, and warfare justified by crude moralising about good and evil.

(There are a few moments in Goro Miyazaki's "Gedo Senki" where he did all this, and one can glimpse the film that might have been...)
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Updated Tuesday, 18-Jun-2019 10:14:34 EDT